Two University of Virginia alumni who set out to change society have received a boost, by being admitted to graduate programs at Stanford University as Knight-Hennessy Scholars.
Jill Ferguson of Huddleston, who graduated from UVA in 2017 with a degree in material science, will pursue a Ph.D. in environment and resources at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. Aditya Narayan of Fairfax, a 2018 chemistry and biology graduate, will pursue a medical degree at the Stanford School of Medicine.
The Knight-Hennessey Scholarship, named after Stanford MBA graduate Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike Inc., and former Stanford University President John Hennessy, funds any graduate degree at Stanford, including tuition and fees, living and travel stipends and access to an academic enrichment fund for endeavors such as research and conferences.
There are 76 new scholars in this year’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars cohort, the fourth since the program’s creation in 2017. Those new scholars will be joined by five scholars deferring from 2020, bringing the cohort size to 81.
“I love being able to celebrate, no matter the occasion, but this is extra special,” said Andrus G. Ashoo, director of UVA’s Office of Citizen Scholar Development, the fellowships office of UVA. “Neither Jill nor Aditya thought they could or should compete for the Knight-Hennessy. Jill shut me down pretty quickly the first time I brought it to her attention, which I did because it was a perfect fit! I don’t even think Aditya believed the folks at Knight-Hennessy when they called him to make the award.
“That said, there is no doubt that these two will make valuable contributions to the community of Knight-Hennessy Scholars. They are both humble, driven and quite personable. Both have demonstrated a maturity to drop less important commitments and pursue opportunities that have allowed them to clarify their goals or how they needed to grow to achieve them. We look forward to hearing the stories about their experience as Knight-Hennessy Scholars in the years to come.”
Through the Knight-Hennessy program, Ferguson plans to pursue a Ph.D. in environment and resources to get the public service training she needs.
“My mission is to realize a world where our energy utilities are more than entities that keep our lights on, but engines for economic development, whose investments in home energy upgrades strengthen local workforces and tangibly improve the lives of everyone they serve.”
She said she wants to “lead the U.S. government building decarbonization strategy with the goal of working myself out of a job by 2050.”
“I will be pursuing a Ph.D. in environment and resources to figure out how the U.S. is going to remove fossil fuels from all 130 million of our single- and multi-family homes within the next 30 years,” Ferguson said. “I’m exploring inclusive utility investment systems that make decarbonization upgrades accessible to all households without credit checks, upfront cost or debt, because the approach that is accessible to everyone is the only truly scalable model for climate mitigation.”
Ferguson, who was raised in a drafty house in rural Virginia and now focuses on the environmental implications of inefficient homes, is co-founder with Stephen Bickel of LibertyHomes.
“LibertyHomes’s mission is to ‘liberate’ folks from high energy burdens, meaning when their energy bill is a burdensome proportion of their annual income, which usually indicates an inefficient home,” Ferguson said. “We help families lower their energy bill by working with their utility company to make the upfront investment in a whole-home upgrade package that reduces their energy use, such as insulation, air and duct-sealing, HVAC replacement, smart thermostats, demand-response devices and, in some cases, solar, storage or bidirectional electric vehicle chargers.”
Ferguson said the upgrades will make homes more resilient to unpredictable extreme weather and will help prevent the hazardous conditions such as recently seen in Texas.
“Once the home uses less energy, the occupant can use part of those energy cost savings to lower their bill right away and use the rest of the savings to start paying back the utility for the upfront cost of the upgrade,” Ferguson said. “In this way, families are able to ‘pay’ for the upgrades with the savings the upgrade generates. … Utilities also like it because, unlike debt-based programs, the utilities don’t have to become banks issuing loans; they just invest in home energy upgrades just like they already do for energy system upgrades.”
Prior to starting LibertyHomes, Ferguson was a Truman-Albright Fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, where she led the Rural Research Initiative. She has worked at the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative as a solar technology fellow and as a photovoltaic cell researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ferguson said Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy concentrates faculty talents on energy research and education, from basic science and technology to policy and business, disseminating research results and developing energy-literate leaders as part of its educational mission. Ferguson plans to design her own course path with the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources Ph.D. program.
Rider W. Foley, an associate professor in UVA’s School of Engineering and director of the Policy Internship Program, said he has a great appreciation for Ferguson’s academic potential and leadership capacity.
“Her expertise in engineering and energy policy provide an outstanding combination for investigating wicked problems that demand transdisciplinary knowledge and solution-oriented research,” Foley said. “I have tremendous respect for Jill’s work ethic, communication skills and leadership potential.”
Foley first met Ferguson when she applied for a Policy Internship Program, to prepare for a summer internship in Washington, D.C.
“Her confidence and aptitude were immediately clear as she spoke about her interests in solar energy and shifting to a zero-carbon energy future,” Foley said. “In 2015, Jill was offered an internship with the Department of Energy in the SunShot Initiative. At the end of the summer, Jill presented her research in the hearing room of the Space, Science and Technology Committee within the Rayburn House Office Building. Her report was delivered to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy by the DOE SunShot leadership and created a procedure to inform decisions about a $250 million funding program.”
Lisa E. Friedersdorf, the principal scientist in UVA’s Materials Science and Engineering Department, met Ferguson through the Nano and Emerging Technologies Club, a group devoted to raising awareness of cutting-edge research and development, and said Ferguson was in a class of her own with respect to passion, energy and leadership.
