Two Seniors Earn Watson Fellowships

Harvey Mudd College seniors Priya Donti (joint computer science/mathematics) and Sophia Williams (engineering) have each been awarded one of this year’s prestigious Watson Fellowships. Fifty fellows were chosen from more than 700 candidates worldwide.

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent study outside the United States, awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 40 partner colleges. The program produces a year of personal insight, perspective and confidence that shapes the arc of fellows’ lives. Started in 1968, Watson alumni comprise leaders in every field. The one-year stipend is $30,000.

Priya Donti ’15

Donti’s Watson Fellowship will concentrate on the cultural and social ramifications of renewable energy policy and making the electric grid “smarter.” She will travel to four countries (Germany, India, South Korea and Chile) in various stages of Smart Grid policy creation and implementation. In each, she will explore policymakers’ motivations and strategies for planning their Smart Grids, as well as the local effects of these plans. She hopes to deepen her understanding of the influences on people’s views of Smart Grid technology and policy.

“In the face of global climate change, intelligent energy distribution systems are hailed among environmentalists as the solution to increasing renewable energy usage,” writes Donti. “However, the purpose and efficacy of this technology in different countries may depend on governmental and cultural contexts. By exploring the interactions between policies and people, I will gain insight into the dynamics of social change within a particular cultural context.”

Donti became interested in sustainability in high school and has been involved in related initiatives ever since. As a former co-president of Engineers for a Sustainable World/Mudders Organizing for Sustainability Solutions (ESW/MOSS), Donti helped prepare a speech for a California Public Utilities Commission public hearing that evaluated a proposed new rate structure and worked with the College’s board of trustees to get approval on the school’s Green Fund.

Artificial intelligence (AI) research conducted under Professor of Computer Science Jim Boerkoel led Donti to develop an interest in AI’s usefulness for Smart Grids, she says, and eventually to her Watson proposal. She also credits political science Professor Paul Steinberg’s Comparative Environmental Politics course for teaching her “the importance of understanding policies and politics on a local level when examining the factors that lead to social change.”

Sophia Willams ’15

Williams will spend her Watson year learning how to best end poverty by studying the effectiveness of different methods of aid, with specific focus on microloans, small businesses, direct grants and their efficacy. She aims to hear people’s stories firsthand to learn whether different forms of aid have actually helped to improve quality of life.

Williams has been fascinated by what causes poverty and the effectiveness of the solutions to end it since high school, when she spent eight weeks in Paraguay with Amigos de las Americas teaching health and environmental education courses to children. Williams says she witnessed a substantial disconnect between what nonprofits and governments think that people in poverty need, and what people in poverty actually need. Independent of her studies, she has dedicated herself to learning about the economics of poverty and the efficacy of microloans and small business to end poverty.

“By working with NGOs and aid organizations, I will be able directly access people who’ve received these forms of aid,” writes Williams, who studied abroad in Spain during her time at Harvey Mudd. “Additionally, I will talk with local small business owners to discover what led to their ultimate success or failure.” Williams will visit communities in Jordan, India, Kenya, Greece and Chile.

A Harvey Mudd President’s Scholar, Williams has served as the Summer Institute (SI) program’s head mentor and in a variety of other leadership roles across campus, including as an aide for the Future Achievers in Science and Technology program, as a mentor for Atwood Dorm and as a Dean of Students (DOS) Muchacho.

Thirty-two Harvey Mudd students have received Watson Fellowships.