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In Advance of the Global Grand Challenges Summit an Interview with Alison Wood

Q and A with Alison Wood, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering and Olin’s new lead faculty for the Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP).

The Wire: Tell me about your new role at Olin related to the GCSP?

Alison Wood: I’m now the lead faculty for Olin’s GCSP, and, in an exciting turn of events, I’ll have an opportunity to collaborate with Associate Professor of Physics Yevgeniya Zastavker on related work, funded through a Teagle Foundation grant. I’m also working closely with Rob Martello and Gillian Epstein  in rebooting and running our own GCSP program at Olin to try to increase excitement about it on campus.

The Wire: The GCSP seems embedded in Olin’s DNA and curriculum in many ways is  that how you see it?

Alison Wood: Yes! Our GCSP is actually designed with that premise in mind by completing the Olin curriculum, our students complete most of the requirements that constitute GCSP at other schools. This makes sense, since we were one of the three founding schools of the program. I think the goals of Olin’s curriculum and of GCSP are very well aligned: we’re educating the next generation of innovative, passionate engineers who want to contribute positively to the world around them.

The Wire: Why is a program like the GCSP important, in particular for skeptics who might not see the point?

Alison Wood: I’ll begin by sharing something we recently wrote to explain the program to students:

“What impact do you hope to make in the world, and what work and opportunities will get you there? How will you share your experience, your values, and your ambitions with potential employers, grad schools, and everyone else? Participating in GCSP means taking time to think explicitly about the path you want to be on and the good you want to do in the world, so you can make decisions about your priorities and how you spend your time—during and after Olin—that will put you on that path. We'll help you create a portfolio that tells a compelling story about your work and connects it to a larger context. GCSP also provides a community of like-minded people all thinking about how they want their work to matter in the world.”

I think GCSP is important because even though most elements of the program are integrated into Olin’s curriculum, the critical element of understanding and articulating your own path isn’t always present. Since we have such a strong emphasis on teamwork in our curriculum, students don’t always find or make the time to focus on themselves in ways that I think are crucial during the college years. During their time at Olin our students are in the relatively early stages of figuring out who they want to be both professionally and personally, but our strong emphasis on teamwork doesn’t always encourage taking the time for individual reflection. I think both are necessary to educate young people who will be excellent team players and who will also have deep self-awareness. That self-awareness is what, I believe, will undergird their sense of purpose, their establishing of priorities, even their professional ethics. GCSP encourages and supports our students in exploring those aspects of themselves.

The Wire: Tell me about Olin’s role at the 2017 Global Grand Challenge Summit in Washington, DC in July.

Alison Wood: The Summit actually occurs every other year and it rotates between countries that participate in GCSP: England, China, and the US. It’s an opportunity for the community to come together, share best practices and new ideas, and get to know each other. We have three students who will be presenting work they’ve done at Olin, which is great for several reasons: it shows what kind of interesting work is happening at Olin, it gives the students practice giving poster presentations to an external audience, and perhaps most importantly, it gives the students a chance to share the inspiring projects they’ve been pouring themselves into. Zhenya Zastavaker, who was formerly in charge of GCSP at Olin, will also be at the Summit to strengthen connections with the larger GCSP community and bring back new ideas we might use in our program.