2 Engineering Students Receive Churchill Scholarships
UA students Jeannie Wilkening and Travis Sawyer have been named Churchill Scholars for the 2016-2017 academic year, each receiving one of 15 scholarships awarded nationally.

By Jill Goetz, Karna Walter and Emily Kotay, UA College of Engineering and Honors College
Jan. 27, 2016

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"My experiences over the past four years have been instrumental in getting me to this point. I've been surrounded by incredible faculty, friends and classmates who have supported me, challenged me and taught me so much," Jeannie Wilkening says.
"My experiences over the past four years have been instrumental in getting me to this point. I've been surrounded by incredible faculty, friends and classmates who have supported me, challenged me and taught me so much," Jeannie Wilkening says. (Photo courtesy of the UA College of Engineering)

Two University of Arizona seniors have won prestigious Churchill Scholarships to complete a one-year master's degree program at the University of Cambridge in England.

UA College of Engineering majors Travis Sawyer and Jeannie Wilkening, both students in the Honors College, are two of only 15 Churchill Scholars selected in 2016-2017 for outstanding academic achievement and proven research talent in science, engineering or mathematics. Both are the third and fourth UA students to receive the award since it was first granted by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States in 1963.

The UA is able to nominate only two students to apply for the Churchill Scholarship each year, and this year is the first time that both UA nominees have been awarded the scholarship.

"It's incredible that both Jeannie and I have received Churchill Scholarships this year," Sawyer said. "I think it speaks to the quality of the engineering program at the UA. I'm looking forward to sharing this experience with a fellow Wildcat engineer."

Churchill Scholarships range from $50,000 to $60,000 and cover a year of tuition and fees at Cambridge University's Churchill College. Scholars also receive travel and living allowances and may get additional funding for presentations at international conferences and visits to other universities.

"Jeannie Wilkening and Travis Sawyer are exceptional, not only for their academic and research achievements, but for their contributions to the UA as College Ambassadors and student chapter leaders," said Jeff Goldberg, dean of the College of Engineering. "I have no doubt their future contributions will extend much farther. I am extremely proud of them."

Capturing Magic From Van Gogh’s Paintings

Sawyer is majoring in optical sciences and engineering, a program jointly administered by the College of Optical Sciences and College of Engineering. He is developing visual recognition software using different wavelengths, such as infrared and X-ray, to help scientists capture more detailed images for making discoveries in fields as different as art preservation, astronomy and medicine.

He served on a research team, led by former UA engineering professor Robert Erdmann, which gained worldwide attention in 2014 for using image-processing techniques to help authenticate "Sunset at Montmajour," a long-lost painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Sawyer is particularly interested in biomedical optics. For his master of philosophy, or MPhil, degree in physics, he will conduct research on applying hyperspectral imaging for detecting early-stage cancer with Cambridge scientist Sarah Bohndiek, whose lab is affiliated with the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

"Hyperspectral imaging has the potential to greatly improve our ability to find cancer in its early stages," Sawyer said. "There is still some way to go before it finds clinical application, a crucial step for it becoming a new biomedical technology. I’m hoping to make a significant contribution toward making this happen.”

An Optics Ambassador with a 4.0 grade-point average throughout college, Sawyer came to optics in an unusual way. He was misdiagnosed with leukemia his freshman year and became fascinated with the optical instruments doctors used to examine him and, ultimately, ensure he was healthy.

"Hopefully, I can make a contribution or invent a technology that helps someone in the same way optics helped me," he said.

Sawyer's rising stardom was recognized in 2014 with a $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship, which he won again in 2015 — a first-ever feat at the UA. In 2015, he also won a Goldwater Scholarship, and his UA student team won the Robert S. Hilburn Memorial Optical Design Competition for its camera system to be sent to Saturn’s moon Titan.

Sawyer credits his research mentors for their guidance.

"I was extremely lucky to have several wonderful mentors as an undergraduate, who shaped me into the person and student that I am today. Specifically, Dr. Mahmoud Fallahi, Dr. John Greivenkamp, Dr. Robert Erdmann and Dr. Mike Nofziger have been huge influences in my development as an engineer and researcher," Sawyer said. "My education at the College of Optical Sciences and the research opportunities that I have been afforded have given me a comprehensive understanding of both the physics and engineering involved in developing optical technology, which has prepared me to make an immediate impact."

After Cambridge, Sawyer plans to pursue doctoral and postdoctoral work and establish his own research lab as a university professor.

Engineering for a Healthier Planet

Chemical engineering student Wilkening studies how human activity affects biogeochemical cycles, the movement of water and other compounds through the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. She is particularly interested in how these processes relate to climate change and in developing models for more environmentally sustainable technologies.

As a student researcher in the department of chemical and environmental engineering, she studies how microbes can be used to recover tellurium, a mildly toxic but highly valuable chemical, from industrial waste streams.

For her MPhil in earth sciences, she will conduct research with Cambridge scientist Alexandra Turchyn on carbon, sulfur and iron cycling in marshes and climate implications. 

The Churchill Scholarship is the latest in a string of top honors and internships for Wilkening. She entered the UA as a National Merit Scholar and Flinn Scholar and, like Sawyer, won a Goldwater Scholarship in 2015.

She won a NASA Space Grant and interned at Princeton University and the University of Michigan through the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program. She belongs to the Tau Beta Pi and Omega Chi Epsilon engineering honor societies, is an Ambassador for both the Honors College and the College of Engineering and is president of the UA chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

"Since I was a child, I have been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by great female role models who instilled a passion in me for science and engineering," Wilkening said.

One of them was her mother, Betsy Wilkening. After earning her own bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the UA in 1982, she became a popular science teacher at Richard B. Wilson Jr. Middle School. Two of her students there were Wilkening and Sawyer.

After Cambridge, Jeannie Wilkening plans to return to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and then an academic career, teaching and conducting research.

"The Churchill Scholarship and the opportunity to study at Cambridge is an incredible step forward on my path to pursue these goals," Wilkening said. "As someone who is interested in working on environmental problems, I think this international experience is particularly important and valuable. Problems such as climate change aren't limited by borders. To be truly effective as scientists and engineers in fixing problems affecting our planet, we need to work collaboratively as an international community."

Extra info

The UA's Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships facilitates the application process for UA students applying for national fellowships and scholarships. To learn more, contact Emily Kotay, scholarship advisor for the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships, at 520-621-0162 or emkotay@email.arizona.edu.

The UA's previous Churchill Scholars were Daniel Fried, a 2014 alumnus who majored in computer science, information science and technology and mathematics and is now pursuing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, and Diane M. Thomson, a 1994 graduate majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, now associate professor of environmental science at Claremont McKenna College.


Resources for the media

Jill Goetz

UA College of Engineering



Karna Walter

UA Honors College