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Rowing Towards Success
As a college student, Tatum Wilhelm, a senior, rises early – precisely at 5:15 a.m. To be more specific, five days a week, she is already rowing on the Charles River, breaking through the early morning fog by 6:20 a.m.
Wilhelm’s schedule is packed with majoring in chemical engineering, minoring in anthropology, and working as an undergraduate student researcher at the Furst Lab. However, she emphasizes that her role on MIT Crew helps her gain perspective on her goals and what truly matters.
After finishing a workout on the erg, the demanding indoor rowing machine used for individual training, Wilhelm explains, “Crew provides a set time in the day where I can divert my focus from academics. During that time, I solely concentrate on pushing myself physically, and the view of the river is breathtaking.”
Last year, she served as the captain of her team, but it is not the pursuit of victory that draws Wilhelm deeper into her sport; it is the spirit of teamwork.
“When I first arrived here, I had the misconception that everyone at MIT was a genius solely dedicated to their studies,” she says. “They are undoubtedly intelligent, but they also excel in various other areas outside of academia. The thing I love most about this school is its people – especially my teammates.”
Wilhelm, a first-generation college student, was raised by a single mother. With the assistance of Questbridge, a nonprofit organization that mentors high-achieving, low-income students in the early decision application process to their preferred colleges, she made her way from California to MIT. She had a passion for science and knew that MIT was the right place for her, but she was unfamiliar with anyone on campus.
It is the friendships that Wilhelm has established both in the lab and on the eight-person boat that have given her a sense of belonging.
“Before coming to MIT, I honestly had no idea what an engineer did,” she says candidly.
Yet, once Wilhelm witnessed engineering alumni addressing real-world problems in the field, she realized that engineering was her calling and ultimately chose chemical engineering.
When Covid-19 emerged in the spring of her first year, and the fall semester of 2020 remained virtual, Wilhelm temporarily moved to Alaska. There, she worked as a farmhand and learned about sustainable agriculture. “I am an engineer, not a farmer. I am not particularly outdoorsy either, so that experience pushed me way beyond my academic comfort zone in an amazing way,” Wilhelm states.
During that period, she also began working remotely as an undergraduate researcher in the Furst Lab. She would log on to meet with Assistant Professor Ariel Furst between shifts in the fields. From the start, she was actively included as a member of the team.
Returning to Cambridge as a sophomore, Wilhelm unexpectedly discovered a passion for anthropology when she enrolled in class 21A.157 (The Meaning of Life), a seminar taught by Heather Paxson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Anthropology.
Wilhelm admits, “I believed that the class would be excessively philosophical, but it proved to be highly relevant to what was occurring in students’ lives. It delved into the quest for personal meaning in the realms of work, family, and finances. At the time, the world was still reeling from Covid-19. Thus, being able to engage in that type of soul-searching was an invaluable tool.”
“I just kept enrolling in anthropology courses and soon acquired enough credits for a minor,” Wilhelm shares. “These courses complement my chemical engineering classes, which are highly technical and centered around problem-solving.”
Applying chemical engineering in the real world
During her junior year, Wilhelm studied thermodynamics and fluid dynamics in the Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE). She also took a seminar (21A.520) titled “Magic, Science, and Religion” with Professor Graham Jones, an anthropology professor. The contrast between the two subjects expanded and relaxed her mind. Wilhelm regards Jones as her favorite MIT professor due to his engaging teaching style.
This semester, Wilhelm enrolled in a class called 21A.301 (Disease and Health) with Associate Professor Amy Moran-Thomas, an anthropology professor. Discussions revolving around the biopharmaceutical industry and the analysis of modes of care directly related to her ChemE coursework and internships, offering her a fresh perspective on the potential impact of her future work. Reflecting on this, she says, “Examining how these treatments affect patients’ lives has given me a deeper comprehension of the implications of my work. I appreciate the ability to view highly technical scientific problems through a humanities lens, and I believe that this has enhanced my learning in both disciplines.”
In addition to her academic pursuits, Wilhelm has continued her work in the Furst Lab, now with the support of MIT SuperUROP, a competitive program that grants advanced undergraduates the opportunity to engage in independent research.
With this funding, Wilhelm is embarking on a project that explores the potential to engineer cell-based electrochemical lanthanide sensors. Lanthanides are rare-earth elements widely used in various industries, including electronics and green energy, owing to their low cost and abundant availability.
“Current methods for the separation of lanthanides in mining and recycling are expensive and environmentally harmful. The objective of this project is to develop an affordable and eco-friendly approach to detect and recover lanthanides from complex solutions,” Wilhelm explains.
At MIT, she has observed interesting parallels between being part of the crew team and working in the lab alongside researchers of different ages and backgrounds. In both environments, there is a culture that revolves around accepting failure, iterating, and ultimately achieving success.
She elaborates, “In the lab, there is an overarching sense of purpose, which translates to the mentality of the crew. When rowing, we all work together. Although we train individually, we must come together as a team to propel the boat forward.”
In the future, Wilhelm aspires to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering or materials science.
“While I am genuinely fascinated by the practical applications of ChemE in industry, my current desire is to continue researching and learning new things every day,” she concludes.