For Julie Greenberg, a career of research, mentoring, and advocacy

The longtime academic leader of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology reflects on her time spent guiding students at the intersection of medicine and engineering.

For Julie E. Greenberg SM ’89, PhD ’94, what began with a middle-of-the-night phone call from overseas became a gratifying career of study, research, mentoring, advocacy, and guiding of the office of a unique program with a mission to educate the next generation of clinician-scientists and engineers.

In 1987, Greenberg was a computer engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, living in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she was working for Motorola - when she answered an early-morning call from Roger Mark , then the director of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST). A native of Detroit, Michigan, Greenberg had just been accepted into MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate program.

HST - one of the world’s oldest interdisciplinary educational programs based on translational medical science and engineering - had been offering the medical engineering and medical physics (MEMP) PhD program since 1978, but it was then still relatively unknown. Mark, an MIT distinguished professor of health sciences and technology and of EECS, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, was calling to ask Greenberg if she might be interested in enrolling in HST’s MEMP program.

"At the time, I had applied to MIT not knowing that HST existed," Greenberg recalls. "So, I was groggily answering the phone in the middle of the night and trying to be quiet, because my roommate was a co-worker at Motorola, and no one yet knew that I was planning to leave to go to grad school. Roger asked if I’d like to be considered for HST, but he also suggested that I could come to EECS in the fall, learn more about HST, and then apply the following year. That was the option I chose."

For Greenberg, who retired March 15 from her role as senior lecturer and director of education - that early morning phone call was the first she would hear of the program where she would eventually spend the bulk of her 37-year career at MIT, first as a student, then as the director of HST’s academic office. During her first year as a graduate student, she enrolled in class HST.582/6.555 (Biomedical Signal and Image Processing), for which she later served as lecturer and eventually course director, teaching the class almost every year for three decades. But as a first-year graduate student, she says she found that "all the cool kids" were HST students. "It was a small class, so we all got to know each other," Greenberg remembers. "EECS was a big program. The MEMP students were a tight, close-knit community, so in addition to my desire to work on biomedical applications, that made HST very appealing."

Also piquing her interest in HST was meeting Martha L. Gray, the Whitaker Professor in Biomedical Engineering. Gray, who is also a professor of EECS and a core faculty member of the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), was then a new member of the EECS faculty, and Greenberg met her at an orientation event for graduate student women, who were a smaller cohort then, compared to now. Gray SM ’81, PhD ’86 became Greenberg’s academic advisor when she joined HST. Greenberg’s SM and PhD research was on signal processing for hearing aids, in what was then the Sensory Communication Group in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE).

Gray later succeeded Mark as director of HST at MIT, and it was she who recruited Greenberg to join as HST director of education in 2004, after Greenberg had spent a decade as a researcher in RLE.

"Julie is amazing - one of my best decisions as HST director was to hire Julie. She is an exceptionally clear thinker, a superb collaborator, and wicked smart," Gray says. "One of her superpowers is being able to take something that is incredibly complex and to break it down into logical chunks... And she is absolutely devoted to advocating for the students. She is no pushover, but she has a way of coming up with solutions to what look like unfixable problems, before they become even bigger."

Greenberg’s experience as an HST graduate student herself has informed her leadership, giving her a unique perspective on the challenges for those who are studying and researching in a demanding program that flows between two powerful institutions. HST students have full access to classes and all’academic and other opportunities at both MIT and Harvard University, while having a primary institution for administrative purposes, and ultimately to award their degree. HST’s home at Harvard is in the London Society at Harvard Medical School, while at MIT, it is IMES.

In looking back on her career in HST, Greenberg says the overarching theme is one of "doing everything possible to smooth the path. So that students can get to where they need to go, and learn what they need to learn, and do what they need to do, rather than getting caught up in the bureaucratic obstacles of maneuvering between institutions. Having been through it myself gives me a good sense of how to empower the students."

Rachel Frances Bellisle, an HST MEMP student who is graduating in May and is studying bioastronautics, says that having Julie as her academic advisor was invaluable because of her eagerness to solve the thorniest of issues. "Whenever I was trying to navigate something and was having trouble finding a solution, Julie was someone I could always turn to," she says. "I know many graduate students in other programs who haven’t had the important benefit of that sort of individualized support. She’s always had my back."

And Xining Gao, a fourth-year MEMP student studying biological engineering, says that as a student who started during the Covid pandemic, having someone like Greenberg and the others in the HST academic office - who worked to overcome the challenges of interacting mostly over Zoom - made a crucial difference. "A lot of us who joined in 2020 felt pretty disconnected," Gao says. "Julie being our touchstone and guide in the absence of face-to-face interactions was so key." The pandemic challenges inspired Gao to take on student government positions, including as PhD co-chair of the HST Joint Council. "Working with Julie, I’ve seen firsthand how committed she is to our department," Gao says. "She is truly a cornerstone of the HST community."

During her time at MIT, Greenberg has been involved in many Institute-level initiatives, including as a member of the 2016 class of the Leader to Leader program. She lauded L2L as being "transformative" to her professional development, saying that there have been "countless occasions where I’ve been able to solve a problem quickly and efficiently by reaching out to a fellow L2L alum in another part of the Institute."

Since Greenberg started leading HST operations, the program has steadily evolved. When Greenberg was a student, the MEMP class was relatively small, admitting 10 students annually, with roughly 30 percent of them being women. Now, approximately 20 new MEMP PhD students and 30 new MD or MD-PhD students join the HST community each year, and half of them are women. Since 2004, the average time-to-degree for HST MEMP PhD students dropped by almost a full year, and is now on par with the average for all graduate programs in MIT’s School of Engineering, despite the complications of taking classes at both Harvard and MIT.

A search is underway for Julie’s replacement. But in the meantime, those who have worked with her praise her impact on HST, and on MIT.

"Throughout the entire history of the HST ecosystem, you cannot find anyone who cares more about HST students than Julie," says Collin Stultz, the Nina T. and Robert H. Rubin Professor in Medical Engineering and Science, and professor of EECS. Stultz is also the co-director of HST, as well as a 1997 HST MD graduate. "She is, and has always been, a formidable advocate for HST students and an oracle of information to me."

Elazer Edelman ’78, SM ’79, PhD ’84, the Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science and director of IMES, says that Greenberg "has been a mentor to generations of students and leaders - she is a force of nature whose passion for learning and teaching is matched by love for our people and the spirit of our institutions. Her name is synonymous with many of our most innovative educational initiatives; indeed, she has touched every aspect of HST and IMES this very many decades. It is hard to imagine academic life here without her guiding hand."

Greenberg says she is looking forward to spending more time on her hobbies, including baking, gardening, and travel, and that she may investigate getting involved in some way with working with STEM and underserved communities. She describes leaving now as "bittersweet. But I think that HST is in a strong, secure position, and I’m excited to see what will happen next, but from further away... and as long as they keep inviting alumni to the HST dinners, I will come."