• Natasha 'Tish' Scolnik, who is working to make it easier for physically challenged individuals in Africa to move around, was awarded a Harry S. Truman Scholarship this year.

    Photo / Joseph Kisyoky

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Junior named Truman scholar

An MIT junior who is working to make it easier for physically challenged individuals in Africa to move around has been awarded a 2009 Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

Natasha "Tish" Scolnik, a mechanical engineering major from Waccabuc, N.Y., is among approximately 60 students nationwide selected as winners of the $30,000 graduate scholarship. Awarded each year, the Truman scholarships aim to cultivate college juniors with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to making a difference through careers in government, education or other public service sectors.

"Tish is one of those rare college students that has already made dramatic improvements upon people's lives: because of her, amputees in Africa have more freedom than they had before they met her," said Professor Anne McCants, chair of the history section. McCants and Kimberly Benard, MIT's program director for Distinguished Fellowships, nominated Scolnik for the Truman scholarship.

Scolnik became involved in issues of mobility in Africa in her freshman year when she enrolled in mechanical engineering graduate student Amos Winter's class on wheelchair design for the developing world. For several years, Winter has been developing chairs that that can be made locally with readily available materials and that work better under the rough conditions -- wet, muddy roads and gear-clogging dust, for instance -- they face in each location.

Since taking the class, Scolnik has traveled to Africa three times as an MIT Public Service Fellow to work on various aspects of wheelchair design for local populations. She plans to continue to work in senior year and perhaps beyond with and on behalf of the MIT Mobility Lab, which aims to advance wheelchair and prosthetic technology for the developing world.

Scolnik credited MIT for helping her focus her altruistic energies.

"President Susan Hockfield said that she wanted MIT to be the dream of every child who wants to make the world a better place. For me, that dream has become a reality," Scolnik said. "When I came to MIT, I never imagined that I would end up using the skills I was learning in the classroom to work on wheelchair design in developing countries. But I also can't imagine doing anything more rewarding."

In addition to her work in Africa, Scolnik has led MIT students in community service through MIT's CityDays, a program that pairs 25 freshmen with upperclassmen as an orientation to MIT through public service. She is a certified EMT, and served as the vice-chair for Wellness Week for the Undergraduate Association Committee for Student Life. Scolnik also mentors MIT students interested in issues related to life sciences and engineering.

Sally Susnowitz, director of the Public Service Center, has worked very closely with Scolnik throughout her time at MIT and said she was a perfect fit for the Truman scholarship. "Thoughtful, purposeful, inspired, compelling: Tish is a natural leader and a dedicated humanitarian, as well as a truly delightful person," said Susnowitz. "I'm thrilled that she has been selected as a Truman scholar."

For more information on the scholarships, visit www.truman.gov.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 1, 2009 (download PDF).

Topics: Mechanical engineering, Awards, honors and fellowships, Students, Volunteering, outreach, public service


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