2010 University Co-op / George H. Mitchell Undergraduate Awards For Academic Excellence

Recipient of $20,000 Award:

John Meyer
Major: English and Government
Nominated by: Dr. James Loehlin
Project: American Volunteers: A Play in Four Acts

John Meyer’s original play, American Volunteers, draws directly from his own experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan. The play follows a group of Army Airborne Rangers patrolling the Pakistan border, as John himself did, and for which he earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service.

John, a Government and English major with no previous background in theatre, participated in UT’s Shakespeare at Winedale program in order to learn about Shakespeare’s use of meter first-hand as he developed and wrote his play. John’s work adapts Brechtian methods of breaking down the “fourth wall” of traditional theatre to create an almost absurdist setting while integrating the crude speech of soldiers in combat with the lyrical, poetic language of soliloquy. The characters John has penned must examine their own moral values and confront their motives for military service in the midst of the chaos of warfare.

The Austin American-Statesman cited John’s work as the first full-length American play about the war in Afghanistan when it was produced during Frontera Fest this year. John writes that it is his hope that “…by the end of the play, the audience is closer to Afghanistan than they can get by watching any documentary, or reading any news report.”

In drawing from his own life experiences as a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, John has written his own modern Richard III. He has connected the liberal arts education he has received at UT with his own real life experience with stunning courage and compelling artistry.

Recipients of $5,000 Awards:

Lynne Chantranupong
Major: Cell and Molecular Biology
Nominated by: George Georgiou
Project: Enhancing the kinetics and stability of human Arginase I- a potential chemotherapeutic agent for L-Arginine auxotrophic cancers

Lynne Chantranpong was nominated by Professor George Georgiou in the Department of Chemical Engineering. In less than two years working in his lab, Lynne has completed studies that have earned her co-authorship in four refereed journal publications, including two in which she is the lead author. She has acquired enough data for two more publications, and upon leaving the lab at graduation she will have a more distinguished record than many top PhD students. She has exceptional laboratory skills in molecular biology, protein chemistry, and enzymology. Professor Georgiou remarks that he has never seen an undergraduate student with this level of talent, focus, and productivity in his 23 years in academia.

Lynne has been working on the engineering of human enzymes for cancer therapy. Her thesis project specifically targets a group of cancers involving a deficiency in arginase enzymes. Hepatocellular carcinoma and melanoma are increasingly common and virulent types of cancer with low survival rates, and existing chemotherapy is often ineffective. Tumor cells in these types of cancer cannot synthesize the amino acid arginine and must take it in from the environment outside the cells. Sustained treatment with enzymes to deplete extracellular arginine can be a powerful strategy for killing these cancers. Before Lynne’s work, however, most candidate treatments were either ineffective or found to trigger dangerous immune responses. Lynne systematically engineered variants of human arginase enzyme, measured their kinetics in cell conditions and manipulated them to increase their binding with the cell substrates up to 20-fold. Professor Georgiou points out that this study required a really large effort, which Lynne was remarkably able to complete almost singlehandedly within 8 months. She then prepared novel conjugated enzyme forms of human arginase that increased the length of time they persist in the circulatory system, thus making the enzyme a much more effective treatment. Further, she designed and produced a “linked” form of arginase that is large enough so that it is not subject to filtration in the kidneys but can also be easily produced in a form required for clinical applications. In addition, Lynne will be the first author on a publication describing current work on the pharmacokinetics of these constructs in animals.

After a year in college at Brock University, where she was an undergraduate research assistant in a mitochondrial genomics study, Lynne transferred to UT Austin. She was a research assistant in the bacteriophage evolution lab of Professor James J. Bull and served as a Freshman Research Initiative mentor in the Viral Evolution research stream. In May 2008 she was selected to be a Beckman Scholar and began work in Professor Georgiou’s lab. Lynne has maintained a perfect GPA of 4.00 throughout her undergraduate career. In spring 2009 she was named a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar. This fall Lynne will enter the PhD program in Biology at MIT.

John Hammond
Major: English/Psychology
Nominated by: Geraldine Heng
Project: The Darkness of Memory: "Post-Race" in Premodernity

Carefully balancing intellectual rigor and joyful enthusiasm, James Hammond in “The Darkness of Memory: ‘Post-Race’ in Premodernity” attends to the formation of a past racial consciousness, while linking it to present matters concerning race. Hammond artfully demonstrates through the figure of the medieval Black knight St. Maurice that critical and cultural concerns about “post-race” are not exclusively representative of postmodern anxiety. Stated simply, “post-race” has its roots in the “premodern.” The intellectually sprawling tripartite study spans the fields of art history, literature, psychology, sociology, and cultural theory, while meticulously attending to each discipline. As one committee member noted: “What is remarkable about this interdisciplinary study is that, despite the fact that it is presented as an ‘English’ project, the art scholarship alone is a notable thesis.” The committee was impressed with the way in which Hammond undertook an intellectual quest and in the process “made the subject his own.”

