2013 University Co-op / George H. Mitchell Undergraduate Awards For Academic Excellence


Recipients of $12,500 Awards:

Victor Vu
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, (Mscs, Five-Year Integrated Program)
Nominator: Mike Walfish, Computer Science

“A Hybrid Architecture for Interactive Verifiable Computation"

Mr. Victor Vu is being honored for his contributions to cloud computing, in collaboration with UT faculty in Computer Sciences and Mathematics.

Many individuals now have music, books and even personal files stored ‘in the cloud’; this is even more true of scientists in Astronomy, Biology and Physics, as well as health professionals, pharmaceutical firms, and any firm mining large databases (airlines, social media, governments). Many also run computer programs in the cloud -- anyone who uses gmail, or does income tax online uses the cloud. This is referred to as distributed, or cloud computing, and is attractive to researchers as well as corporations who cannot afford to maintain billion dollar supercomputer centers of their own.

Much like income tax, the answers provided by the cloud must be accurate. Yet cross-checking, say by doing taxes oneself, loses the entire advantage of using the cloud. This is the problem addressed by the UT researchers. Theoretical computer science suggests there are efficient ways to check cloud computations, but previous ideas result in programs taking enormously long times to run, even for simple computations.

The UT group accomplished a significant reduction in runtime, analogous to reducing years to seconds, and Mr. Vu made an original and substantial contribution to this. With continued work, we may be in sight of a vast new world of fast, cheap applications in medicine, drug design, and unforeseeably many commercial applications.


Katherine Noble
Category: Artistic and Creative
Senior, English
Nominator: Michael Adams, English

“Like Electrical Fire Across the Silence”

Katherine Noble’s poetry personally addresses the most compelling themes of human concern, confronting traditional stories – from the Bible, from myth, from history – and eliciting from them unexpected emotions and reflections. She summons from Genesis, for example, the figure of Adam naming each “animal in the boxcar of his bones”; from Norse mythology a “sky crippled with rooks and witches with blue ugly faces”; and from deep within herself a young girl crying at her birthday party “because there was too much music / color and happiness / to say it had to do with me.” “We do not know how” – the voice of the poem asserts – “to ration pleasure.” Katherine Noble brings to her poems the sadness of one becoming more sophisticated about life, expressing that sadness in language that is fresh, alluring, poignant, and evocative. For her achievement, Katherine has already been awarded the prestigious Bailey Prize in Poetry, given by the Swedenborg Foundation; she has received the Roy Crane Award for “outstanding creative achievement,” the Ellen Engler Burks Memorial Scholarship and The James F. Parker Prize for the excellence of her poetry. She has been invited to read her poems on Houston Public Radio and at the Houston Library alongside three Texas Poets Laureate and two winners of the Yale Prize for Younger Poets. We are very pleased to add to this list the Mitchell Award for Academic Excellence for 2013.


Recipients of $5,000 Awards:


Isaac Gomez
Category: Artistic and Creative
Senior, Theater and Dance
Nominator: Andrew Carlson, Theater and Dance

“The Women of Juarez”

Isaac Gomez's play, The Women of Juarez, is a moving, challenging artistic reaction to the horrific killings of hundreds of women near the maquiladoras of the Texas/Mexico border.

Gomez, a native of El Paso with friends and family living in Juarez, interviewed families who had lost sisters and daughters because it was important to him that his play tell their stories with integrity. As his recommender, Dr. Andrew Carlson, observes, "It took courage to tell the story." Many people Gomez spoke with in Juarez and El Paso urged him not to research the killings or conduct his interviews out of fear that there could be violent retaliation.

The Women of Juarez was recently featured at The Cohen New Works Festival in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Gomez himself directed this production, casting ten Latina actresses in a beautifully staged, honest and unsentimental look at the faces and voices of women in Juarez. Gomez's play is an important work and a powerful remembrance of the countless women whose lives have been senselessly snuffed out by violence. Isaac dedicates his play to "all the roses in Juarez — the missing and the lost, the survivors and the living."


