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  5. UW-Madison senior wins Rhodes Scholarship

UW-Madison senior wins Rhodes Scholarship

University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Drew Birrenkott of McFarland, Wis. has been awarded a 2014 Rhodes Scholarship. He joins an elite group of students that have received one of the top honors in higher education.

"Congratulations to Drew," says Chancellor Rebecca Blank. "This is a well-deserved honor and reflects his many achievements as well as his multiple skills and interests. I also want to congratulate the faculty mentors and fellow students who have helped him win this award. It's always an honor to have a UW-Madison student named as one of the nation's Rhodes Scholars."

Birrenkott will be invited to spend two to three years of study at Oxford University in England. The Rhodes scholarship, founded in 1902 by British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes, is the oldest international study program in the world; it is valued at approximately $50,000 per year on average.

"It's a very surreal experience for me," says Birrenkott. "I'm very happy to have had the opportunity, and I'm excited about the next chapter of my life. That's what this scholarship is really about: moving to the next step."

Birrenkott is a fifth-year student triple majoring in political science, biochemistry and biomedical engineering.

At Oxford, Birrenkott hopes to combine those areas of study to prepare for a career in global health and international development. The university offers a top-ranked program - one of the few in the world - in Development Studies, focusing on public health and the theories, themes and economics of development.

Birrenkott's interest in international health issues has grown through seeing them firsthand. He has studied in India through the biochemistry department's Khorana Program, named for Nobel Prize winner Har Gobind Khorana. Through his work with Engineers Without Borders, he has traveled to Kenya and coordinates a project in Tanzania, where he plans to visit in January.

"I was driven by seeing the disparity in health services between the United States and the places that I visited," says Birrenkott. "Not everybody has access to these services - which is its own issue - but in some places they're lacking altogether."

For his senior project in biomedical engineering, Birrenkott worked with a team of four other students to design an Infant CardioRespiratory (CaRe) Monitor, capable of monitoring for the cessation of respiration and pulse in infants. Intended for use in developing countries, the device uses reusable components, is battery-powered, and designed to withstand rugged conditions for a total cost of $170 per unit.

Political science professor Nils Ringe says that Birrenkott is "the very best undergraduate student" he has taught at UW-Madison. Ringe is advising Birrenkott on his senior honors thesis, entitled "A Comparative Analysis of Healthcare in the United States and Europe."

"What makes Drew stand apart is his ability to draw out ways of analyzing the world and solving social problems that can only be found at the intersection of these various fields," says Ringe. "Drew's future contributions to society will come not because he is a doctor or an engineer or a political science professor, but because he is a doctor with a deep understanding of how the political environment can shape health care delivery and how mechanical innovations can be applied to solving some of the world's pressing health crises." 

Richard J. Otis, whom Birrenkott considers one of his closest mentors, is a former adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering who serves as a professional monitor for the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders

"As a result of Drew's efforts, this EWB team has become a strong and collaborative group that helps each other," says Otis. "Of my six years as mentor for EWB, I have not seen such leadership from other undergraduates involved in EWB."

Hundreds of elite applicants for from dozens of colleges and universities vie for the Rhodes scholarship each year. Candidates are judged on a proven record of intellectual and academic achievement, integrity of character, interest in and respect for others, leadership ability, and the energy to fully utilize their talents.

Birrenkott represents a district that includes Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Nationally, each of 16 districts can name two scholars, for a total of 32 per year.

UW-Madison's most recent Rhodes scholar was Alexis Brown, in 2011. Well-known past Rhodes honorees include President Bill Clinton and UW-Madison graduate and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold.

Susannah Brooks
11/25/2013