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Valderrama Earns Fulbright Award

Matthew Valderrama wasn’t sure about his future when he took part in the Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering as a rising senior in high school.

Valderrama didn’t think he wanted to stay in Tennessee to attend college and didn’t have engineering at the top of his list for potential majors.

But one guest lecture changed everything.

The late Rupy Sawhney, an industrial and systems engineering professor and Heath Faculty Fellow in Engineering, spoke to the Governor’s School students in the summer of 2018.

“He said something along the lines of after doctors, engineers are the second-most important occupation in making the world a better place,” Valderrama recalled. “That resonated with me quite a lot. I decided then and there that I wanted to study engineering at the University of Tennessee. His short lecture changed my life to be fully honest.”

Valderrama is the latest Tickle College of Engineering student to earn a Fulbright U.S. Student Program award. A recent Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) graduate, Valderrama will be studying at Aalborg University in Denmark.

Valderrama plans to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering with an emphasis on sustainability and renewable energy.

“My parents are first-generation immigrants to the United States from the Philippines, so I feel like part of me gets to live their experience of moving to an entirely new country,” said Valderrrama, whose mom is a pediatric endocrinologist at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. “I think it’s going to be very interesting trying to explore a whole new world just like they did. I am very excited and honored to receive a Fulbright award.”

Founded in 1946 and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and with support from the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program enables academic exchanges between the United States and over 140 countries. Fulbright U.S. Student Program award recipients pursue graduate study, conduct research or serve as English teaching assistants abroad.

Valderrama worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Center for Renewable Carbon at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture under the mentorship of Professor David Harper.


Under the mentorship of Associate Department Head and MSE Professor David Keffer, he led a team of MSE juniors on a research project to restore a 1907 reed organ, with an emphasis on comparing the modern, available replacement materials with the original, historical materials. The project won first place at the 2022 EURēCA (Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement) annual poster competition at UT and second place in the national 2022 ASM Student Design competition. The work was published in the Journal of American Organbuilding.

In 2023, Valderrama received the MSE departmental service award for his contributions inside and outside the university community.

“I’ve had great professors who really helped me understand what it means to make a change and help influence what the future can be. They have supported me and really motivated me to have a passion for learning,” Valderrama said. “The Materials Science Department has been very special for my educational development because we’re a very small department and all get to know our professors and classmates well.”

Everything came full circle for Valderrama last summer when he worked the Governor’s School as a teaching assistant. He described the experience as an “aha moment” that was inspired by Sawhney, who passed away in 2022.

“I realized I want to be the Dr. Sawhney of whoever I end up teaching,” Valderrama said. “I feel like going to Denmark is a steppingstone on my journey of where I want to go in the future. This Fulbright fellowship will really boost my professional career opportunity.”


Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683,