Margaret Guo ’16 named NCAA woman of the year

Margaret Guo ’16 was named NCAA woman of the year (WOTY), thereby becoming the first student-athlete from MIT and only the fourth among division III athletes to win this coveted award. The WOTY award recognizes athletic achievements, scholarly accomplishments, and leadership skills and service throughout one’s collegiate career. Guo checked all the boxes and more.

Guo graduated with a perfect GPA with majors in Biological Engineering (Course 20) and EECS (Course 6). In the pool, she holds the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) and school record for 400 medley relay, the NEWMAC record for 200 medley relay, and the NEWMAC championship meet record for the 200 freestyle relay.

During her time at MIT, Guo pursued a three and a half year-long UROP in Professor Linda Griffith’s lab, where she developed a synthetic model of an endometrial system. Guo also did a superUROP co-advised by Professor Thomas Heldt and Professor George C. Verghese from which she has a co-authored publication to her credit.

It is a tall order to not miss out on her numerous accomplishments in what has been a remarkable collegiate career. So here, we hear from Guo herself, from her immediate reactions on winning the award to reflections on what it took to sustain an elite level of performance for four years. UROP supervisors, swimming coach, and teammates chime in on what made Margaret Guo simply marvellous.

“It’s hard to describe how I’m feeling right now. I’d say a mixture of happiness, gratitude, and pensiveness. MIT is a super special place. And though there were a lot of sleepless nights and substantial obstacles, overall, it was a very nurturing, collaborative environment that I love and have thrived in. It’s these people who have made my MIT experience so special and who continually push me to become a better version of myself,” Guo said upon receiving the award.

Chancellor Barnhart noted, “The fact that Margaret is the first MIT student-athlete to receive this significant award makes her hard work in and out of the pool as well as our community’s support for her all the more special. This honor caps off a career at the Institute marked by impressive athletic and academic excellence and community service.”

While the theme of support and a nurturing environment is recurring it is not unique to just one student-athlete. So what about Margaret Guo made her stand out?

As it turns out, Guo was already making a big impression starting her freshman year.

“I met Margaret fall of her freshmen year at a SWE (Society for Women Engineers) dinner and was captivated by her incredible breadth of interests and her great enthusiasm for all she was experiencing at MIT, including her myriad extracurricular activities (varsity swim team, officer in SWE, etc),” Griffith recalled.

Griffith went on to add, “I actually thought she was a sophomore or junior then, based on the classes she was enrolled in and was describing with extraordinary insights. One of the classes she took her first term at MIT was mine: Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Interactions (20.110). I soon recognized her as one of the students who often spoke up in class with comments or questions for clarification, always insightful and on target – remarkable, because she was the only freshman in the class! And in fact, she is the only freshman I can recall ever to take the class in the 10 plus years I have taught it! (I think there was one more after I wrote this letter). Even more remarkable: She earned an A+ in the class - a grade given to only a couple of students.”

Guo’s academic exploits were not restricted to the classroom.

“Margaret started a SuperUROP with Thomas Heldt and me in 2014, and stayed involved with the research beyond that,” Verghese said. “She quickly established herself as a key participant in the project, and by the end of the year she was a co-author on a paper (presented at a biomedical engineering conference in Milan that she attended) and co-inventor on a patent application.”

“I could never fathom how she managed all this and 5.0s in her two majors (EECS and Biological Engineering), plus her competitive swimming, all of it with dedication, seriousness, but also a ready smile,” Verghese concluded.

Guo’s dedication to academics was only matched by her fierce competitiveness in the pool.

Head coach of MIT’s swimming team, Dani Korman noted, “Her competitiveness pushed her teammates to improve every day while maintaining a positive attitude during the toughest of times. She is a confident leader who also holds herself and others accountable. Even while maintaining a perfect GPA and traveling to 11 medical school interviews last year her dedication to the sport prevailed.”

However, Guo was more than just the captain urging her teammates to get better or work harder. As competitive as she was in the pool, she was a loyal and dedicated friend of it.

Teammate Veronika Jedryka ’17 who set a number of program records with Guo in the 2016 NEWMAC championships said, “Out of the pool she also went above and beyond as a teammate. Whenever she heard or knew someone was going through a tough time, she would pause whatever work she was doing and go to that teammate and talk to them.”

“She would sometimes stay up late hours just to make sure someone understood the work they were doing. She made such a big impact to the team in and out of the pool and I am forever grateful for the person she is and what she has done for me and the team,” Jedryka added.

As much as it is fascinating to see Guo through the eyes of those who had the privilege of working closely with her, we are still to learn how she managed to accomplish so much.

Margaret Guo helped out with that!

In fact she listed three things she thought were essential to her being able to pursue and succeed in multiple avenues in college.

Time management: “I learnt early on I needed to plan things early — my classes, practices so I could spend time in the lab.”

Not to be afraid of setbacks: “Over the span of an entire college career [setback] is going to happen. In my freshman year there were definitely times of self doubt and things did get overwhelming at times. But you have to persist with dogged determination and tell yourself you can get through everything and believe that things will work out in the end.”

Not to be afraid to rely on other people: “What I really liked about MIT is that it [the environment] is extremely collaborative. You surround yourself with people who challenge you be the best version of yourself — upperclassmen you can look up to or friends who can cheer you up when things are not great.”

But while you can compromise on your sleep to bail you out of a particularly difficult problem set or push yourself the hardest to break your personal record in the pool, there are some obstacles in life that are almost impossible to prepare for or overcome alone.

When asked about the most challenging time during her college career, Guo replied, “It was the spring of my junior year [2015]. We lost a teammate to suicide. [That] hurt a lot inside. That was really challenging in terms of feeling almost lost not sure why or how or what I could have done.”

“MIT does have support. I was able to found support and I felt we came together stronger as a team,” Guo added.

Guo joined the MD-PhD program at Stanford this fall.

“I want to create medical devices or medical technologies combining medicine and engineering. I am currently looking at a career in regenerative medicine or computational genomics,” said Guo.

Margaret Guo became the first student-athlete to be awarded the NCAA woman of the year. She might as well have had one of the most accomplished collegiate careers all round. But perhaps the most amazing part is, there might yet be so much to look forward to.

As coach Korman put it, “Margaret had an illustrious career as a student-athlete, but I am most excited to see where her passion for helping others takes her in the future.”

Congratulations Margaret Guo! You have made us all proud.