Krista Lynne Smith
Major: Astronomy
Nominated by: Gregory Shields
Project: A Search for Binary Active Galactic Nuclei: Double-Peaked AGN in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Krista was nominated by Professor Gregory Shields for a publication based on her search for binary quasars using a large public database of spectra of quasars – snapshots, if you will. Quasars are the most luminous, powerful, and energetic objects known in the universe. They are the nuclei of distant galaxies surrounding super-massive black holes; and binary quasars are pairs of quasars bound together by gravity. The radiation from the gases entering the black hole can be analyzed to tell astronomers much about both the black hole itself and the host galaxy.

Binary quasars are thought to be the product of galaxy mergers where gravitational forces push gas to the center of the merging galaxies, fueling both black holes simultaneously. Although more than 200,000 quasars are known, binary quasars are surprisingly rare. Krista analyzed spectroscopic data from the massive Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) to search for spectra that might fit that of binary quasars. Not only is the dataset itself vast- it has reconstructed close to a million galaxies, but the signatures Krista was looking for could not be found using automated scanning processes. The search for binary quasars had to be done by eye, and Krista examined over 20,000 spectra. Amazingly, she located 150 new binary quasar candidates from this data.

Additionally, her work with the SDSS located two objects that have garnered the attention of astronomers- one of which is a possible example of a black hole ejected from a galaxy. These two discoveries resulted in Krista being co-author of two other research papers with collaborators at UC Santa Cruz and University of New Mexico.

Krista’s work was not only significant in and of itself, but opened up whole new paths of research for astronomers interested in merging galaxies. Her discoveries suggest additional lines of theoretical inquiry that may eventually address why binary quasars are so rare. The manuscript submitted for Mitchell Award consideration will be published this spring in the Astrophysical Journal, the premier astronomical research journal. An on-line pre-publication of her paper already boasts 8 citations in the astronomical literature. She has been recognized both locally and nationally, has presented her work at national meetings and invited university seminars, and has been an ambassador for science, presenting at elementary schools and local community clubs. In the fall, Krista will apply to PhD programs in Astronomy; she hopes to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

Recipients of $2,000 Awards:

Grace Eckhoff
Major: Biology/Plan II
Nominated by: Andrew Ellington
Project: The Challenges and Opportunities in Tuberculosis Control, from Texas to Afghanistan

Grace was nominated by Dr. Andy Ellington based on her research to determine the prevalence and sequence of drug-resistant tuberculosis in Afghanistan. Drug resistance microorganisms are a major cause of disease in the world today, and their continuing evolution is a challenge to public health. The first step in understanding how to combat these diseases is to understand what resistant elements exist in a population, and then to develop diagnostics and drugs to combat those resistance elements.

In particular, Grace worked with the Afghan National Tuberculosis Program to obtain samples from tuberculosis-positive individuals from around Afghanistan, and then worked in Afghanistan to prepare the samples for DNA extraction. Grace was able to extract DNA from over 500 of these slides, and upon her return to the University of Texas at Austin, she sequenced a critical gene from each sample, and identified mutations that led to resistance to rifampin, a drug commonly used for the treatment of tuberculosis. She was able to correlate different mutations with different regions in Afghanistan, opening the way to better understanding the spread of the disease and to developing diagnostic assays that might be of use in the field.

Never content with simply understanding a problem, Grace has gone on to develop novel diagnostic assays for rifampin-resistant tuberculosis. She has worked on adapting novel methods in a new field, DNA computation, to sensing the particular drug-resistant genes she has identified. The assays she is working on are particularly relevant to field tests as they require no enzymes or complicated devices for their readout, and thus can be readily ported to resource poor regions of the world.

Grace has been recognized in a number of other ways, including through her selection as a Marshall Scholar and her election to the Friar Society. Her service abroad is in the best tradition of the Public Health Program at UT. In the fall, Grace will attend Cambridge University in England.

Keeley Steenson
Major: Radio-Television-Film/Plan II
Nomianted by: Paul Steckler
Project: Show and Tell

Keeley, a Radio-TV-Film/Plan II major, is nominated for Show and Tell, a documentary film she directed. The subject of her documentary is a group of retirees at a South Austin recreation center who have been taught by UT students to use inexpensive, hand-held digital video recorders to document their lives and their perspectives on aging. Keeley developed not only the trusting relationships with her subjects critical to making her film, but also created the curricula necessary to teach documentary filmmaking and new technologies to a group of individuals who were sometimes three times her age and had never before operated a video camera. Keely writes, “In many ways the lines between documentary subjects and documentary filmmakers were blurred as the subjects became the filmmakers and [I]…as a filmmaker acted more as a guide and advocate for the filmmaking process.” Keeley’s edited documentary communicates with charm, humor and artistry the wisdom of age, viewed through the rosy lens of a promising young filmmaker. Keeley plans to use the knowledge and technical skills she has acquired through studying filmmaking at UT to continue making thought-provoking documentaries in the future.

