A student studying the mathematics of general relativity and an English and economics major who faculty say writes "clearly and beautifully" about both subjects have received Faculty Scholar awards, the highest honor for undergraduate students bestowed by the university faculty.
At a ceremony last week in the Academic Council's office, Daniel Stern and Katherine Zhang were recognized for their independent study and potential for innovative scholarship. Honorable mention went to Madeline McKelway and Caitlin Finn.
All four students are juniors. They were nominated by department faculty and selected by a committee chaired by Louise Roth, associate professor of biology.
A native of Durham and a Northern High School graduate, Stern was nominated by the mathematics department. Professor Hubert Bray said Stern notably took on a difficult math question about the laws of physics that had stumped others.
"There was a problem I had given to a postdoc who hadn't gotten anywhere with it," Bray said. "When Daniel came to me and asked for a potential problem, I thought it couldn't hurt for him to give it a try.
"Not only did Daniel solve the problem, but he corrected my original conjecture," Bray added with a laugh. "He's still working on a variety of related problems, but needless to say he's performed beyond expectations."
A Charlotte native and a Robertson Scholar, Zhang was nominated by the Department of English. A writer for the Chronicle and a campus activist, Zhang helped organize the campus protest in February in response to a fraternity party with a theme based on Asian stereotypes.
Her scholarship has bridged her two majors and shown a propensity for innovative thinking, faculty said. In her studies at Duke, Zhang has explored Asian-American history, literature and culture, including research on Chinese-American theater and cabaret.
As a sophomore, Zhang co-taught a house course on Asian American Social Justice that resulted in the widely praised The Multitudes Project. Thea large-photo ethnography project featured 40 portraits of Asian students, each accompanied by a statement that completes the thought, "I am Asian and ..." The exhibit was shown in Perkins Library.
Zhang also created a summer English program for 30 young students in the Mississippi Delta through the Robertson Scholars Program and spent this past summer with the Asian American Writers' Workshop through Duke in New York.
McKelway studied abroad in India last summer and is heading back to India this summer under a dean's research fellowship for a project on child nutrition in several villages outside of Udaipur city. She designed the project with economics professors Erica Field, Michelle Connolly and Duncan Thomas. In addition to her economics major, McKelway is seeking a global health certificate.
Finn is a neuroscience major minoring in chemistry and Spanish. Faculty praised her ability to contribute to lab research and her interest in studying the developmental impact of heritable, long-lasting changes in neural gene expression caused by environmental stimuli. She has done independent research related to brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a secreted protein that is important in the brain's ability to grow new neurons.
Roth praised all four students for their passion for knowledge and said they showed great promise as scholars. She also noted that many were double majors in fields that crossed the university.
"The students who are creative often go across the boundaries," Roth said.