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2008 News Releases



CEE’s Alia Whitney-Johnson wins Rhodes Scholarship

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

Whitney-Johnson is a senior in civil and 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.

The second Rhodes winner, 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.

To read more about Gethers, see the complete news article published by the MIT News Office.

Alia Whitney-Johnson
Photo / Donna Coveney, MIT News Office