MIT’s newest Rhodes scholar, Stephanie Lin ‘12, didn’t always excel academically.
“In fourth grade, I was a pretty bad student,” she says. “Sort of distractible, not very motivated.”
Lin says with a laugh, “I guess I got over that.” One of 32 American students to win the Rhodes in November, she is poised to pursue a career in medicine after four years at MIT packed with classes, research, and extracurricular activities: she served as vice president for education at her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, director of action projects for the Global Poverty Initiative, and editor in chief of MIT’s literary magazine, Rune.
In middle and high school in Irvine, California, Lin says, she leaned more toward the humanities than the sciences, considering myriad professions—librarian, lawyer, poet. But after a summer research camp at Michigan State University between her junior and senior years of high school, she found herself gravitating toward the puzzles of the natural world and the research lab.
When she arrived at MIT, Lin thought she wanted to study chemistry, but she switched paths again after her first biology class, taught by Eric Lander and Rob Weinberg. “I haven’t really looked back since,” she says.
As a freshman, Lin participated in a project at the Whitehead Institute that studied the virus associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma. For her senior thesis, she worked with Jeroen Saeij, an assistant professor of biology, investigating Toxoplasma gondii, an infectious parasite that serves as a model organism for malaria research. Lin’s project looked at how a specific T. gondii protein affects which genes are turned on and off in host cells invaded by the parasite.
With the help of a team in Saeij’s lab, Lin created two versions of the parasite—one with the protein, the other without. She then infected host cells with the two parasites and compared the cells’ behavior.
“We found that [the presence of this protein] was potentially changing the way that host cells sense nutrients,” she says. “Now the hypothesis is that it allows a parasite to usurp more nutrients from the host cell.” More nutrients make the parasite able to grow and replicate faster.
Lin, who speaks fluent Spanish (as well as Mandarin), also put biology into practice on two service trips to rural Mexican villages through MIT’s Global Poverty Initiative. On one trip, her team discovered that lack of protein variation in the villagers’ carbohydrate-rich diets was a key factor in the area’s high rate of diabetes deaths. On her second trip, she led a pilot project to diversify villagers’ diets by building low-cost greenhouses and employing composting and crop rotation. While lab work is often concerned with pioneering methods, Lin says she learned in Mexico that in less-developed places, great progress can be made simply by connecting people with tried-and-true resources.
Closer to home, Lin volunteered with Health Leads Boston, an organization that helps poor patients line up social services such as food stamps, subsidized housing, and utility assistance. The experience “made me realize how many resources there are in Boston, but also how difficult they can be to access,” she says. Her most challenging case involved a pregnant patient with rheumatoid arthritis who lived two hours from Boston Medical Center and lacked personal transportation. Lin says she would often “run out of a lecture and give [the patient] a call,” to make sure that the prearranged taxi had arrived on time.
Lin is drawn to the study of infectious diseases, a topic she sees as an ideal combination of biology, research, and social issues. She will apply her Rhodes scholarship toward a master’s degree in evidence-based social intervention at the University of Oxford and may do a second master’s in medical anthropology before attending Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her focus will be on what she calls the “humanistic aspects of medicine,” such as the best way to get patients to adhere to a treatment plan and social issues that lead to the spread of disease.
Whatever the direction Lin takes, one thing’s certain: no one could accuse her of being unmotivated anymore.
Jacob Wamala ‘12 spent two years as a wide receiver for MIT’s varsity football team, went for long runs along the Charles River, and engaged in hours-long pickup basketball games with his fraternity brothers. Yet he also logged many miles in the shoes of people with physical limitations and disabilities. Wamala, a mechanical-engineering major from Lowell, Massachusetts, and Milford, New Hampshire, did a two-year UROP in the AgeLab, where scientists and engineers study the impact of aging on the mind and body. There, he got the chance to fast-forward his body a half-century with the Age Gain Now Empathy System, or AGNES.
“Being an able-bodied person, you take certain things for granted—walking, standing up straight, seeing clearly,” he says. The AGNES suit features yellow glasses to simulate cataracts and bungee cords stretched over joints to impede movement. Wamala donned the suit for a trip to Star Market “to see how it actually makes you feel when you try to move around, or grab for something on the shelf.”
So how does it make you feel?
“Inhibited,” Wamala says, adding that it showed him why simple things such as product placement—putting items elderly people are likely to need in the “sweet spot” between the eyes and chest, so they neither have to stretch up nor bend down to reach them—can make a big difference. “A lot of times, engineers only think about the functionality and forget about the comfort and usability, especially for the elderly user,” he says.
In mechanical engineering’s 2.009 class, which he took in the fall of his senior year, Wamala was part of a team that created an ergonomic alternative to the hand rims on nonmotorized wheelchairs. “It’s a device that you can use to propel yourself along and not have to grab onto the hand rim or the wheel,” he explains. “Not only does that get your hands dirty, but it’s also really bad ergonomically for your joints.”
Getting to take the concept from idea to working prototype was invaluable, he says: “Engineering’s one of those things that while you’re doing it, you mostly focus on the bad—what’s going wrong, why things aren’t working. But when you’re done, the gratification from a working product is just amazing.”
