Fourth-year student, alumna named Marshall Scholars

Pradnya Narkhede and Valerie Gutmann, AB’17, to pursue interests in chemistry, social welfare

Fourth-year Pradnya Narkhede and Valerie Gutmann, AB’17, have won Marshall Scholarships to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom next fall. The highly competitive scholarships, announced Dec. 4, will enable 43 American students to study at the graduate level in any field of their choosing.

Narkhede will use her Marshall Scholarship to combine two one-year degrees: the first, at the University of Edinburgh in science and technology in society, and the second at Imperial College London in plant chemical biology.

“This award provides me with an unrivaled opportunity to probe the relationship between science and sustainable development,” said Narkhede, who is particularly interested in the role of agriculture. “Equipped with the tools I hope to gain from my studies in the U.K., I aim to become a globally engaged scientist, contributing innovative discoveries that shape intelligent policy and improve people’s lives worldwide.”

Gutmann plans to pursue a two-year MPhil in comparative social policy at the University of Oxford. She hopes to eventually attend law school and study how social welfare policy can be most effectively designed to help the most vulnerable populations.

“I’m interested in the ways to use a legal degree and a policy perspective to design and implement social welfare policy—in ways that effectively augment human dignity, which is what underlies everything I care about,” Gutmann said. “This is an opportunity to comparatively study welfare systems, not just in the U.S. or the U.K. but in international societies more broadly.”

Narkhede and Gutmann are the 24th and 25th people affiliated with the University of Chicago to win Marshall Scholarships since 1986. It’s the first time since 2010 that the University has had two Marshall Scholars in a single year; it had three winners in 1999.

“We are thrilled for Pradnya and Valerie’s accomplishments,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “Marshall Scholarships are awarded to students anticipated to be their country’s future intellectual leaders. Pradnya and Valerie’s rigorous pursuit of knowledge in global sustainability and social welfare policy epitomizes the scholarly leadership the University strives to foster. We are very proud of these students.”

The pursuit of global sustainability

Born and raised in rural India, Narkhede grew up visiting her family’s sugar cane farm—an experience that “beckoned an early fascination with the natural world,” she said. Years later that led to work that directly affects the lives of Indian farmers: Since May, Narkhede has served as a senior consultant at the Indian National Commission on Farmers, where she analyzes and designs initiatives to improve both environmental sustainability and agricultural productivity for smallholder growers. She also works to promote the use of science and appropriate technologies in attaining sustainable crop production.

In 2015, she founded and now directs Sustainable Soils, an initiative to serve remote Indian agricultural villages by providing soil testing for smallholder farmers and advice on crop rotation and fertilizer recommendations, while also engaging in the pilot installation of small-scale biogas and water-delivery systems. The award-winning program has garnered a $50,000 United Nations Development Programme sponsorship.

Narkhede also has received numerous research-related awards and fellowships. This past year, she spent several months as a research scholar at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, which allowed her to conduct water research as part of an international collaboration between Blaustein, the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. As part of that fellowship, she oversaw fieldwork in Uganda piloting an irrigation implementation project. Earlier this year she also won a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, an award that honors undergraduates in the natural sciences, mathematics, computer science and engineering.

Previously, Narkhede worked as a virtual research intern at the U.S. Department of Defense and was a 2016 Institute of Biophysical Dynamics Scholar with UChicago’s Department of Chemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, researching single-cell epigenetics. She plans to graduate in June with honors in chemistry and biological chemistry.

During her time at UChicago, Narkhede has taken part in numerous clubs and activities, including serving as president of the group Out in STEM, treasurer and co-director of Women in Science—both committed to the inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences—and as a teaching assistant in the Biological Sciences Division. She has participated as a varsity rower/coxswain with UChicago Crew and currently volunteers as manager of a local community garden that provides nutritional education and produce to low-income families in the Hyde Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods. She is also an award-winning pianist.

Chief among her activism, though, is her commitment to science: “In examining and engineering plant, microbial and other living systems, I hope to advance the prospects for food and energy security as well as human health by developing more stress-tolerant crops, robust sources of renewable biofuels and living factories for life-saving medicines,” Narkhede said. “There is incredible power in harnessing the tenets of biochemistry to promote sustainable development, and I hope to be at the forefront of this movement.”

Working to address housing issues

Gutmann became interested in social welfare issues, particularly housing, while a first-year student in the College. As a caseworker with Health Leads, a nonprofit that aims to address the social determinants of health, Gutmann volunteered at federally qualified health centers on Chicago’s South and West sides. She connected medical patients to social service agencies and charitable organizations in the city. “The most common problem patients faced was housing insecurity, and there was nothing I could do for them on that front,” said Gutmann.

“I grew up in a household that had a strong emphasis on what it meant to be physically together in a space, what it meant to understand home as a place of security and refuge and understanding and support,” said Gutmann, who was raised in suburban Long Grove, Ill. “That sense of home seemed really contrary to the kind of housing situations people were facing when they came to Health Leads for help.”

At UChicago, Gutmann took a class on housing, earned a grant from the Pozen Center for Human Rights and eventually decided to major in sociology with a focus on urban inequality. Gutmann wrote her BA thesis on the landmark 1966 case Gautreaux et al. v. Chicago Housing Authority, in which the courts ruled that the CHA was perpetuating racial segregation through its building practices. She examined the contemporary implications of the case, interviewing dozens of attorneys, housing advocates, residents and CHA employees.

Gutmann currently works as a reporting analyst for a private contractor of the CHA that administers 27,000 subsidized housing vouchers in Chicago. She said the job allows her to understand how the private and public sectors work together to serve the public—issues raised in the aftermath of the Gautreaux case.

“When they filed Gautreaux, the ACLU thought that the result would be the building of public housing developments in predominantly white neighborhoods. That didn’t happen. The CHA’s solution to desegregating wasn’t creating concentrations of poverty in more affluent places, it was de-concentrating poverty, which I think has a lot of really interesting sociological complications,” Gutmann said. “I wouldn’t have an appreciation for the work I’m doing now if I hadn’t studied the shift toward subsidized housing vouchers through the course of my thesis.”

While a UChicago student, Gutmann was a research assistant for two School of Social Service Administration scholars. Along with Assoc. Prof. Evelyn Brodkin, Gutmann examined legislative issues in Sweden and Denmark during the European refugee crisis. She also researched Puerto Rican musicians in Woodlawn during the mid-20th century as part of Assoc. Prof. Bill Sites’ upcoming book on music and community building.

The summer after her first year, Gutmann co-founded the nonprofit South Side in Focus, which aims to amplify the voices of South Side community members through public art exhibits. “With every opportunity my goal has been to listen and to learn, instead of assuming that I know what is best for people in situations I have never had to face,” Gutmann said.

Both scholars secured university nomination and application support through the College Center for Scholarly Advancement, which guides undergraduates and College alumni through rigorous application processes for nationally competitive fellowships. Additional support is provided by the British Awards faculty nomination committee; their ongoing service is a critical part of our students’ success at the national level.