UF student named one of three international 2017 Rolex Scholars

Leah Potts

GAINESVILLE, Fla. –  A University of Florida student has been chosen as one of only three 2017 Rolex Scholars in the world.

An avid scuba diver of seven years, biological engineering senior Leah Potts found her career calling by merging her love for the water with engineering. Potts will receive her scholarship at a formal ceremony in New York in late April.

The scholarship committee selected three finalists from a rigorous application process to interview in Chicago for the 2017 North American scholar title of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society, ultimately choosing Potts. She joins a European Rolex Scholar and an Australasian scholar.

“Leah’s program is interdisciplinary, and the UF/IFAS agricultural and biological engineering department provides the opportunity for Leah to combine engineering with her interest in natural resources and water use in agricultural systems,” said department chair Dorota Haman. “The opportunity the Rolex Scholarship provides is fantastic. There is so much going on in water around the world and Leah can select several institutions and conferences to visit and “learn about water” during this coming year. Our department is very proud of her.”

Each Rolex Scholar is introduced to hands-on underwater and other aquatic excursions of their choosing as they work alongside current field leaders for one year. Potts will have the opportunity to go on various expeditions, field studies, underwater research, laboratory assignments, equipment testing and trainings with a network of sponsors and academics. As part of the scholarship, Potts will receive $25,000 from Rolex to help with travel costs.

“I’m hoping to use the scholarship to explore cutting-edge engineering opportunities in water-related fields as well as continue my diving education at the technical and research levels,” Potts said. “Ultimately, I’d like to combine my passion for technical diving with my engineering education into a career path that helps sustain our water resources.”

A curiosity for deep waters and previous snorkeling trips led Potts to complete an initial scuba diving certification by herself on a family vacation to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She was hooked. Potts went on to complete certifications at the educator and technical levels, including a cave diving certification, an activity she pursues regularly in Florida’s springs.

“The scholarship just screamed, ‘Leah Potts!’” said IFAS agricultural and biological engineering lecturer Jim Leary. “As her professor and adviser, it has been easy for me to share different opportunities with her, because everything she is involved in she gives her all. She’s been able to direct her whole academic path. This scholarship is a perfect fit for her since she is incredibly self-motivated and has such enthusiasm for learning.”

Originally from Blacksburg, Virginia, Potts transferred from Virginia Tech to UF so she could take on more advanced dives while earning a quality education. In addition to teaching diving in the Florida Keys for a year, Potts has completed a yearlong research internship at Divers Alert Network, where she participated in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition monitoring the physiology of deep-sea divers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

One of the accomplishments Potts is most proud of is the recent publication of a paper she wrote on cave diving fatalities with researchers from Divers Alert Network. Diver safety and education is a topic Potts is proud to promote throughout her work.

“My advice to others would be to do what you’re passionate about,” Potts said. “That’s how all of this came about. Pursuing my parallel passions for diving and engineering earned me this amazing scholarship that will allow me to explore both at the same time. There’s always a way to make your passions fit together, so just keep trying.”

Potts is grateful for stumbling upon her major within the UF/IFAS agricultural and biological engineering department.

“I love my department,” Potts said. “My adviser, Dr. Leary, welcomed me with such enthusiasm and showed me the department really wanted me as a student. The people of this department have a positive impact on natural resources here in Florida and around the world, and this major gives its students the necessary tools to create a more sustainable future. The department has become my home.”

Potts’ adventures throughout her scholarship year can be followed on her upcoming blog here.

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By: Dana Edwards, 352-392-1963, dana.edwards@ufl.edu

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.