Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Monisha M. Merchant of Lakewood, CO, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science, has won a $30,000 Truman Scholarship.
Ms. Merchant was one of three finalists from MIT--"the best MIT has ever done," according to Associate Professor of History Anne E.C. McCants, the Truman faculty representative at MIT. The other finalists were Susan Rushing of Jefferson, MD, a brain and cognitive science major, and Carina Fung of Bridgewater, NJ, a chemical engineering major.
The program was created by Congress in the 1970s to honor the presidency of Harry S Truman. One scholarship is awarded to each state per year to a junior who shows academic promise, a sense of community responsibility and a commitment to a career in public service.
Civic responsibility was an integral part of Ms. Merchant's home life as a child. "Growing up, my parents allowed me to form my own opinions, and they stressed the importance of volunteering around the community," she said. Her younger brother, Kunal, a freshman at Harvard, is a leader of the campus recycling program and teaches piano to children.
During her freshman year at MIT, Ms. Merchant co-founded the College Democrats with biology junior Areej Hassan, hoping to increase political involvement at MIT through registration drives and voter education.
"We feel that it's very important to get MIT students interested in the political process early so that they remain active for the rest of their lives," she said. "With the continuous generation of new scientific and technological innovations, we need to have 'techno-literate' policymakers."
Colleges may nominate no more than four students, who are then placed in a pool of applicants from their home state. Finalists are selected on the basis of their applications and interviewed by state to determine the winners.
Winners receive $3,000 during their senior year and $27,000 during their first two years of graduate school. They also participate in a week-long leadership conference after finals this year in Liberty, MO, and may qualify for a summer internship in Washington after their senior year.
Ms. Merchant intends to enter the work force before pursuing a master's degree in public policy, concentrating on science and technology policy, with an eye toward a career as an analyst or consultant.
"I would like to focus on the impacts of technological implementation and expansion on society, targeting issues like the Technology Literacy program and global Information infrastructure," she said. "I also hope to coordinate technology programs in inner city and disadvantaged schools."
Elective politics is also a possibility in whatever community she eventually lands. "I've thought about running for local office," Ms. Merchant said.
Previous winners from MIT have included Edward Mogul of New Jersey in 1995 and Jacob Orenstein-Cardona of Puerto Rico in 1997. Mr. Miguel is pursuing a PhD in economics at Harvard and Mr. Orenstein-Cardona postponed graduate studies for a year to teach high school in Puerto Rico.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 1998.