By Aram Arkun
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The Luys Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 in Yerevan, organized a banquet at the elegant Samberg Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the evening of March 29 with the participation of its cofounder President Serge Sargisian and other high officials of Armenia as well as a large number of Luys scholarship recipients and alumni. The banquet program, a showcase for the foundation’s achievements, and an attempt to win further support for its work, was sponsored by the Noubar and Anna Afeyan Foundation.
The Luys Foundation offers scholarships to students of Armenian descent, including both citizens of the Republic of Armenia and diasporans, attending the top ten universities of the world as undergraduates, postgraduates or doctoral candidates. The ranking of the universities is based on the Academic Ranking of World Universities of the Center for World-Class Universities of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
At present, Luys can grant up to ten scholarships per university, and has 420 scholars and alumni from 15 different countries. Luys Scholars mentor promising high school students in Armenia. The scholars and alumni when in Armenia conduct forums and participate in conversation series. They join or organize Armenian student associations or Luys networks wherever they may be, and host and give tours to visiting Luys peers or mentees.
Luys offers scholars and alumni various Armenian language learning tools. During summer breaks, the Luys Scholars must go to apply their skills and knowledge to community development projects in Armenia through the Develop Armenia Together project, and hopefully alumni will become leaders of Armenian society and its economy. Luys helps recruit alumni for key positions in Armenia and elsewhere in all types of fields of endeavor. It has an internship program, and provides guidance and resources for start-ups by alumni. It provides seed money ($5,000 to $20,000 per case) and planning assistance.
Jacqueline Karaaslanian, who worked for nearly three decades at MIT before becoming executive director of Luys, introduced the foundation to the guests, exclaiming, “I want to look at it as this most amazing gift that Armenia is giving to all of its children throughout the world. What better gift than the best education.” She explained that it gives even more, because, she said, “it “engineers the science of collaboration.” It is helping network Armenians throughout the world, and this evening event itself was part of this networking, as Karaaslanian said she hoped that the senior and accomplished Armenians in the banquet hall were meeting with the young and dynamic Armenian scholars present. In this way, she concluded, Armenia would secure its path into the future.
Karaaslanian then introduced three Luys scholars and inventors, two originally from Armenia and one from Syria, who gave brief presentations with projected illustrations about their work. Armen Mkrtchyan, with a doctorate from MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics, spoke about his patent-pending drone for agriculture, providing data to farmers at a relatively affordable cost. These drones can be used in developing countries. Mkrtchyan took inspiration in part from a class at MIT with Noubar Afeyan.
Amalia Kostanyan, a doctoral candidate in nanotechnology at Cambridge University, UK, spoke about her work concerning visual display applications. Sahag Voskian, a doctoral candidate at MIT in Chemical Engineering, spoke about his work on electrochemically mediated separations, specifically carbon dioxide capture and heavy metal pollution removal from waste water.
Karaaslanian invited all Armenians who have patents to present their information so that their inventions can be announced on the Luys website. She noted the presence of Stepan Partamian of California, who initially began to collect information on such Armenians.
During the dinner, a panel of three senior innovators addressed the issue of how one moves from science and technology to value creation. Dr. Noubar Afeyan, Senior Managing Partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures, and sponsor of the evening’s program, spoke first. He said he was a student here as an undergraduate, and in a sense never left. His office is in a building visible from the Samberg Center.
Afeyan related a “point of pride” for Armenians that occurred that day when the Armenian delegation with President Sargisian visited the MIT president L. Rafael Reif. The latter related that at MIT roughly 400 foreign students attend over the span of any four years. The largest group of international students are 50 from China, followed by 30 from India. Both countries have populations of around one billion. Armenia, with 6 students on average, forms the third largest group. If Armenia had a billion people, all of MIT would not be enough for its students, Reif quipped. Afeyan said, “It shows just how above our weight we have always been able to achieve.”
Afeyan said that culturally it is necessary to impress on Armenians the need to take risks and fail or be wrong most of the time in order to innovate and come up with something new. One factor in favor of immigrants like Armenians is that they assume they will get nothing and have to work for everything, and this is what, Afeyan said, innovators do. The latter immigrate to a better “intellectual place.” Furthermore, innovators must learn from what is around them, not just from the classroom.
Afeyan ended by declaring that Armenia has accomplished quite a bit over 25 years of independence, but the next ten years would be even more tremendous.
Dr. Yervant Zorian, Chief Architect and Fellow at Synopsys, and president of Synopsys Armenia, one of the largest IT companies there with over 800 people, then spoke about his career in semiconductors. The self-repairable quality of chips in computers and cellphones has been developed in Armenia, and the patents for them are in Armenia. Zorian suggested that Armenians should organize conferences for themselves in specific technical fields to promote networking and collective work.
Dr. Roger Hajjar, director of the Cardiovascular Research Center and the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said he was very focused on how to treat heart failure through gene therapy and small molecules. These tools can be applied to multiple diseases. Science uses a lot of tools that are very expensive so only a handful of countries can do the whole spectrum of scientific work, but smaller countries can focus on specific diseases. For example, Familial Mediterranean Fever which strikes many Armenians has been mapped out, with the responsible gene discovered and therapies developed for it. Armenia can be in the forefront of systems biology – learning how genes interact to cause a disease and then how one treats it.
