Faculty Scholars Award Winners Rise to the Top

Awards honor students who are on the path to scholarship with an impact

Faculty Scholars

Caption: The Faculty Scholars for 2014: Tara Trahey, Gift Nyikayaramba and Eugene Rabinovich. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

Identical figures on two small ancient Greek vases made for one large challenge for junior Tara Trahey. The two vases, one from the Nasher Museum of Art, the other from a Berkeley, Calif., collection, clearly portrayed the same figure, but each was identified differently.

In researching the Nasher vase, and finding the comparable piece in California, Trahey had already done exceptional research on the art history assignment for Professor Sheila Dillon. In fact, she was the first person ever to recognize that these two vases were nearly identical twins. In doing so, she showed the persistence and curiosity that faculty look to encourage in future scholars. 

At a ceremony last week in the Academic Council office, Trahey and Eugene Rabinovich were presented with the Faculty Scholars Award, the highest honor faculty bestow on undergraduate students. The award goes to students who go beyond high grades and show a record of independent research and the potential for innovative scholarship.

This year, recipients of the Faculty Scholar Award and Honorable Mention will receive $5,000 and $2,500, respectively.

Gift Nyikayaramba received honorable mention from the faculty. All three students are juniors.  They were nominated by department faculty and selected by a committee chaired by James Roberts, assistant professor of economics.

"We reviewed many impressive students, but these three moved quickly to the top," Roberts said.

Nearly a year after Trahey started her project, the student's persistence still impresses Dillon, who nominated her. The study of ancient Greek vases "is not accessible to students," Dillon said. "You have to be very tenacious to research the vases. Tara did this on her own. She navigated this very complex field like a pro." 

Trahey's detective work started when she was a first-year student in Dillon's art history class. The assignment was to analyze a single item in the Nasher collection.  The "Europa" vase wasn't even Trahey's first choice. With no art history background, she had few tools on hand to conduct the research.

But she was a fast learner, Dillon said. Within the semester, she had made the previously unestablished connection with the Berkeley vase.  In subsequent courses and independent studies, she found evidence disputing the accepted source of the Berkeley vase and identified it as coming from an 1828 excavation led by Lucien Bonaparte – Napoleon's brother.

Trahey, who received several research grants from Duke, is part of the Wired research group that applies modern cultural and historical visualization technologies to ancient art and architecture.

Rabinovich's study has been in the field of string theory, in which sophisticated mathematical concepts are expected to provide insights into the physics of gravity at scales where quantum effects become important.  A physics and math double major who has conducted research under the guidance of Professor Ronen Plesser, his project's description left the faculty on the Faculty Scholars Committee scratching their heads, Roberts said.

But when the committee met Rabinovich, his explanations made the work more clear. "That's an important skill to have as a scholar," Roberts said, "to be able to explain difficult concepts to colleagues and the public."

Rabinovich plans to expand his research into a senior thesis that will attempt to use specific mathematical models to make quantum field theory calculations that otherwise are not computable using standard methods 

"The elegance of the mathematical framework attracted me to the field," Rabinovich said. The ability of a few ideas to describe a vast variety of natural behavior still amazes and attracts him, he added. His goal is to continue his study of theoretical physics with an eye to a teaching and research university position.

"Whether it was providing top-notch professor teaching top-notch classes or allowing me flexibility with my studies to pursue what's really interesting to me, Duke has helped me tremendously in my goals," Rabinovich said.

A Robertson Scholar and an electrical and computer engineering major, Nyikayaramba has already made his mark in his energetic work bringing solar cells to his native Zimbabwe and other parts of the world. The intent is to use what is already plentiful in these places to help alleviate poverty and promote growth in a sustainable way.

Conducting independent study under the guidance of Professor Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, he is studying the creation and delivery of low-cost, widely deployable solar cells. Keen on putting the research to use in developing countries, Nyikayaramba has connected his engineering studies to an interdisciplinary range of classes and travel experiences that gave him insight into solar energy technology.

"The key takeaway for me, especially as I gather lessons and experience from other parts of the world, is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the most effective means to bring development to people," said Nyikayaramba, who also was selected as a National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholar. "Rather, addressing a society's challenges requires engaging with the society in an interactive give and take that takes the best contributions from all stakeholders."

Below: Nyikayaramba discusses his work with solar cells.