University of Virginia Engineering School's Science, Technology, and Society Department Honors Professor, Student with First Ingrid Soudek Townsend Prize

March 28, 2008 — Ingrid Soudek Townsend first arrived on campus 34 years ago in 1973 to teach in the Humanities Division of the Engineering School, now known as the Department of Science, Technology and Society, and thus became the first full-time female faculty member to be hired at the school. In May 2008, Townsend will retire; her legacy, however, will remain.

To recognize her dedication to excellence in undergraduate teaching, the Science, Technology and Society department established the Townsend Prize in 2007. The award celebrates a woman who has been an advocate for humanities in engineering education for more than three decades. Awarded semiannually, the Townsend Prize recognizes the best undergraduate research paper in STS 101, a required course for all engineering students allowing them to explore many different perspectives on the intersections among technology, society and engineering. This interdisciplinary approach typifies a key strength of Townsend's teaching career.

"Ingrid's commitment to teaching is remarkable," says professor Deborah Johnson, who chairs the Science, Technology and Society department. "She has been an inspiration for many who have pursued an engineering education, and it is fitting that an award recognizing excellence celebrates her time at U.Va.'s Engineering School."

Townsend chaired her department for more than seven years and served as an advocate for female faculty and students throughout her career.

"I was completely surprised when I found out," says Townsend about the award. "I am honored that an award that carries my name will be used to recognize students who have illustrated their understanding of technology and society."

The first Townsend Prize was awarded to Yihwa Yang, a third-year student in biomedical engineering, for her paper, entitled "The Centennial Development of the Botulinum Toxin as Biological Weapon, Medicine and Botox Cosmetic." Her piece was chosen from more than 200 undergraduate research papers.

In her paper, Yang calls the botulinum toxin "the most deadly poison known to humanity." The U.S. military pioneered the purification of this toxin during World War II as an agent of biological warfare. As research funds shifted into civilian and medical applications after the war, so too did the interest in this substance. Today, rising national wealth and the social acceptance of cosmetic surgeries lead to the cosmetic uses of this unlikely medicine.

"I was surprised and excited to find out that I had won," said Yang. "It means a lot that my paper was chosen to commemorate Professor Townsend's legacy at U.Va."

Yang's paper is evidence of the fundamental thrust of the Science, Technology and Society Department: real success in the field of engineering depends not only upon technical mastery, but also a keen understanding of the surrounding social, political, economic and cultural worlds that engineering and technology seek to serve and advance.

The Science, Technology and Society Department at U.Va.'s Engineering School is the only program of its kind housed within an engineering school at a comprehensive university. The department plans to award one Townsend Prize every semester, with the ultimate hope that the award will be endowed in the future.

By Andrea Arco