2012 University Co-op / George H. Mitchell Undergraduate Awards For Academic Excellence

Recipient of $20,000 Award:

George Miller
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, Astronomy / Plan II
Nominator: Don Winget, Astronomy

To put it bluntly- George led the UT team that collaborated with an international consortium (including astronomers from Germany, Chile, the United States, and the United Kingdom) on the discovery of two new planets. This resulted in first-authorship of a paper and a world-wide press release. The paper details the discovery of a planetary system containing a least two massive planets orbiting the binary star system NN Serpentis. The two stars in this system are joined in a very tight orbit and are of different sizes – one is a small but very hot white dwarf (just 2.3 times larger than Earth but burning at 50,000 degrees Kelvin) and the other is a larger, but cooler star with a mass only one-tenth that of the Sun. Because of the disturbing effects of a binary star system’s gravity, such systems are very difficult to explore.

But, because Earth lies in the same plane as this binary star system, observers on Earth can regularly see the eclipse which occurs when the larger star moves in front of the smaller one (every 3 hours and seven minutes). This regular change in the brightness of the system acts like a very precise light clock- a clock that allowed detection of even minor variations in brightness that weren’t explained only by the two stars orbiting each other. Variations that resulted in the discovery of these two planets. The planets discovered by this method were the first of their kind, and dynamically similar to outer planets in our own solar system.

Many of the eclipse timing observations were obtained in West Texas, on the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope and the 1.2-meter MONET telescope at McDonald Observatory – which George is the local expert on. George has become such an integral part of the science occurring at the McDonald observatory in West Texas that he supports and trains scientists and students alike. He has developed software, scripts and even hardware to improve the usefulness of several of the telescopes, resulting in validated and verifiable data on multiple additional projects.

Recipients of $5,000 Awards:

Seth Whitsitt
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, Physics
Nominator: Gregory Fiete, Physics

The greatest minds the planet has ever known have been drawn to theoretical physics, which is arguably the most intellectually demanding of the scientific disciplines. Seth Whitsitt deserves a George Mitchell undergraduate award because of what he has already achieved in theoretical physics, and for what he will no doubt achieve throughout his scientific career. His recommender said it best, “Seth will bring high value to the Mitchell award, and in my view will come to be recognized as one of the finest undergraduates to have studied at the University of Texas at Austin.”

Seth works in a branch of theoretical physics that seeks to identity new quantum based properties of matter through calculations at the very limits of what is known. Working with assistant professor Gregory Fiete, Seth is the first author on a soon to be submitted paper entitled “Exact Chiral Spin Liquid and Mean-Field Perturbations of Gamma Matrix Models on the Ruby Lattice”. This roughly translates into looking for new magnetic or other quantum properties of materials that are so exotic, they can only be investigated by theorists at this point. The prediction of important new properties by theoretical studies such as these are needed to inspire and refine the search for or design of actual materials that could potentially revolutionize technology in a number of fields. The amount of math and state-of-the-art quantum theory that Seth has mastered as an undergraduate to make important contributions in this area is simply breathtaking. Extrapolated to the future, one gets the sense that there is simply no limit to what Seth Whitsitt might accomplish in his graduate work and beyond.

Ramu Kharel
Category: Social Sciences
Senior, Asian Cultures & Languages
Nominator: Syed A. Hyder, Asian Studies

Ramu Kharel presents a remarkable and inspiring example of a student who has combined his passions with his talents in the service of his professional interests and the betterment of humanity. Ramu began his life journey as an impoverished child in Nepal, where basic sanitation and medical care was so poor that he lost his mother at the age of nine to an infection that we in the U.S. would overcome with a course of antibiotics. Committed to giving his child the best opportunities, his father brought Ramu to this country, where he excelled in school. Upon coming to UT, Ramu pursued a pre-med program of study, so that he could provide the very type of medical care that those in his home country so desperately need. But at the same time, Ramu realized that he loved the study of language and poetry. So he entered the Hindu-Urdu Flagship program at UT, where he not only learned two additional foreign languages, but came to master them. And then he utilized his new language skills to go overseas, to India, to both work in and write an ethnography about poor Muslim women living in one of North India’s slums. Eloquent in both English and Urdu, Ramu has written a bilingual thesis, in which he provides an impassioned yet sober analysis of the particular intersections of gender, religious identity, class and politics that make the lives of these women so challenging. Also an outstanding student, Ramu has at the same time garnered admission at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, where he will begin this fall.

