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A look at the Class of 2017

From a bedroom chemist to a high-flying roboticist, talents abound among MIT’s incoming freshmen.
Photo: Bryce Vickmark

While most students were taking down posters and packing up comforters in preparation for their trip to college, Sara Volz was dismantling something slightly more intricate: a laboratory of bubbling flasks and beakers that she had carefully amassed over the last four years in the space under her loft bed.

Volz has meticulously grown algae in her homemade laboratory, even adapting her sleep patterns to the algae’s light cycle. Why such watchful dedication? As the 17-year-old explains, the cultures of green slime under her bed, if grown just right, may be a promising and nonpolluting source of biofuel.

The teen scientist, who hails from Colorado Springs, Colo., first became interested in biofuels seven years ago, when she learned that her neighbors were powering their car with vegetable oil.

“I was fascinated about the idea that you could take this kitchen ingredient and convert that into a renewable fuel,” Volz says.

But she quickly learned that not all biofuels are sustainable: For instance, while soybeans may be processed into fuel, the crop requires land that might otherwise be used to grow soybeans for food.

So Volz concentrated her efforts on algae, a more sustainable source of fuel. Particular strains produce oils that can be converted into biodiesel, although the organism’s natural oil yields are too low to harness for practical use.

Volz set up her bedroom laboratory using parts left over after a kitchen renovation. She soon added a microscope and centrifuge — “a really old, clunky one that makes a terrible noise when you turn it on” — and started experimenting. She grew cultures of algae, using herbicide to kill off the weakest oil producers. She then collected the remaining “superproducers” and repeated her process of “artificial selection,” breeding generations with ever-higher oil yields. To date, she has increased her algae’s oil production by 300 percent.

In March, Volz’s research won her the top prize in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search. She took home $100,000, which she plans to put toward her tuition at MIT, where she hopes to study biochemistry.

“The thing I’m most looking forward to is being surrounded by peers who are genuinely interested and motivated,” Volz says, “and having that sort of passion for science be the norm rather than the exception.”

Volz is one of 1,548 students accepted to MIT this year, out of a pool of 18,989 applicants — an admission rate of 8.2 percent. Of those admitted, 1,125 students have enrolled in the freshman class, for a yield of 72.7 percent.

About 55 percent of the incoming freshmen are male, and MIT’s Class of 2017 is a diverse group: While nearly four in 10 are white, an additional 7 percent are African-American, 29 percent are Asian-American, 15 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are Native American. Sixteen percent of incoming students are the first in their families to attend college. The Class of 2017 represents most U.S. states, along with 52 countries around the world.

‘A small step to change the system’

Aashish Tripathee came to MIT by way of Pokhara, Nepal, a small city in the foothills of the Himalayas, west of Katmandu. Against a backdrop of towering peaks and crystal-clear lakes, Tripathee cultivated a love for science.

As a child, he watched his father, a chemistry teacher, working late into the night on the family’s home computer. His curiosity piqued, Tripathee started exploring the computer himself, and came across some web-design software. He soon got the hang of the program, and at 8 years old, designed his first website. Since then, Tripathee has made computer science his main hobby, and later, his business.

Perhaps one of the projects he’s most proud of is a software program he developed a few years ago. In Nepal, all 10th-graders must take an exam to earn a certificate qualifying them to move on to higher education. Students typically have to wait for months for their results to be hand-processed, counted, then published in the local newspaper.

“I was really anxious and curious about what my results were, but I had to wait a really long time, and it was very frustrating,” Tripathee recalls. “I just thought, what if I built an online system that could speed up that process?”

So he built a website where students can log on with an assigned number and instantly see their exam results and transcripts. Today, more than 10,000 students from 100 schools in Nepal use the website.

Tripathee has further expanded his entrepreneurial skills, recently starting a web-design company called Bwingle — the Nepali word for the top floor of a building. Through his business, Tripathee has designed websites and blogs for his teachers and fellow students. He has also started managing several websites for Nepal Ko Yuwa, or Youth of Nepal, a nonprofit organization that encourages young Nepalese, both in Nepal and abroad, to participate in projects that boost Nepal’s economy.

After he graduates from MIT, Tripathee hopes to return to his home country to help. “For young people to help solve Nepal’s problems, that is a small step to change the system,” he says. “If I come back and work on similar projects, I think that will be really good for Nepal.” 

‘A place for me’

Helping one’s community is an impulse that Rachel Katz’s mother instilled in the MIT freshman from a very young age. Katz, who is from Portland, Ore., “can’t remember my mom not taking me to the food bank to bag rice. I always volunteered because she thought it was very important.”

That sense of service was redoubled when Katz traveled to Poland as part of a Holocaust remembrance trip.

“That’s definitely the most I ever cried in my entire life,” Katz remembers. “I sort of had this realization that there were people in the U.S. who sort of knew this was happening, and cared, but weren’t really doing much about it.”

Upon her return, Katz, who is of Jewish and African-American descent, immediately signed up for her high school’s international studies program. As the leader of a human-rights focus group, Katz taught her fellow students about rights violations in Europe, as well as Africa and South America.

Engineering was never Katz’s career plan — until the summer after her junior year. While waiting to hear about a counselor job at a local camp, Katz decided on a whim to apply for an engineering camp at Johns Hopkins University. When she received offers from both programs, she took a chance on engineering, and “fell in love with it. I had never found a field of study that was challenging in that way,” Katz says.

She applied to MIT as an early-action applicant, and was soon accepted — the news delivered in a celebratory silver tube containing an acceptance letter, along with confetti and other MIT memorabilia. But even after she was accepted, Katz kept her options open, waiting to hear from other colleges.

