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Catalyzing the Change in Urban Infrastructure


One of the great beauties of architecture is that each time, it is like life starting all over again.

– Renzo Piano

Valerie Tsao

Hometown: Los Angeles, California

Education: Duke University, Class of 2022

Major: B.S.E. in Civil Structural Engineering

Certificate Program: Architectural Engineering

Grand Challenge Focus: Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure

Grand Challenge Advisor: Dr. David Schaad


Introduction to the Grand Challenges for Engineering

The Grand Challenges were first devised in 2008 by the National Academy of Engineering, an organization whose mission is to “advance the well-being of the nation” by forwarding the engineering profession. Falling within the four themes of SUSTAINABILITYHEALTHSECURITY, and JOY OF LIVING, these challenges are now a collective responsibility of all engineers in the 21st Century to address and ultimately overcome. In light of this, universities from all over the world have introduced the Grand Challenge Scholars Program at their institutions, so that students may be prepared to tackle these issues head-on in the near future. 

The Grand Challenge Scholars Program at Duke is a combined curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular program with 5 key competencies that are designed give students the technical expertise, breadth of knowledge, and the social, ethical and environmental awareness needed to be leaders in addressing the 14 NAE Grand Challenges.

1. Hands-on research

2. Interdisciplinary curriculum

3. Innovation and entrepreneurship experience

4. A global dimension

5. Service learning

Why is this important?

6 weeks, 1008 hours, 60480 minutes…all culminating up to this one, single moment; as the upstream breeze pushes me along, I take my first steps onto the 83-meter pedestrian footbridge that now spans the Rio Camata, a river previously impassable to the community of Siatha, Bolivia. Despite my paralyzing fear of heights, the cheers and unwavering support of the community I now call close friends, urges me to deliberately force one foot in front of the other, to keep moving forward. “¡Oye mira!” With the exclamation of my comrades, I cautiously open my squinted eyes to find I’ve made it to the middle of the bridge…I am greeted with a breathtaking scenery, one of the lush mountainsides contrasted starkly against the setting of the mellow sun and the roar of the river beneath us. The seemingly endless work days: mixing concrete, excavating, decking every wooden plank of the walkway painstakingly was worth it. This is the feeling I carry with me, even now as I consider how I will further my experience as a Grand Challenge Scholar.

I strongly believe that the endeavors I hope to achieve align with the scope of this program, and will not only stimulate me to address the economic, political, and social barriers that stagnate the restoration of urban infrastructure, but also provide me with the tools I need to instigate change. Given the five themes of the Grand Challenge Scholar Program, I will immerse myself by broadening my academic lens, focusing on a hands-on concentrated project, engaging professionally with various audiences, delving into the cultural connotations of what “success” can be defined as, and ultimately serving the global community. The combination of these skills will supply me with a basis for how I may proactively approach the consequences of poor modern infrastructure.