Marshall Scholar to Study Energy and Human Rights

Hope Bretscher

From November, 2014

By Mary Abowd
Photo by Rob Kozloff

Fourth-year Hope Bretscher has won a Marshall Scholarship, a prestigious award for graduate study that will send her to the United Kingdom next year to pursue her interests in science and human rights.

A physics major, Bretscher is interested in researching ways to produce sustainable and renewable energy in the developing world. “I think access to a basic minimum of energy can be viewed as a human right,” she said. “Energy is necessary for people to obtain other human rights, like health care and education.”

Next year, she will head to Scotland to pursue a master’s degree in science and technology in society at the University of Edinburgh. The program will help her probe the connection between science and human rights with an emphasis on cultural contexts, she said.

The following year, Bretscher will move to England to earn a second master’s degree at the University of Cambridge and work in an optics lab with a professor whose research includes enhancing the power of solar cells. She said solar cell technology interests her because it generates electricity from sunlight—reducing both dependence on power grids and pollution.

“This is the way people around the world are going to have access to energy,” said Bretscher, who is minoring in human rights. “I don’t think it’s going to be based on natural resources like our energy infrastructure in the United States.”

Bretscher already has experience using science to solve real-world problems. She was part of an undergraduate team that created the startup company Project SAM and its cell phone application, which assists health care clinics in developing countries track and manage their inventories. The concept won second place in the 2013 Social New Venture Challenge, sponsored by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and it now operates out of the Chicago-based digital startup hub 1871 under the name Reliefwatch.

“Hope is an extraordinary student who is deeply curious about a broad range of physics,” said David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering, who has mentored Bretscher in his research group since her junior year. “She is a dedicated and thoughtful researcher with high standards, whose scientific and personal qualities make her truly deserving of this honor.”

Bretscher hopes her graduate work will allow her to use laboratory discoveries to improve peoples’ lives. She says bridging two seemingly disparate fields of study—physics and human rights—is not such a big leap. “In science you’re asking questions about how things are,” she said. “Human rights is the same: You’re asking why is this? Why do these problems exist systematically and societally? And then you analyze.”

Bretscher is the University’s 21st Marshall scholar since 1987.