The Odyssey Fellowships are four significant scholarships in the Virginia Tech Honors College that provide an opportunity like no other: Students propose and design an experience unique to them that will help them better understand the world and their place in it. As an Odyssey Fellow, the Virginia Tech Honors College provides the resources to help them have their experience realized. These fellowship experiences are described as life changing by former fellows, and many applicants also claim that the skills they develop in the application process alone makes the experience worthwhile.

Meet our 2021 Odyssey Fellows: Saket Bikmal (Perna), Nate Doggett (Class of 1954), Sumaiya Haque (Horton), and Hannah Jane Upson (Class of 1956 Ut Prosim).

Saket Bikmal (Perna)

Saket Bikmal
Saket Bikmal, photograph provided by Saket Bikmal.

Saket Bikmal, 21, is a rising senior from Ashburn, Virginia. Bikmal is majoring in computational and systems neuroscience with a minor in innovation. His goal is to become a “NEURO-preneur,” or a neuroscience entrepreneur, who creates and explores neuro-assistive technologies for children with special needs as well as increase the accessibility to neuro-assistive devices in developing countries. To do so, Bikmal plans on pursuing a MD-PhD and combining his interests in social entrepreneurship and neural engineering. “For my first endeavor, I am interested in the field of pain,” Bikmal explained. “In particular, pain detection in those who can’t communicate their injuries.”

Currently, Bikmal conducts research on computational models of pain, is a sub team captain for BioActiVT, and a member of the biomedical engineering design team.

In the Virginia Tech Honors College, Bikmal was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship and was able to access international experiences. Although he’s had amazing experiences of self-growth and discovery, Bikmal’s favorite part about being an Honors student are the friends he’s made in the Honors College. “I met one of my best friends through an Honors College workshop,” Bikmal reflected. “I have learned so much from him – both personally, and in the fields of robotics and machine learning.”

Bikmal discovered the Perna Scholarship during his sophomore year. He’s excited at the possibility of studying abroad in Switzerland to learn more on global perspectives on pain perception and rehabilitation.

“The Perna Scholarship is about improving quality of life - which is exactly my mission in life. Through the use of neural assistive technologies, I plan to improve the quality of life for millions with special needs and/or physical disabilities. For as long as I can remember, I've always worked on projects to help my brother Himal, who has severe autism, enjoy his life,” Bikmal said. “From a robot that would clean up after his food spills to my current pain detection device, my goal is to ensure [that] Himal leads an independent and exciting life, without need for constant monitoring. Through the Perna Scholarship, I am one step closer to making this goal a reality for him, and millions of special needs kids globally.”

The Patricia C. Perna Fellowship was created by the Perna family in honor and memory of the family’s matriarch, Patricia C. Perna, who passed away in 2006 following an extended battle with cancer.

The Perna Fellowship allows students interested in medical occupations or management to design an experience to explore and research quality of life issues associated with healthcare treatment and equipment.

The best word Bikmal likes to describe himself as is, “sponge.” He loves to absorb knowledge and experience through various opportunities – just like a sponge absorbs water. “I like to get involved with almost any opportunity that interests me,” Bikmal explained.

One of Bikmal’s most fun experiences he’s had was working with Rem and Company, a non-profit consulting group that helps companies affected by COVID-19. Although he’s unable to discuss the full extent of his work at this time, Bikmal said what made his experience with Rem so enjoyable was the chance to help improve the quality of life for their client and, therefore, the possibility of improving the quality of life for people across the globe.

When Bikmal isn’t exploring the field of pain, embarking on interesting experiences, or completing assignments, he loves going to the gym, running marathons, rock-climbing, and even cooking. In fact, Bikmal said his new full-time hobby is baking doughnuts. “I’ve recently entered a phase of making home-made doughnuts and am constantly experimenting with new recipes!” said Bikmal.

Nate Doggett (Class of 1954)

Nate Doggett image
Nate Doggett, photograph provided by Nate Doggett.

