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An aspiring chemist creates a low-cost compound to fight life-threatening diseases. An engineer-in-training works for Middle East peace. A young woman develops a plan to boost Nigeria’s economy. Nobel Prize winners? Not yet. This is a story about Pitt undergraduates.

The Bright Brigade


Cara J. Hayden


  2006 Rhodes and Goldwater scholar Justin Chalker (Ric Evans photo)
 

As a droplet plunks into the round-bottomed flask, chemical bonds vanish and new links form. Justin Chalker peers through his goggles at the rippling liquid, which appears as plain as water, and envisions the kaleidoscopic dance of organic shapes. Chalker enjoys marveling at his scientific artwork, but as he orchestrates the flow of liquid by tweaking the laboratory’s instruments, he knows his creation’s true beauty is its usefulness in biomedical research.

Chalker, a Pitt senior with dual majors in chemistry and history and philosophy of science, is developing a new method to synthesize prostaglandin. A bodily substance and a necessary ingredient for scientists conducting diabetes or cancer research, prostaglandin is difficult to obtain—10 milligrams costs nearly $1,000. He hopes that his low-cost, high-yield substitute will soon be available to researchers, ultimately speeding cures for diabetes, cancer, and other illnesses.

This is merely one of Chalker’s undergraduate accomplishments. And it’s also one of the many reasons he was just named a 2006 Rhodes Scholar—the fourth in Pitt’s history.

The Rhodes Scholarship, a prestigious international award, provides full tuition and financial support for graduate study at Oxford University in England. The highly competitive scholarship is bestowed only on those deemed to be extraordinarily well-rounded individuals with keen leadership potential, physical vigor, and integrity, plus high academic achievements. For 2006, only 32 students from the United States were chosen from undergraduates at institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford ... and Pitt, which was one of only three public universities to have a Rhodes Scholar selected for this year.

Chalker, a Chancellor’s Scholar, is pursuing a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the Honors College. (Three of Pitt’s four Rhodes Scholars were also Chancellor’s Scholars recruited by the college.) In addition to his notable research, he’s sharing his passion for chemistry by working as an undergraduate teaching assistant in the chemistry department. He’s also the community education outreach coordinator for Pitt’s student chapter of the American Chemical Society and the founder of Y-Sci Fest, an annual science research fair that draws about 200 middle school students from the Pittsburgh region. He plans to use his Rhodes Scholarship to continue creating life-improving compounds while studying organic chemistry and earning the equivalent of a PhD from Oxford.

“It’s a great opportunity to study at one of the best chemistry institutions in the world,” says Chalker, a Kansas native. “I haven’t had time to do much traveling since I’ve been busy here in Pittsburgh, so I’m looking forward to the international experience.”

Chalker is also one of 320 students nationwide named a 2005 Goldwater Scholar. The Goldwater, one of three undergraduate scholarship competitions sponsored by Congress (the Truman and Udall scholarships are the other two), honors former Senator Barry M. Goldwater and was designed to recognize and encourage outstanding student researchers in the fields of mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering.

He’s one of five Pitt students who last year won Congressional undergraduate scholarships, making 2005 the second consecutive year that Pitt undergraduates were winners in all three of the prestigious national congressional commemorative competitions—the Goldwater, Truman, and Udall scholarships—for a total of 10 scholarships in two years. Only Yale and Cornell universities have also had their students win in all three of these commemorative scholarship competitions in both 2004 and 2005, and only Yale received as many combined scholarships as Pitt in all three competition categories during those two years—a total of 10 scholarships for each school.

 
Anna Quider, Chris Berger, Daliang Leon Li, and Marion Sikora  
 

During the past decade, Pitt undergraduates received numerous national awards, including five Marshall Scholarships, 24 Goldwater Scholarships, three Truman Scholarships, four Udall Scholarships, three Mellon Fellowships in Humanistic Studies, one Fulbright Research Fellowship, and nine Fulbright Teaching Assistantships. In 2003, Prince Andrew of Great Britain designated the University as a Marshall Center of Excellence because, at the time, a Pitt senior had been selected to receive a Marshall Scholarship in each of the last four consecutive years, and in five of the last six years, a record unsurpassed by any public university in America. “Particularly considering that there are some 14 million undergraduate students in this country, our ongoing record of success in these prestigious national competitions is remarkable,” says Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.

One of those national award winners is Pitt senior Daniel Armanios, who received double accolades, with a 2004 Goldwater Scholarship for his innovative engineering research and a 2005 Truman Scholarship for his leadership in public service. He has dual majors in political science and mechanical engineering, and he is a second-team member on the USA Today’s 2006 All-USA College Academic Team.

