December 29, 2014      

The call from the British consulate came in the middle of class.

Gonzaga University senior Chris Birmingham stepped into the hallway to answer it, remembers saying something like “No way,” and then wondered if there was any chance he’d maybe misunderstood.

He hadn’t.

Birmingham, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student from Tacoma with a knack for building complex robots, is headed to England in the fall.

He’s among a handful of Americans selected by the British government to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom as part of the prestigious Marshall Scholarship program.

“It’s an incredible honor,” said Birmingham, who plans to use the scholarship to study robotics at the University of Bristol after graduating this spring from Gonzaga with an honors degree in electrical engineering and a minor in computer science.

Marshall Scholarships were created by the British Parliament following World War II and provide up to 40 students from the United States each year with at least two years of expense-paid study in the United Kingdom. Nearly 1,000 U.S. students per year are endorsed by their colleges and universities for the scholarship program, making it one of the most competitive in the world.

Birmingham’s career aspirations include designing robots that assist the elderly and disabled. In his spare time at Gonzaga, for example, he’s built a robotic limb using 3-D printers and tiny servo motors, and currently is helping develop a robot designed to enable those in wheelchairs to go bowling with friends.

Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh saluted Birmingham’s commitment to service and called his selection as a Marshall scholar a significant achievement.

“He is an incredibly accomplished student and we are very proud of the many opportunities he has both taken advantage of, and created, while at Gonzaga,” McCulloh said. “Marshall Scholars have gone on to do important work in the world, and we are excited about where his journeys will take him.”

Birmingham chose Bristol because of its advanced robotics programs, particularly its research into assisted-living robots.

The scholarship guarantees him at least two years, which he’ll use to earn a master’s degree; he hopes to win an extension to finish a doctorate.

Science runs deep in Birmingham’s family. His mother, Margaret, is an electrical engineer and his dad, Michael, is a computer scientist. His younger sister, Jessie, is a mechanical engineering student at Gonzaga and his twin sister, Marissa, is studying engineering management at the University of Portland.

Gonzaga’s engineering computer services manager Patrick Nowacki called Birmingham a driven and focused student who was a logical choice for the honor.

“Chris is an individual who takes on everything in life,” said Nowacki, who was persuaded last year by Birmingham and another student to serve as adviser to the robotics club they had just started. “If you were to think about who should be a Marshall Scholar, he’s the one.”