VIPER Aims to Train the Next Generation of Energy Leaders
By Erica Andersen
Designed for highly motivated students interested in careers on the cutting edge of energy science, the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) seeks no less than the utmost commitment to an energy revolution.
Each generation faces its defining issues, and for these current students, VIPER’s managing director Kristen Hughes says, “This is really the challenge of their time.”
As the window to make a significant change in global carbon emissions narrows, this challenging dual-degree program at the University of Pennsylvania hopes to produce highly trained researchers who will make meaningful contributions to a true overhaul of the current energy infrastructure.
“We really want our students to be part of the scientific and engineering research community that is transforming our energy system and making it sustainable,” Hughes says. “That is our goal. And we’re very ambitious in that regard, and not shy in saying so.”
VIPER was established through the generosity of Trustee Emeritus P. Roy Vagelos, C’50, and his wife, Diana. Andrew Rappe, Blanchard Professor of Chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, and John Vohs, Carl V. S. Patterson Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, serve as faculty co-directors of the program, which will welcome its sixth class to Philadelphia this fall.
The program combines rigorous academic training in science and engineering disciplines with hands-on research experience, which begins during the summer following the freshman year and spans several semesters. VIPER students’ early involvement in research means that they are well positioned to apply to advanced degree programs after completing their undergraduate careers at Penn.
“By the time students finish this program, they are deeply knowledgeable in the topic that they have been part of for the past four years,” Hughes says.
The program also requires two VIPER-specific courses. These consecutive seminars, taken during the spring of the freshman year and the fall of the sophomore year, give students the tools to communicate their research interests as well as approach potential faculty mentors. VIPER students also present their work during poster sessions and in more informal discussions, where they get used to both answering questions about their own research and formulating questions about the work of others. While it’s not a requirement of the program, many students have published their work in peer-reviewed journals.
VIPER students also take other energy-related coursework to expand their understanding of the intricacies of the energy ecosystem.
“Our modern energy system touches on almost every aspect of our experience on this planet, and our students are educated with that in mind,” Hughes says. “They have a remarkable understanding of its complexity. Not just that improvements need to occur, but also the different reasons why that change needs to occur.”
“I’m proud of them for applying their brilliance to this particular question,” she says.