Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
There were, not surprisingly, some surprises along the road to graduation for the dozen and a half students Tech Talk profiled as "hometown heroes" when they entered as freshmen in 2003.
Jose Medrano of Pico Rivera, Calif., is one who found himself in a whole new field.
As an incoming freshman, he had indicated an interest in chemical engineering. "But biology had the most impact. That completely blew me away. I was so fascinated I ended up majoring in it."
Particularly meaningful for him was getting to study cutting-edge biological research techniques with the very professors who had developed them.
One thing that stood out to him was how the nature of the academic work evolved over time. The introductory courses, he suggested, were more like high school courses. "But as you progressed, it was less book work and more thinking. It was less about 'What is the right answer?' and more about 'How did you get that answer?' It was more like being a scientist," he said.
Biology was where Joseph Goldbeck, of Boiceville, N.Y., started out. "But by the end of freshman year I'd decided that brains were a lot more interesting," he said. So his major is in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
One theme that pops up in conversations with these seniors is how demanding they found their work to be, and not just during the tough first year. Goldbeck said he kept asking himself, "There's more?" He concluded that his time at MIT has been "hard but fun."
David Rush, of Boise, Idaho, came in with a plan to major in electrical engineering, and he stuck with it--"a challenge, but satisfying in the end."
His biggest surprise was being honored, with his lab partner, for the best undergraduate lab of the year in electrical engineering and computer science. "My partner is a really, really smart guy, and he kept saying, 'It's too simple,'" Rush said. So the two made their project more complicated--and took the top honor.
The project was a juggling simulator. Rush came to MIT as a juggler but had no idea that juggling would be such an important part of his time here. "I never thought I'd start the MIT Juggling Club, but I did"--halfway through freshman year.
Anna Massie, of Louisville, Colo., came to MIT planning to major in aeronautics and astronautics, and she has done so. But she's refined her career goal in light of changed realities. At one point she thought she might have a go as an astronaut. But now she declares herself more geared toward small satellite developments. "It's going to take a long time to get humans back into space," she said.
MIT "can definitely be a very tough place," Massie said, especially for those who don't take enough breaks from their work. She's observed her peers and noted that some people "just don't change," bearing up well under the strain of all the work, "while others head out looking so bogged down," despite being very bright and knowledgeable.
Moneer Helu, of Birmingham, Ala., who majored in mechanical engineering, had two big surprises at MIT. He explained in an e-mail, "The first surprise was that I was up to the extreme challenge that is MITâ€¦. I've quite literally had an extremely thrilling time here." The other surprise was finding that MIT maintains a noncompetitive atmosphere. As he arrived at the Institute, he wrote, "everyone assured me that I'd find myself working with others and that I'd always be able to find help among my classmates. I quickly dismissed these statementsâ€¦but in reality that is what occurs, and that is one of the best things about MIT."
Kevin Krsulich, of Rockville Centre, N.Y., majored in physics with a minor in math. He wrote in an e-mail, "I don't know about surprise, but I would certainly say something that I would not have foreseen in my freshman year was that I became a father in the summer following my sophomore year. My son, Charles, will be 2 this July."
Emily Gullotti of Stonington, Conn., arrived on campus four years ago swearing to herself that she would not follow in the footsteps of her father, John Gullotti (S.B. 1978). But then she took a course in metallurgy and loved it. "It's in your blood!" he told her. And so like him, she's getting a degree in materials science and engineering.
For Gullotti, one of the surprises at MIT was that for the first time she found herself in an environment where, as she put it, "everyone is like me." When she goes out to dinner with friends, she likes not being the only one at the table who can easily figure out how to split the check.