Several questions were taken from the audience. The first questioner obliquely wondered whether Armenians could model themselves after the Jewish community, which passed down knowledge from the older to the young. Afeyan responded that Armenians need a change of mindset and should adopt optimism. Criticizing others is not helpful. He also called on the two leaders of the Armenian Church present to provide the fuel for such change. Hajjar said that the Genocide centennial may have led to a new attitude of hope and optimism.
A second question was whether Armenia should specialize only in a few fields it is already good in, or should it try to invest in all fields. Zorian said that while Armenians have some fields in which they exceed, they should not be closed to investing in other domains of innovation. Hajjar said you should focus on one problem at a time, but by doing this will develop universal tools which can be applied to other problems.
The third question was about Armenia 2020, and what was wrong in that effort that should be avoided for Armenia 4040. Afeyan said that Armenia 2020 was somewhat “naïve and romantic.” It was an attempt to imagine and dream about what is possible, and what innate advantages does Armenia have. The government of Armenia supported it, under the leadership of Serge Sargisian as prime minister and then president. Lighthouse projects in tourism, healthcare and other fields were inspired by the research.
Afeyan felt that this approach is necessary, and research must be done to prepare for the future. The “customer” or “client,” Afeyan said, is the five-year-old Armenian of today.
Vigen Sargisian, chief of staff for the President of the Republic of Armenia, spoke about “a new narrative for Armenia,” pointing the way toward the future. He said the tremendous jump in Armenian applicants to the Luys Foundation, and developments in Armenian education and technology bring pride to all. Sargisian also briefly spoke about the importance of the Fletcher School program at Tufts funded by Aso Tavitian.
President Sargisian took the podium to speak on the path to development through education and human capital for Armenia. He began by praising MIT’s role as an innovative leader and teacher of technology, with its work benefiting the entire world, including Armenia. The Tumo Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan was modeled after the MIT Lego Educational Lab, while the Ayb School in Armenia benefited from cooperation with MIT media labs. MIT developed a “flipped classroom” program which is being used in Armenia, which also launched two fablabs.
Sargisian cited MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu’s theory that economic prosperity depends on the inclusiveness of economic and political institutions, and said that Armenia’s experience indicates that “it is very hard to implement any reform if public trust in fairness has been undermined and the public institutions do not reflect the true aspirations of society.” He said that the recent constitutional amendments in Armenia will lead in the next two years to “systemic change,” and that all citizens of Armenia “have our share in this initiative.” His dream, Sargisian said, is of “Armenia, where strong and well-established individuals do not spare efforts for creating stable state and public institutions.”
Sargisian provided the audience with some basic information about the role of technology in Armenia. The Armenian educational system is the key to Armenian success. Last year, Armenian children earned 20 medals in international Olympiads in mathematics, physics, astronomy and biology. This is close to the number of medals won by children of ten times more populous countries. Armenian universities annually educate 2,000 IT and high-tech specialists, he said.
The National Program for Educational Excellence, training and educating thousands of teachers, is being implemented in Armenia with the assistance of the University of Cambridge and the Institute of Education at University College of London. For the first time this year, Armenian graduates will take the Ararat Baccalaureate exam, which incorporates international educational criteria.
The Luys Foundation, he said, is educating a competitive new generation at the world’s leading universities. Its goal is, he continued, “to bring home all that is progressive and new that is constantly created around the world…”
In response to the concern of losing Armenian human resources, Sargisian cited Singapore’s late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had told him that “even if our compatriots do not return home after their studies, they are still our assets abroad, through whom the world recognizes our country; they contribute in various ways to the development of both the host country and their home country.” Sargisian also said, “Experience has already shown that the absolute majority of Luys’s alumni returned home after completing their education and engaged in Armenia’s development.”
He said that the Luys alumni should do three things in their lives afterwards: “have a house in Armenia, work or be engaged in an Armenia-based initiative in his or her professional field, and be a lifelong ‘ambassador’ of Armenia and the Armenian language everywhere he or she goes.” The government has a program which can help: targeted assistance to young families through mortgage loans at below-market rates which allows the latter to purchase an apartment.
The president stated that he had several goals for the MIT event. He told the members of the audience that he was confident that the evening “will pave the way for lasting and practical ties. Many of you do not closely cooperate with traditional Armenian organizations, parties, or at times even the community. I hope that contacts in this format can become regular and set the foundation for mutually beneficial everyday cooperation by creating an informal network of Armenian-American scientists.”
A second goal was, he said, “forging close cooperation between Armenian and foreign universities.” As far as MIT was concerned, Armenia would be delighted, he said, to host MIT faculty and students who could see Armenian achievements firsthand and visit Armenian faculty, students, IT companies and free economic zones.
Third, Armenia plans to host a World Forum of Information Technologies in 2019 and, Sargisian said, would be glad if MIT was represented there.
President Sargisian’s speech was followed by an inspirational video message from Artsakh, from Artak Beglaryan. Losing his eyesight to a mine explosion in Stepanakert in 1995 did not prevent Beglaryan from pursuing higher education. He obtained master’s degrees from Yerevan State University and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of University College London, where he was a Luys Scholar, as well as studying for six months at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. He has been working as assistant to the prime minister of the Republic of Artsakh since 2012. He even climbed Mt. Ararat. His message was that just as he succeeded thanks to support from many others, Armenians must support one another and cooperate to make greater and greater achievements in the future.