August 18, 2017

From College Chemistry to Capitol Hill: One Student’s Journey to the Finals of a Nationwide Competition

Posted by AGU Career Center

Going to the finals of the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC) changed my life forever. Held in Washington, D.C. on 14-16 June 2017,  I had the opportunity to meet multiple representatives from respected institutions such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) while presenting my project to congressmen, scientists, businessmen, and other professionals on Capitol Hill.

Jacob Zelko presents his Project WaterFED at the CCIC.

The project I presented was called Project WaterFED which stood for “water filtration and economic development”. My project’s goal was to equip communities around the world with tools to recycle locally discarded plastics into water filters – essentially turning plastic waste that nobody wants into clean water that everyone needs.

Working on the project was a fantastic experience as I had the privilege to work with and manage a highly interdisciplinary team from my college. As a project manager I learned that to make an interdisciplinary team work, one must be constantly willing to learn from the team. For me, that meant prototyping in a machine shop, learning website server management, and finding other ways to contribute to the project that didn’t fall under my expertise. Embracing and understanding everyone’s role on an interdisciplinary team will truly give you an appreciation for what your other teammates contribute to the project and how you can better recognize them for their work.

The Project WaterFED team celebrates while in Washington, D.C., for the competition.

As interest grew about our project, I also had to learn how to convey the main idea of the project in a very short amount of time. I learned how to precisely communicate the critical aspects of my project and deliver an elevator pitch on the project to anyone at any time. Improving my “pitching” has become an invaluable asset to me as I can now convey complicated ideas to a person on the street or a scientist in my field regardless of their background.

One of the most exciting developments that has resulted from the CCIC is that I have established an award at my college, Corning Community College, called the Zelko Innovation Award from my winnings at the CCIC. The annual award is meant to encourage innovation amongst students who can present a project that they are actively pursuing. Another development is that I have founded a club in my town for college-age individuals who are interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. The club, which is called the Corning Innovator’s Club, seeks to develop its diverse members professionally through networking opportunities, powerful guest discussions, and the opportunity to get feedback on ideas they may wish to pursue.

Overall, this project has given me a new perspective on how to approach future endeavors. I have learned how to work with people of different backgrounds and disciplines which has significantly enriched my life. I encourage anyone to pursue their own projects and goals, no matter how difficult they may appear. For me, what started as a simple General Chemistry I honors project took me all the way to Capitol Hill.  My final advice is to do the best you can–where you are and where you can–because you never know where that may take you.

Jacob Zelko is a member of the 2020 biomedical engineering class at Georgia Institute of Technology; he is also part of Georgia Tech’s “Create-X” entrepreneurship program and is interested in pursuing work in medical devices and data science. Jacob would like to thank his Project WaterFED teammates, Joe Davis, Anita Slater, Patrick Pruden, Andy Diffenderfer, their industry partner James Davis and team mentor Dr. Sri Kamesh Narasimhan, and all the wonderful faculty and friends from Corning Community College.

Photo credits for images from the CCIC event: NSF/Bill Petros Photography. Photo credit for profile image: Pine Tree Imagery.