Bir wins 2017 Buchberg Scholarship from SGH

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Arjun Bir talks about low-cost water tests at UNICEF in Bolivia. (Photo Courtesy: Arjun Bir)
Arjun Bir talks about low-cost water testing at the UNICEF headquarters in La Paz, Bolivia. Bir and his classmates in Joe Brown’s Environmental Technology in the Developing World course led a capacity-building exercise for UNICEF and the Bolivian government in 2016. (Photo Courtesy: Arjun Bir)

Engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger has selected civil engineering junior Arjun Bir for the 2017 Buchberg Scholarship.

The award recognizes academic success as well as involvement beyond the classroom. It’s named for School of Civil and Environmental Engineering alumnus Brandon Buchberg, who worked at the firm and made such an impression on his colleagues that they created the scholarship in his honor after he died suddenly a few years ago.

Bir was runner-up for last year’s award. But he said after he spent some time at SGH over the summer, he knew he had to apply again.

“I was inspired by how [Brandon] lit up the lives of those around him through simple things done with seemingly extraordinary involvement, and I left [SGH] with an immense amount of affection for someone I never actually met,” Bir said. “I think I have the potential to spend my limited time on this planet with a similar fire and to become a torch-bearer of Brandon’s legacy.”

The scholarship provides up to $20,000 over four years to support the winner’s remaining undergraduate coursework and two years of graduate study, if they choose to pursue another degree.

It’s designed to be different than other awards, asking applicants to explain what they do outside of their classroom studies and how they balance work and life. His former co-workers said that’s homage to Buchberg, BSCE 2000, MSCE 2002: The young engineer made an impact in the office, had a full and rich life outside of his work, and tried to meld the two as much as he could.

Bir started to make a difference in his community as a teenager in Bangalore, India, long before he began his engineering studies at Georgia Tech. He created a nonprofit to help refurbish and update government schools. He also raised money for scholarships and organized efforts to provide school supplies for poor students.

He said it all started one day as he walked home from his elite, well-funded private school in India and saw the dilapidated government school on the other side of his compound’s wall.

“It became crystal clear to me that the basic privileges I had access to such as food, clean water, sanitation, and a quality education were mine only due to sheer luck of the family I was born into,” Bir said. “I became determined to use my position of privilege to make them available to as many fellow human beings as possible.”

At Tech, Bir has worked with Joe Brown to develop low-cost water tests for poor communities.

“Initially, my focus was on water purification devices,” Bir said. “I realized that it wasn’t water purification devices that were needed — several existed — but it was a low-cost device that could inspire behavior change in poor communities by enabling people to test their own water while simultaneously enabling governments and international agencies to monitor water quality at scale.”

In addition to funding a portion of their education, SGH also offers Buchberg Scholars a paid internship with the company. Bir is the company’s fourth scholarship winner.