Last week, Spencer R. Wilson ’15 was named a Marshall Scholar, joining 30 others nationwide who will receive a full scholarship for two years of graduate study in the United Kingdom.
Wilson, a mechanical engineering major at MIT, is planning to pursue an MPhil in engineering and a MASt in applied mathematics at Cambridge University. Just last month, an MIT alumnus and two seniors won Rhodes scholarships to pursue graduate study at Oxford University.
In an interview with The Tech, Wilson said that he had “always been a maker, a tinkerer, a builder.” His interest in mechanical engineering stemmed from growing up with parents who pushed him “to do fun projects,” including building instruments, skateboards, and catapults.
A “really, really intense” summer internship at Otherlab in San Francisco last year completely changed his view of what it meant to be an engineer, he said. According to MIT, Wilson worked on bike-fabrication technology at Otherlab, with the goal of enabling people to easily build customized bicycles.
A subsequent stint at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, under director Neil Gershenfeld, further “reinforced that idea that if you understand the fundamental mathematics behind what’s going on, you can do a lot more hands-on.” He summed up his academic pursuits at Cambridge University as “pairing theory with the experimental, which is what MIT is all about,” and added that he hoped “to bring that MIT ideal to Cambridge.”
Wilson said the most difficult part of the scholarship application process, which spanned several months, was the perseverance required. “You’re really committing to something, and second-guessing that commitment.”
“You’re specifying something, you’re saying, ‘This little chunk right here, out of all these chunks — that’s what I want to do,’” he said, adding that during the application process he often asked himself, “Is that really what my life’s work is going to be?”
Wilson described his parents as “infinitely supportive” during the application process. He said he “never once expected to get the scholarship,” and “treated it the same way as I treated applying to MIT,” trusting the judgement of the selection committee.
While waiting to hear back from the selection committee the night after his interview, he forgot that he had ordered a pizza and answered a call which he thought was from the selection committee. It was “pretty soul-crushing” when it turned out to be from the pizza delivery man.
When he did get the scholarship, he “couldn’t stop pacing.” Wilson described receiving the good news last Wednesday morning as “unreal” and compared it to “getting into MIT — one of those moments where you just can’t believe it.”
On top of his technical passions, Wilson is also a film buff whose creative outlets are watching films, analyzing films, and writing screenplays. He encouraged “anyone to have your technical [side] but embrace something purely creative,” saying that “bouncing between those two, and then sometimes letting them join together is really fun.” He is headed to India this January to make a short documentary about manufacturing — an experience he characterized as “film-making but also doing engineering.”
He advised future applicants to talk to Kim Bernard of MIT’s Global Education & Career Development (GECD) office, describing her guidance as “not coaching,” but “structured soul-searching.”
“Figure out what your values are, and let that guide you,” he said. “Don’t pick something because it makes sense. It needs to make sense, but it also needs to be something you are passionate about. You have to feel it. I think that why I was successful in this, was because I can talk about this stuff with a smile and I get charged because I really care about it a lot.”