A student who started teaching himself physics in middle school and writing scientific research papers in high school made history at Clemson in May when he crossed the stage at Littlejohn Coliseum, accepted his diploma and shook President Clements’ hand.

Grant Wilkins is Clemson’s first graduate to receive the Churchill Scholarship, an honor that pays for a year of study at the University of Cambridge, where he plans to pursue a Master of Philosophy in advanced computer science. 

Wilkins, who is also a Goldwater Scholar and Astronaut Scholar, has published four research papers since joining Clemson, interned at Tesla, studied in South Africa and helped organize student events, including a Tigerama that gave him the chance to talk football with Georgia rapper B.o.B.

Family and friends said that as accomplished as Wilkins is, he isn’t the type to brag. He has a life outside of the classroom that includes yoga and vegetarian cooking.

A computer engineering and mathematical sciences major, Wilkins grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, the second of three children. He comes from a family that has been deeply entrenched in the Clemson Family for decades, starting in 1963 when his grandfather, Jerry V. Reel, accepted a faculty position as an instructor while completing his Ph.D. at Emory University. Reel, now retired, went on to become a history professor, dean and vice provost of undergraduate studies. 

Both of Wilkins’ parents, three grandparents, four uncles, an aunt, two cousins and a great-uncle are Clemson graduates. Growing up, he visited Clemson frequently to see relatives and attend Clemson Football games, his first at 6 weeks old.

Wilkins said he has enjoyed math his whole life, and in sixth grade he learned how much the subject was connected to science. He also started reading Wikipedia articles on wormholes and other physics-related topics.

“In eighth grade, I would have told you I was a guru in physics, but it was the Dunning-Kruger effect,” Wilkins said. “You don’t realize how much you don’t know until you learn a little bit more.”

And keep learning he did.

Wilkins began to consider becoming a Tiger himself in high school, and he applied to Clemson’s Honors College. He said he was “over the moon” when he was invited for an interview.

“I had always wanted to go to Clemson partially because of family connections and partially because of my tour of the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering — everything was so impressive,” he said. “But getting the financial ability through the National Scholars Program was huge. It was one of the major turning points that changed my life.”

At Clemson, Wilkins has conducted research with Jon Calhoun, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. They have focused on lossy compression in high-performance computing for scientific applications. 

Lossy compression is a technique that discards the least important information to reduce the amount of data for storing and processing. Wilkins is interested in applying the technique to energy efficiency, which could help keep power flowing during natural disasters or peak usage.

In his first semester at Clemson, Wilkins showed up at Calhoun’s office inquiring about his work, the assistant professor said. According to Calhoun, it was only the second time a student that young had approached him about his research.

“Grant represents the benchmark of what students at Clemson can achieve,” Calhoun said. “Now and for probably a very long time, I’m going to use him as an example to inspire undergraduates: ‘This is what you can do if you put your mind to it. If you put in the work, these are things you can accomplish.’” 

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