Drawing from his experience as a member of Pitt’s Model United Nations, Armanios founded Session: Middle East last year, a forum for debating the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the forum, he supervised peers from across western Pennsylvania in a mock debate that demonstrated how political science theories learned in the classroom need to be modified when applied to realistic settings involving reporters, scientific experts, and the complexities of warring cultures in the Middle East. Overall, his goal is to promote understanding of Middle East conflicts, as well as to generate possible solutions for peace. “The conflict is not being solved by this generation, and we will need novel approaches,” he says.

Armanios, a Georgia native, has completed three National Science Foundation summer internships, most recently as a fuel-cell researcher at Virginia Tech. He is also a member in the student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a recipient of the Pitt Henderson Scholarship in engineering. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy and a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering, ultimately combining his disciplines to shape technology policy in the Middle East.

. . .

Another Pitt student aspiring to mold public policy is freshman Alexis Chidi, a 16-year-old from suburban Los Angeles. Last spring, while sitting at the kitchen table with her grandfather, she gaped at a photograph he had taken of a sick, emaciated man in a Nigerian hospital. The two were putting together a slide-show presentation for a lecture her grandfather, a professor at the University of Nigeria and public health advocate, was giving in the United States later that week.

This is actually a real problem, not something I just read in the newspapers, she thought about the reality of poor health conditions in Africa. It confirmed her belief that public health and economic policies are linked. Chidi, who skipped second and eighth grades because of her precocious intelligence and social maturity, is planning to major in neuroscience, political science, and economics at Pitt, which will prepare her to follow in her late grandfather’s footsteps.

With her additional experience as a congressional aide and as a research assistant in the University of Southern California’s cancer center, she’s clearly a star in a freshman class that boasts the highest academic credentials of any incoming class at Pitt. During the past decade, the average SAT score rose from 1110 to 1231, the percentage of freshmen who ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes increased from 19 to 46 percent, and the percentage of freshmen who graduated in the top 20 percent of their high school classes swelled from 39 to 75 percent. Chidi’s class is also one of the largest. Since 1996, the number of undergraduate applications has more than doubled, and full-time enrollment has increased by more than 12 percent.

These results reflect the efforts of Pitt’s Board of Trustees, Chancellor Nordenberg, Provost James Maher, and other University leaders, who have placed a high priority on continuing to improve undergraduate life. During the past decade, classrooms have been refurbished, academic buildings like Sennott Square have been constructed, suite-style residence halls have been built (and 24-hour fitness rooms added), and campus grounds have been spruced up with new signs, attractive lighting, and landscaping. Student-life programming also has been improved through initiatives like Pitt Arts, which connects students to the cultural community through free or low-cost events. A University contract with the Port Authority of Allegheny County gives students free access to all buses with their ID cards. Also significant—especially for students like Chidi, Armanios, and Chalker—has been the culture of high achievement nurtured by the University’s Honors College.

All of the improvements are helping to attract students like Chidi, who says the quality of life at Pitt was a deciding factor in her college decision. She was also heavily recruited by Rice, Villanova, and Vanderbilt universities.

“Pitt is a big school with different activities but still has a small-school atmosphere with support systems like the Honors College, ” she says.

Right now, she’s enjoying living with fellow honors students in Tower B, kicking around the Cathedral lawn with the Hooligan Soccer Club, and volunteering with the Student Honors Activity Community to support a low-income family. She’s also working on an independent research project with the economics department: analyzing the economic plan of her uncle, who is a presidential candidate for Nigeria’s 2007 elections.

Chidi’s ready to achieve a lot in her undergraduate career, and the University of Pittsburgh continues to attract students much like her, Chalker, Armanios, and many others—those with phenomenal aspirations and dazzling promise. The luster of their success is sure to light the way for others as Pitt moves toward an even brighter future.

Them Bones

Pitt senior Marion Sikora stoops to gather a horse skull and a few loose teeth scattered amid low-lying brush on a plain in Kazakhstan. She examines the grooves in the teeth, knowing that chemicals in the sun-bleached remains contain several years of valuable information about climate changes.

Sikora, pursuing dual majors in environmental studies and in geology and planetary science, will compare the chemical properties of the teeth with ancient horse teeth that archaeologists are digging up at nearby sites. She’ll analyze things like seasonal differences in humidity to learn more about the changing climate. She conducted the field research in Kazakhstan and Greece last summer and also participated in similar studies in Mongolia. She plans to pursue a career promoting ecologically appropriate conservation and social policies.

