Superman and Wonder Woman Get Action Figures. Why Not Engineers?

Meet the Grand Challenge Scholars. They fight for “the continuation of life on the planet.” And they’re all real.

They’re an elite group of engineers that have been compared to “the 300” of ancient Sparta in their potential to change the course of our civilization. To put it simply: real-life, modern-day action figures.

These “action figures” are the Grand Challenge Scholars — some of the best and brightest engineering students in the United States, committed to solving some of the biggest issues facing our world. Their unique interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial, service-learning and global educational experience equips them to come up with ways to address the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges for planet Earth.

How to 3D Capture Dean Yannis Yortsos in 5 Minutes or Less. Fast avatar capture at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), courtesy of Ari Shapiro, research assistant professor in the USC Viterbi Department of Computer Science.

The Grand Challenges have one main goal: “The continuation of life on the planet, making our world more sustainable, healthy, safe and joyful.” Examples of the Grand Challenges these scholars have tackled include advancing cybersecurity, making solar energy cost-competitive, and providing clean drinking water worldwide.

“The Grand Challenges Scholars Program is the blueprint for engineering education in brick and mortar universities.”

Since the inaugural summit on the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering in 2009, more than 100 engineering schools worldwide pledged to graduate 2,000 participating engineers per year. USC Viterbi, led by Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, was one of the three founding schools of the program in 2009, along with Duke and Olin College. Their overall goal is to graduate 20,000 Grand Challenge Scholar engineers in the next decade.



Nickname or Superheroic Alter Ego: Takeo

Major / Graduation Year: B.S., mechanical engineering, 2014

Current position: Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley; battery engineering intern at Proterra

Highlights: “As a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, my research focuses on electrochemical modeling for Li-ion batteries. My hope is to improve the safety and performance of batteries to help usher in an era of clean and economic energy. At Proterra, I’ve been working with the battery engineering team to help bring electrified mass transit to all.”

Quote: “Be an unrelenting optimist, and don’t let the scale of the Grand Challenges intimidate you. Let’s work on solving the problems affecting our most vulnerable communities.”



Nickname or Superheroic Alter Ego: JY, JJ, Yip

Major / Graduation Year: B.S., biomedical engineering, 2015;

M.S., mechanical engineering, 2017

Current position: Developing personalized cardiac tissues for human disease modeling and drug screening as a USC Viterbi Ph.D. candidate in the Laboratory for Living Systems Engineering (Assistant Professor Megan McCain)

Highlights: “As a biomedical engineer with a mechanical emphasis, I pursued the Grand Challenge of engineering better medicines. Throughout the program, I conducted independent research on nanopatch development for vaccine delivery, minored in art history to understand human culture and behavior, participated in entrepreneurship competitions with innovative concepts, studied abroad in France and Australia, and mentored underprivileged students and STEM minorities in the Los Angeles community.”

Quote: “I was attracted to the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program because its five components complemented my own ambitions to become a well-rounded and informed engineer during my college career. It brought me together with other students who were aiming to tackle the most challenging problems in the U.S. and the world, allowing us to expand our reach and connections into various fields of engineering and STEM.”

Kirsten Rice

Nickname or Superheroic Alter Ego: The Green Goddess

Major / Graduation Year: B.S., civil (environmental) engineering, 2013;

M.S., mechanical engineering (alternative energy), 2014

Current position: Solar development project manager

Highlights: “In my current position, I have developed and built out 7MW of solar photovoltaic generation in Southern California, with an additional +7.5MW in the pipeline. As a solar developer, I work to create sustainable renewable energy in my communities and alleviate dependencies on coal, oil and natural gas. During my master’s and the first year after graduation, I cofounded a clean-water nonprofit with two other USC graduates. We received a grant from National Geographic and held a successful crowdsource funding campaign to build a community-focused water filtration system serving 200 families in Rwanda.”

Quote: I believe the path forward is through sustainable, community-focused innovations. When we come together, we have the power to improve the quality of life for our brothers and sisters while protecting and preserving our Mother Earth.”



Nickname or Superheroic Alter Ego: I generally identify with Hermione Granger.

Major / Graduation Year: B.S., chemical engineering (nanotechnology); minor, art history; M.S. engineering management, 2015

Current position: Consulting senior analyst at Accenture

Highlights: “During college, I focused on energy-related Grand Challenges through on campus research. I spent two years researching lead sulfide quantum dots and their relation to solar energy, and also spent some time working in a nanomaterials lab researching nano-twinned materials. Joining consulting has given me the opportunity to constantly be able to attack new and exciting problems and keep learning new things … I’ve done research projects around self-driving cars and taken courses on machine learning.”

Quote: “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says, ‘I’m possible.’” — Audrey Hepburn