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Inspiring Bronco

Engineering student Claire Kunkle wins National Science Foundation Fellowship

Her application for America’s most prestigious fellowship in science and engineering was months in the making, but Claire Kunkle ’14 (mechanical engineering) said she never pictured herself winning the award. “Even getting an honorable mention is something you put on your resume,” she explained.

Yet when the National Science Foundation announced the results of its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) competition in April, Claire’s name was one of 2,000 recipients in a pool of 14,000 applicants. Godfrey Mungal, dean of the School of Engineering, said he knows of no other SCU engineering student to ever receive an NSF fellowship.

“We are very proud of her and of her accomplishments,” said Mungal.

Claire’s triumph is especially significant because very few undergraduate seniors compete and win the fellowship, which offers three years of financial support and professional development opportunities to graduate students.

“Most applicants are already in grad school and working on their research projects,” she said. “In my case, I had to create a proposed project on paper.” She credits her professors and Leilani Miller, director of the Office of Fellowships and Undergraduate Studies, in helping her put together the multipage document.

The young engineer will have an opportunity to see her project come to fruition at UC Berkeley, where she’ll enter a combined master’s and Ph.D. degree program in the fall. Her research will involve creating a solar-powered air-conditioning system to be used in developing countries, where “increased demand for air-conditioning is resulting in a huge problem for electrical grids.”

Her work on a senior design project this year sparked the idea.

“I really think SCU did a fantastic job in preparing me for the fellowship,” she said. “My proposal included an obvious component of social justice, and I think the NSF readers saw that and considered the global and broader goals of the research.”

Claire said the emphasis on social justice was a big reason for coming to SCU from her home in Washington. Just as important was the University’s encouragement to expand her interests beyond her major.

“At so many other schools I visited, I heard that engineering was too demanding to allow any outside interests,” she explained. “But SCU has a completely different approach.” Once on campus, Claire dove into her lifelong passion for music, devoting several hours a week to the Mission Church Choir and singing nearly every quarter for the next four years.

A two-year internship with Campus Ministry introduced her to another special interest, and Claire seamlessly merged her love of music with the spiritual center of SCU. And, when she joined a local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Claire found yet another passion: teaching girls in high school about engineering through a program called One Step Ahead.

“In the four years I’ve been involved, I’ve seen enrollment grow from 10 girls to 45 girls,” said Claire, who is now vice president of the SWE chapter. “I’ve watched the program explode and it’s so exciting. I’ve seen girls become first generation college students; it’s really, really rewarding.”

Claire, SWE Outreach Officer Jessica VanderGeissen, '14 and other club members recently helped local high school girls build prosthetic hands from kits the associated student government provided SWE $2,500 to buy. The hands were sent to those in need overseas, and the teenagers gained confidence and new STEM skills.

Claire readily admits that life away from the lab is as important to her as the remarkable achievement of winning an NSF Fellowship. And those who know her agree. “She is a great example of Jesuit education,” according to Dean Mungal. “She excels in the left brain skills through engineering and the right brain skills through her work in music, campus ministry, engineering leadership, and choir.”

While in high school, Claire found a teacher who showed her there is a career tailor-made for both sides of her exceptional brain. “I love it because engineering requires creativity and an inquisitive mind; it’s about looking at the world’s problems and figuring out creative ways to fix them.”

When her doctorate is complete, Claire plans to return to higher education as a university professor. “I have a natural inclination toward teaching, and I’m eager to be a female mentor in an area that’s dominated by males,” she explained. She also knows exactly what kind of teacher she’ll be. “I’m not going to be that boring professor who makes students wish they were anywhere else,” she vowed. “I’m exciting and I will motivate people!”

Claire shared her mission with NBC Bay Area. Watch the Interview Here.

Slideshow of SWE's One Step Ahead Helping Hands event May 17, 2014:

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