WSU’s first NOAA Hollings Scholarship winner

National scholarship recipient Kristian Gubsch examines an aerial drone with Professor Von Walden
National scholarship recipient Kristian Gubsch with Professor Von Walden

By Beverly Makhani, WSU Undergraduate Education

Washington State University chemical engineering student Kristian Gubsch is the school’s first recipient of the prestigious Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The nationally competitive award pays $19,000 total for the Edgewood, Wash., student’s 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years, provides a 10-week paid summer internship at an NOAA facility, and funds travel to present at two scientific conferences.

“Kristian came to my office to talk about a couple of more well-known awards, but I had recently read a report on the Hollings and thought he might be a perfect fit for it—and he was,” said April Seehafer, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program, part of WSU Undergraduate Education. “We are thrilled because receiving this award will further his educational goals, and Kristian will be an exceptional representative of WSU.”

“It’s a huge honor to win the Hollings, one I didn’t expect,” said Gubsch. “It’s a compliment to my accomplishments and the hard work I’ve put in. The other winners were impressive.

“The award takes away much of the financial pressure because it helps with tuition and loans, so I know I can concentrate even more on my academics and undergraduate research,” said Gubsch. “The Hollings has made it possible for me to think about my education and future in new ways.”

Engineer with an eye to the sky

He has been on a trajectory to become an engineer for years. As a high-school student, he enjoyed math and science, spent time at the University of Wyoming’s Engineering Summer Program, and had an inspiring physics teacher as a senior.

Following his undergraduate studies at WSU, he plans to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and build a career developing technologies to limit the effects of climate change.

“Chemical engineering breaks down complex processes into simpler bits. Through research, we can observe and measure how the atmosphere reacts when particles are released into it, and further our understanding of how to develop solutions that limit the warming of the atmosphere,” said Gubsch.

“I believe that you should do something meaningful to you, something you love doing, and not be afraid to change course.”

Well-rounded WSU education

His decision to attend WSU evolved quickly, he said, and he’s never looked back. He puts high value on “the experience of WSU” because he’s been able to create a balance in his life.

“I use my free time for biking, friends, clubs, and intramural sports like volleyball, soccer, basketball, and floor hockey,” he said. “I’m also the industry relations officer for the American Institute of Chemical Engineering student group, setting up tours and inviting guests to campus.”

“Most of my time during the week goes to classwork and research, and thinking about what can be improved.”

Heading into his junior year, Gubsch plans to facilitate an introductory course for incoming Honors College students and work in Lin’s carbon conversion and chemical engineering research lab.

Measuring particulate matter

During previous summer research at WSU, he completed a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates by working with Laboratory for Atmospheric Research (LAR) Professor Von Walden. Their project focused on building air-quality sensors to help Spokane, Wash., become a more sustainable “smart” city, part of the broader Urbanova project.

The overall goal of the project, said Gubsch, is to develop a high-density, low-cost network of sensors in the city that will inform citizens of the air quality in the area; this will be, for example, especially important during wildfire season. Urbanova is a 770-acre-zone living laboratory in the city’s university district in which several programs collect data to gain insights and solve urban challenges.

With a colleague, he built six air-quality sensor units to collect particulate matter as small as 1 micron in diameter, monitor carbon dioxide concentration levels, and record temperature, pressure, and humidity. The units called for Raspberry Pi single-board mini-computers, and Gubsch learned to program them using the Python programming language.

The data from the team’s sensors will be remotely transmitted to a cloud database in real time. In the future sensors could be attached to light poles, drones, and buses, for example. Measurement results could be shared with the public, empowering people to call for community change through policy and improved technology.

Gubsch described his work at a recent poster session, WSU’s Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SURCA), hosted by the Office of Undergraduate Research, part of WSU Undergraduate Education. LAR is in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Climate change is real

When asked about critical issues the world is facing, Gubsch applies science to his logic. “People have the misconception that weather equals climate, and that climate change isn’t an urgent issue. But the polar icecaps are warming every year, there’s global warming at the north and south poles, and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases annually.

“People are concerned about matters of policy surrounding gun control or taxes, which are important; however, climate change should be a centerpiece among those much-debated issues. The economy and gun control won’t matter if our environment isn’t stable and conditions aren’t livable enough to provide basic resources like food and water.”

Small things add up

He and his brother Evan, 10, learned from their parents, Derek and Deborah Reece, that “it’s important to take responsibility and do the little things that add up.” Deborah attended WSU Tri-Cities for her master’s degree in literacy education and teaches ESL in the Fife School District near Tacoma; Derek is an equipment manager at Walsh Construction in Seattle.

Gubsch’s WSU experience with investigating and doing research has reinforced his parents’ advice “by helping me be more realistic” about big ideas.  Both will help him be an impactful researcher and environmental scientist.

“I’ll see the big picture, and I’ll focus on little changes to make a bigger impact down the line.”

A select few

NOAA’s Hollings Scholarships—a 10-year-old program—went to 150 undergraduate scholars for 2018; there were nearly 600 applications from 100 colleges in 35 states. Hollings Scholars—all about to enter their junior year in college—study biology, climatology, marine science, biochemistry, cell biology, environmental science, meteorology, and atmospheric science.

Director of NOAA Education Louisa Koch said, “NOAA welcomes the 2018 undergraduate scholars, an accomplished group of students ready to investigate our changing environment, from forecasting severe storms, to monitoring our climate, to managing the nation’s fisheries, and to restoring our coasts. We are proud to help educate the next generation of scientists, stewards, and educators.”

Seehafer recognized that Gubsch’s interests and academic pursuits align well with NOAA’s goals.

She said, “It’s my job to help applicants understand the characteristics that each award’s selection committee looks for in a successful candidate. Throughout the application process, which began last October, Kristian persevered through months of self-reflection and multiple drafts of required essays. It was a pleasure to help him in these efforts.

“I can’t wait to see where the Hollings award leads him next.”

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  • April Seehafer, director of the WSU Distinguished Scholarship Program, 509-335-8239,

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