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Alistair Kirk

alistair kirkClass year: 2020
Major: biomedical engineering
Challenge: Engineering better medicines

Alistair, who is from Cape Town, South Africa, is studying biomedical engineering with an emphasis on systemsand signals. A major focus for Alistair has been addressing global disparities in health care.

For example, shadowing two orthotics and prosthetics practices in South Africa, one privately funded, one publicly funded, “allowed me to observe firsthand not only the difference between health care availability between developing and developed countries, but also the difference within a developing country between the fortunate and impoverished,” Alistair says.

While doing an internship in 2019 with Project C.U.R.E. – the nonprofit organization that delivers medical equipment and supplies to developing nations – he realized the need for operations, management and logistical skills needed to supply developing countries with the equipment and supplied needed to improve health care.

He decided to complete a cluster in Culture, Communication and Media to better prepare himself to “interact in a manner that is respectful of different cultures” when working across countries and different languages barriers. 

Alistair has played varsity football at the University and is captain of the club waterpolo team.

Here’s a Q and A with Alistair about his participation in the Grand Challenges Scholars program.

Q. Why did you decide to apply for the Grand Challenges Program?

For engineering students there is a hard focus on completing the technical courses required for graduation. However, the University has a unique system in place to allow for better rounding of a student through both the cluster system and an encouragement to explore outside of your major. I knew as an engineer it is important to develop softer skills that make a better and more efficient engineer so I joined the Grand Challenges to better utilize the systems available to us to ensure I was getting the very best that I could from my education and developing a host of unique skills engineers aren't commonly equipped with.

Q. Which of the five competencies did you most enjoy completing? Why?

The interdisciplinary competency was the one I enjoyed the most, much to my surprise. I used this as an opportunity to develop communication skills and an understanding of a different culture (Japanese) -- both things that I was not very good at prior to the program but vital in tackling my grand challenge.

Q. Are there things you learned while completing the competencies that you would not have learned in a classroom or lab? For example?

I am taking a class in operations and strategy that is not commonly taken by engineering students and it has given me a much greater appreciation for the production aspects of solving engineering challenges and the practicalities of creating a viable product to solve a need. It is one thing to solve an issue; it is another thing to do it in a viable way and this is knowledge I don’t think I would have if it wasn't for this program.

Q. After you graduate, do you think you will want to continue to work or pursue graduate studies in the same field as the challenge you tackled? How will you do that?

I plan to go to graduate school and pursue a master’s in engineering management, then enter industry and focus on the global impact of products that medical device industries produce and their possible humanitarian efforts.

Q. What is the value of the Grand Challenges program for a student?

The value this program gives is really in its ability to develop a more prepared engineer. Four years is not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things to develop all the technical skills an engineer needs moving forward, and it is easy as a student to get lost in that and only focus on your major and its requirements. What this program is really able to do is break that train of thought and make you think about all of the softer skills you can focus. Those softer skills, when combined with technical skills, make you much more efficient at solving problems.

Click here to see Alistair's GCP poster.