Rice engineering students Hutson Chilton and Zach Bielak have been awarded a 2014 Udall Scholarship. The award, presented by the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation, is given to students who show passion for careers committed to the environment. Chilton and Bielak are among 50 students nationwide to win the $5,000 scholarship.
Chilton is a junior majoring in bioengineering with a minor in energy and water sustainability. She works in the lab of Ka-Yiu San, the E.D. Butcher Professor of Bioengineering, where she is engineering bacteria to overproduce free fatty acids.
“Free fatty acids (FFAs) are conventionally harvested from palm oil, leading to deforestation in Southeast Asia,” Chilton said. “We optimize microbial production of FFAs so that these important compounds can be sustainably produced using bioreactors instead of unsustainably harvested from palm forests.”
Last summer Chilton participated in an undergraduate research program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she worked on a way to make protein engineering for biofuel purposes more efficient. She is president of the Environmental Club, co-founder and leader of Rice University Biodiesel Initiative, a Real Food Revolution member, Environmental Committee co-head and an ecorep at McMurtry College; she also works at Rice Coffeehouse.
Following graduation, she plans to get her Ph.D. in either chemical and biomolecular engineering or bioengineering. Her research interests are in using bacteria to turn waste into fuel and chemicals.
“Receiving the Udall gives me the opportunity to pursue my dreams and reaffirms that my goals are considered worthwhile, not only by me but by environmental leaders across the nation,” she said.
Bielak is also a junior and is majoring in mechanical engineering. He participated in the Public Diplomacy and Global Policymaking Program through Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, which took him to Doha, Qatar, over spring break, and he conducted research in the lab of materials science Professor Pulickel Ajayan, where he analyzed the technical feasibility of sustainable, organic lithium-ion batteries. Bielak and Chilton co-founded the Rice University Biodiesel Initiative, which aims to produce biofuel from waste cooking oil for campus vehicles. He leads a subcommittee within Engineers Without Borders working to create a water distribution system in El Salvador. Bielak will be the head ecorep for the university next year and is music director for the Rice Philharmonics a cappella group.
Bielak plans to pursue a career in technical sustainability, combining his engineering skills and love for the environment to create a “more energy-efficient, equitable and resource-conscious world” for future generations, he said.
“The Udall Scholarship is important because it will connect me with similarly dedicated scholars across the nation, from whom I can learn and with whom I can share my passion,” Bielak said. “I have dreamed about entering this community of environmental leaders since I first heard of the scholarship, and I almost can’t believe that this dream has finally come to fruition.”
The Udall Foundation is an independent federal agency established by Congress to honor former Arizona congressman Morris K. Udall and former Arizona congressman and Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall.
— Holly Beretto writes for the George R. Brown School of Engineering.