Skip to navigationSkip to contentSkip to footer

2007 News Releases



Glamour magazine names CEE senior to Top 10 College Women list

Written by:

Environmental engineering major Alia Whitney-Johnson admits to a bit of culture shock when she took time out of her semester’s work in Sri Lanka to return to the U.S. for a Glamour fashion photo shoot in New York City. The MIT senior had been selected as one of Glamour magazine’s Top 10 College Women for 2007.

“Going from Sri Lanka—where every day was so rich and full, so intensely painful and yet beautiful—to a photo shoot in New York City was one of the most bizarre experiences I have ever had,” said Whitney-Johnson. “I was both excited and apprehensive. But I went anyways.”

About a year ago, the 21-year-old from Asheville, N.C., founded an organization called Emerge Global in Sri Lanka. Emerge works with sexually abused, pregnant girls, who have been kicked out of their family homes, to “boost confidence, promote creativity, and generate savings so that these girls develop the tools needed to thrive,” said Whitney-Johnson. The teenagers learn jewelry-making, one of Whitney-Johnson’s own passions, and Emerge sells their work to sustain the program. She wore Sri Lankan handmade jewelry in the New York fashion photos to accessorize the dress by designer Vince and shoes by Chanel.

“When they saw me wearing their jewelry in a photo for Glamour magazine, I knew the trip had been worth it,” said Whitney-Johnson about her return to the girls in Sri Lanka. “They were overjoyed and proud to have something they created displayed for a world audience. It was validation that their contributions are valued in the world.” She said the article in the June issue helped her recruit a team of dedicated individuals to work with her on Emerge and provided added legitimacy for fund-raising. Emerge recently won a $10,000 grant from the World Bank.

This summer, Whitney-Johnson is working as an intern in Guatemala with the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, a nonprofit organization. Her project: to maximize the efficiency of a turbine design on a micro-hydropower system. “I find it incredible that we can generate power from local natural resources with minimal environmental impact,” she said.

She’ll return to MIT in the fall for her senior year in the environmental engineering program. “I chose environmental engineering because of my interests in science, technology and international development. I felt it would give me the tools to develop technologies that would ease individuals’ daily struggles to meet their fundamental human needs. Course 1E is the perfect balance.”

While in New York, Whitney-Johnson said she was surprised by her complicated feelings when a waitress asked her what type of water she wanted. “We can count all the types of water we have available on two hands. Some people in the world wouldn’t be able to lift one finger when it comes to accessible clean water,” she said.

She also learned during that trip that she is winner of a 2007 Harry S Truman Scholarship. She plans to use the $30,000 for graduate studies in sustainable development. “I’m interested in insuring that culturally and environmentally sustainable technologies reach the world’s poorest communities.”

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Editor’s Note:

Melis Anahtar, a 20-year-old mechanical and biomedical engineering major at MIT who wants to be a medical researcher, also was named to Glamour’s Top 10 list this year. According to the magazine article, Anahtar “developed a blood-testing device that could give doctors quick, crucial information about how the body is reacting to a burn, and last summer identified a genetic basis for a rare form of albinism through her internship at the National Institutes of Health.”

Alia Whitney-Johnson shares a moment with one of her young friends in Sri Lanka, who wears tiny handmade bracelets on her wrists. For more information about her work in Sri Lanka, see
PHOTO/Courtesy Alia Whitney-Johnson

PHOTO/Courtesy Conde Nast