College of Liberal Arts

Plan II Honors, Engineering Senior Wins Hertz Fellowship

By Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts
Photos by Emily Kinsolving

Published: May 17

Anjali DattaWhile her fellow classmates dreamed of becoming firefighters, astronauts and ballerinas, Anjali Datta knew her true calling at a very young age.  

"Back when I was in middle school, I went on this field trip to an engineering expo at the University of Kansas and absolutely loved it," says Datta, a Plan II Honors and electrical engineering senior. "From then on, I knew that I wanted to become an engineer." 

As she prepares for spring graduation, she is well on her way to achieving that dream. And with a five-year, $250,000 research grant from the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, she has the freedom to pursue her passion at a top-tier research institution of her choice.  

The 20-year-old Grapevine native is one of just 15 students from top universities throughout the nation to receive the grant, which is considered to be the most generous support for graduate education in the applied physical, biological and engineering sciences. 

Datta said she's particularly interested in diagnostic imaging, a niche she discovered while working on the Glaucoma Project in Cockrell School of Engineering's Biomedical Engineering Department. Working alongside a team of student researchers and professors, Datta helped develop diagnostic technology for glaucoma. Nicknamed "the silent thief of sight," the degenerative eye disease is the second-leading cause of blindness worldwide. Although glaucoma is treatable, it has no obvious symptoms and is difficult to detect.  

By making improvements in diagnostic technology, such as MRIs and X-rays, Datta hopes she can prevent life-threatening degenerative diseases before it is too late.  

"There's a huge level of satisfaction that comes from solving diagnostic problems with math and science," says Datta, who also received a National Science Foundation Fellowship this year. "Regardless of what clinical application researchers are developing  - from cancer to Alzheimer's to childhood diseases - they are making a significant impact on people's lives. That's what really excites me about biomedical engineering."  

Among her many laurels, Datta came to the university as a Dedman Distinguished Scholar, a merit-based scholarship provided by the College of Liberal Arts that awards incoming freshmen $13,000 per academic year for four years. She said she had her pick of top research universities, but the Plan II Honors Program set The University of Texas at Austin apart from all the rest.  

"I wanted to enroll in Plan II because I find other disciplines like economics and art to be really fascinating," Datta says. "I wanted the opportunity to take classes that would help me improve my writing skills because creativity and writing are both integral components of my research."  

Austin Gleeson, professor of physics, has taught many of the university's best and brightest. But of all the students enrolled in his course, "Introduction to Modern Physics," Datta was the most impressive.  

"Anjali was a great student in my class," Gleeson says. "This course, which most Plan II students are required to take, has mostly liberal arts students and a scattering of technical students.  It's often described as the `dreaded physics course.' She took the course as a sophomore, a very rare occurrence."

Gleeson says Datta was likely the youngest student in the class, since most of the students delay taking it until the junior or senior year. 

"In her year, she was by far the best student and would be among the best ever," Gleeson says. "I have followed her progress since then and she has certainly lived up to expectations."

Outside of the lab, Datta spends her time tutoring and mentoring future women engineers. She has worked with several community outreach programs, including the Cockrell School of Engineering's Women in Engineering Program and the Equal Opportunity in Engineering Program.

 "A lot of girls have grown up with the notion that they can't do science or math, but that's so untrue," Datta says. "I love using math and science to solve real-world problems, and I want to show my students - especially girls - that it can be a lot of fun."   

After graduation, she will attend Stanford University to pursue a career in MRI research and teaching.  

"Teaching is something I truly enjoy," Datta says. "I would love to teach in a research setting and have the opportunity to inspire future engineers."