Ryan Truby
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, Biomedical Engineering
Nominator: Stanislav Emelianov, Biomedical Engineering

Ryan Truby’s research project in the Biomedical Engineering Department produced a novel scientific advance, a tribute to his rare combination of remarkable intelligence and imagination, plus his desire to make a difference in the ongoing fight against cancer. During his four years of undergraduate research, Ryan contributed significantly to the development of silver-coated agents for the imaging of cancer in living tissue, and he independently created hybrid nanostructures that can be used as imaging contrast agents in a method called magneto-photo-acoustic imaging. This method advances biomedical science by allowing doctors to better differentiate diseased regions from normal tissue, and it provides a valuable new tool to noninvasively diagnose and characterize pathologies such as cancer by enhancing their imaging and detection. Not surprisingly, Ryan is listed as a co-inventor on a patent recently filed with the UT Office of Technology and Commercialization. His adviser, Dr. Stanislav Emelianov, states that “the amazing progress he has made has inspired younger undergraduates, because they see what is possible when you start with a clear goal and apply yourself resolutely.” He has been admitted to a top graduate program and undoubtedly has a very bright future in the biomedical field.

Recipients of $2,000 Awards:

James Salazar
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, Biomedical Engineering/Computational Biology
Nominator: Mia Markey, Biomedical Engineering

James’ work in Biomedical engineering is at the forefront of his field, yet addresses fundamental questions relevant to the quality of life of breast cancer survivors. Although life expectancy for women diagnosed with breast cancer has dramatically increased, primarily due to early detection and advances in treatment, many survivors face difficult decisions about reconstructive surgery- a misnomer that actually typically involves multiple, complicated procedures that can be used in various combinations and result in very different outcomes. A recognized problem in this field is the lack of a consistent “language” with which doctors and patients can communicate about priorities for reconstruction and preferences about aesthetics. Currently, patients often must make choices without a good understanding of competing outcomes.

This work aims to provide objective, measurable characteristics that define the size and shape of breasts in order to provide a clear, unambiguous language with which doctors and patients can communicate about likely and desired surgical outcomes of reconstructive surgery. Additionally, the future of surgeries of this type lays more and more with automation and programmed parameters for repair. We fully expect that 5 years from now, we will look back on this work as being at the very forefront of, and a necessary precursor to, modern reconstructive repair strategies.

Jillian Owens
Category: Humanities
Senior, Religious Studies/Plan II
Nominator: Thomas Tweed, Religious Studies

Joel Osteen is a wonder of twenty-first century America: a charismatic televangelist whose Houston ministry reaches millions of viewers weekly and the director of a business empire that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Jillian Owens examines the Osteen phenomenon in an insightfully conceived, carefully researched and compellingly written thesis. During several months of field work, she attended services at the Lakewood Church and interviewed members of the congregation. In her thesis she analyzes Osteen’s message and practices, and she concludes that his appeal is at once theological, personal and organizational. The Osteen gospel is comforting rather than challenging, and this is a secret of its success. “Even if people say it’s Christianity lite, I tell you what,” one of Owens’s informants explains, “my life has been changed because of it.”

Jean Nava
Category: Social Sciences
Senior, Sociology
Nominator: Arthur Sakamoto, Sociology

In these politically tumultuous times, the consequences of Mexican immigration to the United States are well-studied and understood. What is less clear is the effect of this emigration on Mexico. In this innovative study, Jean Nava explores exactly this phenomenon. He finds that as much as 10 percent of Mexico's population resides in the United States. In a wonderful mix of passion, qualitative analysis, and heavy duty quantitative analysis, Nava shows that the effect on these Mexican subregions can be fairly substantial. Given the tilt toward male emigrants, these regions in Mexico will have a skewed male-to-female balance in both social and employment structures. As a consequence of this thoughtful study, we will never think about Mexican immigration to the United States without thinking of the effect also on Mexico.

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