Sophomore Wins University's First Udall Scholarship
Physics Major Earns Federal Award for Commitment to the Environment
April 22, 2011
Saskia Versteeg came to The University of Texas at Dallas in 2009 to get an education grounded in physics. Shortly after arriving, she also got a change in personal outlook.
“Somehow, moving to a university in the suburbs turned me into a tree-hugger,” she said.
The McDermott Scholar most recently made her mark at UT Dallas by becoming the University’s first Udall Scholarship awardee. The Udall Foundation, named for former Congressmen Morris K. and Stuart L. Udall, seeks sophomores and juniors committed to careers in the environment, tribal public policy or Native American or Native Alaskan healthcare.
Saskia Versteeg in Patagonia
Versteeg, a sophomore, intends to put her physics major to use as a research scientist.
“I take courses in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences so I can understand the politics of climate change, but I prefer being a hands-on problem-solver,” she said.
Versteeg, a graduate of Earl Warren High School in San Antonio, is the daughter of Maarten and Marion Versteeg. She will bank her $5,000 Udall Scholarship award for future use, as her McDermott Scholarship currently covers her educational expenses.
“The University has been so generous to me that my expenses are met,” Versteeg said. “I hope to use the Udall award to study abroad during summer 2012.”
UT Dallas was one of two institutions nominating students for the first time to the Udall Foundation. Prescott College, in Tuscon, Ariz., shares the distinction.
Versteeg also is the first non-U.S. citizen UT Dallas student to receive a nationally competitive federal scholarship. Originally from the Netherlands, she recalls how growing up in a land below sea level provided her with a “unique way of looking at the environment.”
“Manipulating the coastline in a respectful manner so people could live there is such a feat of human engineering,” she said.
Versteeg’s first collegiate encounter with climate change was during the summer of her freshman year. She visited the Glaciers National Park in Argentina’s Patagonia province while taking a Spanish immersion course.
“It was important for me to see how the glaciers were changing,” she said. “People say the park won’t exist in 30 years. The things we did 20 to 30 years ago now have destructive momentum.”
Versteeg’s interest in the environment solidified when she attended the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. She went as one of two UT Dallas attendees, sending out 350 e-mails to colleges with groups attending to ask if she could join them. The University of Pomona invited her to join their group of graduate students and faculty who traveled to Europe for the forum.
“It was like drinking from a fire hose,” she said. “The conference showed me how much potential there was for modern technology to help developing countries adapt to climate change.”
This summer, Saskia will complete an internship with the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, where she’ll create a Wiki page for a group of scientists studying climate change and coastal engineering and assist in their hydrophysics laboratory.
Dr. Douglas Dow, coordinator of the Office of Distinguished Scholarships and associate director of the University’s Collegium V honors program, believes Saskia has used her UT Dallas college experience to the fullest, in just two years.
“Saskia has come to a sense of where her skills lie,” he said. “Although she’s developed a dogged ability to navigate bureaucracy, she’s really a scientist.”
Versteeg’s advocacy for the environment will help give UT Dallas students for years to come the chance to explore their own interests in the environment. This year, she garnered the student support necessary for the University’s new minor in environmental studies by working with Student Government. Offered through the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, applicable courses range from ecology to environmental economics. The minor is scheduled to appear in the fall course catalog.
“Every semester, I looked up UT Dallas courses dealing with energy and the environment in CourseBook,” Versteeg said. “Tons of classes came up.”
Once she learned the minor would become reality, she consulted with her advisor about making eligible courses part of her degree plan.
Versteeg hopes other UT Dallas students will take advantage of the University’s flexibility and support for students who want to try new things academically.
“I didn’t know I was interested in environmental studies until I came to UT Dallas,” she said. “I hope other students keep feeling the same ability to create their own educations.”