Former WVU student, USA Today scholar tackles global problem-solving in national competition; Emily Calandrelli inspired by undergrad organizations, experience
A master’s student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s aeronautics and astronautics program, former NASA researcher and one of West Virginia University’s top scholars, Emily Calandrelli has a pretty fair handle on problem-solving.
But a recent challenge, in the form of a national contest, inspired Calandrelli to recall her days as an undergraduate, when two student organizations she helped form at WVU showed her the power of young minds working together.
Calandrelli, a 2010 WVU engineering grad and one of only 20 students named to USA TODAY’s 2009 All-USA College Academic First Team, recently entered Dell’s Social Innovation Competition (http://www.dellsocialinnovationcompetition.com/). When brainstorming for ideas, someone reminded her of the plight and rescue of the Chilean miners last year. Groups and individuals from all over the world contributed ideas for the miners’ rescue, including NASA, which offered plans on how best to survive in a confined space based on its training and missions.
That memory triggered another for Calandrelli – back to her days at WVU, when she helped form a student chapter of Engineers Without Borders and the Student Partnership for the Advancement of Cosmic Exploration (SPACE). Combining the energy and fresh ideas of college students with their passion for social networking became the backbone of Calandrelli’s plan, a website called “May the Best Solution Win,” which she developed with Tommy Franklin, an MIT grad who works at a start-up company in Boston.
“At WVU, I was actively involved in our EWB chapter,” Calandrelli said, “and through my experiences, I learned that EWB can make an incredible impact, but it is not always a quick or efficient way to solve a problem. I combined my experience with EWB at WVU with my addiction to Facebook. I began to realize how powerful online social networking has become and tried to find a way to use it to solve problems more efficiently.”
Calandrelli discovered several websites that serve as clearinghouses for problem-solving ideas but none captured the popularity of Facebook or targeted the college student demographic, which she calls an “easy resource.”
“We need a fun and easy way to allow talented students to connect and combine their experiences to help solve the hidden problems in our world. I believe this website will do that,” she said.
The site’s current state is a business plan (http://www.dellsocialinnovationcompetition.com/ideaView?id=08780000000Dag1AAC) which will evolve if the team advances. The top 10 ideas to advance to Round 2 are determined by a public vote, which closes Feb. 14. Ninety more will be picked after Dell representatives sift through hundreds of submissions. The grand prize is $50,000, which is to be used to make the plan a reality.
“Making the top 10 by votes is the only sure bet,” to get into the final 100 Calandrelli said. She figures getting the word out to the WVU community will give her a big push in the voting.
“I feel like I have such a great family and wonderful support system at WVU,” she said. “I’ve had more support from the students and professors at WVU than I have had anywhere.”
Win or lose in the Dell contest, it’s a safe bet that Calandrelli will have an impact in matters of global importance. Her research, a NASA initiative, contributes to the design and development of a heavy lift vehicle that will bring humans to asteroids and eventually to Mars.
The challenge of Calandrelli’s group at MIT is to not only determine the most powerful and cost-efficient rocket, but to also maintain a design that meshes with current NASA facilities and the organization’s workforce.
“It’s rocket science,” she said, “and it gets very difficult to understand. A lot of the students in my lab have a great deal of experience with this project so I’m learning from them every day. It’s a challenge to keep up with them. Every day I’m writing down something I didn’t know before.”
Even her MIT experience has a WVU flavor. Her instructor, Dr. Ed Crawley, was a member of the Augustine Commission, a panel of U.S. space industry leaders selected by the Obama administration to recommend a strategic plan for NASA over the next 10-30 years. The panel’s leader, Norm Augustine, spoke at WVU’s David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas in 2009, invited by the Calandrelli’s SPACE group.
Also, Charles Vest, MIT’s former president, is, like Calandrelli, an alumnus of both WVU and Morgantown High.
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