After receiving prestigious Fulbright fellowships, two WPI students will head to Namibia and Denmark to continue research they’ve begun during their time at WPI.
Annie Hughes ’21, who just graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering, will do her Fulbright in Namibia, where she will expand upon the work her IQP team did last spring to create and implement a robotics program for the organization Physically Active Youth (PAY), an after-school program in Katutura, which provides disadvantaged youth with general education and life skills content and sports. As a member of the varsity swim team at WPI, Hughes says she’s excited to also help with swim lessons and water safety.
As part of the IQP, she was initially slated to travel to Namibia for seven weeks to teach the curriculum in person. When the pandemic prevented the trip she began thinking of ways to go herself.
“I was a little bit bummed last year when I wasn’t able to go,” she says. “I was trying to find any avenue to get there. I’m very, very grateful to spend so much time there. As much as I love the concept of an IQP, there’s only so much you can do in seven weeks that can leave a lasting impact, especially for a developing country such as Namibia.”
Heather LeClerc, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering, will leave for a 10-month stint in Denmark, where she will spend the upcoming academic year at the University of Aalborg, working in the Department of Energy Technology with some of the leaders in the field of hydrothermal liquefaction while continuing her PhD research.
“I’m so excited to see the culture over there and learn new things,” she says of her upcoming experience, which will include sharpening her research skills and gaining a better understanding of the chemistry of hydrothermal liquefaction and applying that knowledge to commercialization for wide-scale energy production.
Hughes to teach a robotics curriculum
As part of her IQP in the spring of 2020, Hughes, along with a team of three other students, created a virtual robotics curriculum with lessons for students ages 6-18 that can be used with VEX IQ robots and can be facilitated in a classroom or completed by students independently. She will leave for Namibia next March; during her nine months there she will provide resources and professional development for instructors and will serve as a resource to students to troubleshoot and expand upon the virtual curriculum.
She explains that her Fulbright is an open study/research award; she will research how to improve STEM education in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as the specific implementation of her team’s robotics program. She will also teach every day at PAY.
While she has delivered STEM content before, Hughes has never specifically taught in a classroom and is excited for the opportunity. After spending some time in the engineering world, her dream is to eventually teach in some capacity. “This is an incredible stepping-stone toward that,” she says.
Prior to beginning her Fulbright fellowship, she will work as a Simulation Development Engineer at Boston Children’s Hospital, starting in July.
She credits her IQP advisors, Professor Joseph Doiron and retired Professor Kenneth Stafford, with completing the IQP and getting the grant proposal together.
“I’m thrilled for Annie’s selection for this opportunity,” says Stafford of her Fulbright. “She is exactly the right sort of technically gifted humanist to represent WPI and America in the global community.”
Doiron echoes Stafford, saying that, “Annie is a pragmatic, flexible problem solver who works great alone and with others. … Annie had an excellent project idea and the network on the ground in Namibia needed to execute it,” he says.
LeClerc to focus on converting waste to energy
Continuing her PhD research, LeClerc will study the fundamental chemistry governing catalytic hydrothermal liquefaction of food waste. In Denmark this work will expand to larger reactor systems—she will have access to a pilot scale continuous reactor. The overall goal is to convert useable waste products, including food and municipal solid waste, into a biofuel.
“I’ve always been interested in sustainability and biofuels in general,” she says. “This has been my main focus at WPI.”
Leclerc will spend the fourth year of her PhD in Denmark and return to WPI for her final year, where she will write her thesis and present her dissertation. After completing her PhD she plans to get a post-doc position and eventually become a chemical engineering professor.
Her advisors, chemical engineering professors Andrew Teixeira and Mike Timko, helped her apply for the Fulbright. Timko describes LeClerc as a terrific student and “exceptionally intellectually curious.” She is one of the most decorated graduate students in the department’s recent history, he points out. “Not only has she been selected for a Fulbright award, she is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and an award for Green Chemistry from the American Chemical Society,” he adds.
Teixeira agrees, saying, “Heather is an exceptional student and researcher, with a focused passion to reshape our energy landscape and define a new paradigm for waste utilization. She brings passion and creativity to the challenge of taking what most people would consider trash (food waste, yard trimmings, plastics) and converting them into an energy-rich, local, renewable biocrude feedstock. “We are very proud of her and cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.”