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Fulbright Global Scholar Continues Energy Research Despite Pandemic

Chien-fei Chen, director of education and diversity programs at UT's Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT)

As an environmental sociologist working in the field of engineering, Chien-fei Chen thrives on unique, multidisciplinary research questions. In 2018, she became interested in pursuing a multidisciplinary, multi-cultural research project that would explore issues surrounding the equality of renewable energy, specifically the differences between Western and Chinese cultures, and how new energy solutions can impact vulnerable areas.

Chen is director of education and diversity programs at the Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), a National Science Foundation-funded engineering research center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; a research associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); and adjunct faculty in the Department of Sociology.

For advice on how to proceed, Micah Beck, associate professor in EECS, advised Chen to contact Alan Rutenberg, research development manager in the Office of Research and Engagement. Rutenberg leads yearly workshops on the Fulbright Scholar Program, encouraging faculty to apply for this line of funding.

“I wasn’t sure if the Fulbright Program would be interested in the technology aspect of my research,” Chen recalls. “Alan said that competing for a project in the United Kingdom was especially competitive. However, because I had a different angle and a new idea, he thought my idea had merit. Plus, I was going to Cardiff University in Wales, not Oxford or Cambridge, which gave me a better chance.”

So, she went for it and began preparing her application for the Fulbright Global Scholar Award.

In addition to the foundational information shared during his Fulbright workshop, Rutenberg met with her for one-on-one consultations, edited her proposal, and offered grantsmanship advice. In March 2019, Chen was notified of her selection as a Fulbright Global Scholar—one of only 25 throughout the United States. Her proposal, “When East Meets West: An Interdisciplinary and Cross-cultural Research on Energy Justice and Renewable Technology Adoption for Future Smart Communities,” focuses on energy needs and uses across social lines.

“It is certainly an honor to receive such an award,” Chen says with gratitude.

UT's Chien-fei Chen in Wuzhen

Chen in Wuzhen, China

At this time, Chen’s research is still in progress. She ran into major hurdles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring her to cancel travel plans to Wuhan, China. Instead, she stayed with family in Taiwan and conducted her research remotely. Though her travel to Wales was also canceled, Chen continues her research from her home office in Knoxville. She’s working with the Fulbright office to adjust plans and still hopes to travel to complete this research when it is safe again. Chen is currently conducting energy inequality issues resulting from COVID-19, which is an extension of her interdisciplinary aspects of energy equality for Fulbright award.

Chen encourages faculty who might want to pursue similar funding to approach research from an interdisciplinary perspective.

“There are a lot of engineering faculty doing something meaningful to society. I suggest that they work with social scientists to explore the human perspective,” said Chen. “On the other hand, social scientists should work with technology, which is often needed for their methodology.”

She also recommends contacting Rutenberg to understand the funding source(s) and crafting a compelling application.

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by then-Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Today, Fulbright is a widely recognized and prestigious international exchange, supported for more than half a century by the American people through an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress and by the people of partner nations. The Fulbright Global Scholar Award allows U.S. academics and professionals to engage in multi-country, trans-regional projects.

The deadline for the next round (2021-2011) of Fulbright Global Scholar awards is Sept. 15, 2020. Contact Rutenberg at arutenberg@utk.edu for more information.