Rowing in the Right Direction

For a college student, senior Tatum Wilhelm wakes up painfully early—at 5:15 am, to be exact. Five days per week, by 6:20 am sharp, she is already rowing on the Charles River, bursting through the early morning fog.

Between majoring in chemical engineering, minoring in anthropology, and working as an undergraduate student researcher at the Furst lab, Wilhelm’s days are packed. But she says it’s her role on MIT Crew that gives her perspective on her goals and what matters most.

Stretching her arms after a workout on the erg, the unforgiving indoor rowing machine used for individual training, she explains, “Crew is a set time in the day when I’m not thinking about academics. I’m just focused on pushing myself physically, and the river is beautiful.”

She was captain of her team last year, but winning isn’t the current that pulls Wilhelm deeper and deeper into her sport; it’s teamwork.

“When I first came here, I had the preconception that everyone at MIT was a genius and super into their books,” she says. “They are very smart, but everyone also does really cool stuff outside of academics. My favorite thing about this school is the people, especially my team.”

Fitting in

A first-generation college student raised by a single mom, Wilhelm came to MIT from California with the support of Questbridge, a nonprofit that mentors high-achieving, low-income students as they apply early decision to their top-choice colleges. She was passionate about science and knew that MIT was the right place, but she didn’t know a soul on campus.

It’s Wilhelm’s friendships, both in the lab and in the eight-person boat, that have given her a feeling of belonging.

“Before I got to MIT, I honestly didn’t know what an engineer was,” she says bluntly.

But once Wilhelm saw engineering alumni solving real-world problems in the field, she knew it was for her, ultimately choosing chemical engineering.

When Covid-19 hit the spring of her first year and remained virtual for the fall 2020 semester, Wilhelm temporarily relocated to Alaska, where she worked as a farm hand and learned about sustainable agriculture. “I am an engineer, not a farmer. I am also not that outdoorsy, and that experience pushed me way out of my academic comfort zone in a great way,” Wilhelm says.

During that time, she began working remotely as an undergraduate researcher in the Furst lab, logging on between shifts in the fields to meet with Assistant Professor Ariel Furst, who actively included her as one of the team from the start.

Back in Cambridge as a sophomore, Wilhelm unexpectedly discovered a passion for anthropology when she signed up for class 21A.157 The Meaning of Life, a seminar taught by William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Anthropology Heather Paxson.

Wilhelm admits, “I thought the class would be too philosophical, but it was actually extremely applicable to things that were going on in students’ lives. It was about finding personal meaning in work, family, and money in tangible ways.” At the time, the whole world was still reeling from Covid-19, and being able to conduct that kind of soul-searching became a powerful tool.

“I just kept going with the anthro courses and soon had collected enough for a minor,” Wilhelm says. “They complement my chemical engineering classes, which are very technical and centered around problem-solving.”

Real-world chemical engineering

Wilhelm spent her junior year studying thermodynamics and fluid dynamics in the Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE), as well as the class 21A.520 Magic, Science, and Religion, a seminar with professor of anthropology Graham Jones. The contrast both stretched and soothed her brain. She says Jones’s engaging style of teaching made him her favorite MIT professor.

This fall, Wilhelm took a class called 21A.301 Disease and Health with associate professor of anthropology Amy Moran-Thomas. Discussions about the biopharmaceutical industry and analyzing modes of care directly connected with her ChemE coursework and internships, and gave her perspective on how her future work can impact real-world users. She reflects, “Looking at how these treatments impact patients’ lives has provided a deeper understanding of the implications of my work. I value being able to look at very technical scientific problems from a humanities lens, and I think it has enhanced my learning in both disciplines.”

Alongside her academic studies, Wilhelm has continued working at the Furst lab, more recently with the support of MIT SuperUROP. The competitive program provides advanced undergraduates with independent research opportunities.

With this funding, Wilhelm is conducting a project to examine how to potentially engineer cell-based electrochemical lanthanide sensors. Lanthanides are rare-earth elements used in several industries, including electronics and green energy, primarily due to their abundance and low cost.

Wilhelm explains, “The current methods for the separation of lanthanides in mining and recycling are costly and environmentally damaging. This project aims to create an inexpensive and environmentally friendly method for detecting and recovering lanthanides from complex solutions.”

At MIT, she has noticed some interesting parallels between being part of the crew team and sharing the lab with researchers of different ages and backgrounds. In both settings, failing, iterating, and ultimately winning, frame the culture.

She says, “In the lab, there is an overarching sense of purpose, which also translates to crew. In rowing, we are all working together. We train both individually and as a team. Our performance as individuals matters, but we ultimately have to all come together to move the boat forward.”

Next year, Wilhelm hopes to steer toward a PhD in chemical engineering or materials science.

“I’m really interested in the industry applications of ChemE, but in reality, I just want to continue researching and learning new things every day right now,” she says.

This article was written by Danna Lorch of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and was originally published on MIT News on January 23, 2024.