“Jill is one of the most extraordinary students I have met in more than 25 years of working with undergraduates,” Friedersdorf said. “She is ambitious, in a good way; confident, but not cocky; scientifically curious and able to express opposing views with respect. She is concerned for and helpful to others.”
Friedersdorf said Ferguson is serious about having a future in science policy.
“When she encountered other students involved in NExT with an interest in science policy, she started the Science and Technology Policy Committee,” she said. “As a group, they tackled a variety of issues as case studies and presented their findings to a Science, Technology and Society class.
“In addition to passion for policy, she has gained valuable experience in a variety of competitive positions, being selected for a position at DOE after only her second year as an engineering student at UVA, as a summer scholar at MIT and, through the Truman-Albright Fellowship, being placed at the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy. These positions reinforced her desire to be at the intersection of technology, with a focus on alternative energy, and policy where she can have the biggest impact and help others.”
Friedersdorf is also impressed with Ferguson’s fearlessness.
“In 2016, Jill was invited to the White House Forum on Small Business Challenges to Commercializing Nanotechnology,” Friedersdorf said. “Although she was the only student present, she confidently spoke, as only a second-year student, about plans to participate in the formation of a network of student groups and to organize an annual gathering of student leaders at the TechConnect Conference.
“I have no doubt Jill will be successful,” she said. “She is highly intelligent, optimistic, tenacious and extremely hard-working.”
Narayan, of Fairfax, a 2018 biochemistry and biology graduate, will pursue a medical degree at the Stanford School of Medicine and combine his interests in medicine and education.
“I aspire to expand and improve care for marginalized populations with complex mental health conditions through policy interventions, novel technologies, harm-reduction efforts and medical education innovation,” he said. “While I aim to eliminate overdose deaths from our society, I know that this goal is likely unattainable in the course of my career. Therefore, I will eventually transition toward medical education leadership so I can support the next generation of health care professionals in addressing these complex, ill-structured social issues.”
Narayan views his work on substance use disorders as the study of the body as well as society.
“Though I wish to directly serve patients through medicine, I also understand that the medical system is not the only, or most appropriate, venue to treat isolation, poverty, housing insecurity, unemployment and other social justice issues,” Narayan said. “This program offers the opportunity to break down disciplinary silos by connecting with experts across domains to think more critically about these challenges throughout my career.”
Narayan is excited about Stanford’s flexibility in shaping his focus within his medical education.
“I continue to debate what curricular tracks and additional degree opportunities I will pursue while at Stanford,” he said. “I am currently interested in pursuing my interests in public health alongside my goals of reforming medical education, such that future health care professionals can better serve those who exist at the nexus of structural violence and vulnerability.”
After graduating from UVA, Narayan led ReinventED Lab, an independent organization that unites a community of creative problem-solvers in education, while working part-time as the education and outreach coordinator at UVA’s Gordie Center, which has a mission to end hazing and substance misuse among college and high school students nationwide.
“Through these roles, I began to understand how to frame prevention and mental health programming at a community level as I operated at the intersection of K-12 education, higher education and harm reduction,” he said. “Just as importantly, I was able to appreciate how working at a systems level mandates an equity lens. That is, it is necessary to be comfortable in shifting the locus of control to communities you wish to serve to create a shared vision of change.”
Narayan worked as an English teaching assistant in Poland on the Fulbright U.S. Student Award, which he pursued because he was interested in its history of education innovation. But he learned much more.
“While I was there, I was able to pick up some practical skills such as curriculum design and communicating information to students outside of a U.S. model of medical training that will translate to the health education innovation work I aspire to in the future,” he said.
“More than that though, I was able to refocus on what it means to walk through the world with cultural humility. Living in spaces so different from my own experiences, with respect to language, culture and politics, was challenging. However, I was able to learn ways to interact with difference using respect and, at times, humor. Learning the traumatic and resilient history of this country from the Polish perspective also shaped how I view much of Central and Eastern European history, and influenced my views on the intersection of religion, mental health and resilience as a cultural trait.”
Since returning from Poland, Narayan has worked as a research assistant with Dr. Rajesh Balkrishnan in UVA’s public health department and as an Americorps VISTA building capacity around substance use disorder care in the Virginia Department of Social Services. In particular, he works to center the voices of those with lived experience in state-level decision-making. Outside of that, he works with various harm-reduction agencies on advocacy efforts and with digital health groups to improve patient’s access to care.
Rajesh Balkrishnan, a professor of public health sciences at the UVA School of Medicine, said Narayan is one of the brightest students he has encountered during his six years at UVA.
“He is smart, focused, diligent and humble, all of which are hallmarks of a potentially outstanding physician and researcher,” Balkrishnan said. “He has a keen aptitude for public health and very passionate about issues of health equity and social medicine. An extremely hard worker, he constantly strives to improve himself professionally and personally.”
He sees Narayan as an inspiring role model for his peers and someone who is admired by his supervisors.
“I have no doubt that Aditya is destined for great things,” he said. “The admission into the medical degree program at Stanford University with the ‘full ride’ prestigious Knight-Hennessy fellowship will prepare him to be a physician-leader of the future focused on improving health care globally. I wish this young man the very best. He has been a pleasure to mentor over the past couple of years.”