Donor Profile: Al ’51 and Barrie HM Zesiger
Supporting Mind and Body
Say “Zesiger” at MIT and you conjure the sleek, sunny palace of fitness that since 2002 has given the MIT community access to first-rate, pleasantly chlorine-scented options for staying fit and strong. More recently, Al Zesiger ‘51 and his wife, Barrie, the “Z-Center’s” lead donors, have become major supporters of BCS. Why the switch from body to brain? For the Zesigers, who take fitness so seriously that they have been known to climb Alps, run marathons and swim across San Francisco Bay, supporting MIT’s brain research was an obvious next step: “Fitness,” says Al, “gives you energy, clarity and relieves stress. It’s good for the body, and it’s great for the mind.” From their interest in the link between body and brain sprang a passion for the workings of the mind.
As an MIT engineer with a Harvard MBA, Al built an enormously successful investment career. A Stanford law graduate, Barrie practiced land-use law for a decade, helping to draft the landmark California Coastal Act. In 1995, they founded Zesiger Capital Group LLC. Soon after, says Al, “our business was getting bigger, we were doing better—and we wanted to do more for MIT.”
As part of an MIT Presidential Advisory Committee, Barrie was introduced to MIT’s striking range of mind and brain explorations—and she and Al were hooked. At one committee dinner, the Zesigers were seated with Professor Susumu Tonegawa. “He couldn’t have been more interesting and dynamic,” says Barrie. “And we were so green! He was so important to our catching the enthusiasm about the research.” The Zesigers have savored their involvement with BCS as a personal education ever since: “We both had an interest in the mind’s capacity for growth and change,” says Barrie, “though when we started, we didn’t know it was called ‘plasticity’!”
Now a Life Member of the MIT Corporation, Barrie served on the Visiting Committee that oversees BCS throughout the development of Building 46. “The impetus was to bring together all the people at MIT working on these questions,” says Barrie, “to express, physically, the vision of studying the mind and brain together that is unique to MIT.”
The process was challenging—but eminently worth it. Today, as chair of the Visiting Committee, Barrie describes MIT’s brain sciences complex as “a very happy building! There’s a great deal more collaboration going on. People are moving across silos, using multiple tools and analyses—you’ve got systems people working with molecular people working with cognitive people. The building is truly living up to our best hopes.” She is particularly pleased that BCS department head Mriganka Sur not only promotes collaboration among his colleagues but is building an intensely collaborative program of autism research himself.
Most recently, the Zesigers made a $1 million gift to support the vital area of graduate fellowships. “Al and I have been delighted to add to the beauty and pleasures of the campus,” says Barrie, “and now we’re excited to support these inspiring students in their work. We see this gift as our down payment on supporting the intellectual mission of MIT. We hope to give more during our lifetimes,” she concludes with a smile, “and even more when we’re ready to strap on our wings!”