Turnquist, Harms first to complete Grand Challenge Scholars Program
During the unusual times created by a national quarantine, Jami Turnquist will graduate on Saturday, May 9 with a degree in chemical engineering.
She is among the hundreds of College of Engineering students who won’t have the opportunity to walk across a stage and receive a diploma and a handshake. But Turnquist is ready to begin tackling big challenges in her career.
Jessica Harms still has another year before she graduates with a chemical engineering degree, but she is locked in on a research-based career path.
What Turnquist and Harms have in common is their shared backgrounds as problem-solving pioneers – they are the first two Nebraska Engineering students to complete the Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP). And, because they were able to meet requirements with previous professional and academic experiences, each completed the program in about one year.
“I think it’s cool to have that title, being one of the first to finish the program, especially when things didn’t work out as I expected for graduation,” Turnquist said. “Still, it’s great being recognized for what I’ve accomplished. There’s a sense of pride that when you set your mind to doing something big that can help a lot of people.”
The National Academy of Engineering established the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering as “goals for improving life on the planet” in the areas of sustainability, security, health and joy of living.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering joined the NAE Grand Challenges program in recent years and established a scholar program with 13 students currently taking part. To complete the GCSP, students must complete a research experience relevant to the Grand Challenge of choice and select from a variety of additional hands-on activities relevant to each of five components the NAE has laid out – talent, multidisciplinary, viable business/entrepreneurship, multicultural, and social consciousness.
Having completed the 1-to-3-year, self-paced program, both Turnquist and Harms said the GCSP has reinforced their desire to make an impact in their careers by tackling some of the biggest issues facing the world today.
For her Grand Challenge – “develop methods for carbon sequestration” – Harms took an independent study class that allowed her to do research in the lab of Wei Niu, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. The project focused on finding ways to reduce the methane cattle produce by changing their microbiome.
“I thought it would help tie everything I’ve learned and experienced in college together, and it did,” Harms said. “Through my work in the GCSP, I got to be involved in every part of the research experience as I worked on carbon sequestration and got a good idea of what it would be like to do research in a lab as a career. Now I feel more inclined to go on a grad school/Ph.D. path.”
That work also helped Harms focus on a future of research into synthetic biology and to better understand the lens through which the world views this relatively new field.
“This is basically GMO technology, and that’s not very widely accepted. There are a lot of ethical implications,” Harms said. “I have this belief that global warming is only going to be solved by creating new technologies. It would be cool to be one of the people to help make those innovations.”
Turnquist’s GCSP experience took a different path. For the past three years, she has been a member of Nebraska’s Engineering Ambassadors Network (EAN), which conducts engineering education outreach programs with K-12 students.
For the GCSP, Turnquist chose to focus on the Grand Challenge “advance personalized learning” under faculty mentors Ashu Guru, a former assistant professor of biological systems engineering, and Sally Wei, the College’s coordinator of K-12 engineering education and outreach and EAN advisor.
Turnquist developed an outreach curriculum for young students and studied the importance of creative freedom in influencing those students’ interest in pursuing STEM fields.
“We had about 34 students from rural Nebraska middle schools Bertrand, Orchard and Cambridge. I was there to help the teachers out because some aren’t comfortable with teaching engineering,” Turnquist said. “We found our hypothesis was right, and we did see improvement in the interest levels with the students who were given greater freedom.”
After graduating, Turnquist will begin her professional career by working for Merck in pharmaceutical manufacturing. She will also be looking for ways to put her GCSP experiences into practice.
“This job won’t have a lot of connection to personalized learning, but this program encouraged me to continue doing outreach,” said Turnquist. “I know a lot of bigger companies have programs in place where you can go out to schools and career fairs and try to spread some education. The Grand Challenges program has encouraged me to keep the lifelong community outreach.”
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