Nate Doggett, 20, is a current electrical and computer engineering major from Poquoson, Virginia. Doggett is interested in exploring most engineering disciplines, but he especially enjoys learning about electrical and computer engineering topics. “[Electrical and computer engineering topics] are fundamental to much of our day-to-day activities,” Doggett said. “I find it really interesting to learn how all of these things around us work and function – and how their design can be implemented into other projects.”

As a Virginia Tech Honors College student, Doggett is passionate about the Honors College and all of the opportunities that the college provides for students. “The opportunity to take unique classes on transdisciplinary subjects, engage with and meet Honors faculty with a variety of backgrounds, and being able to join in with other motivated Honors students has made my time in the Honors College very rewarding,” he explained. “I would definitely recommend it!”

Although Doggett learned about the Odyssey Fellowship during his freshman year, he didn’t initially have plans to apply until he spoke to Christina McIntyre, the Director of Professional Development, National, and International Scholarships at the Virginia Tech Honors College. “[Odyssey Fellowships] weren’t on my mind till after speaking to Christina McIntyre around November,” he said. “I was really attracted to the fellowship because it provided an opportunity to engage with and explore a topic specific to my interests, outside of what could be learn or experienced in a classroom or on campus.”

The Class of 1954 Fellowship is a scholarship that provides outstanding Honors students with unusual opportunities extending beyond the classroom during their last two years of undergraduate study. The winner, named a Class of 1954 Fellow, receives funding to be used toward his or her travel experience and university tuition. Class of 1954 Fellows are encouraged to reflect on their passions and intellectual interests and then define an experience that embodies these curiosities.

Doggett is passionate about working on and building different kinds of projects, whether that be crafting a longboard with a lithium-ion battery and a belt-driver motor system, fixing up cars, -- or even help construct an entire house. “My go-to fun fact is that my family and I built the house that we live in today,” he exclaimed. “It took us about seven years of working on it over weekends, but it’s still standing!” Doggett also enjoys playing basketball and socializing with his friends.

Sumaiya Haque (Horton)

Sumaiya Haque
Sumaiya Haque, photograph provided by Sumaiya Haque.

Sumaiya Haque, 20, is a rising junior from McLean, Virginia. Haque is majoring in industrial systems engineering and minoring in philosophy, politics, and economics. In her academic career, she is most excited about exploring the intersection of engineering and the humanities.

“Most of my current research, internships, and upcoming projects revolve around improving access to education in underserved communities, as well as exploring humane and efficient ways to improve the criminal justice system,” Haque elaborated. “I am fascinated by the synergy between engineering and social activism, since I believe that it is rarely explored, but has tremendous potential to impact society.”

Within the next few years, Haque hopes to discover and build on the unique way that she combines both of her passions. The encouraging, challenging, and transdisciplinary environment of the Virginia Tech Honors College further pushes Haque to break boundaries in her academia. In her peer environment, Haque says she has plenty of opportunities to collaborate with other interesting and highly motivated Honors students as well as develop relationships with professors that are integral to her academic, professional, and personal development.

“Having a group of individuals, from students to researchers and professors, who dedicate a significant time to advancing their knowledge and understanding of a particular subject and [to] nurturing individual intellectual development and creativity through an open exchange of ideas excites me,” said Haque. “Being a Virginia Tech Honors student helps me feel inspired to strive for bigger goals and invest my energy into my education.”

The Wayne and Claire Horton Fellowship seemed like a perfect fit for Haque to combine and further explore her passions. “I felt drawn to the Horton Fellowship,” she said. “It called for engineers to use engineering education to create a societal impact and foster an appreciation for the humanities and arts. As a Calhoun Scholar and engineering student at Virginia Tech, it can be easy to get swept up in the industry and technical aspects – and overlook broader cultural and political issues that exist in the world. I knew the Horton Fellowship would allow me to apply my engineering knowledge to the criminal justice space and tap into my intellectual curiosity.”

