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Going the Distance

February 08, 2019

Rhodes Scholarship winner Katie Kowal BA ’17 sets her sights on the planet’s biggest challenge.

Katie Kowal BA '17Katie Kowal BA '17 Credit: Paul Fetters

As a first-year student at Lewis & Clark, Katie Kowal BA ’17 chose a physics major because it was the hardest thing she could think of.

She added a second major in political science for the intellectual challenge of thinking in new ways. Over the next few years, Kowal devoured every challenge and swept every major honor the college had to bestow. Now she has added another honor to her long list of achievements: the Rhodes Scholarship.

Kowal was one of only 32 students in the United States and 100 worldwide chosen for the 2019 Rhodes, which will fund her postgraduate education at Oxford University. In addition, she was a finalist for the prestigious Marshall Scholarship.

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” says Kowal. “Lewis & Clark taught me so many things I didn’t know that I needed to know, and it fundamentally shifted how I see my place in the world. I think the Rhodes is going to do the same thing—it’s going to be a platform to inspire change and to work with people from all over the world who want to change it for the better.”

Katie Kowal BA ’17Katie Kowal BA ’17 Credit: Paul FettersAt Lewis & Clark, Kowal’s academic achievements were unparalleled. “Katie may be the most decorated alumna we have ever graduated,” says Bruce Suttmeier, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Her honors included the Barbara Hirschi Neely Scholarship; the American Association of University Women Senior Woman Award; the Rena Ratte Award, the college’s highest academic honor; and the inaugural Shannon T. O’Leary Award, given to a physics or math student with tremendous intellectual promise and community impact.

Receiving the O’Leary award, created in memory of her late physics professor and mentor, was particularly meaningful for Kowal. O’Leary, she says, “created a space for students to be vulnerable, to be OK with not always knowing the answers, to ask questions, and to be curious. As someone who’s struggled with perfectionism, that was huge to me … to be able to let that go at the door. I became a bigger risk taker, which was really exciting.” Inspired by O’Leary, Kowal created the Xplore program to encourage science and math students who are the first in their families to attend college.

In addition to challenging herself intellectually at Lewis & Clark, Kowal challenged herself physically. An accomplished varsity athlete, “Katie finished her athletic career among the top 10 all-time sprinters at L&C in three individual events, and was voted the team captain for both the women’s and men’s sprint events,” says Kowal’s former track coach, Keith Woodard. “She also led two relay teams to top-five all-time L&C marks.”

Kowal currently works in Washington, D.C., as a science policy fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute. She makes daily use of her physics and political science education to help advise White House officials and federal agencies on the scientific research that should inform national policy, and delves daily into topics as diverse as the nuclear payloads going into rockets and the resilience of the electrical grid to solar flares. “We work on both the science behind policy, and the policy behind science,” she says. “So, we help answer questions about the impacts of a policy, and we also help inform the development of policies that will affect scientific research.”

At Oxford, Kowal hopes to pursue a master’s degree at the Environmental Change Institute. Ultimately, her goal is to apply everything she’s learned to addressing the biggest challenge of her lifetime: “If I weren’t just one person and I didn’t have any barriers, I would just want to solve climate change,” she says. “In D.C., I’ve been able to work on some of the operational effects and have seen some of the horrific impacts, but I haven’t been able to work on the driving factors that are influencing climate change. I know I can’t solve it singlehandedly, but I’m thinking about who I want to be on the map of people working toward that goal.”

Ellisa Valo is a freelance writer in Oregon City.

Catching Up With Our Previous Rhodes Winners

In the past 20 years, Lewis & Clark College has produced two other Rhodes scholars: Tamma Carleton BA ’09 and Laura Provinzino BA ’98. Carleton, who majored in economics, is now a postdoctoral scholar at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Provinzino, who double majored in history and international affairs, went on to earn a JD from Yale Law School and now works as an assistant U.S. attorney in Minneapolis. Kowal, Carleton, and Provinzino are all members of Lewis & Clark’s undergraduate honor society, the Pamplin Society of Fellows.

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