As a young student growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Charles (Chuck) Vest
remembers taking endless aptitude tests in school – all of them indicating that he should become a journalist, a psychologist or a historian. Engineer was way down on the list, test results always revealed, strongly suggesting he had little or no aptitude for this field.
Oh, how wrong they proved to be.
Chuck not only proved to have a keen aptitude for engineering, his illustrious career in the field has seen him assume challenging leadership roles in some of engineering’s highest echelons – including serving as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1999-2004, as former advisor to two U.S. Presidents, and in his current position as president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
Looking back on it all, Chuck says matter-of-factly: “I never really planned my career. And ending up as president of MIT is probably the last thing I expected to happen to me, but it did. I always tried to work on things I thought were interesting and exciting and important, so as to bring my passion and energy to them. That’s more important than trying to plan.”
Born and raised in the small college city of Morgantown, West Virginia (home of West Virginia University), Chuck developed a curiosity about science and mathematics at an early age.
“My dad was a math professor in Morgantown who helped me to develop a sense of science and mathematics and their importance, and of discipline,” Chuck says. “My mother was an equally wonderful person who was a homemaker, spent a lot of time with me, raising me and my older brother. She loved history and from her I gained a love for the writing and reading of history.”
Through the curious mixture of all these experiences, the talents of a budding engineer began to take shape. Young Chuck started buying army surplus equipment that had been used in World War II (such as microphones and resistors) to tinker with, and later found contentment whiling away the hours building little electronic gadgets. “And then of course, like so many my age,” he says, “I became a child of Sputnik and by the time college came along I was pretty committed to being somewhere in science or engineering.”
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