Feature Story Spring 2014 Issue 31

The Legacy of Pat McGovern

Patrick. J. McGovern, co-founder of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. Photo: Jason Grow
Patrick. J. McGovern, co-founder of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. Photo: Jason Grow

The year was 1957. Sputnik had launched into orbit, raising fears that the US had fallen behind in science. In response, President Eisenhower tapped MIT president James Killian to become the first Presidential Science Advisor.

Pat McGovern (in center, holding camera) at James Killian's MIT press conference in 1957.

Pat McGovern (in center, holding camera) at James Killian’s MIT press conference in 1957. Photo: AP Images

At the time, Patrick J. McGovern was an MIT undergraduate and a reporter for the campus newspaper. When he heard that Killian was to give a press conference, he rushed across campus, his Minox camera in hand, to record the event. It made front-page news, with Pat appearing in the photograph alongside Killian.

Friends said, “Wow, you’ve made it big,” Pat laughingly told interviewer John Hockenberry in a conversation recorded more than 50 years later for MIT’s 150th anniversary.

Not quite yet. But what Pat had presciently recognized was that science had suddenly become important, so investing in its advancement mattered. Later, when Pat really had made it big, he devoted his philanthropic energy to the advancement of science. He became a life member of the MIT Corporation, and in 2000, he and his wife Lore Harp McGovern made a $350 million commitment over 20 years, one of the largest ever to higher education, to found the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Mind and Hand… and Brain

Pat’s interest in science and engineering began at a young age. As a boy in Philadelphia, he would ride his bicycle to the Franklin Institute, a science museum named for the city’s most famous resident, Benjamin Franklin. Pat often cited Franklin as a role model for his own career as a scientist, publisher and entrepreneur. He was a keen observer, recalling over 60 years later the electricity and chemistry exhibits he’d seen as a boy. He also built galvanometers, voltmeters and cloud chambers with his father, a construction worker.

Pat and Lore at the McGovern Institute's 2006 Halloween party, with Pat dressed as Ben Franklin. Photo: Robert Desimone

Pat and Lore at the McGovern Institute’s 2006 Halloween party, with Pat dressed as Ben Franklin. Photo: Robert Desimone

That same active curiosity ensnared Pat into what would become a lifelong interest in the brain. As a teen, he cycled to the Free Library where he happened upon a book called “Giant Brains: or Machines That Think.” The author suggested that computers, which were very new at the time of its publication in 1949, could expand the capacity and productivity of the brain, as the telephone had done for the ear and the television for the eye.

At once, Pat envisioned the power of this idea. “[The brain] is the one organ that separates us from all the living creatures, is the superior intellectual capability that we have,” Pat told Hockenberry. “The more we can amplify that, the more we’re able to give a better quality of life.”

Always a visionary, but also practical, Pat took the money he’d earned from his paper route to the hardware store and bought copper wire, aluminum strips and plywood boards. Using the book as a guide, he built a computer that played tic-tac-toe. Pat’s computer won a prize at a science fair and caught the attention of MIT’s local alumni association, which contacted him and encouraged him to consider MIT. He applied, and was admitted with a full scholarship.

At MIT, Pat’s fascination with computers and the brain continued. He thought that in order to build a computerized brain to extend the capacity of the human mind, he first had to understand how the brain works.

So Pat enrolled in Course 7, Quantitative Biology, a combination of biophysics, biochemistry and early molecular biology. He studied frogs, using a glass micropipette to record electrical activity in their nervous systems. With the tools available at that time, understanding the brain was a remote goal, but the experience would later give Pat and Lore the intuition to recognize how dramatically the fi eld had advanced. By the 1990’s they began to contemplate an investment in neuroscience.

Realizing a Vision

After graduating from MIT, Pat founded a small market research company in 1964. The company, which he named International Data Corporation, grew rapidly into an international media and market research firm that today publishes hundreds of magazines, web sites and other media channels. Pat traveled extensively to expand his business, making over 100 trips to China and, in true global spirit, even visiting the South Pole to launch Computerworld Antarctica.”

As Pat’s business was flourishing, the field of neuroscience was also entering a period of extraordinary growth. The term itself first gained currency with the launch of Francis Schmitt’s neuroscience research program at MIT in 1962. The Society for Neuroscience, founded in 1969, grew to 40,000 members, with an explosion of new knowledge and techniques. As science began to unlock the mysteries of the mind, public awareness of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression and autism, also increased.

