Geographically, for Erin Webb (Wilkerson), BS agricultural engineering ’99, heading to college was a short trip of just seventeen miles. Yet, higher education felt a world away from her rural upbringing in Union County. The journey this first-generation college student made to UT set her on a course that has almost literally taken her to Mars and back, and now on to a key position at a national laboratory.
Today Webb leads the Bioresource Science and Engineering Group in the Oak Ridge National Lab Environmental Sciences Division. As a doctoral student at the University of Florida, she partnered with NASA on a research project for a future greenhouse on Mars. Webb researched radish growth and the plant’s ability to retain moisture in a lower pressure environment like that found on the planet’s surface.
“I have always been fascinated by how plants interact with their environment and how we can use those plants for food and other uses,” Webb says. The NASA project fused her love of agriculture, math, and science, which came together for her as a student in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, known simply during her time as Agricultural Engineering.
“It was a big deal for me to come to college. This was an environment where I was challenged no doubt, especially in engineering, but in a way that was really well supported. I think that is a hallmark of the Herbert College of Agriculture, as it is named now, and the department during my time as a student.”
The department honored Webb as a distinguished alumna at its award banquet. In a speech made on the occasion, she remarked about the impact the faculty have had on her own career:
“One of the things I feel that I’ve done best along my career is to select good mentors. I’ve had the honor of working with some brilliant engineers—several of whom are here tonight—who are also incredible human beings.”
Webb is striving to honor one of those professors through a scholarship established in his name. The William E. Hart Scholarship honors the impact of her former professor, who helped organize Webb’s first professional internship and has assisted countless other students through his nearly four-decade career in the department.
“Dr. Hart has such a student-focused mindset. We really want to honor that, as well as help a student,” Webb explains.
Today Webb is using her love of systems modeling on a national scale through her work at the national lab. As reducing carbon emissions continues to rise as a priority for many, Webb and her team are using data and modeling to look at how to deploy, scale up, and use plants in industrial systems for fuels, products, and power. Their work is impacting national policy and where research dollars are invested.
The William E. Hart Scholarship is in a fundraising phase. Join Webb in supporting this fund for future students. visit advanceutia.tennessee.edu/hartscholarship.
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