Established by Wayne Horton, a graduate of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, and Claire Horton, an anthropology professor who taught at Marshall University, Horton fellowship’s purpose is twofold: To provide an outstanding Honors Engineering student with the resources to design and complete a major educational experience that gives focus and direction to his or her undergraduate efforts; and secondly, to ensure that the Horton Fellow obtains significant experience in the humanities and social sciences in addition to his or her degree in Engineering.

Applicants must be in the College of Engineering as well as have significant experience in the humanities and social sciences and demonstrate significant engagement in a foreign language and the performing arts. And so, the Horton Fellowship fits Haque’s ideals and ambitions thoroughly.

This summer, Haque is interning with the Calhoun Center of Higher Education Innovation to create a curriculum about drone technologies that will be implemented to understand high school students in Northern Virginia and Newport News. “Through this opportunity, I will be working on both the technical sides to learning about these technologies and also teaching them to students in a digestible way,” she said. 

Outside of professional activities, Haque is additionally a Calhoun and Torgersen Scholar, an Undergraduate Student Representative to ISE Advisory Board, a member of the Engineering Dean’s Team, a writer for Engineer’s Forum, and on the Class of 2023’s Leadership Team. “I hope to continue exploring ways to combine my passion for leadership and service with my engineering knowledge in the next few years,” Haque said.

When Haque has free time, she enjoys exploring her artistic side through photography and creating surreal collages. She also loves listening to music, exploring various music genres as well as artists, and creating playlists. When she’s not relishing in music, Haque is either watching movies, watching anime, or reading a good book. “Arts and culture serve as a creative outlet and escape from mundane routines,” she explained. “It also keeps me inspired and open-minded!”

Hannah Jane Upson (Class of 1956 Ut Prosim)

Hannah Upson
Hannah Jane Upson, photograph provided by Hannah Upson.

Hannah Jane Upson, 19, is a political science major from Waynesboro, Virginia. Upson is also working toward a minor in disability studies. “I’m highly interested in studying how we create policies for marginalized people in America and the implications of this process on people’s lives,” said Upson. “I wish to look more into how to increase solidarity among grass roots organizations, not only in the U.S., but internationally as well. I also plan on researching the way technology is utilized by disabled people to both expand the disability community and as a platform for social justice.”

When Upson discovered the Class of 1956 Ut Prosim Fellowship, she was fascinated by the idea of receiving funding to start a project in the New River Valley that could connect disabled people of all ages by providing them space to work and leadership opportunities. Additionally, the project would provide the entire community with used books. “The used book stand could display core values of the disability community to the New River Valley,” Upson said.

The Class of 1956 Ut Prosim Fellowship provides outstanding Honors students with unusual opportunities extending far beyond the classroom and campus during their last two years of undergraduate study. Ultimately, this fellowship seeks to identify students with outstanding ability and the capacity to make a difference in the world in which we live through volunteerism or service.

The Virginia Tech Honors College has served as a supportive and influential community for Upson. “Besides the free pastries that used to be offered on Thursdays [in Wake-Up With Honors], the Honors College has provided me with access to resources to broaden my educational experience in unimaginable ways,” she explained. “I’m very grateful for the support that has been shown to me by the college, as it has allowed me to form stronger connections with my professors and people in the local community.”

Upson has always been intrigued by different leadership methods in social justice movements. Through the stories she studied, Upson said she truly realized the importance of collaboration in enacting structural change in society. “As a result, most of the current work I do outside of school revolved around this idea of creating collective solidarity between different marginalized communities,” she said. “While at Virginia Tech, I have been able to see this solidarity being modeled by my professors and members of the Disability Caucus and Alliance. These people have encouraged me to actively build relationships and learn from others, both in and outside of the classroom.”

When she isn’t actively learning about social justice or getting involved in the community, Upson enjoys reading memoirs and discussing topics she’s passionate about with anyone who will listen. She also enjoys eating at new restaurants or eating sweets (especially ice cream or pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins) with friends.