When Raquel Hakes Weston-Dawkes was considering doctoral programs, she knew one thing for certain: “I wanted to study wildfires,” she says now, having earned her Ph.D. in engineering. For many doctoral candidates, however, the subjects they most want to pursue and the availability of funding to support their education do not always line up. Too often, graduate students must choose between their true passion and an imperfect, but economically appropriate, fit.
“The biggest question for anyone going into grad school is: Where’s my funding and what strings are attached?” she says.
Raquel completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, studying fire protection engineering—a field aimed at reducing the burden of fire loss on human lives and property through education, research, and outreach.
It was during her master’s studies that she fell in love with wildfire research specifically, studying the way red-hot bits of burning wood and vegetation—called firebrands—rise from the flames and get carried away by winds only to land and ignite new fires. Often those firebrands settle on the wooden decks of nearby homes. In the intersection between fire and fuel, Raquel’s passion was born. She was hooked. Wildfires it had to be. She was soon studying that fundamental science that could lead to new prevention approaches and new decking materials that reduce the spread of wildfires to valuable property.
To aid her academic aspirations, Raquel was among the first graduate students selected for the Clark Doctoral Fellows Program at the Clark School. The funding she receives through that program—made possible as part of Building Together, a nearly $220 million investment for Maryland from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation in 2017—has allowed her to pursue her degree in the exact field she most wanted to study.
“The Clark Doctoral Fellowship provides the money to do the research you’re passionate about without having a lot of strings attached,” she says.
Up to 30 new Fellows are selected for the Maryland program each year. Candidates must be nominated by their advisors and departments. The Fellowship pays full tuition, provides a living stipend during the first academic year of the doctoral program, supports travel to international conferences, and is renewable for up to three additional years.
Today, there are more than 100 Fellows in the program from some of the top engineering schools across the country. The Clark Foundation places a high value on technology education, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Many Clark Fellows will go on to be leaders in academia and industry. Others will launch companies that bring life-changing products and services to the world.
Raquel’s Clark Doctoral Fellowship has supported her research for four years at the University of Maryland. It paid for her to attend the most important international forest fire conference in Portugal—held just once every four years—where Raquel presented her latest research. Having made the very most of her Clark Doctoral Fellowship, Raquel looks forward to embarking on her career.
“There’s a lot of neat research going on in the national labs. I think that would be a great next step,” she says.
From there, things could lead in many promising directions—leadership at a national lab, a prominent position in academia, or even possibly entrepreneurial opportunities in fire prevention. Whatever her path, Raquel says she looks forward to being a part of the solutions that could help stem the destruction that catastrophic wildfires cause to lives and livelihoods.