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W&L Senior Thomas Bowen Receives Fulbright Research Grant to Germany

Washington and Lee University senior Thomas Bowen of Fredericksburg, Va., has received a Fulbright research grant to Germany. His project is “Black Walnuts as Bio-inspired Packaging.”

“What is stronger than ceramics, softer than Styrofoam, biodegrades on a schedule and will reduce the 30 million tons of plastic we bury in America every year? It is the packaging of the future and may well be modeled after the seldom studied black walnut (Juglans nigra),” said Bowen. “Black walnuts have the perfect shell.

“My Fulbright project will focus on analyzing and replicating the specific microstructures of the Juglans nigra, in order to create a more sustainable and reliable packaging through biomimetics.”

Bowen will be working at The Plant Biomechanics Group (PBG) in Freiberg, Germany where researchers are investigating the potential of biomimetic materials and have made significant headway in understanding how plants manipulate simple fibers to form complex materials. He will work with Dr. Thomas Speck who stated that Bowen’s research “fit well with his intended projects.”

Bowen added that “PBG is a perfect fit for my research because it is located in Freiburg’s Botanical Garden which will give me access to walnut samples, the necessary facilities and plant physiologists who can help me navigate the plethora of plant structures.”

Speck is an expert on plant biomechanics and understands the connection between research and industry. ” could help me to advance my research to the final stages: cleaner, stronger packaging. Germany, a world leader in biomechanics, allows access to research and field experts not available in the U.S.,” said Bowen.

“Nearly four years ago, Thomas sat across the table during his Edward R. Mitchell Scholarship interview, describing in vivid detail an article he had read in National Geographic magazine about the burgeoning field of biomimetics…where humans look to nature for engineering design principles,” said Jonathan Erickson, assistant professor of engineering. “In Germany next year he’ll get to do exactly that investigating the structure-function of nut shells as inspiration for environmentally friendly man-made packaging materials.

“He is one of the most broadly intellectually curious people I’ve met. In between doing experiments, our conversations would range from swapping yarns of hiking and outdoors experiences, to his synthesizing science, history, philosophy, politics and international policy, foreign language, and current events,” said Erickson.

“Thomas has a great work ethic and excellent language skills, so by the time he took our spring term course in Bonn, Germany, his sophomore year, he was able to make an enormous leap forward in his ability to communicate and in his understanding of German culture,” said Debra Prager, associate professor of German. “He took full advantage of every opportunity to talk and listen, whether conversing with the students from the University of Bonn who joined in on classes, or discussing politics over dinner with his host family.”

Bowen is a graduate of James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg. At W&L, he is a physics and engineering major and German minor. He belongs to Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Eta Sigma and Sigma Pi Sigma Physics honor societies. He also is a member of W&L’s Outing Club.

Bowen has studied abroad in Bonn, Germany, and Auckland, New Zealand. He has been an Eagle Scout since 2009 and has volunteered as a landscaper at Boxerwood Garden in Lexington. He is the recipient of the Edward R. Mitchell Memorial Honor Scholarship and has been on the Honor Roll and Dean’s List.

After completing his Fulbright project, Bowen plans to apply to a graduate program in bioengineering to continue studying bioinspired materials in order to design cleaner, more reliable packaging materials.

“Some people take an opportunity and make the most of it,” said Joel Kuehner, associate professor of physics and engineering. “With Thomas, you can expect he will wring 10 times that much out of every opportunity. Few have worked this hard, this diligently, and with such pure purpose, and his efforts have been rewarded time and again. The Fulbright is the culmination of four years of personal and academic inquiry, and rarely have I seen the award so well deserved. Thomas is dedicated to the ideals of the Fulbright program to promote mutual understanding between our countries, and I am certain that he and his hosts will grow richly during their time together. “

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