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UC Berkeley Press Release

$100,000 in prizes for students' "Big Ideas"

– Rising to a challenge to design creative strategies to solve campus and world problems, 29 teams of students at the University of California, Berkeley, have been awarded over $100,000 in prize money for their proposals.

Selected from over 90 submissions in 10 categories, the winning proposals include a design for improved cook stoves for refugee camps in Darfur, blueprints for revamping a UC Berkeley campus plaza, and a strategy for using municipal waste materials to create electricity, ethanol and fertilizer.

Berkeley grad students confer with Indian officials
UC Berkeley graduate students Mayuri Panditrao (middle) and Tahir Akbar (in blue shirt) confer with senior officials from India's National Institute of Malaria Research in the Haridwar region of northern India. Pandiatrao, Akbar and UCB student Prasanth Jeevan were awarded $10,500 in the "Bears Breaking Boundaries" competition for their proposal to use geographic information systems to develop a model for predicting malaria outbreaks. (Prasanth Jeevan photo)

"The quality of the proposals was phenomenal. Their diversity and creativity exceeded all expectations," said Thomas Kalil, UC Berkeley's special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology. Kalil is director of the Big Ideas @ Berkeley initiative that co-sponsored the competition along with the UC Berkeley chapter of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC).

The competition, "Bears Breaking Boundaries," was announced in March 2006 and called on students to propose creative ideas in a broad range of subjects, such as science policy, clean energy, neglected diseases and information technology for society.

A Web page with a description of the winning proposals is being posted today (Wednesday, Sept. 6) at: http://bigideas.berkeley.edu.

"We know that our students have big ideas," Kalil said. "The goal of the competition was to find the students who are passionate about tackling major societal challenges and to give them the resources they need to pursue their vision. This will be an annual competition, and I hope that it will empower students to act on their ideals while they're completing their degrees."

Awards for winning proposals range from $937.50 to $10,500. Students may use the cash to advance their ideas or as scholarships for general education expenses. Teams that want to pursue their proposals will get help from Kalil in identifying additional partners and sources of funding.

A model for predicting malaria outbreaks in India proposed by a team of three students garnered the competition's top monetary award of $10,500. In May, the threesome traveled to India where they worked with scientists from India's National Institute of Malaria Research to gather data from various sites on factors that can affect populations of mosquitoes, the insects responsible for spread of the disease.

Developing their model back at UC Berkeley, the team is using geographic information systems (GIS) to correlate its data - including measurements of such factors as altitude, temperature, rainfall and the presence of ponds, lakes and rivers - with the incidence of malaria.

"We identified the environmental factors that definitely play a role in malaria outbreaks," said team member Mayuri Panditrao, a graduate student in public health. "Now, we're arranging an interview with the Indian minister of health. Our hope is that once we finish the model, he'll adopt our system and use it for the whole country."

If that happens, she said, it could help officials in India to deploy their limited financial resources for disease prevention or abatement in areas where malaria outbreaks are most likely to occur. Other members of that team are Prasanth Jeevan, a graduate student in engineering, and Tahir Akbar, a graduate student in public policy.

Other winning submissions include:

  • A proposal to create an interdisciplinary academic program to train future business leaders in the field of sustainable energy. The overarching goal of this "Center for Energy Innovation" is to accelerate the commercialization of clean energy technologies that will lower the risk of global warming and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. This proposal received $4,000.
  • A beautification plan for Lower Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus that incorporates elements intended to bolster the local economy while fostering a sense of community. The plan includes an arbor, an inclined lawn, a stage, and activities and programs that would create a lively urban plaza experience. This proposal received $5,000.
  • A proposal for policies to manage the environmental and health risks of nanotechnologies. These pre-emptive policies would safeguard people and the environment from any potentially harmful applications of the new technology while securing advancement of research and beneficial applications in the field. The proposal received $1,000.
  • A feasibility study that could lead to the design and construction of a pilot co-generation gasification plant. The facility would re-route the City of Berkeley's solid sewage, waste, un-recyclables and plant debris to produce electricity, ethanol and fertilizer. This proposal received $5,000.

The major sponsor of the competition, the Big Ideas @ Berkeley initiative, was established in 2005 to encourage and support efforts by undergraduate and graduate students at UC Berkeley to address challenges in such arenas as global public health, sustainable development and the development of sources of clean energy.

"Students can often accomplish a great deal with modest resources," Kalil said. "The Big Ideas initiative is meant to provide them with some of those resources, such as project funding, mentoring, introductions to potential corporate and non-profit partners, and advice on marketing, communications and fundraising."

The initiative received its initial funding from the Omidyar Network, an investment group created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

In addition to the Big Ideas initiative and ASUC, the Bears Breaking Boundaries competition was sponsored by these UC Berkeley entities: the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, the Division of Biological Sciences, the Center for New Media and the Center for Responsible Business. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory sponsored the competition's solar fuels category.