It’s fair to say Fikile Brushett ’02 left his mark at St. Andrew’s - literally. His name can be found in the first-floor hallway as a member of the school’s Cum Laude Society. Now, as an associate professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology - where he leads a research program focused on advancing the science and engineering of electro-chemical technologies - he is leaving his mark on the world.
Because of his work as a researcher in trying to solve some of the world’s energy problems and preparing scientists of the future as an educator, Brushett will receive St. Andrew’s Distinguished Alumni Award at this year’s Alumni Awards Luncheon on October 15.
“I am honored and humbled to receive this recognition from St. Andrew's, especially given the outstanding achievements of previous awardees,” Brushett said. “Having attended St. Andrew's from sixth to 12th grade, this community has played an important role in shaping the person I am today. I am deeply grateful to all of my former teachers, several of whom are still at the school, for offering a challenging and well-rounded education in a range of subjects.”
The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes St. Andrew’s Episcopal School alumni who have demonstrated unique or significant accomplishments through professional achievement or social impact. Brushett is the second recipient of this award from the Class of 2002, joining Steven Levenson. Also having won the award are Whitney Cummings ’00, Adele Waugaman ’94, Katie Barthelme ’88, and Melissa d’Arabian ’86.
After graduating from St. Andrew’s, Brushett - who went by his middle name Richard while at St. Andrew’s - studied Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at University of Pennsylvania while also developing an interest in catalytic processes for generating chemicals, fuels, and power. He then earned a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Energy is essential to modern society and the abundance, availability, and affordability of fossil fuels has been a key driver of the past century’s progress,” Brushett said in a 2019 interview for St. Andrew’s spring magazine
. “However, with increasing global energy demand and climate volatility, there is an increasingly urgent need to decouple carbon emissions from economic activity without stifling economic growth. Our work aims to conceptualize, prototype, and validate new electrochemical systems that can enable a transition to a low-carbon economy.”
Brushett credited now-retired Chemistry Teacher Irene Walsh with getting the ball rolling for him when, as a St. Andrew’s student, she helped him procure a research experience working on environmental sensors at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland through a program run by George Washington University. Another teacher he had, and who he left an impression on, was Physics Teacher Kurt Sinclair.
“I remember him as a deeply curious and inquisitive student who wanted to explore ideas and enjoyed doing so,” Sinclair said. “He wanted to understand, not just know, and he was profoundly bothered when understanding did not come easy – today we would say he was troubled by cognitive dissonance. But he didn't just stop there – he kept exploring, kept questioning, and sought answers on his own until he understood what initially confused him. I very much enjoyed teaching him and was delighted to hear that he pursued science as his life's work.”
These days Brushett splits his time between conducting research and teaching students who come to MIT already well-versed in the problems facing society.
“I find that the general public is becoming increasingly educated in this area and increasingly aware,” Brushett said. “I find many students come through our program at MIT who have a deep interest in energy problems and are fairly well educated, sophisticated in their understanding of the problems and the technological solutions.
“The most rewarding part of (teaching) is helping students wrestle with and ultimately master complex concepts through the development of systematic thinking and flexible problem-solving skills. A close second is the relationships that I am able to build with students during their time at MIT and I always appreciate hearing about all the great things my former students are doing!”