EVANSTON - Three members of the Northwestern University Class of 2018 are headed to Western Europe for prestigious scholarship programs.
Lucia Brunel of the McCormick School of Engineering and Lars Benson of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences were selected as Marshall Scholars and will study in the United Kingdom. Hadley Pfalzgraf, also of Weinberg, was selected as a Mitchell Scholar and will study in Ireland.
The coveted Marshall and Mitchell scholarships, designed to train future leaders, both promote partnerships, peace and greater cultural understanding between Britain, Ireland and the United States.
Established in 1953 as a British gesture of thanks to the United States for assistance Britain received under the Marshall Plan after World War II, the Marshall Scholarship aims to strengthen the relationship between the British and American citizens, their governments and institutions. Beginning in September 2018, 43 scholar winners -- the largest cohort of scholars since 2007 -- will begin degrees at leading British institutions.
The increasingly popular Mitchell Scholarship, founded in 1998, was named to honor former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell's pivotal contribution to the Irish peace process.
Up to 12 Mitchell Scholars between the ages of 18 and 30 are chosen annually for one academic year of postgraduate study in any discipline offered by institutions of higher learning in Ireland. Pfalzgraf was selected from a record 326 applications. Applicants are judged on scholarship, leadership and a sustained commitment to community and public service.
More about each scholarship winner follows.
Brunel has conducted research since 2013, when she was a high school senior working in a biomaterials lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Four years of undergraduate study and three summer research projects later, she’s set to spend a year at the University of Cambridge to obtain a master of philosophy in materials science and metallurgy.
Brunel missed the initial call from the Marshall committee while on the flight to Chicago from her Marshall interview in Houston. The committee didn’t leave a message, so she called the number right back and got the good news, to cheers from nearby passengers she had chatted with on the plane.
“I am fortunate to have family and friends who supported me through the long application process and fabulous mentors and professors at Northwestern University who guided me through revisions of my application materials and mock interviews over the past several months,” she said.
A winner of the Goldwater Scholarship for the 2017-18 academic year, Brunel will work in the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials, where her research will focus on improving the performance of bioactive “scaffolds” used in tissue engineering.
Brunel’s drive started at a young age. In elementary school, “nobody believed that I -- a girl -- could have won the Math Olympiad,” she recalled. She has served on the executive board of the Northwestern University chapter of the Society of Women Engineering (SWE) for the past three years and has taken honors engineering classes, which are historically male-dominant.
Her placement in the laboratory of Professors Ruth Cameron and Serena Best, leading female researchers in materials science -- a field in which women are underrepresented in academic roles -- is a perfect fit.
“Through my involvement in SWE, I am working to overcome reflexive questioning of the abilities of women in STEM,” Brunel said.
Brunel will graduate in June with a joint bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemical and biological engineering.
Benson, who will graduate in June with a bachelor’s in political science, has experienced the inequality of the U.S. electoral system up close. As a Marshall scholar, he’ll obtain a different perspective of campaign finance.
Benson will pursue a master’s in public administration at the London School of Economics, with a focus on the U.K. electoral system and the comparison between British and American campaign finance law. A volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, Benson said he saw how money influences political engagement growing up in Bemus Point, New York, just miles from the southwest border with Pennsylvania.
“I saw an extraordinary amount of distrust and disillusionment in the political system among my friends and family, who felt and still feel that the electoral system doesn't work for them,” he said. “Years later, as an organizer for Fair Elections in Chicago, I talked and worked with so many people who felt the same way -- that the electoral system shut them out of politics and systematically silenced their voices while magnifying the influence of a tiny and often exploitative donor class.”
Later, Benson worked as an organizer with Common Cause Illinois and as chief of staff for Northwestern’s Associated Student Government, where he witnessed more political disillusionment.
“I've found that disenfranchisement unites people from all backgrounds and ideologies, and I hope that my work as a Marshall scholar helps me understand how to address it,” Benson said.
Following the two-year master’s program in London, Benson said he wants to return to the U.S. and once again get involved in politics. He wants to remove financial barriers to political participation by advancing policies such as publicly financed elections and nationwide automatic voter registration.
“I believe that when I return in 2020, we will be in a political moment that recognizes that billionaires should no longer control the mechanisms of power in America,” Benson said. “I want to channel that energy and desire for equity into meaningful reform.”
Pfalzgraf will pursue a master of neuroscience at the University College Cork in Cork, Ireland. She said she was drawn to the Mitchell scholarship by Ireland’s “programs to promote dementia awareness and the overall commitment to their elderly population.”
“Ireland is also known for creating a culture of care within the doctor’s office, and I wish to translate this to the U.S., where I believe there is often too much emphasis on treatment instead of care,” she said.
Pfalzgraf said it took a while for the news to fully set in.
“The night before I got the news, I had three dreams that I did not receive the scholarship,” she said. “So, when I finally got the call, I was pretty sure I was still dreaming and that my brain was just preparing me for every outcome. It has slowly sunk in over the weeks, and I do a little happy dance every time I remember I’ve received this incredible opportunity.”
A student in Professor of Psychology Ken Paller’s Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Pfalzgraf was accepted into the prestigious NEURON program (Northwestern Education and Undergraduate Research on Neuroscience) in 2016. She has researched potential new diagnostic techniques for Alzheimer’s and presented some of her research at an Alzheimer’s conference in Chicago and at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Her passion for improving end-of-life care extends beyond the classroom, as she volunteers at a hospice clinic in Chicago.
Pfalzgraf’s ultimate goal is to attend medical school and become a physician-scientist. She said her experience of being unable to afford health insurance as a child motivates her to work with underserved populations.
“I am so thankful and grateful to have received the scholarship and for the opportunity to be a part of a community committed to improving the lives of others,” she said.