December 1, 2009

Grads win Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, third-year wins math prize

Three U of C students received prestigious awards in the past month for research in human development, human rights, and mathematics.

Stephanie Bell (B.A. ’08) received a Rhodes Scholarship, Amol Naik (B.A. '09) received a Marshall Scholarship, and third-year Hannah Alpert received the Alice T. Schafer Prize for excellence in mathematics.

Bell will study at the University of Oxford as one of 32 American recipients of the 2009-2010 Rhodes Scholarship. She will pursue a master’s of philosophy in Development Studies and ultimately hopes to use her experience at both universities to advocate for social justice, focusing on Africa and victims of HIV/AIDS.

“Anthropologists are crucial to devising ways in which Western medicine isn’t a challenge to local understandings of medicine or broader local value and religious systems,” said Bell, an anthropology and gender studies major, in a press release. “It’s important that those anthropological insights can be communicated across development policy teams, which are often dominated by economists, statisticians, and political scientists.”

While at the University, Bell served as a student marshal, a school representative position appointed by the president to students who excel academically and in extracurricular activities. Bell was also named a Truman Scholar, a national honor given to 65 college juniors committed to public service.

Bell was chosen from among 805 applicants who were endorsed by 326 different colleges and universities for this award, which will pay her tuition and living expenses for up to three years of study in Oxford.

Amol Naik received a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in human rights and the history of international relations at the London School of Economics. Naik has a special interest in reforming the American criminal justice system.

“What I hope to bring back to the United States are the tools necessary to bring a human rights framework to bear on the inequalities in the U.S. justice system,” said Naik, a political science and history major.

During his time at the University, Naik was also a student marshal and helped found the Chicago Justice Initiative, an RSO that aims to educate about inequalities in the U.S. justice system.

Naik currently works as a research fellow at the Urban Education Institute to better the conditions of low-income area charter schools. The inspiration for his interests, he said, came from seeing extreme poverty at a young age in his father’s medical clinic on the South Side of Chicago.

“The legal system is the one institution that we depend on to be fair, but when we look at American prisons and justice policies, we are disproportionately punishing people from poor communities,” Naik said. “It breeds institutional distrust and tears the fabric of civil society.”

Third-year Hannah Alpert won the 2010 Alice T. Schafer Prize for excellence in mathematics by an undergraduate woman from The Association for Women in

Mathematics. Alpert, a mathematics major, was well on her way to math research even before college, coauthoring a paper on topological graph theory before matriculating to the U of C.

A summer program at Hampshire College jump-started Alpert’s research. At the program, she met sarah-marie belcastro, a research associate at Smith College and a visiting assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College.

“I really liked her class because we as students got to conjecture and prove the theorems ourselves, in class. We ran up and started drawing on the board a lot,” Alpert said in an e-mail interview.

Since then, Alpert has written or co-authored five papers, she said. This spring, Alpert was awarded the Barry M. Goldwater scholarship. Her paper “Obstacle Numbers of Graphs,” co-authored with Christina Koch of St. Olaf College, also received the 2009 Undergraduate Poster Session Prize from the Mathematical Association of America.

That paper explores topographical graph theory, which Alpert described as placing people and obstacles in a grassy field so that some people are able to see each other and others are blocked by the obstacles. “In the math version, the people are points in the plane, and the obstacles are polygons,” she said.

Alpert said she hopes to inspire young women to pursue mathematics, pointing to belcastro as her own role model. “One thing that stops girls from studying math seriously is that they think math is for other people, that it’s for the boys they perceive to be more experienced,” she said.

—Additional reporting by Asher Klein