Why Riccardo ’72 ML and Raquel Di Capua support physics fellowships.

by Erin McGrath // MIT Physics Annual 2012

Riccardo had come to MIT some five years ago with a unique idea in mind. He wanted to sponsor half a dozen recent graduates for one year while they figured out the next step in their lives. The only conditions would be that candidates had graduated that year and would submit mid-term and year-end reports of what had been learned. There would be no other expectations. Initially, the idea did not resonate anywhere at MIT.

Riccardo and Raquel Di Capua
Riccardo and Raquel Di Capua

One day Dean of Science Marc Kastner, at the time Head of the Physics Department, got wind of what was going on and asked Riccardo if they could meet in the Lobby of Building 7. Walking briskly together through campus toward the Stata Center, Marc listened carefully to Riccardo and then made a suggestion. Instead of sponsoring half a dozen, nomadic recent graduates, going off to who knows where in the world and doing who knows what, the good intention could be put to a much better and more focused use. Marc pointed out that there are some graduate students who arrive at MIT to pursue a PhD in physics, but are still unsure which of the four physics subfields interested them most. Perhaps, funding this handful of students during their first year in graduate school in Course VIII would allow them the freedom to explore the department without the financial pressure to commit prematurely?

Why Course VIII? Because math and physics triggered my applying to MIT. Supporting fellowships in the Physics Department has been rewarding both intellectually and personally, and has led to active involvement in other areas at MIT.

Riccardo Di Capua ’72 ML

The idea would give immense flexibility to the undecided, while at the same time offering a measure of reassurance in that the recipients had already completed an undergraduate degree and been accepted to graduate school at MIT. Each year since that initial discussion and walk across campus with Marc, Riccardo and his wife Raquel have supported the physics graduate fellowship program.

The rewards have been intellectual as well as personal for Riccardo, and have led to active involvement in other areas at MIT. Most undergraduates come to MIT because they excelled at math and were fascinated by physics in school; it’s the math/ physics combination that triggers the application process for most. Riccardo was no exception, arriving from Colombia with all good intentions of majoring in Course VIII. Two hours in 8.01 showed a woeful lack of high school preparation, calling for a shift into the lower gears of 8.011 and 8.021, and, finally, stunting his physics career ambitions after 8.03. Course III became Riccardo’s new major.

Riccardo’s reconnection with Course VIII in later life rekindled a love for physics without the accompanying classroom stress. To this day, he maintains an active fascination with physics, reading avidly, and more recently downloading Course VIII OpenCourseWare onto his tablet computer to watch and learn while running on the treadmill. “How nerdy of me!”

On the personal side, Riccardo credits Marc with having opened doors to meeting countless graduate students, administrators, and faculty in the Department, including Professors Sara Seager and Eddie Farhi, and Department Head Edmund Bertschinger. Over the years, Riccardo and Raquel have hosted numerous MIT receptions in their home, with guests including alumni as well as MIT applicants. One memorable event featured Ed Bertschinger speaking on “Planets, Black Holes, and the Accelerating Universe.” It was a great opportunity for high school students in particular to be exposed to some of the fascinating scientific work being done at MIT.

This initial involvement with the Physics Department led Riccardo to a wider range of activities at MIT, including appointments as regional chair of the MIT Corporation Development Committee and Chair of the Annual Fund. Along the way, other strong friendships were formed throughout the Institute, building upon the close personal friendship forged earlier with Marc Kastner. Riccardo has enjoyed his relationship with his Di Capua Fellows, often meeting with them informally during campus visits and speaking with them at the annual Patrons of Physics Fellows Society Dinner. Riccardo has also become close with the development staff in the Physics Department and School of Science and has worked with Elizabeth Chadis and Erin McGrath for many years.

When asked, “Why Course VIII?” Riccardo replies, “Because math and physics triggered my applying to MIT. I think Dean Marc Kastner encapsulates the theme of the School of Science with the title of his popular lecture, “Amazing People Doing Amazing Things.” And nowhere is the title more vibrant, more exciting, and more magical than in the Physics Department!”