Sikora was one of 81 students nationwide named Udall Scholars in 2005, awarded to those who show leadership potential for a career related to the environment (or to Native American or Alaskan Native student leaders who demonstrate a career commitment to tribal public policy or health care). The scholarship commemorates the legacy of the late Congressman Morris K. Udall. A nontraditional student who earned an associate degree in natural resource management from Sterling College in Vermont, Sikora led trail maintenance and bridge building projects with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps before enrolling at Pitt. She’s a member of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, a group that’s preserving a stream flowing through Pittsburgh’s East End.

Electric Ideas

Daliang Leon Li, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, clicks his computer mouse to begin a simulation of electricity flowing through the brain. On the screen, regions of the head image turn green, blue, yellow, or red, depending on how certain cells conduct electricity. By using the computational model, he hopes to improve the transcranial electrical stimulation technology that neurosurgeons use to prevent brain damage during surgery.

The project is one of several that Li, a Pitt Chancellor’s Scholar, is participating in with scientists in the Department of Neurological Surgery in the School of Medicine. He’s also helping to develop a patch that conducts electricity through skin tissue to power implantable devices that stimulate muscle movement in patients with Parkinson’s disease. His previous undergraduate research experience includes testing the stability of gyroscopes for future NASA spacecraft.

Li was named a national 2005 Goldwater Scholar for his research accomplishments. He used the scholarship to travel abroad in Europe last summer. While in London, he enrolled in business courses to “find out how companies work.” After attending engineering graduate school, his goal is to pursue a career in directing research and design at a major corporation.

Answering Big Questions

Ten billion years ago, cosmic quasars powered by massive black holes sucked matter into gravitational vortexes and spewed the jumbled results back into outer space. Some of the emissions took the form of light, which has been racing, for billions of years, through the gases and other elements of deep space. Now finally close enough to be viewed from Earth using powerful telescopes, the quasar light is helping Anna Quider answer her questions about the cosmos.

Quider, a Pitt senior and Chancellor’s Scholar, leans closer to her computer and scans the zigzag line that spikes and plummets on a quasar light graph. She’s searching for two distinctive “V” shapes—a doublet—indicating that the light has passed through magnesium gas. After a few minutes, she spots the characteristic lines and excitedly hones in on the gas cloud. In subsequent analyses, she’ll figure out how many atoms the cloud contains, how fast it’s moving, and how far away it is. She hopes her research will lead to a better understanding of how gases form into galaxies and how galaxies, in turn, structure the universe. It’s a small step in Quider’s quest to understand life’s biggest questions: What is the universe? How did it form? How does Earth fit into that colossal cosmic puzzle?

Quider, whose hometown of Grand Island, N.Y., neighbors Niagara Falls, ponders grandiose questions daily as a student majoring in physics and astronomy, the history and philosophy of science, and religious studies. She also serves as the editor in chief of the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review, a national journal published by the University Honors College, and plans to earn a doctoral degree in observational astrophysics. Last year, she was a Goldwater Scholar, recognized for her science research.

“It’s a validation,” says Quider of her award. “Lots of students are good at physics and have lab experience. The Goldwater recognizes I have a strong background and a strong idea of where to go with research. It says I’m a package deal.”

Small Changes, Big Impact

A petite Mexican midwife, dressed in a brightly colored cloak, explains the steps of a nutritious recipe to a group of colleagues hailing from distant villages. As Pitt senior Chris Berger meanders through this gathering of traditional health practitioners at a conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, the midwife pauses and the women giggle at this seemingly out of place North Dakota guy with his tall, Nordic build.

Berger spent last summer studying public health in Mexico, where he learned how small changes—like teaching midwives how to educate expectant mothers about nutrition—can have a big impact on health and daily life. By the end of the four-day conference, the women are eagerly showing him handfuls of native herbs, plucked from the outdoors, which they use in many of their recipes.

At Pitt, Berger is pursuing a self-designed international health major along with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the Honors College. He founded the International Health Club, which boasts about 140 undergraduates who attend public health lectures and film screenings together, swap information about internships and graduate schools, and participate in community service projects at Global Links, a Pittsburgh nonprofit organization that collects excess hospital supplies and ships them to third-world countries. As a Pitt Pathfinder, he’s helped to recruit outstanding students to Pitt, and he’s also a member of the Blue and Gold Society, whose members serve as liaisons between current students and alumni.

After attending Pitt’s medical school, Berger plans ultimately to work for an international health organization, developing culturally sensitive health programs that will prevent and combat diseases in poor countries.

 


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