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Faces of MIT: Mary Niskala

The longtime senior administrative assistant reflects on some of her proudest moments at MIT.
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Caption: Mary Niskala of MIT’s Office of the Vice President of Research reflects on some of her proudest moments at MIT and what’s kept her here for so long.
Credits: Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT

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Niskala stands with arms crossed outside, with green foliage in background.
Mary Niskala of MIT’s Office of the Vice President of Research reflects on some of her proudest moments at MIT and what’s kept her here for so long.
Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT

Mary Niskala is a senior administrative assistant in MIT’s Office of the Vice President for Research. Since coming to MIT 11 years ago, she has also worked in the Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group and MIT’s Office of the Provost. She says the experiences in each role have been very different, but throughout them all, she has loved coming to work every day.

“The combination of the projects I’ve been able to work on, the research I’ve been able to see, and the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with and learning from,” are the most rewarding parts of the job, Niskala says.

Some memorable projects she’s worked on include interactive installations from the Tangible Media Group, inFORM and TRANSFORM, that allowed users to interact with the physical world through digital interfaces. The projects were displayed at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York and in Milan, Italy, in 2014.

“As admins, we don’t always get to see the products of our work happening, but having that physical representation of your work, and to see your work on display, was really special,” Niskala says.

Niskala is also proud of helping the provost’s office continue operations during the Covid-19 lockdowns. During that work, she was inspired by the MIT community’s energy and collaborative spirit.

“Seeing people consistently doing what was needed to keep the Institute going when we all got sent home was awesome to see,” Niskala says. “We all got sent home together, and we all figured out a new way to work together. The fact that it all happened simultaneously was pretty magical, I think. We each looked back thinking, ‘How did we do all of that?’”

Niskala is part of several MIT Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) on campus, and she credits them for helping the community through so much adversity.

“The support from those groups was invaluable,” Niskala says. “It was good to see that there are employee groups that are looking out for staff as people. That really mattered. We’re also really fortunate to have staff that co-lead these groups on top of their busy schedules.”

Indeed, through each of her experiences at MIT, Niskala has gained an appreciation for the work staff members of every background perform around campus.

“MIT is extremely driven to fulfill its research mission, and everyone at MIT has a role to play in that,” Niskala says. “Even if you’re not doing research in a lab, the hard work you put in does contribute to the mission, and I always feel that staff are vital to the Institute. You can have great ideas, but you’re not going to be able to get things done if the lights aren’t on or the facilities aren’t clean, or your calendar’s a wreck and you can’t get any research done. That’s the work that isn’t as visible and is absolutely essential. I work with some really dedicated people here.”


Q: If someone was about to start working at MIT, what advice would you give them?

Niskala: Learn as much as you can, and never stop doing so. That’s probably general life advice, but over all of my years here, I’ve seen that you can never stop learning new things every day.

Q: What’s your favorite way to spend a weekend?

Niskala: Just getting a chance to slow down. MIT moves at its own pace, and it can be breakneck sometimes, so it can be nice to unplug. I remember a time when you couldn’t access your email outside of work, so you had to leave work at the office. It’s so different now. You can work from your phone from anywhere.

Overall, I like spending time with my family and cat, playing video games, and cooking. I’ve also practiced the martial art of Aikido for over 20 years now and also make crafts. I like making random things out of felt, usually based on my favorite video games.

Q: How would you describe MIT’s culture?

Niskala: MIT is endlessly curious, endlessly working, and at the same time endlessly collaborative. Seeing MIT come together for things like Commencement is always really impressive. It seems to be a place that just doesn’t stop!

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