Skye Pham ‘23 Receives Fulbright Award to Study Abroad in Finland
Pham will pursue a master’s degree in creative sustainability from the School of Chemical Engineering at Aalto University.
Growing up, Skye Pham discovered that many challenges can be solved with a little bit of ingenuity and hard work. When she wanted new clothes for her dolls, for instance, she learned to create them herself by sewing together old fabrics. So it’s no coincidence that Pham will soon depart NC State to study how to develop sustainable solutions through one of the nation’s most prestigious scholarship programs.
Pham, who is expected to graduate from the College of Natural Resources in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sustainable materials and technology with minors in art and design and renewable energy assessment, has been named a recipient of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program award. The award will allow her to pursue a master’s degree in creative sustainability from the School of Chemical Engineering at Aalto University, a public research university located in Espoo, Finland.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the federal government’s flagship international educational exchange program that provides grants to graduating seniors and recent graduates to study, teach English or conduct research overseas. Recipients are selected in an open, merit-based competition that considers leadership potential, academic and/or professional achievement and record of service.
“I’m incredibly honored to be named a Fulbright award recipient, and I’m excited to continue developing my knowledge of bio-products while also learning how different disciplines can help to inform my field,” Pham said. “My undergraduate degree has furthered my interest in understanding sustainability from a holistic perspective. Aalto University is the perfect fit for me to further my knowledge in this field.”
The Road to Success
Pham’s interest in sustainability is largely a product of her childhood abroad. Though she was born in Chapel Hill, she spent many of her elementary years in Vietnam and China. There she was exposed to a variety of cultures — and their responses to their surrounding environments. By the time Pham reached high school, she had moved back to North Carolina. And upon enrolling in an environmental science course during her junior year, she quickly realized that her family’s regular habits of repurposing used materials and growing their own vegetables were considered “sustainable” practices.
After graduating as valedictorian of her class in 2019, Pham enrolled in the sustainable materials and technology degree program in the Department of Forest Biomaterials. “At the time, I felt that the sustainable materials and technology program offered a more hands-on and practical approach to a sustainability-focused degree, and of course, it did,” Pham said. “While it has a material science focus, it also emphasizes interdisciplinary learning, including courses in business, ethics, and design.”
NC State students enrolled in the sustainable materials and technology program gain an in-depth understanding of how to create and manipulate materials derived from renewable natural resources such as wood, bamboo and grasses. As part of SMT 444: Sustainable Composite and Biopolymers, for example, Pham and her classmates worked in teams to build boats out of carbon fiber and other composites and then tested their ability to float in the swimming pool at Carmichael Gym.
“The College of Natural Resources has prepared me for my future by providing me with enriching academic and extracurricular opportunities,” Pham said. “Through these experiences, I have been able to build my knowledge of sustainability from different perspectives and gain hands-on experience addressing environmental issues.”
During her sophomore year, Pham joined the Social Innovation Fellows program and worked with the university’s Compost Facility and Research Cooperative to develop a solution to on-campus waste sorting and contamination problems. She introduced a bill to the student senate that would require all of NC State’s incoming students to complete online modules about waste sorting in order to reduce compost contamination. The bill was passed and went into effect in the fall semester of last year.
Pham also served as a technical analyst for the Hodges Wood Products Laboratory, an experience that she cited as being integral to her decision to apply for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and to pursue her graduate degree. Opened in 1960, the Hodges Wood Products Laboratory is the industry’s premier testing and technical service facility for investigating the properties of wood, forest biomaterials and energy products.
“My experience with the Hodges Wood Products Laboratory really helped me to realize just how many jobs are available in this field,” Pham said. “If it hadn’t been such a great experience, I probably wouldn’t feel as certain about my future as I do now.”
A Bright Future Ahead
Once Pham graduates from NC State this spring, she will begin the preparations for her departure to Finland in August. While at Aalto University, Pham will work as part of an interdisciplinary team of students to develop sustainable solutions for human, urban, industrial and business environments. She will spend two years at the university before returning to the U.S. to either pursue a doctoral degree or full-time career.
Pham said her upcoming trip to Finland has brought about mixed emotions. While she’s nervous about moving abroad without family and friends, she’s also excited for the opportunity to visit a new country. Pham discovered a passion for cultural exchange while serving as the creative director and internal vice president for the Vietnamese Student Association at NC State. In fact, she’s already begun learning the Finnish language on DuoLingo and thinking of possible destinations and attractions, including the northern lights.
“I was a child and depended on my parents when I moved to Vietnam and China. Now I’ll be doing it on my own,” Pham said. “It’ll be a good growing and learning opportunity.”
Of all the things that Pham is leaving behind at NC State, she said she’ll mostly miss the community of faculty, staff and students who have provided invaluable guidance and support throughout her journey. “The College of Natural Resources is a really small, tight-knit community so you get to know everyone,” she said. “The faculty and staff truly make you feel supported, and being surrounded by students who are also passionate about the environment has been inspiring. I’m going to miss it a lot.”
Pham extended a special mention of gratitude to a number of faculty and staff, including Perry Peralta and Ilona Peszlen of the Department of Forest Biomaterials; Lyndsey Campbell of the Hodges Wood Products Laboratory; Raj Narayan of the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science; and Courtney Hughes and Kristen Hetrick of the University Fellowships Office. She also thanked the donors who supported her through scholarships, including the Linde Natural Resources Scholarship.