Nine Penn seniors have given their families even more reason to be proud. As soon as they graduate this month, they will start working full-time on innovative projects they designed to make a positive, lasting change for the “betterment of humankind.”
With family members on hand, the students were honored at the annual luncheon for winners of the 2018 President’s Engagement Prize (PEP) and President’s Innovation Prize (PIP) on May 3 in the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
“We’re here to celebrate amazing students and their hard and good work,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said in welcoming remarks. “What we are doing with these prizes is recognizing both the hard and good work that went into the project proposals ... and our belief that these are the kind of Penn students who can realize an amazing dream of very ambitious projects that will make the world better.”
Each award carries a $100,000 cash prize to implement the project. All prize recipients will receive a $50,000 stipend for living expenses during their first post-baccalaureate year.
Through a highly competitive award selection process, six seniors earned President’s Engagement Prizes and a team of three students were awarded the President’s Innovation Prize. Brandon Kao, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Wharton seniors Rui-Jing Jiang and Adarsh Battu will use their PIP to support Avisi Technologies, a healthcare startup they launched last year to develop VisiPlate. The novel nanoscale ocular implant will help treat glaucoma, the world’s second leading cause of blindness.
“The time is right for a paradigm shift in treatment and prevention of glaucoma,” said Gutmann.
By happenstance, the three team members were all together in a Skirkanish Hall study lounge when the president called with the good news that they’d earned the PIP. It was “VisiPlate Friday,” the day each week that they get together and work on the project they started last year. In 2017, the team received funding for pre-clinical testing and prototyping of VisiPlate, winning the Y-Prize Competition for the best commercial application for an emerging technology.
“Dr. Gutmann came on the line and the first thing she said was ‘I want to say Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah,’ recalled Jiang. “And I was very confused, but it was great. I wasn’t registering anything. I was so excited.”
Battu had pulled his cell phone out to videotape the team getting the call. “After she hung up,” Battu chimed in, “we started jumping around and you can see it on the phone, the phone goes everywhere and we’re all jumping and hugging.”
At the awards luncheon, James McPhail recalled how he got news of his team winning the PEP. The senior in the College of Arts and Sciences with Wharton School seniors Griffin Amdur and Andrew Witherspoon, will use their award to launch their nonprofit, Chicago Furniture Bank. They will collect gently used furniture from senior citizens whose children don’t want the used belongings and distribute the household goods at a deep discount to vulnerable populations, including women and children facing domestic violence and those transitioning out of homelessness.
“I was in my room,” McPhail remembers. “I absolutely freaked out. I immediately called my mom and my dad. It was an unbelievably surreal moment.”
His parents, Carrie and James McPhail, came to the awards luncheon from Rye, N.Y. to celebrate their son’s achievement. “I'm so very proud of him,” his mother gushed. “He’s such a good person and he’s at Penn where he’s been given an opportunity to do good in the world and use his education for good.”
“Likewise,” said his father, beaming his approval. “To defer his career for a year and launch a nonprofit is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.”
Two of the prize-winning projects being recognized at the luncheon resonated deeply with Gutmann.
Wharton seniors Svanika Balasubramanian and Peter Wang will use their PEP award for a global social venture project in India where nearly 1.4 billion people contribute to the nation’s waste. Their project, rePurpose, aims to create an ethical and efficient recycling supply chain in Mumbai.
Gutmann told the honored students and their families, past winners, and Penn faculty and administrators at the awards luncheon that every year she is moved deeply when she reads the project proposals. This proposal moved her to tears. “When I thought about how my father would feel, were he alive, to see how two incredibly promising Penn graduates would go to India to move that society forward in meaningful ways, I just cried for joy.”
She said that her father started a business with an Indian partner in Bombay—now Mumbai—after escaping Nazi Germany.
Another project that moved her, Gutmann said, is the PEP-winning project Healthy Pequeños or Healthy Little Ones. Alaina Hall, a senior in the School of Nursing, will launch the global nonprofit partnering with the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage in Miacatlán, Mexico to improve health education for children and their caregivers. Her goal is to strengthen infectious disease screening and reduce exposure to tainted water sources.
Each winner received a beautifully handcrafted certificate recognizing their achievement.