Rice University alumna Sarah Hooper ‘17 has been awarded a prestigious 2018 Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Fellowship for graduate education. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Stanford University, where she is developing new medical imaging devices and computational tools for better and more accessible diagnosis.
Hertz Fellowships, which include five years of financial support for graduate school in the applied physical, biological and engineering sciences, are among the most prestigious and competitive in the nation. Hooper, one of 10 recipients announced this week, was chosen from more than 700 applicants after a grueling selection process that included both a technical interview that tested applicants’ knowledge of broad scientific principles as well as an in-depth second interview.
The Hertz Foundation is the only organization in the United States that supports Ph.D. candidates for a full five years (valued at $250,000) and grants students total autonomy in their research. To date, Hertz Fellows collectively hold more than 3,000 patents, have founded more than 200 companies and have received more than 200 major national and international awards, including eight Breakthrough Prizes in Science, a Fields Medal, a Turing Award and two Nobel Prizes.
Robbee Baker Kosak, president of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, said the 2018 class joins “the hundreds of Hertz Fellows who are leading important breakthroughs and developing some of the most important scientific and engineering solutions to challenges in our world today.”
With a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering and a minor in global health technologies, Hooper applies those skills and other computational approaches to solve medical problems.
“I work at the intersection of many fields,” said the native of Austin, Texas. “At this boundary between engineering and medicine, there are countless new, exciting and quickly evolving ideas. To be able to pursue these ideas, unencumbered by strict funding constraints, is a unique and valuable opportunity. I’m excited to have the flexibility to research and innovate so freely, and to use this opportunity to help improve patient care and health outcomes.”
During her time at Rice, Hooper won a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship in addition to many other accolades. While earning her degree, she worked with Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, alongside a large team of undergraduates mentored by Gary Woods, professor in the practice of computer technology and electrical and computer engineering. The team created a seizure-prediction system for people with epilepsy and, for this, won the Excellence in Engineering Design Award at Rice’s 2017 Engineering Design Showcase; the Bill Wilson Senior Design Award for Best Engineering Design at Rice’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Affiliates Day; and second-best student paper at the Asilomar Conference on Signals, Systems and Computers.
Creating inexpensive medical devices is a passion project for Hooper, who spent time working with the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health. Guided by Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health; Maria Oden, director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and a full teaching professor in bioengineering; and Veronica Leautaud, director of education for Rice 360°, her team developed a low-cost temperature regulation system for a bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device, which treats newborns with respiratory distress syndrome.
“I also did an internship in Malawi, where I worked with students from Rice and students from the University of Malawi Polytechnic to create low-cost medical devices,” Hooper said. She said was inspired by her projects and professors at Rice to pursue such life-changing (and life-saving) work as a career.
“The Rice Electrical and Computer Engineering Department did a great job of preparing me to enter graduate school and introduced me to many open research questions I am now interested in exploring,” Hooper said. “Along with equipping me with technical and research skills, my experience working with Dr. Aazhang and the Digital Cure for Epilepsy team at Rice prompted me to look at other ways machine learning and signal processing could be used in the medical field. Through the global health program at Rice, I developed a deep commitment to using my skills to help improve patient care, particularly in areas with limited access to resources.”