Caltech's Saehui Hwang, a senior in electrical engineering, has been selected to receive a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a grant that offers graduating seniors the opportunity to pursue academic scholarship abroad. Hwang is one of just 42 students to receive the fellowship this year.
Hwang will spend a year abroad working on a series of projects related to the design of wearable devices— that is, a piece of technology, like a fitness tracker, that is meant to be worn by a user. " A Watson year provides fellows with the opportunity to test their aspirations and abilities through a personal project experienced on an international scale," according to the press release announcing the winners. Hwang will receive $36,000 for 12 months of travel and college loan assistance as needed.
Through her project, titled "Touching Humankind: Wearables for Society," Hwang will explore broad applications of wearable technology and how it can serve often-overlooked populations.
"Engineering is supposed to solve the problems of the world, but the reality is that technology often just benefits the people with the most money or the most power," Hwang says. "We have to change that."
During her Watson-supported year, Hwang will spend time in Togo, Switzerland, and China, with the exact timing of visits determined by the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global travel.
In Togo, Hwang will work with nonprofit organizations that endeavor to eliminate barriers to education. There, she will look for opportunities to improve the educational outcomes of schoolchildren through the use of wearable educational devices.
Next, Hwang will travel to Switzerland, where she will design wearable devices that can track the well-being of police officers during strenuous training protocols. "These are people who suffer from fatigue on the job. If we could monitor their performance throughout their service, we could prevent injuries before they happen," she says. In Switzerland, Hwang will also explore the potential for designing performance-monitoring tools for Paralympics athletes.
Finally, Hwang will travel to China, where she will work on using printable conductive ink to create wearable electronic circuits.
Hwang, a native of Southern California, decided to come to Caltech because she wanted to surround herself with people who were as excited about science and engineering as she was.
She has been active with the Caltech Y, which, she says, gave her an avenue to stay connected with her fellow students during the remote-learning period of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My involvement in the Caltech Y helped me ground myself in the community," Hwang says. For example, during the lockdown, Hwang organized a chess workshop taught by Konstantin Zuev, teaching assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences, that had more than 100 attendees over Zoom. "It was such an empowering moment—a reminder that you really can make a difference," she says.
After her Watson year abroad, Hwang will head to Stanford University for graduate studies. "Ultimately, my career goal is to be an engineer who designs solutions with global impact," she says.
Hwang joins the 54th class of Thomas J. Watson Fellows. The program was established in memory of Thomas J. Watson, former chairman and CEO of IBM. Previous Watson Fellows include Liana Merk (BS '21), who worked on sequencing and studying the DNA of bacterial cultures within local yogurts; Michelle Dan (BS '19), who studied humanity's impact on the planet from intersecting perspectives in the fields of biology, geology, the arts, and agriculture; and Michelle Wang (BS '18), who worked on a series of projects related to the augmentation of humanity through machines.