Eager to share the joys of engineering and math with kids, Wamala also volunteered at Orchard Gardens, a public school in Boston’s low-income Roxbury neighborhood, serving as a tutor and teacher’s aide in a math classroom and helping at the school science fair. “Going every week was great, because I got to develop relationships with individual kids,” he says. “I think for them to have mentors, especially ones who look like them, helps them a lot.”
Wamala might not have even applied to MIT if not for a mentor of his own: Amos Winter, SM ‘05, PhD ‘11. “There was this one kid in my chess club who wanted to go to MIT, and that’s the only time I’d heard of it,” Wamala says. But he adds that he wasn’t eager to follow in that student’s footsteps, “so I didn’t want to go to MIT, even though my foster parents were pushing me to apply. I kept asking, ‘Isn’t that a state school or something?’”
He came around to the idea when he participated in a summer program at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and took a course taught by Winter, then a grad student in mechanical engineering. The class made remotely operated vehicles that could function underwater and pitted them against each other in a competition at the school’s giant swimming pool. “I was hooked,” Wamala says. When he arrived at MIT as a freshman, Winter was the graduate residence tutor for his dormitory, New House.
Wamala did his senior thesis in the Multidisciplinary Simulation, Estimation, and Assimilation Systems (MSEAS) lab under Pierre Lermusiaux, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and ocean science and engineering. An avid swimmer and “beach person,” Wamala liked the challenge of creating computer models to capture the ebb and flow of large bodies of water.
Business is another passion for Wamala, who had a concentration in economics. As a freshman, he helped found the MIT Minority Business Association; as a junior, he served as the group’s vice president. “There’s the National Society of Black Engineers, and some other minority-based professional programs, but there weren’t really any for business,” he says. “People interested in financial services or consulting didn’t really have any mentors or outlets.”
Wamala has accepted a position as an investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York and hopes to attend business school eventually. Despite a hectic work schedule, he plans to continue serving whatever community he finds himself in.
“Good grades and achievements are nice and all,” he says, “but I’m probably most proud of the work I’ve done to help other people.”
Making her move
Like any other MIT student, Bethany Tomerlin ‘12 juggled multiple academic and research commitments and still found time for some fun—in her case, playing flute in the MIT Marching Band and occasionally indulging what she calls her “pop culture vice” with friends in her dormitory.
But Tomerlin, who grew up in Southern California and earned her bachelor’s in materials science and engineering, had to overcome physical challenges that make her hard-won accomplishments stand out even among those of her peers. Born with mild cerebral palsy and sensory integration disorder, she wore leg braces until sixth grade and had physical therapy several times a week; her childhood was punctuated by hospital visits. Tomerlin recalls her frustration in elementary school, when—despite her enthusiasm for schoolwork—she had difficulty picking up and maneuvering a pencil.
“My mom says in the fifth grade I determined that I was going to be smartest person anyone met, so when they looked at me they’d only see how smart I was and not my disability,” she says.
Now, Tomerlin says, her motor issues are largely under control, although they still “pop up unexpectedly.” And she doesn’t have a driver’s license. But she gives much credit to her doctors and therapists, whose “amazing” efforts allowed her to lead as normal a life as possible. “It definitely made me want to choose a field where I can give back and help the world in some way,” she says.
When she arrived at MIT, Tomerlin thought that her field might be energy. Last summer, she did research at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, or MISTI, seeking to improve the efficiency of solar thermal cells. These cells work by absorbing the sun’s energy and using it to heat a liquid, producing steam that turns turbines and generates power. The hotter the temperatures the cells can withstand, the more of the sun’s heat they can convert into energy. Tomerlin’s project involved developing and testing a cobalt coating to increase the cells’ heat thresholds.
Doing research in another country proved eye-opening. “You come away with a sense of how universal science and engineering are, as well as how each country puts its own spin on them,” she says.
But while Tomerlin says she’s attracted to the global-scale problem of energy, during her time at the Institute she realized that she prefers materials science—especially the study of biomaterials, which could lead to cures and therapies for people with diseases similar to her own.
For her senior thesis, she worked with Linn Hobbs, a professor of materials science and nuclear science and engineering, to analyze the cellular connections between bones and tendons and the way these connections change over time after an injury. “Understanding the interface [between bone and tendon] and what happens there will give a better indication of diagnostic stuff—whether it’s healed or it’s not healed—and let us speculate on ways to speed up the recovery,” Tomerlin explains. She also hopes to convert some of the images from her research into works of art.
Tomerlin’s postgraduation plans will take her abroad once more, this time to Brazil—to get started on her career, improve her Portuguese, and experience what she calls “such a happening place right now.” Through MISTI, she’s accepted an internship working in the visual effects department at TV Globo in Rio de Janeiro.
Eventually, she says, her dream job is to work for a company such as Disney, where she can combine her artistic sense and engineering know-how.
“I’m an engineer—I like to create things,” she says. “At Disney, you can create whole worlds.”