UT senior Grant Rigney was recently named a Rhodes Scholar, one of the most prestigious awards a college student can receive.
The honor puts him in an elite class: he’s only the eighth UT student in history to receive this scholarship. He will begin two years of all-expenses-paid graduate study at the University of Oxford in England next fall.
Rigney, a native of Normandy, Tennessee, and a graduate of Tullahoma High School, is a Haslam Scholar and Neyland Scholar majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering. He aspires to be a surgeon—possibly a transplant surgeon—and wants to do public health research with an overarching goal of helping to improve health services to the elderly, poor, and otherwise vulnerable patients.
He’s already an accomplished researcher, involved in patent-pending research at UT Medical Center on phase transfer catalysts as a way to measure the toxicity of imaging agents used in PET and CT scans. As a Haslam Scholar, he’s writing his undergraduate thesis on medical research he did during an internship at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital this past summer.
He has a myriad of interests outside the classroom and laboratory. He’s a certified nursing assistant, a community volunteer, a licensed private pilot, a triathlete, and an accomplished musician who plays the fiddle and mandolin.
Here he answers a few questions about himself and his plans for the future:
What’s it like being part of the elite group of people known as Rhodes Scholars?
“It’s nice to see some fruits of my labor and of my hard work. I feel like it’s time to be grateful to people who have supported me . . . because I would not have been able to do it without a lot of help.
“It’s certainly daunting knowing the list of other Rhodes Scholars who have done amazing things. But it’s important to me to pursue it with vigor and with the same gusto and grit that I have everything else.
“And it’s an opportunity to show other UT students that they can do things like this too.”
How will being a Rhodes Scholar impact your future?
“I certainly think it will open doors that perhaps wouldn’t have been opened otherwise. Even more than that, it gives me the opportunity to have a platform to do work from and to speak from that just wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”
Did you always want to be a surgeon?
“When I was little, I was quite scared of surgery.
“Someone gave me an anatomy textbook as a gift. I read through the whole thing and loved it.”
To learn more about having a career in medicine, Rigney shadowed some physicians during high school.
“I got my nurse assistant license the last semester of high school. I took a night course, passed the test, and began working in an assisted living facility the summer between high school and my first year here at UT. I wanted some hands-on clinical experience. I also wanted to see health care from a different perspective.”
Your career goals center on helping others, something that really epitomizes the Volunteer Creed. Why is this important to you?
“I think it’s something that my parents and my family fostered in my growing up—trying to be humble and having humility in the things you do and, even more importantly, doing things for the sake of them being good and helpful to others.”
Why did you want to become a private pilot?
“My dad loved airplanes and specifically fighter jets. He would take me to a lot of air shows when I was growing up. I developed a love for aviation and airplanes in general.
“I knew I wanted to learn how to fly but did not have the funds to do so. I ended up saving up some money from playing music [with his family’s bluegrass band] and also working as a nurse assistant. I got my license the summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college.”
How do you make time for all of your varied interests? And how do they all work together in your life?
“I have some great friends who keep me balanced and push me to do the things I really enjoy doing—to get my nose out of the books. It’s about being intentional about scheduling your day.”
What’s on your bucket list of experiences to have while you are studying at the University of Oxford in England?
“I would love to travel to London, to Stonehenge, to Ireland, perhaps to Wales, probably to Cambridge as well. I’d like to see all of the countryside, the less visited parts, but also some of the more touristy areas as well.”
What do you do for fun?
“I like to play classical music on my mandolin, particularly Bach. I also like to play my violin and go on runs and hang out with my friends.”
How would your friends describe you?
“They would probably say I’m a serious goofball. I’m very serious about some things, but I love joking around and love having a good time.”
What’s the first thing you tell people about UT?
Rigney said he chose UT because of the Haslam Scholars program.
“It offered me opportunities I couldn’t get elsewhere and gave me the chance to be part of a group of motivated and driven people.
“I’ve loved UT. It’s given me so many opportunities, experiences, and friends. It’s a place that has all the resources you may need to pursue whatever field you’re interested in.”