Merewether receives Luce Scholarship to explore rescue tech in Asia

March 6, 2013 noon
Luce award

Gene Merewether

Photo by Denise Applewhite

Last year, while working as an EMT with the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, Princeton senior Gene Merewether was among a group that responded to calls that a man was struggling in the waters of Lake Carnegie. With rescue boats and dive teams, the first responders scoured the murky lake to no avail before finally calling off the search after sundown. No man was ever found.

"As I stood on the bridge that evening, watching the dive team search the lake, it was clear that technology offers a better solution," said Merewether, a chemistry major who is pursing a certificate in applications of computing.

With an eye for developing better technology-based rescue strategies, Merewether applied for and recently won a 2013 Luce Scholarship that will allow him to spend the next year in Asia (his top choices are South Korea or Hong Kong) studying the use of robots and electronic communication in monitoring and responding to disasters. Administered by the Henry Luce Foundation since 1974, the scholarships aim to foster understanding and cooperation between the next generation of American leaders and their Asian counterparts. Merewether was among 18 students (from 168 nominees) selected for the 2013-14 class of scholars.

Merewether wants to spend his time in Asia familiarizing himself with the cultures and people with which a career in technology will require him to be in contact. At the same time, many Asian nations are at the forefront of using technology in rescue operations, Merewether said. This advancement is due in part to the high population densities in Asia as well as the frequency of natural disasters such as flooding, mudslides, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

For his own work, Merewether hopes to make use of autonomous robots that can carry out search-and-rescue operations that are too dangerous or tiring for humans, such as that day at Lake Carnegie. He sees Asian nations readily embracing those approaches.

"I want to take the first steps toward my career in an Asian country because Asian countries show a greater openness to technology across a broad range of applications," Merewether said. "The uniquely large scale of Asian disasters, both manmade and natural, demands an engineering approach. If solutions can work on the scale of Asian disasters, they can work anywhere."

Merewether also wants to build positive working relationships with counterparts in Asia, as a bridge between East and West.

"Western countries have many years of experience to offer Asia, but fears of industrial espionage and resentment of old colonial offenses must be overcome," he said. "Any process of exchange has to be based on mutual trust and respect, and I can try to develop my end of that trust and respect by working in Asia on Asian problems in disaster-response engineering."

A native of La Jolla, Calif., Merewether developed his interest in first-response through regular outdoor activities with his father (which continued with his involvement with the Princeton sailing team and mountaineering club). His family background in science and engineering encouraged his own pursuit. Among his scientific accomplishments at Princeton, Merewether developed high-strength, rapid-prototyped polymer implants, the applications of which include spinal fusions and prosthetic hips. The surface treatment he applied to the devices will increase the lifetime of the devices in the body.

After his return from Asia, Merewether plans to enroll in a graduate program in robotics in the United States.