At MIT, Scolnik says she largely found a supportive environment but did need to band together with other women at times. In one mechanical engineering class, she struggled with a soldering iron, which the male students were using to build robots. "I said that I had never done this before, and all I got was chuckles," she says. "Nobody offered to help, nobody offered to show me how it worked, and I was too embarrassed that I basically just stormed out."
Fortunately for Scolnik, a few of her sorority sisters were in the class. "In a somewhat act of defiance," she says, they joined forces for a class competition and built a robot covered "in glitter, so that when we beat the boys they would be beat by glitter bots." They lost. It turned out, "if we'd known how to solder we would've done a little better," she says.
By spring semester Scolnik had stumbled upon an ad for a class called "Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries." While she had originally planned to be pre-med, she found herself racing to get to the class. "My group was partnered with a small wheelchair workshop in Tanzania," she says. "We would Skype with them and email with them to learn about the problems they were facing, and try to provide whatever sort of help we could with our basic engineering skills."
Scolnik visited Tanzania with her MIT classmates the following year, learning more about the difficulties faced by wheelchair users there. "People needed to go really long distances, to get to work or to school," she says, often on rough terrain. "And they needed something that they could repair and maintain in the long term."
Her team came up with a solution: A wheelchair that uses standard bicycle parts, so it could be repaired easily and locally. The team also re-thought how a person could push the chair. "A regular wheelchair is propelled by grabbing onto the wheels and pushing those forward," she says. "The Freedom Chair uses a lever system. It's easier to push."
She spent the rest of her time at MIT developing the chair, and in 2012, two years after graduation, incorporated GRIT with classmates Bollini and Judge and instructor Amos Winter.
To date, the startup has worked with agencies and NGOs to distribute about 2,000 chairs to 20 developing countries. "While that was happening, we started hearing from wheelchair riders here in the United States, who said…we want something that's rugged and easy to repair, too," Scolnik says. The team designed a recreational version of the chair for the U.S. market, and has shipped more than 200 to U.S. customers. GRIT has also secured two $100,000 grants — including one from MIT's D-Lab Scale-Ups Program — and in 2015 raised a seed round from angel investors.
Scolnik says she's glad she attended MIT and pursued a career in engineering. "There are so many big problems that the world is facing," she says. "Many of them can't be solved by engineering — but many of them can."
She no longer has inhibitions about science, and is working with her mother on a book aimed at getting middle school-aged girls excited about STEM fields, she says. "Now I have no problem letting that nerd flag fly freely."
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This originally appeared on The Story Exchange.