“I went to visit several schools, and the whole time, I hadn’t taken off my MIT early-action wristband,” Katz says. “Then I just had this moment where I thought, I want to go to MIT. That was my sign.”

Another factor that swayed her decision: the blogs on the MIT Admissions website, along with the information session she attended on campus.

“I thought that there were so many subcultures that there was no way I couldn’t find a place for me,” Katz says. “I just kept feeling like I already had a home at MIT.”

‘Very much a tinkerer’

Efetobore Tasker, whose friends call him Toby, also applied to MIT as an early-action applicant. When he received his acceptance tube in the mail, he discovered a welcome challenge: a letter asking students to create their first MIT “hack” — a “funny, creative, or artistic interpretation” of their acceptance tube.

Always game for a challenge, Tasker hooked the tube to a circuit board and programmed the contraption to automatically open and close the shades of his bedroom window. By way of explanation, he says, “I’m very much a tinkerer.”

Tasker, who comes to MIT from Columbus, Ga., says engineering — and aerospace in particular — has been a draw ever since he was a young boy. His father’s work as a computer programmer for Delta Airlines allowed him to take his family on frequent trips — an experience that sparked a love of planes in the younger Tasker.

His father got a pilot’s license when Tasker was about 10 years old, and the two would fly off in a single-engine Cessna 172, “just for fun.”

“It was really astonishing to me, because all this time, I was just flying in the cabin of a commercial aircraft, and didn’t really notice that much,” Tasker says. “But actually being behind the controls was really amazing to me.”

Though he had an interest in engineering, he wasn’t able to delve into the subject until a wrestling injury sidelined him during his junior year — forcing him to have knee surgery, and ultimately to quit the varsity team. To fill his free time, Tasker’s physics teacher signed him up for the school’s robotics team.

Tasker soon gravitated toward the design and programming aspects of robotics, and the team submitted an entry to BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology), a nationwide robotics competition that pits student-designed robots against each other in task-completing challenges. Last year, his team placed first in the competition — a particularly proud moment for Tasker. 

At MIT, he hopes to study aeronautics — and keep up with his flying: Tasker recently followed in his father’s footsteps by obtaining his own pilot’s license.

Sailing away from stress

For Nicole O’Brien, MIT is a short nautical jaunt from her hometown. O’Brien grew up in Winthrop, Mass., a small oceanside town near Boston Harbor, where sailing is a favorite local pastime.

“You’re missing a big opportunity if you don’t sail or boat in Winthrop, because that’s really what it’s known for, being right on the water,” O’Brien says.

She seized on her first sailing opportunity as a teen, when her friends urged her to join the town’s sailing club. On the water, she soon learned that the sport involves quite a bit of science.

“There’s a lot of physics to sailing,” O’Brien says. “For example, the vectors created by the forces on the sail of a boat, and those on the centerboard of a boat, add together to make the boat move forward.”

Understanding of the sport came quickly to O’Brien, and she soon joined her high school’s sailing team, leading the team as captain and MVP for two consecutive years. In competition, the team took part in regattas both far away and close to home, and often sailed on the Charles River in front of MIT.

In school, O’Brien was equally driven. When she found out that her high school only offered an AP class in the less rigorous AB calculus, she decided to learn the more in-depth, comprehensive BC calculus on her own. She and a few other students formed a study group, and taught themselves the curriculum.

“We were scared … but we pulled through in the end,” recalls O’Brien — who earned a top score of 5 on the AP calculus exam.

Looking forward to her future at MIT, O’Brien is thinking of studying bioengineering, though she’s open to exploring other fields. One thing she is certain of is joining the MIT sailing team.

“[Sailing] is a good way to get away from all the stress of academics,” O’Brien says. “When you’re out on the water, you’re not really thinking about things that are on land. They’re completely separate worlds to me.”

‘The right thing to do’

In his junior year of high school, stress seemed to come from multiple directions for Dominiquo Santistevan. The teen, who grew up in Pueblo, Colo., was working two jobs to pay for his car insurance while trying to keep up with schoolwork and serve as captain of his high school’s cross-country team.

A typical day for Santistevan began at 4 a.m., when he started his first job, delivering newspapers around town. From there, he would head to school, after which he would either lace up and run laps with the cross-country team, travel with the team to track meets, or go to his second job.

On top of this overloaded schedule, Santistevan started taking calculus — adding homework he usually couldn’t get to until late at night. Despite the intense workload, Santistevan found himself drawn to the mathematical concepts. In class, his teacher would occasionally introduce problems in pure math, along with the standard calculus curriculum — bonus challenges to Santistevan, who soon started reading up on pure math with growing appreciation.

“You can go to sleep on a problem, take a shower, and [the solution] may come to you out of nowhere,” Santistevan says. “It’s a way of approaching math a lot differently. You kind of have to use different ideas and open your mind.”

With this newfound interest, he looked for summer math camps to attend, finally landing on MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program. Santistevan, who is part Native American, spent last summer at MIT, immersed in problems of pure math — which further stoked his passion for the subject, along with an interest in MIT.

When it came time to apply to colleges, Santistevan was torn: MIT had left a lasting imprint, but it would be difficult to be so far from home. He would be leaving behind his mother, who had raised both Santistevan and his sister while putting herself through college.

In the end, they agreed that coming to MIT was “the right thing to do.” A moment from his MITES experience cemented the decision.

“The first day on campus, they took us for a walk, and I remember seeing Lobby 7 from the outside, and I was just really, really happy,” Santistevan recalls. “That was the first time I felt I actually accomplished something, and that my work actually paid off.”

Editor’s note: The students profiled in this story represent those who responded to a query from MIT News.

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