Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Sean Patrick Robinson SB '99, PhD '05

Sean Patrick Robinson photoLecturer, Department of Physics

They had both managed to graduate high school, but college and the social opportunities it could bring were just not an option for young parents with no money.

I grew up on the Massachusetts "South Shore", a region strongly identified with the Irish Catholic roots of the plurality of its population. This community has somehow retained (or continuously reinvented) its identity as an immigrant culture for over a century. Like many immigrant cultures, its values include "hard work", "family", "toughness", and perhaps "skepticism for authority". Any values beyond this short list are optional and vary widely across families and generations. Notable examples from the optional list include "education", "sobriety", and "obeying the law".

I don't know how many of the boys I played with in elementary school are dead or in prison now, but I'm sure that it's more than I care to know. My parents' efforts ensured that by the time I was in high school, we were well above all that. In contrast, there were plenty of other kids in school, from other neighborhoods, for whom a future of good colleges and successful careers was the assumed default. No one explained how this was supposed to happen: you were either in the group that knew, or the group that didn't need to know! As a "smart kid", college had become an expectation, but I had only rough notions of what that meant.

I somehow stumbled into MIT, a place I had only vaguely heard of before: the only scientists I knew were TV characters! Financial aid was the deciding factor between MIT and the Navy. Eighteen years later (all at MIT, doing physics), I still often feel like a clueless outsider in academia, and my family still has no idea what I do, but both MIT and my family make me feel happy and "at home".