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Cook Grand Challenge Honors Program

Confronting Global Challenges – UT Engineering Honors Endowed by Cook Family


Students in the Tickle College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will soon benefit from someone who has always carried a torch for his alma mater.

Joe Cook, who graduated as an industrial engineering major and a Torchbearer in 1965, and his wife, Judy, have made a significant commitment to the honors program in the college.

The UT Board of Trustees approved the naming of the honors program as the Joseph C. and Judith E. Cook Grand Challenge Honors Program in Engineering at its meeting in Chattanooga today.

“By refining our honors program in such a way to deal with issues that impact lives on a global basis, students will get to participate in and observe the effects of their research and studies on the real world,” said Cook, of Nashville.

“By instilling practical engineering in our students, we hope to give them a portion of the means and the drive to match their dreams,” he continued. “Our students really will change the world.”

The 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering are global issues identified by the National Academy of Engineering. Among them are nuclear security, urban infrastructure, clean water and energy, and health and medicine.

Students complete both curricular and extracurricular requirements established by the NAE to graduate with honors from the program. Their program entails five areas of focus: undergraduate research, interdisciplinary coursework, entrepreneurship, global experience, and service-learning.

The Grand Challenges and the importance of being able to find solutions for them—and the consequences of not solving them—inspired Cook to fund the endowment.

Joesph C. Cook, Jr. Quote

“Solution-driven education and research will be vital to adapt, confront, and conquer some of these challenges,” he said.

Program director Kevin Kit said the Cook family’s support will open additional doors for the program’s students.

“Their generosity will greatly improve the experience of our students, allowing them greater access to research and study abroad opportunities,” said Kit. “It will also allow a greater number of students to participate and will provide resources to enhance the quality of our honors courses and to develop new opportunities for students in the entrepreneurship and service-learning areas.”

Honors Student Working in Lab

David Marsh, a Haslam Scholar in mechanical engineering in the Class of 2018, said that focusing on those approaches offered engineering students opportunities they might not otherwise have.

“Engineering is so full of math and physics that there is not enough room to gain a broad world outlook and a knowledge of the challenges of others,” said Marsh. “I joined the Grand Challenge Scholars Program because of the chances it presents to gain that perspective.”

Marsh’s project deals with the challenge “engineering tools of scientific discovery.” Working with Professor Bill Hamel’s biorobotics lab, Marsh is helping develop autonomous systems.

“I expect this experience will better allow me to design and build exploration vehicles and solve several of the engineering problems associated with the next 100 years of space travel,” said Marsh.

As Marsh is focused on engineering breakthroughs in tools and technology, other paths that UT Grand Challenge Scholars are currently taking include:

  • Biomedicine: Taylor Weiskittel, a senior in chemical engineering, is investigating biological approaches to fight diseases such as cancer or autoimmune deficiencies that current medications have trouble addressing.
  • Nuclear security: Chris Haseler, a senior in nuclear engineering, is developing new forms of radiation monitoring that help shorten detection time while increasing reliability.
  • Health care: Amany Alshibi, a senior in chemical engineering, is pursuing new health care avenues, including a project investigating cardiac regeneration at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Energy: Patrick Williams, a senior in nuclear engineering, is working on new ways of understanding the dynamics of gas centrifuge enrichment plants.

“Students enrolled in the program must complete both curricular and extracurricular requirements to graduate with honors,” said Kit. “This gives them perspective on how engineering can help society while at the same time preparing them to meet the challenges put forth by the NAE.”

Kevin Kit Quote

The Cooks are longtime generous supporters of UT and the Tickle College of Engineering. Their gifts have funded an endowed scholarship program providing support for countless students, the Cook-Eversole Endowed Faculty Award, and major support for the Wayne T. Davis Endowed Dean’s Chair.

“Joe and Judy Cook’s lives reflect the true meaning of the word philanthropist: one who seeks to promote others,” said College Dean Wayne Davis. “Their most recent support will help us expand our efforts to attract and support students who can tackle the challenges facing our world.”


Joe Cook

Joe Cook received the Nathan W. Dougherty Award, the college’s highest honor, in 1999 and was named a UT Distinguished Alumnus in 2011. He is also a past chair and current member of the Tickle College of Engineering Advisory Board.

In 2003, Cook founded Mountain Group Partners LP in Nashville, a venture capital team seeking to invest in seed and early-stage companies focused on two major sectors: life sciences and technology. He also currently serves as executive chairman and president of NuSirt Biopharma, a biopharma company with headquarters in Nashville.

In addition, he serves on the board of directors of Castle Biosciences, a molecular diagnostic company, and Clinical Products LLC, a nutraceutical company.

Cook previously served on the board of directors of Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Ironwood Pharmaceuticals and Corcept Therapeutics.

At Amylin, he served as CEO from 1998 to 2003 and chairman from 1998 to 2009. He founded and was chairman for more than 10 years at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals.

Cook also worked at Eli Lilly for more than 28 years before retiring as group vice president of global operations.

Cook currently serves as chairman of the board of Mercy Ministries International, based in Nashville. He has served on the national board of the American Diabetes Association and is past chairman of the board of Life Science Tennessee.

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