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Grand Challenges Program Gets Big Boost

The National Academy of Engineering began the Grand Challenge Scholars Program as a way to get top students engaged in helping to solve some of the most pressing challenges of this century.

By committing to an endowment supporting the Tickle College of Engineering’s program, UT alumnus Joe Cook and his wife, Judy, are helping to further sharpen the ability of students.

David Marsh, a Haslam Scholar in mechanical engineering in the Class of 2018, said that focusing on those approaches offered engineering students opportunities they might not otherwise have.

David Marsh, a Grand Challenge Scholar in the Tickle College of Engineering, works on a bio-robotic project.

“Engineering is so full of math and physics that there is not enough room to gain a broad world outlook and a knowledge of the challenges of others,” said Marsh. “I joined the Grand Challenge Scholars Program because of the chances it presents to gain that perspective.”

Marsh’s project deals with the challenge “engineering tools of scientific discovery.” Working with Professor Bill Hamel’s biorobotics lab, Marsh is helping develop autonomous systems.

“I expect this experience will better allow me to design and build exploration vehicles and solve several of the engineering problems associated with the next 100 years of space travel,” said Marsh.

While the five pillars of the plan include undergraduate research, interdisciplinary coursework, entrepreneurship, global experience, and service-learning, students get to pick which challenge to undertake.

While Marsh is focused on engineering breakthroughs in tools and technology, other paths that UT Grand Challenge Scholars are currently taking include:

  • Biomedicine: Taylor Weiskittel, a senior in chemical engineering, is investigating biological approaches to fight diseases such as cancer or autoimmune deficiencies that current medications have trouble addressing.
  • Nuclear security: Chris Haseler, a senior in nuclear engineering, is developing new forms of radiation monitoring that help shorten detection time while increasing reliability.
  • Health care: Amany Alshibi, a senior in chemical engineering, is pursuing new health care avenues, including a project investigating cardiac regeneration at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Energy: Patrick Williams, a senior in nuclear engineering, is working on new ways of understanding the dynamics of gas centrifuge enrichment plants.

“Students enrolled in the program must complete both curricular and extracurricular requirements to graduate with honors,” said Kevin Kit, director of the program. “This gives them perspective on how engineering can help society while at the same time preparing them to meet the challenges put forth by the NAE.”

The impact of being able to answer the challenges—and the consequences of not answering — inspired Cook to fund the endowment.

“Solution-driven education and research will be vital to adapt, confront, and conquer some of these challenges,” said Cook.

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