Pitt student wins Churchill Scholarship

Pitt senior David Palm is a triple major in chemical engineering, chemistry and philosophy of science and a national award winner, but he still has time for other esteemed pursuits, including club soccer and learning to play the guitar.

“Its not that crazy, I guess,” Palm said. “I have four hours of class a day. You do what you have to get done in whatever time you have.”

Palm is one of 14 American students this year to win the Churchill Scholarship, an award supported by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States. He will move to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in October to complete his master’s degree in chemistry. 

In some ways, Palm’s extracurriculars will even help him reach success abroad.

“I played club soccer for a couple years. I’m trying to stay sharp because I know they’re pretty good at that sport over in the U.K.,” he said.

Palm will also continue his research in alternative energy technology through Churchill College, Cambridge University’s science, technology and engineering school. Palm said his research is “trying to capture solar energy in order to produce chemical fuels.”

Last year, Palm worked in Pitt’s Swanson engineering lab with chemical engineering professor Götz Veser on developing another type of clean energy source: chemically capturing the carbon dioxide in the air to reduce the effects of greenhouse gasses.

Veser watched as the senior adopted the project, in which they “developed nanomaterials and [carbon dioxide] solvent material with the aim to come up with a faster and more efficient way to capture [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere.”

“He basically took over the project that a post-doctoral student had started,” Veser said. 

Although Veser said the carbon dioxide research is not quite finished, Palm has written a draft of a paper that will report the results so far.

Palm said he became interested in different types of energy sources while shopping for his first car during high school in Champion, Ohio. He said he didn’t want “one of those big clunky SUVs,” but instead a small car to get the job done. 

After taking chemistry and physics classes in high school, he began to hear about climate change in the news.

“That kind of all came together to get me excited,” Palm said.

As a sophomore, Palm joined Engineers for a Sustainable World, a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh that implements projects to make college campuses more energy efficient and eco-friendly.

He participated in projects on Pitt’s campus, including the construction of a rain garden on the lawn of the Petersen Events Center to prevent flooding after heavy rainstorms. 

Palm also utilized summer breaks to participate in research endeavors that landed him in a lab on Penn State’s main campus one summer and a study abroad opportunity in Australia for another.

But Palm was always happy to juggle his commitments.

“Fitting in these other organizations and interests was something I wanted to do, so it didn’t seem like a burden,” he said.

Palm enrolled in a basic chemical engineering course taught by Robert Parker, Pitt associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, during his sophomore year.

Palm sat in the back row.

The following year, Palm sat with a group of “very talented people” in Process Dynamics and Control, one of Parker’s more advanced classes, according to the professor.

One of those people included last year’s Whitaker Award winner, Lisa Volpatti.

Volpatti is now at Churchill College studying biochemical engineering. 

Parker was enthusiastic that “two people who sat at the same table in [his] class” ended up studying at Cambridge. 

Palm applied for several fellowships that, according to Veser, all look for many of the same qualities in a candidate — perhaps most importantly, initiative. 

“I’ve had many undergraduate researchers in my lab. David is certainly among the very best that I’ve seen there,” Veser said. “What differentiated him most from other students is that he showed a lot of initiative.”

While Palm is not certain of his future plans, he said he’d like to focus on inventing a sustainable renewable energy source and then possibly go into academia.

While he said he is a little nervous about moving to the U.K., Palm said he’s excited to work with some of the world’s leading experts in the field of sustainable energy engineering.

“My primary training hasn’t been in chemistry. I think I’m going to have to do some brushing up,” he said. “I’ve heard there are some pretty smart people over at Cambridge.”