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Hajim Spotlights

Mark Westman

Class year: 2020
Major: mechanical engineering
Challenge: preventing nuclear terror

Mark, who attends the University on an NROTC scholarship, is not only a Grand Challenges Scholar, but a star athlete and current president of Solar Splash, the completely student run team that designs and builds a solar-powered electric boat to compete at the annual World Championship of Collegiate Solar Boating.

He was a member when the team had its best-ever showing at the championship last year.

As a sprinter and jumper with the University’s men’s track and field team, Mark was part of the Rochester record breaking 4x400 meter relay at the All-Atlantic Regional Championships this past season. He was one of seven individuals to earn USTFCCCA All-Academic honors.

During a study abroad semester in New Zealand during Fall 2018, he not only completed four courses toward his major and cluster (in ethics), but met new friends and took memorable trips to Abel Tasman, Wellington, and the Cook Islands.

He has participated in the Astronomy Club and the Society of Undergraduate Math Students.

Here’s a Q&A with Mark on his participation in the Grand Challenges Program.

Why did you decide to apply?

The grand challenge that interested me the most is preventing nuclear terror. From a young age I’ve wanted to work towards the national defense. My dad has worked to support the national defense for over 35 years and has supported multiple agencies and the military. My brother completed a degree in emergency management with an emphasis on counterterrorism. It’s always been in the back of my mind that I should participate in something greater than myself and to try and help resolve some of the problems facing our world.

Terrorism also hits close to home. While I am part of the generation that is too young to remember where I was on 9/11, I live 40 minutes outside of the Pentagon. I grew up with families who lost a lot that day. We consider ourselves lucky because on that day my dad was working at an offsite. The Grand Challenges program has worked with me to help direct and refine my efforts to ensure that something like this could never happen again.

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

Research – I have participated in research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in both the Computations directorate and the Nuclear Criticality Safety Division (NCSD). While working in the computations directorate, I brainstormed and developed a methodology capable of detecting anomalies in support of the National Security Agency. My experience in the NCSD included but are not limited to critical nuclear weapon design information, plutonium handling, and working alongside Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal units in an approach to criticality using highly enriched uranium. Being able to participate in all these great experiences has helped me grasp a better understanding of what we’re dealing with, and besides, what other 21-year-old has these crazy experiences?

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

This program has without a doubt expanded my horizons and knowledge without the use of a classroom. Being able to search for solutions to puzzling problems on my own and work hands on has allowed me to apply the theory that we’ve learned into real world application. Currently, I am designing an economical drone capable of measuring and reporting radiation data for my senior design project. Our goal with this project is to improve on current designs and provide an affordable yet effective tool to measure the spread of nuclear materials.

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?

As a midshipman in the NROTC unit here on campus, I will have the honor of commissioning as a Submarine Engineering Duty Officer in the United States Navy after graduation. I hope to earn a subspecialty in nuclear systems and support the UN mission of non-proliferation.

How did being at the UR help you complete this program?

I would not have been able to complete the Grand Challenges if I wasn’t at UR. Three of the core competencies I completed can be directly related to the University’s unique curriculum. As a mechanical engineering major, I did not imagine I would ever have the chance to study abroad, yet, I was able to spend a semester in New Zealand. A country that is very much against anything nuclear and that has outlawed nuclear. I have been able to complete a cluster in War, Revolution, and Society which allowed me to dig deeper into both the historical and ongoing global conflicts, providing me with a more well-rounded understanding of the world. Finally, the interconnectedness of our faculty and staff at the University allowed me to learn about and inevitably start my internship at the national lab. I wouldn’t have been able to complete the Grand Challenge program if I wasn’t at the UR.

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

Being a part of the Grand Challenge Scholar Program helps students learn how to relate the different aspects of their life together. While you may be engaged in what you consider two completely unrelated activities, there is likely some strand of similarity that ties them together. In being able to connect two unique thoughts into a complementary idea, you open up a whole new world.

Here is Mark's GCS poster:

Mark's GCS poster

Westman and friends standing in front of a very large boulder.
Mark Westman and friends during a trip to the Cook Islands during his semester abroad.

Mark Westman '20—mechanical engineering