Kathleen Skinner
Major: English/History
Nominated by: Lance Bertelsen
Project: Ships, Logs, and Voyages: Maria Graham Navigates the Journey of H.M.S. BLONDE

For her English Honors Thesis, entitled “Ships, Logs, and Voyages: Maria Graham Navigates the Voyage of HMS Blonde,” Kathleen Skinner brings to light the literary production of a female British writer of the early 19th century named Maria Graham. Rather than focus on Graham’s travel journals, which are well known in both South America and Europe, Kathleen takes on the daunting task of examining one of Maria Graham’s most obscure works – so obscure, in fact, that it is not even recognized as hers. In late 1826, Maria Graham ghostwrote a book entitled Voyage of the HMS Blonde to the Sandwich Islands, 1824-1825 about the travels of Lord George Anson Byron to the Sandwich Islands of Hawaii, told primarily from the perspective of the ship’s chaplain. Through a meticulous examination of journal accounts and drawings, as well as by conducting interviews of ship personnel, Graham published this popular travelogue. Yet surprisingly, her name appears nowhere in the book itself. Thus, Kathleen’s first remarkable achievement in her thesis is locating Maria Graham as the actual female author of this male story.

Kathleen’s second achievement is to painstakingly unearth the processes of collection and analysis of source that Graham went through in creating her travelogue. In order to bring Graham’s research path to life, Kathleen conducted archival work in Edinburgh, where she transcribed scores of Graham’s personal letters. Kathleen’s third and final achievement in “Ships, Logs and Voyages” is to recover Maria Graham’s distinctive female voice through the chorus of male figures who are presented as authors of the book. Kathleen does this by examining the editorial choices made by Graham as she went through the primary sources to create the book’s narrative – choices about how to depict native Hawaiian religion, society, dress and gender relations. In her work, Kathleen Skinner shows us how women’s history and voices are often hiding right in front of us, in cultural artifacts we know well. They only await the keen scholar who can see. Kathleen is such a scholar.

Anthony Wright
Major: Anthropology
Nominated by: John Traphagan
Project: Welcome to Pinewood: An ethnographic investigation of poverty and illness in supportive housing

Filled with both passion and compassion, Anthony Wright’s thesis, “Welcome to Pinewood,” combines vivid ethnographic description with trenchant critiques of contemporary American welfare policies. Wright spent six months as an in-home care attendant in supportive housing in Austin, Texas. He witnessed how widespread American assumptions about self-help, individual responsibility, and poverty have dire consequences on more vulnerable members of our society who rely on public institutions for their lodging and care. In “Welcome to Pinewood”, he shows how public policy demeans these people and implicitly suggests that their poverty is their own fault. In adopting these attitudes themselves, residents of supportive housing struggle despairingly against their own circumstances while trapped in a bureaucratic quagmire ostensibly there to help them. Few of these people, ill and impoverished, see that individual effort can hardly overcome their structurally marginal position in our society.

The suffering Wright witnessed comes through in his deeply affecting portrait of individual residents. So does the respect with which he conversed with residents he came to know. This makes his critique of the way the neediest among us are served by the lowest paid and least supported members of our work force all the more powerful. It is impossible to come away from Wright’s thesis without sharing his dismay at how our society treats the physically, cognitively, and emotionally challenged among us. It is equally impossible to come away from it without admiring Wright’s acute insight and deeply generous spirit.

Neeley, Om J.
Major: Business Honors & Corporate Finance/Plan II
Nominated by: H.W. Brands
Project: Changing Tactics: The Quiet Dalliance Between Pharmaceutical Companies, Lobbyists, and Medical Schools

Om J. Neeley’s Plan II thesis, Changing Tactics, is an ambitiously conceived study that crosses the disciplinary boundaries of medicine, business, history, and political science in demonstrating the striking influence of pharmaceutical companies in shaping both the public regulation and the private practice of medicine. The thesis employs several case studies to illuminate the effects of direct-to-consumer marketing on physicians, patients, federal regulators, and Congress, not to mention on the profits of the pharmaceutical companies and the firms that lobby on their behalf. More than a little of the marketing has been misleading, as Mr. Neeley demonstrates, but even where accurate it has injected a powerful new stimulus to spending on health care. He likens the “iron triangle” of pharmaceutical companies, health-care providers, and the government to the military-industrial complex of the Cold War, with the difference being that the pharmaceutical iron triangle touches far more lives on a daily basis than the military-industrial complex ever did. Combining the best of academic analysis and investigative journalism, Mr. Neeley’s thesis draws timely conclusions that will be of great interest to academic specialists and the general public alike.

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