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SDSU alums create McComish fellowships for electrical engineering, sociology and rural studies

A gift from two South Dakota State University alumni has created new fellowships in electrical engineering and in sociology and rural studies at SDSU.
A total of four students will be awarded fellowships annually. 
Two electrical engineering doctoral students have been selected for the yearlong Richard McComish Fellowship in Energy Infrastructure. Two undergraduate students—one per semester—will be selected for the Karen McComish Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Sociology and Rural Studies.
Giving back
Karen McComish (’75 sociology) and her husband, Dick (’75 electrical engineering), have given back to SDSU for over three decades. While the two were acquainted growing up in their early school years in Estelline, South Dakota, the couple credits State for bringing them together.
With their SDSU education, the couple joined forces and built their own company, Electrical Consultants Inc., which started in a small office in Billings, Montana, and grew to encompass over 830 professional engineers, surveyors and technical staff across the country.
In the McComishes’ latest gift to SDSU, the couple continue their investment in the next generation of Jackrabbits while honoring the experience they feel provided them opportunities that have shaped their lives personally and professionally.
Karen’s fellowship aims to encourage and support undergraduate research for those working with faculty in sociology and rural studies. Through this philanthropy, Karen honors the research opportunities she enjoyed under Robert Wagner and Robert Dimit as an undergraduate in sociology.
“At the time, we were doing research with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. We were interviewing residents on their opinions on hunting mourning doves and also on cloud seeding. It was interesting work, and I gained skills through my experience,” Karen said.
The gift creating the fellowship for Ph.D. students in power systems infrastructure is given in recognition of the support and education Dick received as an undergrad at SDSU and honoring his leadership in making ECI such a success.
“South Dakota State has always been a leader in engineering education, and their increased focus in research is vital to our industry. I see my giving as a solid investment in the future. Investing in people and research for our critical infrastructure is a way I can give back and serve the greater good,” Dick said.
Sociology and rural studies
The fall recipient of the undergraduate fellowship is Benjamin Peters, a Sioux Falls native and Lincoln High School graduate who’s now a junior at SDSU majoring in criminology and sociology with a minor in psychology. He’s partnering with associate professor of sociology Abdallah Badahdah on research focusing on barriers for health care workers seeking mental health care.
Peters said he was honored and excited to become more involved with the university and do some work on an important topic.
“So far, I have gained a lot of experience with research and literature review, which has helped a lot in all my classes. It has also helped me to feel more involved with my studies and the university,” he said. Peters plans to present at the Midwest Sociological Society annual meeting in Minneapolis in March.
“We are very grateful for the Karen McComish Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Sociology and Rural Studies, which provides our students the opportunity to engage in significant research experiences mentored by our highly talented faculty members,” said Paul Markel, director of the School of Psychology, Sociology and Rural Studies.
The fellowship also aims to draw more students into the sociology and rural studies areas.
“It opened my eyes when I got to work in the sociology department, and I was doing more than just clerical help. It makes you feel like you’re out in the real world,” Karen said.
“Giving back is really important to both of us. We have been very fortunate in our careers, and the cost of higher education is far more than it was when we were going to school. It’s important for us to give back in any way that enables students to have a greater education,” she added.
Electrical engineering
Electrical Consultants Inc. recruited SDSU engineering students to join the business for many years because, as Dick reasoned, “they’re the best.”
The energy infrastructure fellowship is specific to the United States electric grid and increasing the reliability, resiliency and security of the nation’s electricity delivery system.
During a 2021 campus visit, Dick toured the power system labs and saw firsthand how Ph.D. students at SDSU are working to solve important challenges with the electrical grid, explained Tom Becker, director of development for the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering. “Dick saw how he could impact their work and decided to help,” Becker said.
Applications for the Richard McComish Fellowship in Energy Infrastructure are accepted in the spring, and fellows can renew up two years, with two awardees per year.
SDSU electrical engineering doctoral students Pooja Aslami and Tara Aryal have been selected as the first two recipients.
Both Nepal natives graduated with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering from the Tribhuvan University Institute of Engineering and are now pursuing doctorates in electrical engineering.
Aslami is doing research in state and parameter estimation in microgrids. Microgrids are smaller electricity grids that can be self-sufficient if there is a blackout in the main electric grid. Her work ensures that even during extreme weather conditions, such as blizzards for South Dakota and Alaska, or hurricanes for Puerto Rico and Florida, that critical infrastructure will still have the lights on.
Aryal’s research interests include state estimation and optimization of power systems. By harnessing machine learning methods, her work is able to simplify complex physics equations governing the operation of energy infrastructure to improve the electric grid reliability. 
Both topics are of increasing importance to grid security and reliability as the nation moves toward more wind, solar and battery resources, explained Timothy Hansen, associate professor in SDSU’s electrical engineering and computer science department.
“On different grids, the physics doesn’t change, but things happen at different speeds. So why does the average person care?” Hansen said. “If we’re successful, basically the power’s going to go out less. In places like Puerto Rico and Florida, we can’t stop a hurricane, but what we want to do is mitigate it so less damage occurs and improve our response to a disaster. Things are going to go down. We can’t stop that, but we can get people’s power on quicker.”
Hansen said the McComish Fellowship is important because it not only pays the students but also offers funds for professional development and travel to present their work across the nation. The fellowship can help recruit stronger students to SDSU.
“It’s very flexible to fund their research and to build them up as professionals and get better training than the average research assistant. All these extra bells and whistles really develop a truly well-rounded professional with better scientific communication skills, a better network built,” Hansen said.
“It’s heartening to see the efforts from the Lohr College, the SDSU Foundation and the generosity of the McComishes come together and bear fruit to support the scholarly endeavors of our undergraduates and doctoral students,” said Rajesh Kavasseri, associate dean for research for the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering.
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