The Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) Educating Next Gen Energy Experts

October 10, 2011

A healthier planet and a stronger economy — two of today’s most pressing needs. Trustee emeritus, P. Roy Vagelos, C’50, and his wife, Diana, know that Penn has an important role to play in addressing those needs. Their recent $13.6 million gift will establish the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER). The dual-degree program between the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering is designed to increase research expertise and innovation in alternative energy sources and systems.

“As generous friends and visionary leaders at Penn, Roy and Diana understand the value of clearly focused, interdisciplinary education in helping to solve complex problems, and for this we are extremely grateful," said Penn President Amy Gutmann of this act of high impact philanthropy from the School of Arts and Sciences’ largest Campaign supporters.

The complex problem that VIPER will address is the need for cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. The current, persistent dependence on fossil fuels comes at a high cost to consumers and to the planet.

“Our country’s use of oil and coal damages our environment, and the dependence on other countries for oil puts the United States in a very difficult economic position,” says Roy Vagelos. But because the VIPER program will prepare students for careers as innovators, there is great hope for turning the tide in the science and economics of energy. And because the need is great, VIPER brings an added benefit. “For those trained in the sciences and engineering,” Vagelos points out, “energy research is going to be a source of great careers for the next 25 to 50 years.”

VIPER will do for the alternative energy what the Roy and Diana Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences has been doing since 1997 for the life sciences, and what the College/Wharton dual-degree Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management has been doing at the intersection of science and entrepreneurship since 2005: integrating knowledge across schools and disciplines, creating hands-on research and mentoring opportunities, and preparing the next generation of problem solvers and thought leaders.

Professors Andrew Rappe from SAS and John Vohs from SEAS will co-direct the program. They are looking forward to welcoming the inaugural class of VIPERs in the fall of 2012 — some 25 students selected for their scientific aptitude and their drive to dive in to projects that range from the race to replace the silicon chip with a self-charging solar-powered plasmonic circuit to Penn Electric Racing’s quest for high-performance fossil-fuel-free vehicles.

The class will take a common freshman seminar on energy systems and technology taught by Rappe and Vohs, as well as a course to get them up to speed in conducting research.

Over the course of VIPER’s four year program — five, if students opt to pursue a master’s degree — faculty with expertise in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and across the fields of chemical, mechanical, systems, and electrical engineering and materials science will work with students in class, and in the Penn Center for Energy Innovation (Pennergy for short) labs. With the Pennergy labs in the Towne Building situated in a diagonal line between the Moore School Building at 33rd and Walnut and the Roy and Diana Vagelos Laboratories: Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the Chemistry Laboratories at 34th and Spruce, VIPER’s resources will be concentrated in a contiguous campus space.

VIPER also enhances one of the University’s most important initiatives, environmental sustainability. When President Gutmann signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment in 2007, it signaled a call to action for the Penn community. That signature was backed up with Penn’s integrated response: sustainability courses offered in each of Penn’s 12 schools, including a master’s program in environmental building design and a minor in sustainability and environmental management; green construction and renovations on campus; College House Eco-Reps—students who serve as on-the-ground advocates for Penn’s Climate Action Plan; and the Penn Undergraduate Climate Action Research Grants to advance Penn’s projects focused on the environment. VIPER will be a conspicuous and cutting edge addition to Penn’s campus-wide commitment to sustainability.