Engineering’s Esther Obonyo appointed interim director of HESE

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Esther Obonyo, associate professor of engineering design and architectural engineering at Penn State, will serve as the interim director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program, effective Jan. 1, 2017. Obonyo will succeed Khanjan Mehta, who has accepted a position as the vice provost for creative inquiry and director of Mountaintop initiative at Lehigh University.

Obonyo said her unique cross-disciplinary and international academic and professional experiences, in both technical and management aspects of the design and development of engineering systems, align perfectly with the mission of HESE.

"I have worked closely with a diverse set of stakeholders in different parts of the world on projects directed at designing solutions to the most pressing societal challenges and implementing them at scale in a sustainable manner,” she said.

As a champion of projects directed at educating the next generation of globally engaged engineers and scientists, Obonyo has worked on projects such as the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program. IRES supports the continued development of globally engaged engineering and science students who are capable of performing in an international research environment. This program was executed in Tanzania and Kenya.

“One of my key takeaways from working on global projects has been the need for ‘translational science and reverse translation’ strategies that can move ideas all the way from basic research to a real-world application and back to the lab to inform more basic science,” she said. “My role within HESE will provide an opportunity to validate some of the theories emerging from the work my collaborators and I have done.”

Obonyo has been an engineering design and architectural engineering faculty member since 2015. In the 2015-16 academic year, Obonyo was awarded a Jefferson Science Fellowship, a program in which a maximum of 15 professors in science, technology and engineering  are selected each year to contribute to the formulation and implementation of United States foreign policy for science. Obonyo served as a senior science adviser in the United States Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab in Washington, D.C. 

Additionally, she is a visiting professor at the Technological Institute of the Philippines in Manila through the Philippine Development Foundation Innovative Development for Entrepreneurship Advancement program. This initiative is directed at enhancing the practice of technopreneurship in the Philippines.

Prior to joining Penn State, Obonyo served as a faculty member at the University of Florida’s (UF) Rinker School of Construction Management. She was also a Faculty Entrepreneurship Fellow at UF’s Warrington College of Business.

In addition to her academic credentials, Obonyo has extensive industry experience as a construction engineer, project manager and innovations analyst at several engineering and construction companies in Kenya, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“The projects that I have been a part of have been executed through collaborating with and partnering with multiple stakeholders in university, industry and government,” Obonyo said. “In these projects, there has been a shared understanding that designing and delivering solutions that can result in impact at scale, with respect to solving the world’s most pressing societal challenges, requires collective action by a diverse group of globally engaged actors from difference disciplines.”

Her research interests cross multiple disciplines and include climate change and extreme weather events, sustainable structural materials, intelligent information and knowledge-based systems and entrepreneurship. She has won several NSF research grants for projects relating to sustainability, building systems and building materials. Her work has been included in more than 100 journal papers and conference proceedings and presentations.

Obonyo serves on the editorial board of Buildings and American Journal of Intelligent Systems, and has been a guest editor for the journal Sustainability and the ITcon, the Journal of IT in Construction.  

“Professor Mehta has built the HESE program from the ground up and left it primed to reach the next level of engagement and impact,” Sven Bilén, head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs and professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering, said. “SEDTAPP is extremely fortunate to have someone with Professor Obonyo’s experience, contacts and passion to take the helm of HESE as we search for the new director.”

Obonyo holds a bachelor of arts in building economics from the University of Nairobi, a master of arts in architecture from the University of Nottingham, and a doctor of engineering from Loughborough University.

HESE is a program within the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) at Penn State. It is an integrated learning, research and entrepreneurship program that brings together students and faculty from across Penn State's University Park campus in the rigorous researching, designing, field-testing and launching of technology-based enterprises in developing countries.

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Last Updated December 01, 2016