Talking With Maggie Church: MIT staff are “part of it all”

Photo: Maggie Church

Maggie Church’s seven years at MIT have been spent at the Media Lab, initially as an administrative assistant for several professors. For the last three years, she has served as the program coordinator for the City Science team. With a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in fiber, textile and weaving arts, Maggie previously worked in galleries and museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, and Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Upsides to the pandemic? She started cooking, rediscovered the joy of reading, and began walking for pleasure and to unwind. Spoiler alert: she won’t give these up when life returns “to normal.”

You went from working in the art world to working at MIT. What was that transition like?

In museum settings I used some of my creative skills as well as doing things I just enjoy such as working with people, creating community and bringing people together around specific ideas. There is work supporting the”visitor experience,”such as how do different people experience a museum? What is important for visitors of different backgrounds and ages to know for?

I immediately felt that the Media Lab had some of these museum-like qualities. I think some people at the Lab questioned this response because it didn’t make sense to them. MIT is an academic institution. But the experience and work] felt similar to me. As an administrative assistant, part of the work was keeping everything on track and organized, and another part required me to meet a lot of people who come to MIT and figure out who they needed to speak with and what they wanted to learn. Moving into Kent Larson’s  City Science research group, I’ve been able to do more regarding making connections and creating community.

I think I’ve stayed at MIT because I’ve always been a very curious person, and MIT just nurtures that. I especially love meeting the team and learning about what they want to work on. I’m always gaining new perspectives. It’s fun to be in this community. I’m grateful to work with people from different backgrounds and countries and have those perspectives. It’s a place where you can just keep learning. If you’re a student you’re here to learn; but if you’re on staff, you get to be part of it all. The more you engage with everyone, the more you learn.

Tell me a little about the City Science Group.

The research in City Science is at the intersection of several disciplines. Our group is a team of researchers who are interested in more livable, equitable, and resilient communities. Recently there’s been a shift in the group to look more to community scale for solutions, to recognize that this is where impact starts. The researchers work in a few different lines: on-demand mobility (new lightweight systems); data-enabled decision making (using CityScope); and “changing places,” with a focus on architectural robotics and sensorized spaces.

What’s the best thing about your job?

The people. The ideas are exciting and it’s fun to work on something that I care about, but the people are just so interesting. I can’t believe how creative MIT is. I used to work in the arts, and now I’m at this technical institute where there’s so much creativity. I grew up in Boston so I think I had a bias as to what MIT would be like, but it continues to surprise me. The other thing is that the people here want to do good in the world. They’re well intentioned.

There are a lot of program coordinators at MIT, but the jobs might not be all the same. What would people be surprised to learn about your role?

Our group is very international. I talk to someone from a different part of the world almost every day. I work with the City Science Network, which is a group of collaborators from eight countries around the world with the same mission. In my job, I pull these groups together so they can keep sharing ideas.

Are you looking forward to anything in particular when we return to campus?

I go to campus a few days a week now. It’s so nice to be back! I’ve been loving walking around. I live in a suburban neighborhood, and MIT has such an urban campus that it’s fun to be back in the city. I’m really looking forward to the fall when we’re all back together. We have a new Media Lab director, Dava Newman. I’m really excited to hear Dava pose what’s important to her and then see the community respond to that leadership.

Did you found anything really challenging about your work during the pandemic?

My job changed so much. I always worked with people, but I used to be actually with the team. When we did an event, I traveled to that country. Now I do everything online, and initially it was challenging to learn virtual facilitation. But we also realized that we can have a larger and more diverse audience, and we can also engage with presenters more easily and more frequently. Being online for events can be challenging, but there have been incredible upsides too.  

I started reading a lot during the pandemic! I used to love reading, but I think I’ve been so busy that I didn’t have time to read. Now I’m obsessed with it. I started reading classics that are probably required reading for people in high school, but I always wanted to read some of them. I also started walking every day. This actually relates to our work in City Science because we’re always talking about “well-being.” It’s obvious that you need time to read and to walk, but my life was so busy and hectic before. But I also realize it’s so important. These are things that I won’t give up again. I’ll keep that nice balance of being outside and taking care of myself.

When I started at MIT and worked in administration, I realized just how much the administrative assistants do. MIT has such a huge ecosystem that it’s hard to know what every person you work with is doing or why they’re so busy all of the time. So many things are working and flowing. Sometimes our work is “hidden,” or people may not understand what it took or what was required to get something done. Having worked in several roles at MIT, I think I’ve realized how all of these parts fit into a whole.

My team is really great. I receive a lot of support and I know that my team really appreciates what I do.

— By Maria Iacobo