By Brian Powell
Jean Wilkening grew up with science all around her home.
The Flinn Scholar remembers conducting science experiments in the kitchen, including some in the microwave that didn’t go as planned. Wilkening’s mother was her seventh-grade science teacher, and both of her parents have chemical-engineering degrees.
“Growing up, my parents always let me explore and always encouraged me to ask ‘Why?’ which is what really sparked my love for science and engineering,” Wilkening says.
And that love of science has brought “Jeannie” success in the classroom, including her recent selection as a prestigious Churchill Scholar to study at the University of Cambridge in England for the 2016-2017 school year.
A Class of 2012 Flinn Scholar, Wilkening graduated from Canyon del Oro High School in Oro Valley before attending University of Arizona. She will graduate in May with a major in chemical engineering and minor in art history before starting her Churchill Scholarship in the fall.
Wilkening, who is interested in using her chemical-engineering knowledge and skills to address climate change as well as water and air pollution, says the international experience will be valuable.
“Problems such as climate change aren’t limited by borders,” Wilkening asserts, “and to truly be effective as scientists and engineers in fixing such problems affecting our planet, we need to work collaboratively as an international community.”
At Cambridge, Wilkening will be studying carbon, sulfur, and iron cycling in salt marshes and the climate implications of these cycles while earning a MPhil (Master of Philosophy) in earth sciences.
The Churchill Scholarship covers all university fees as well as living and travel allowances for at least 14 United States students a year, at a value between $50,000 and $60,000. There have been about 500 Churchill Scholars since the program began in 1963. The Scholarship was created after Sir Winston Churchill proposed the idea to American friends as a way for young Americans to study at Cambridge.
Prior to Wilkening and fellow UA engineering student Travis Sawyer being named two of the 15 Churchill Scholars this year, only two others had represented an Arizona university as Churchill Scholars. Daniel Fried and Diane Thomson, both Flinn Scholars and University of Arizona graduates, received the award in 2014 and 1994, respectively.
Wilkening says the fact that both of the university’s nominees for the Churchill were selected is a testament to the quality of the engineering program at the University of Arizona.
“We both benefited from the wealth of research opportunities available to us as undergraduates, as well as the fantastic teaching and support systems the College of Engineering has for its students,” she says.
While in high school, Wilkening acknowledges her plan was to attend an elite out-of-state university. She knew she wanted research experiences, access to faculty, and a challenging and stimulating academic environment.
Yet after going through the Flinn Scholar application process, Wilkening realized she would have the opportunity to accomplish her goals in Arizona.
“I have had the freedom to pursue my interests and seek opportunities travelling and doing research to an extent that I would not have been able to in any other environment,” Wilkening says. “All of these experiences really helped to develop both my interests and my ideas of what I really wanted to do after my undergraduate degree.”
Wilkening says her favorite aspect of the program has been the community.
“My fellow Flinns have become some of my closest friends in college, and they never cease to amaze and inspire me with all of their accomplishments,” Wilkening says.
Wilkening was in the first class of Flinn Scholars that attended the China summer seminar after their freshman year.
“It is one thing to study air and water pollution in my classes but an entirely different thing to actually experience not being able to see the sun because of smog or drink water from the tap,” Wilkening explained about her trip to China. “The experience studying sustainability in China also really forced me to see the work I hope to do as an environmental engineer in the broader economic and social contexts of sustainability.”
She later studied sustainable development at Uppsala University in Sweden during an individual study-abroad experience.
“These travel experiences really helped to expand my worldview, which I think is very important for my career goals since so much of science in the modern age is done in an international setting,” Wilkening says.
Wilkening has conducted research both at UA and other leading institutions around the country. She was selected for the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, which enabled her to conduct research at both the University of Michigan and Princeton University.
During her first year at UA, Wilkening’s research focused on emerging contaminants in water. At the University of Michigan, she studied photosynthetic differences between tree species with the goal of improving the inputs that are entered into climate models to predict forest carbon uptake. Her research at the University of Michigan was used as the basis for her proposal for the Goldwater Scholarship. Wilkening was one of 260 scholarship winners in 2015 announced by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program, which was established by Congress in 1986 to honor the former Arizona senator.
Wilkening also worked on a project that sought to recover tellurium, a chemical, from industrial-waste streams. Last summer, she was at Princeton University working on a project focused on a tool that can be used for medical diagnostics and environmental monitoring. And during a previous summer, Wilkening interned for Valero Energy outside of San Francisco in the company’s environmental engineering department, where she gained an understanding of how environmental regulations are enforced in industrial settings.
Immediately after graduation, Wilkening plans to travel with other Flinn Scholars and spend quality time in Arizona with family and friends.
“I also plan to eat as much Mexican food as possible before leaving Tucson,” she says.
When she returns from Cambridge in 2017, Wilkening plans to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, followed by a research and teaching career.