Recognizing both the challenge and the opportunity, Pat and Lore decided that the time was right to act. They convened an advisory committee of Nobel laureates and other leading experts to help shape their plans. The committee recommended a university-based center that would continually be refreshed by student researchers and that would benefit from contact with experts in many fields. This resonated with Pat, whose own interests and experiences had ranged across so many disciplines, and with Lore, a serial entrepreneur and high-tech investor.

Pat and Lore contacted a number of leading universities to discuss their vision, and MIT impressed them with its openness to a cross-disciplinary arrangement. The president at the time, Charles Vest, agreed that the new institute should not be subsumed into an existing department but should instead stand apart, allowing it to engage researchers from across the university regardless of departmental affiliations.

Pat joined researchers for a boat cruise during the institute's 2007 retreat. Photo: Bob Desimone

Pat joined researchers for a boat cruise during the institute’s 2007 retreat. Photo: Bob Desimone

It was also decided that the McGovern Institute would span all of brain research: from perception to cognition to the control of actions; from molecules to cells to systems; and from worms to mice and humans. In addition to experimental neuroscience there would also be a strong emphasis on computational modeling, reflecting the growing connection between brain research and computer science that Pat had foreseen years earlier.

Its size would be sufficient to cover a broad range of expertise yet small enough to preserve a strong sense of community. Famed architect Charles Correa was chosen to design a new building that is now a landmark on the MIT campus, distinctive for its openness and natural lighting, and for the railroad that runs through its center. A board of governors was established with representation from MIT and from the McGovern family. Pat chaired the group until his death, with Lore and Pat’s daughter Elizabeth also continuing to serve as members.

Phillip Sharp, a Nobel laureate and Institute Professor, was appointed as the founding director, with a mandate to appoint the first faculty members and guide the institute through its launch phase. Founding faculty members, all established leaders in the field, included H. Robert Horvitz (who would later share the 2002 Nobel Prize), Ann Graybiel, Nancy Kanwisher, Emilio Bizzi, Tomaso Poggio and Martha Constantine-Paton.

The building was completed in 2005, and Sharp was succeeded by Robert Desimone, who was recruited from the National Institute of Mental Health where he had been director of intramural research. Desimone’s vision, which meshed with that of the McGoverns, emphasized basic science with a purpose, in this case to fill a need for a better understanding, and in turn better treatments, for brain disorders. “Focusing on the fundamentals has really proven to be the best approach,” says Desimone. “Only after you lay this foundation of basic knowledge can you proceed on to translational studies and to the development of new treatments.”

McGovern Institute Today

Today, the McGovern Institute has grown to 19 faculty members, along with core facilities that provide researchers throughout MIT with access to technologies such as brain imaging, microscopy and viral gene delivery. Since its founding, McGovern Institute investigators have published almost 700 papers, detailing discoveries that range from the mapping of human vision and language in the brain, to understanding how songbirds learn to sing and how computers can learn to recognize objects.

Patrick and Lore Harp McGovern at the 10th anniversary of the McGovern Institute, October 2010.

Patrick and Lore Harp McGovern at the 10th anniversary of the McGovern Institute, October 2010. Photo: Justin Knight

McGovern investigators themselves have been at the forefront of major new technologies such as optogenetics and genome editing, which are already transforming the field. The institute has also established many collaborations within and beyond MIT. Since 2006, the McGovern Institute Neurotechnology (MINT) program has supported collaborative projects with researchers from other disciplines, taking advantage of the extraordinary range of expertise and innovative ideas to be found on and around the MIT campus.

In recent years there has also been a growing emphasis on translational work. John Gabrieli, who was recruited from Stanford University to head the Martinos Imaging Center, works with clinical researchers to apply neuroimaging to the understanding and eventual treatment of psychiatric disease. In addition, Guoping Feng, the Poitras Professor of Neuroscience, is developing animal models of complex brain disorders, including autism, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, to understand how disrupting brain function affects behavior. Most recently, Tomaso Poggio has spearheaded a new Center for Brains, Minds and Machines, with the goal of understanding biological intelligence and replicating it in machines.

The advances made at the institute were a source of great pride for Pat, who would often describe them to visitors with an enviable degree of accuracy. “This is the most exciting time in neuroscience,” he said in a recent video interview.

A Lasting Legacy

While Pat felt that his and Lore’s gift had been returned in excess, those at the McGovern Institute will remember Pat McGovern as someone who never ceased giving of his time, his enthusiasm and his curiosity about new discoveries. That energy remains, driving continued efforts to understand brains and minds and to leave a legacy from which future generations will benefit.

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