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Two from MIT win Rhodes Scholarships

Matt Gethers
Matt Gethers
Photo / Patrick Gillooly
Alia Whitney-Johnson
Alia Whitney-Johnson
Photo / Donna Coveney

Two MIT students, Matt Gethers and Alia Whitney-Johnson, have won prestigious Rhodes Scholarships to study next year at Oxford University in Britain.

Gethers, a biological engineering major and political science concentration, has been involved in multiple research opportunities during his time at MIT.

Soon after arriving at the Institute, Gethers joined the laboratory of Drew Endy, now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford. While in Endy's lab, he conducted research aimed at enabling engineers to encode memory systems genetically to assist in the study and treatment of diseases.

This past summer, Gethers sought a way to continue research after his mentor left for California, so he approached John Essigmann, the William R. (1956) and Betsy P. Leitch Professor in Residence of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and a professor of toxicology in the Department of Biological Engineering, to lead an IROP in Thailand.

"Matt was so enthusiastic to gain international research experience that he raised enough money to bring not only himself and both Drs. Essigmann [Prof. Essigmann and his research scientist wife], but also six other MIT students to conduct research at the Chulabhorn Research Institute in Bangkok," said Linn Hobbs, chair of the Presidential Committee on Distinguished Fellowships and professor of Materials Science & Engineering and Nuclear Science & Engineering. "It is a role that becomes Matt, because he is not only a brilliant young scientist, but also an articulate young man so clearly dedicated to public service."

Gethers has engaged in a variety of public service work throughout his undergraduate career. After successful training by the MIT Emergency Medical Service, Gethers became a third rider for the MIT ambulance, logging more than 50 hours per semester. For four years, he has weekly visited local Cambridge schools to tutor students in a variety of subjects. Simultaneously, he has served as the vice president for the MIT chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, a group that honors academic success while encouraging students to participate in community service. In NCAA Division I competition, Gethers has led the MIT fencing team to two New England championships.

Gethers will now travel to Oxford University to read for a degree in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Programme.

Kimberly Benard, program advisor for Distinguished Fellowships said, "It seems to us an unexpected but inspired choice for an articulate young scientist who values engagement with his communities." After earning a degree from Oxford, Matt plans to return to the United States to pursue a PhD in biological engineering.

The second Rhodes winner, Whitney-Johnson, is a senior in civil & environmental engineering, former Truman Scholar and one of Glamour Magazine's Top Ten College Women. In 2005, she founded Emerge Global, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower young Sri Lankan mothers - many of them children themselves - made pregnant through rape and incest.

Whitney-Johnson first saw the need for such a program after receiving an MIT public service grant to provide volunteer relief in Sri Lanka following the devastating tsunami. She ended up spending time in a shelter established to provide a minimal refuge for these girls while their assailants - many of whom are their own relatives - are prosecuted. Whitney-Johnson realized that these girls, ostracized and shunned, needed a vehicle to regain their self-esteem. Since she was already an accomplished jewelry maker, having designed under her own label since 2000, she decided to teach these young mothers how to create beaded jewelry. Alia then has assisted them in selling their jewelry both in Colombo and in the United States.

"We are delighted that Alia was granted a Rhodes Scholarship, what we most wished for her was that she be provided further opportunities to continue her own development and even wider stages on which to practice her commitment to helping others like she has already done through Emerge Global," said Hobbs.

"Her irrepressible energy has inspired countless MIT students (and administrators, it might be added) to engage in more service work," said Benard.

Whitney-Johnson's ultimate goal, however, is not solely to enlarge Emerge Global, but to extend its key concept: empowerment. She plans to continue her education in international development, so that she can expand Emerge Global and found similar organizations elsewhere and has therefore decided to undertake the MSc course in development studies at Oxford's Queen Elizabeth House.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 3, 2008 (download PDF).

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