MISTI Eurasia announces changes in leadership to reflect its growing programs

Prof. Areg Danagoulian has been appointed as the Faculty Co-Director of MISTI Eurasia

Areg Danagoulian, an Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, has been appointed as the Faculty Co-Director of MIT-Eurasia. As an American-Armenian scientist, he will focus on developing new student and faculty collaborations with Armenia, the post-Soviet country of about 3 million people located in the Southern Caucasus.

Working together with Prof. Elizabeth Wood, who teaches Soviet and post-Soviet History at MIT, he will also help MIT-Eurasia develop its initiatives in Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia, and other parts of Eurasia.

We met with Prof. Areg Danagoulian to talk about Armenia and, broadly, about his reasons to join MISTI.

Prof. Danagoulian, congratulations on your appointment as the Faculty Co-Director of the MISTI MIT-Eurasia Program. Could you tell us about your motivation to join the leadership of the center that is pioneering international education at MIT?

I studied as an undergraduate at MIT back in the 1990s (Physics '99). Having come to the U.S. as a 16-year-old in 1993, I always thought that exposure to the outside world would greatly benefit the future scientific minds of America. It would give them a much-needed global perspective on the problems that exist in the world and provide them with creative ideas for global impact.

How would you explain the value of international experience to MIT students?

Teaching and working outside of the U.S. is one of the best ways to immerse oneself in outside cultures, which will result in intellectual and cultural enrichment. The goal of MIT is not to just train brilliant specialists. It's more than that. It's to develop broad and deep thinkers who can change the world in positive ways. MISTI programs are a great vehicle for achieving that.

In your role at MISTI, you’ll focus on developing programs in Armenia. What is your connection to this country?

I grew up in Armenia at times of great metamorphosis and transition. I saw Armenia go from being a Soviet republic to an independent country. Having grown up in a family of physicists, I had the chance to see how science was studied back in the U.S.S.R., in France (where my father held a research position in 1991), and eventually in the U.S. I am deeply connected to Armenia through my roots, while my mind is in love with the free American way of life. This program is a way for me to bridge the U.S. and Armenia.

Why should MIT students choose Armenia over other MISTI destinations? What types of students would benefit the most from spending their summer or IAP in Armenia?

Armenia is an incredibly unique place. It's a small but vibrant country perched on the mountains of South Caucasus. Its history goes back to deep antiquity, with first mention of Armenia going back to the Behistun Inscription in 6th century BCE. The historic origins of the Armenians and the Armenian language are currently a hot topic of DNA studies (see here). The capital is Yerevan, which was founded in 782 BC, 29 years before the establishment of Rome. Armenia's ancient history starts with its pre-Christian past, which is marked with pagan monuments and Helenistic temples throughout the country. 

Since converting to Christianity in 301 AD, Armenia has developed a unique Christian culture that includes a very particular architecture that to this day has not been fully studied. Armenian is an Indo-European language which has its own alphabet (created in 406 AD).

Due to their turbulent and tragic past, Armenian people had been forced to migrate and take refuge in faraway lands. This has had its silver lining. Those who today inhabit Armenia have strong connections to all corners of the world—Middle East, Europe, and America. This results in a unique type of diversity, where the European mixes with the cultures of the Middle East and Caucasus. 

During the Soviet times, tiny Armenia boasted multiple big universities, tens of scientific institutes, and an advanced field of computer science. Despite the post-Soviet decline, some of these fields managed to survive and are now rapidly growing. In the last 10 years, Armenia has seen a major growth in the high-tech sector, which has recently produced a "unicorn" as well as a few startups with near-billion valuation. Many Western companies, such as Nvidia, Lycos, Synopsis, and VMWare have opened their R&D branches in Yerevan. Armenia also has a history in nuclear physics and nuclear engineering. About 40 percent of Armenia's electricity is derived from the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant.

Participating in MISTI is a lot about impact. MIT students can have a great impact in a rapidly growing high tech industry, and the MISTI program in Armenia can allow them to play a formative role in the development of the field there. While Computer Science is in demand, many non-CS students will find great opportunities, as there will be internships in organizations that work in architecture, biotech, banking, and arts.

Despite enormous risks and great pains, Armenia has managed to break away from its post-Soviet authoritarian past: People in 2018 staged a peaceful "velvet" revolution and brought to power a new government that has embraced transparency, progressivism, and Western-style democratic rule. This is a time of historic change, and this allows MIT students to make an impact at the time when it is much needed! Armenia needs the MIT-style out-of-the-box thinking that combines rigor with creativity.

Could you tell us more about the presence of the Armenian culture in the Boston area? How could students start learning about it before their trip?

Boston is a great hub of Armenian diaspora. There are many good resources in and outside of Boston that one can tap into to learn more about Armenia and the history of the Armenian people:

1. Armenian Museum of America is a great resource. It is located in the Watertown Sq (see here)—a 25 min bike ride from MIT. You can learn more about it here.

2. You can taste Armenian food at the Jana Grill, which is across the river from Watertown Sq.

3. There are a number of Armenian stores in Watertown (look up "Arax Market" and "Sevan Bakery" on google maps)

4. For those interested in cinema, you can watch 

  • "Ararat," by Atom Egoyan (can be found on Youtube and Amazon Prime).
  • "Color of Pomegranates," by Sergey Parajanov
  • “A Piece of Sky” or “We Are Our Mountains” (both movies are available at Kino Klassika through MIT Libraries)

5. "My Name is Aram," a novel by award winning Armenian-American novelist William Saroyan

What is the most important thing students should know about Armenia and Armenians?

Overall Armenia is quite West-oriented, and Armenian culture is famous for its hospitality towards outsiders. Most students will find that their peers are very open to making connections and becoming lifelong friends.

Photo credit: Adam Glanzman I MIT News