Racing, research fuels bid for Rhodes Scholarship

University of Tulsa mechanical engineering senior and Golden Hurricane athlete Kirk Smith reflects on his win as a Rhodes Scholar.

I became aware of TU while in high school, witnessing the long stream of distance runners our top-tier Division I program recruited from Missouri. A high school teacher also mentioned they offered significant, competitive academic scholarships. My knowledge stopped there, but I nonetheless submitted my application with hopes of someday running and studying there.

Fast forward to spring break of my senior year, when I came to Oklahoma for the first time to visit. I had earned a TU Presidential Scholarship (a full ride), but I was worried the university’s interests and reputation didn’t support my career goals. I was chiefly concerned with climate change and interested in clean energy as a result; TU’s status as a leading petroleum engineering school gave me pause.

Rhodes ScholarDuring my visit, I met with students and faculty including Will LePage (BS’13) and Dr. John Henshaw of the mechanical engineering department. They assured me there were opportunities to pursue my interests at TU, through groups like Sustainable Engineering for Needy & Emerging Areas (SENEA) and existing clean energy research. My encounters with students were overwhelmingly positive, and I got along well with the cross country team — I was sold.

The past four years have been a whirlwind (or, a Golden Hurricane…), and my experiences at Tulsa have ultimately led to my selection as a Rhodes Scholar for the Class of 2017. I am incredibly lucky to receive this honor. I can’t say why I was selected over any of the other exceedingly worthy candidates, but I will nonetheless continue to “fight the world’s fight” — not to honor or emulate the twisted legacy of Cecil Rhodes, but to act selflessly in the interest of humanity rather than personal advancement.

The scientifically certain impacts of climate change still horrify me. Current and future generations should not have their quality of life reduced because of more frequent natural disasters, rising sea levels, and climate-induced migration, conflict, and resource scarcities.

We know about this issue now, we know what we have to do and failing to take action would be reckless.

Moving forward, I hope to enable increased usage of clean energy by developing cheap, large-scale energy storage systems (aka big batteries). By harvesting the power of the sun and the wind during off-peak times, utilities can buy low and sell high with stored energy and enable a clean energy economy, tackling the intermittency problem of renewables.

There are several people I have to thank: chiefly, my family, friends and teammates that continue to support me throughout my journey. I am indebted to multiple groups at TU, not limited to the cross country and track & field programs, the entire mechanical engineering department, the Spanish department, the Global Scholars program, SENEA and the Presidential Scholars program (including the John Steele Zink Scholarships). Individually, I have to thank Ms. Teresa Bont for encouraging me to apply to TU, both Coach Gulleys for letting me walk on to their team four years ago, Dr. Todd Otanicar for allowing a random freshman into his lab to help with solar research and Ms. Nona Charleston for guiding me through the maze of competitive scholarships.