Andrew Wortham
Category: Social Sciences
December 2012, Plan II and Asian Studies
Nominator: Heather Hindman, Asian Studies and Anthropology

“Sikkimese Schools: Modernity in the Mountains”

What is a good education? In most developing countries, universal education is assumed to be the path to social and economic progress, particularly for residents in poor, geographically isolated areas of the country. But is it really? That is the question that Andrew Wortham asks as he explores the impact of educational reform efforts in Sikkam, a remote and dangerous region in northeastern India. Writing about what drew him to this project, Andrew comments, “I was in Sikkam for a week and I was struck by how motivated many of the students seemed and yet how few job opportunities seemed available; [so] I began to ask questions about why education was valued.” Based on in depth ethnographic research in Sikkam, Andrew’s thesis considers the impact of modern schooling on rural communities and finds that the education reform movement in India is more about the interests of the state than it is about the interests of the local population. He finds that, “the calls for modern education mostly come from objectives of the modern national state; it is through the elite’s vision to transform people into Sikkamese citizens, thinking rationally instead of spiritually and learning to make money in a modern economy that schools have developed.” About this surprising conclusion, Andrew’s advisor writes, “his nuanced observations of how school reform has unintended consequences . . . will be of interest to many in the fields of South Asian Studies, education, government, development and anthropology.” His contribution is all the more significant, Dr. Hindman notes, since “Andrew did the research for this project in one of the most remote areas of the world, and with the utmost rigor and sensitivity.” This, she concludes, “shows a special side of what UT can contribute to the education of young people.” The lessons Andrew learned from his thesis work are ones he will carry with him next year, as he goes to teach in China where he hopes “to create a classroom environment that better reflects the needs and desires of students.”


Recipients of $2,000 Awards:


Ashty Karim
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, Chemical Engineering
Nominator: Hal Alper, Chemical Engineering

“Characterization of plasmid burden and copy number in Saccharomyces cerevisiae for optimization of metabolic engineering applications”

During his three years of remarkable research in the lab of Hal Alper, Ashty Karim made major discoveries in the field of metabolic engineering. This is a cutting edge area of research that tries to optimize chemical processes within cells to increase the cells' production of valuable substances, such as novel fuels and pharmaceuticals. A favored type of cell to engineer is yeast, because they grow fast and can be cultured easily. In order to improve the ability of yeast to make useful products, scientists insert genes into them in constructs called plasmids. However, often these insertions decrease the growth rate of yeast, because it is a metabolic burden on cells to maintain these new gene insertions. Mr. Karim studied what is the optimal design and copy number of plasmids to insert in order to achieve the highest copy number with the lowest burden. His findings, which are highlighted in two publications he co-authored and in several presentations at national meetings, greatly clarified the parameters that influence how much plasmid insertions burden the growth of cells. His discoveries will allow scientists to more rationally optimize the design and copy number of plasmids they use to engineer yeasts, so that they will become better chemical factories for producing medicines, biofuels, and other valuable products that benefit people.


Leon Dean
Category: Science and Technology
Senior, Chemical Engineering
Nominator: C. Grant Willson, Chemical Engineering

“Polarity-Switching Top Coats Enable Orientation of Sub-10 nm Block Copolymer Domains”

Leon Dean worked in the Willson group on a new project that attempts to produce defined features at the sub-10 nanometer size range. Grant Willson is one of the most recognized chemists in the world, having been one of the originators of the chemistry that made possible the current techniques used to manufacture integrated circuits. He has won truly elite international honors such as the Japan prize earlier this year and has been honored with the National Medal of Technology at the Whitehouse. The focus of work in the Willson lab is to reduce the feature size on integrated circuits with the aim of increasing computation power and reducing the size/power consumption. We are just about at the theoretical size limit of the current technology, so there is a world-wide search underway for new approaches.

Leon was a coauthor on a paper from the Willson lab that was recently published in the journal Science, the most prestigious American scientific publication. The excitement of the work stemmed from them being able to break the 10 nanometer feature size limit (1 nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter, about the length of 8 chemical bonds) in an innovative new way. Yes, that is very, very small and that is the big deal. They used a special chemical coating of an ultra flat surface, combined with some very clever chemistry that allowed a special polymer molecule to change its chemical personality with a simple treatment. Through these tricks, they found a way to create extremely small features, smaller than allowed by more standard approaches. Dr. Willson was especially impressed with Leon’s versatility and noted his important contributions to the more chemical aspects of the project. As if this were not enough, Leon is a co-inventor on two different patents that have already been licensed to companies and are currently earning license fees.


Hannah Waitt
Category: Humanities
Senior, Plan II Honors
Nominator: Michael Anderson, International Relations & Global Studies

“The History, Development, and Future of K-Pop and The Korean Music Industry”

Hannah Waitt has written a fascinating study of a phenomenon that crosses cultural and disciplinary boundaries. South Korean popular music – K-pop – originated as a local derivative of American pop music. But beginning in the 1990s it developed a life of its own. Waitt traces the evolution of the music and the industry it spawned, as both spread across East Asia and then the wider world before gaining a foothold in the American home of pop, where it turned a crucial segment of the music business on its head. A generation ago, non-American artists migrated to America to become world stars; now American artists travel to Korea to catch the K-pop train to global fame. Hannah Waitt tells us how it all happened.


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