By Tejas Athni
Six Stanford seniors have received the 2019 Deans’ Award, an annual honor which recognizes a small number of undergraduates for their scholarly achievements. Nominated by faculty, winners have excellent academic track records as well as accomplishments in areas such as independent research, national academic competitions, performance in the creative arts and presentations or publications for regional or national audiences.
This year, the recipients include Sofia Ali, majoring in human biology; Claudia Heymach, majoring in human biology; Mika Sarkin Jain, pursuing a B.S. in physics with honors and an M.S. in computer science; Jack Lindsey, majoring in math, coterming in computer science and minoring in physics; Peter Morgan, majoring and co-terming in English; and Brooke Vittimberga, majoring in human biology with honors and minoring in comparative studies in race and ethnicity.
Typically, five to 10 seniors are chosen for the award each year. However, this year’s batch of six recipients marks a decrease from last year’s nine winners, with a greater proportion of students majoring in STEM-related fields — three 2019 awardees are majoring in human biology, while two others are coterming in computer science.
A brief look at this year’s awardees
Ali studies the social determinants of health, particularly within sub-Saharan African communities. Last summer, she supported on-site data quality assurance for a northern Senegal study on social factors and risk for schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic flatworms. She has also analyzed child health outcomes for Asili, a social enterprise in eastern Congo.
“I was really surprised because I had never heard of the Deans’ Award,” Ali told The Daily. “I learned that I had been nominated by Clea Sarnquist and Erin Mordecai, two faculty members who I’ve had the honor of working closely with during my time at Stanford, which made this award mean even more.”
Heymach explores stem cell mechanics and carcinogenesis using a flatworm with regenerative properties. She is passionate about healthcare disparities, has designed low-cost diagnostics for human papillomavirus (HPV) and uses storytelling to highlight health disparities and environmental injustices.
Jain focuses on applying physics approaches to study biological systems, ranging from the cell to organ systems. He has developed a number of new machine learning algorithms.
“I am extremely grateful for the recognition and to the professors and mentors who made this possible,” Jain said.
Lindsey has worked to develop a theory that accounts for the diversity of cell types in the primate retina, and a framework that elucidates the varying roles of the retina and primary visual cortex across species. Collaborating with mentors at Stanford, he has also worked to uncover mechanisms of information transfer between brain regions in mice.
Morgan studies British modernism and ’30s print culture, specializing in Virginia Woolf. In his master’s thesis, he considers the distribution, publication and polemics of Woolf’s Hogarth Press political pamphlets and uses text mining to trace deictic words in 17th-century English drama.
Vittimberga currently investigates CAR T-cell therapy for treatment of pediatric solid tumors. After being diagnosed with leukemia sophomore year and undergoing a stem cell transplant, Brooke returned to Stanford interested in applying immunology to cancer biology.
Life after graduation from Stanford
As these students near the end of their undergraduate career, they plan to wrap up loose ends on campus and then delve into their post-graduation ambitions.
“I look forward to completing several projects that I have loved working on this year,” Heymach told The Daily. “I am also excited to spend as much time as I can with the organizations that have shaped my Stanford experience, such as Kids with Dreams, the Stanford Storytelling Project, Pacific Free Clinic and the Huntington’s Outreach Project for Education at Stanford.”
Many of the Deans’ Award winners plan to spread their wings and relocate to new places around the country. Vittimberga will be attending the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. Lindsey plans to begin a Ph.D. program, studying computational and theoretical neuroscience. Heymach plans to apply to medical schools this year. Morgan plans to study labor law at Harvard Law School after a two-year deferral. Jain plans to attend Cambridge University as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.
Others have plans to pack their bags and go abroad internationally, delving into new experiences thousands of miles from home.
“I’m waiting to hear back about some international fellowships that I’ve applied for, and I’m currently working on my Peace Corps application for service in Ethiopia,” Ali said. “I’m hoping to work in the public health sector somewhere on the African continent.”
In an email to The Daily, many winners also reflected on their undergraduate journeys and shared advice that they would pass on to younger students at Stanford.
“Unless you’re superhuman, you can’t challenge yourself in every aspect of your life,” Heymach wrote. “I’ve found it really helpful to reflect on how I spend my time and what I’m getting out of each activity that I do.”
Ultimately, a common theme among the winners was clear: making the most of opportunities was their key to succeeding at Stanford.
“Everyone is different, but what I would tell my younger self is that, especially early in college, you should make sure to pursue everything you are genuinely excited about, even if it is a bit of a reach,” Lindsey wrote.
“My path at Stanford has had lots of bumps. Every quarter wasn’t perfect and that’s okay,” Vittimberga wrote. “When I look back, I can’t believe how much I have learned by both failing and succeeding.”