A Much Different World Ahead

If the future opportunities for engineers-to-be was a long buffet table groaning under the weight of tempting delicacies from around the world, today’s students should be able to load their plates with whatever they like.

Speaker after speaker at the two-day Raleigh Grand Challenges Summit warned that without a large increase in the number of new engineers in the U.S., not only will this country lose its competitive edge in technology and innovation, but many of the grand challenges might not be met.

All agreed that major challenges, including developing new sources of energy, reducing greenhouse gases, developing nuclear power – both conventional and fusion – and developing better medicines, will all take decades to solve. While it is imperative that today’s scientists and engineers get to work immediately on solutions, many will not be there at the finish line.

The baton, as it were, must be passed.

Fittingly, the session ended with a panel of students -- engineering undergraduates from Duke and North Carolina State University (NCSU). Three Duke students, Patrick Ye, Maggie Hoff and Will Patrick joined NCSU seniors Kendall Fitzgerald, Christine Johnson and John David Sanderson.

The three Pratt students were members of the Inaugural Class of Simon Grand Challenge Scholars, a program designed for students interested in solving a major problem not just by engineering skills alone, but with an additional focus on entrepreneurship, global outreach, service to the community and a host of other non-engineering skills. The three seniors are set to graduate this spring into a world that has changed much since they first stepped foot on campus.

But they all seemed up to the challenge.

Ye, a native of Westmont, Illinois, is an example of a Pratt engineering student pursuing diverse, yet socially important, passions. As a biomedical engineering major, Ye focused on possible treatments for Parkinson’s by focusing on the relationship of hand tremors to the pattern of deep brain stimulation. Knowing more about this correlation could help maximize therapy, which uses electrical impulses to treat the symptoms of the disease. He also worked on a start-up company in China developing new treatments for blood pressure.

However, he didn’t stay chained to the lab bench. During his time at Pratt, he led a recent Engineers Without Borders project to design and built a much-needed bridge in rural Bolivia and as part of a Engineering World Health project, he helped repair medical equipment in a Nicaraguan hospital.

When asked what he plans for the future, as expected, he was hard to pin down.

“I like industry because of its dynamic nature, but I also like academia, where you can do research and come up with crazy new ideas,” Ye said. “I don’t want to be confined to a single sphere -- maybe I’ll work in academia and launch a business on the side.”

Hoff, a native of Pecatonica, Illinois, also participated in an inspiring trip abroad – she traveled twice to Cuidad de Dios in Peru, a squatter community, to design and build a pipeline to bring much needed water to more than 60 families. She is majoring in civil and environmental engineering.

“Clean water is one of the most important issues facing the world, especially in developing countries,” she said, adding that she hasn’t decided whether she wants to pursue this passion while in industry or in government. “I do want to be able to work hands-on for the environment.”

Her research was much closer to home, 25 miles down Interstate 40 in Raleigh. She is analyzing historic groundwater data, evaluating the migration of impacted groundwater in aquifers beneath the NCSU’s Lot 86 National Priorities List site. She conducts three-dimensional modeling of the contaminant plume and evaluates the transport processes, natural attenuation, and hydrologic impediments to fluid flow in the subsurface.

After graduation, she will be working in the Environmental Health & Safety track of General Electric Aviation's Operations Management Leadership Program.

Patrick, a native of Chapel Hill, N.C., is also interested in the issue of clean water, as well as alternative energy. He believes that he will spend the first 10 to 15 years after graduation pursuing his interests in industry.

“I am interested in learning more about the business world, because solutions will come from the combination of science and business,” he said. “Any solutions to problems that we’re facing require many areas of expertise. Solutions are inherently interdisciplinary.”

This summer he will be a business associate for Embrace Global, a non-profit in India. From 2010 to 2012, he will be in Google’s Rotational Associate Manager Program, and for the following two years, he will be attending Harvard Business School as a part of its 2+2 program.

At Pratt, the aim of his research was to model, build, and test a piezoelectric wind energy harvesting device that can harvest wind energy more efficiently at low-wind speeds than current wind generators. The device will generate milliwatts of power, enough to run small electronic sensors that collect data in the man-made and natural environment.

NCSU’s Christine Johnson said that nuclear power could be a viable future source of energy for the U.S., and she has been investigating a different sort of fuel for the reactors – thorium. If research pans out, thorium could be more economical than uranium, plus it does not create possible weapons grade byproducts, she said.

Echoing panelists of earlier sessions, Johnson believes that in addition to the technical aspect of undergraduate education, engineers more experience in communications.

“To go along with our problem-solving skills and the ability to think independently, we as engineers need to be able to communicate with specialists in other fields,” she said. “If you can’t convey your ideas, you can’t expect to make an impact.”

Majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in Spanish, Sanderson plans to take a year to work with an NGO in Guatemala before entering medical school. He has also spent summers in Spain and Costa Rica, and is the president of the NCSU chapter of Engineering World Health. His passion is medical informatics.

“In third world countries, it can be difficult to maintain patients’ medical records,” he said. “After my training, I can see myself working in international medicine with an group like the World Health Organization, or working with health organizations around the world.”

Fitzgerald, a chemical engineering major, has a keen interest in the field of renewable energy. Specifically, he worked with a small start-up company that uses biomass feedstock to create synthetic crude oil. After graduation, he plans to work for an agrichemical company.

“As a group, we engineering seniors have taken risks, explored, gone abroad and collaborated with faculty members,” said Fitzgerald, who also completed summer internships at GE and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “We’ll leave here after four years with great technical know-how and confidence, ready to knock down the next door in our way.”

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