University Medal finalists check in before checking out

Aaron Benavidez

University Medalist Aaron Benavidez: Not your run of the mill cellist turned über-scholar.

As finalists for this year’s University Medal the annual award bestowed on Berkeley’s top graduating senior since 1871 Katherine Beattie, Ivan de Kouchkovsky, Sheel Jagani and Matthew Zahr exemplify the passion, purpose and promise of the class of 2011. With commencement ushering in a new chapter in their lives, the four finalists pressed the pause button briefly amidst the flurry of final exams and firming of summer plans to reflect on their time at Cal and survey the road ahead.

Katherine Beattie

Like many freshmen, Beattie wondered whether she’d be able to keep up with UC Berkeley’s prestigious reputation. She’d heard organic chemistry referred to as a “bloodbath,” but, having conquered Chem 3A, felt she could do anything.

Katherine Beattie

Katherine Beattie - Psychology and MCB

Hometown: Oakland, Calif.
Age
: 22
Major
: Psychology and molecular and cell biology (double major)

Guiding philosophy?
Everything happens for a reason. It is impossible to control everything that occurs in life, but how you handle the vagaries of life defines you as a person.

Lesson learned?
You will never have enough time to do all of the things you want to do, but with organization and hard work you can do most of them.

Inspiration?
My mom… from a young age, I was in awe of her work ethic. She commuted two hours each way to college and worked 40 hours a week to pay for her education. She went on to earn master’s degrees in mathematics and business administration. As the first person in her family to attend college, she continually reminds me of the importance of education.

Proudest achievement?
Being a finalist for the University Medal is the highlight of my career at Berkeley: The qualifications touch upon so many different areas, such as academics, research, citizenship and leadership. The students here are all so talented, it is astounding to be included in such an accomplished group.

Words of wisdom?
Believe you can do anything. Continue to educate yourself. Make sure family and friends know how important they are to you.

Breathtaking moment?
Climbing to the top of St. Peter’s dome and looking out at Vatican City and Rome, I was in awe. So much history had occurred there and so many holy people had been there.

Favorite quote?
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…. to leave the world a better place…. to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” — Unknown

Favorite sound?
The sound of waves crashing on the beach; always, it reminds me of a favorite childhood place I shared with my grandparents.

Post-grad plan?
I will head to Boston to spend time with my extended family and help put siding on my grandparents’ house. During the summer, I plan to study for, and take, the MCAT. If I am fortunate enough to find a position in biomedical research, I plan to work for a few years before attending medical school.

Ivan de Kouchkovsky

Rather than “seek success for its own sake,” volunteering with low-income and homeless populations at the student-run Suitcase Clinic has motivated de Kouchkovsky to apply his passion for neuroscience to mental-health issues.

Ivan de Kouchkovsky

Ivan de Kouchkovsky - Philosophy

Hometown: Clamart, France
Age:
20
Major:
Philosophy

About Ivan: Richard Kramer, professor of molecular and cell biology, recommended de Kouchkovsky for the University Medal as “certainly one of the best and brightest that UC Berkeley has to offer the world.” Kramer added, “An extraordinarily talented and capable student… bound to be equally successful in the future as a biomedical researcher and physician.”

Guiding philosophy?
My guiding philosophy is summed up in the word balance. I think that the answer to most of our problems lies in knowing how to position ourselves between two extremes. In particular, I try to always improve and challenge myself, but at the same time to recognize and be content with who I am.

Lesson learned?
The opportunity to grow will always lie outside of your comfort zone. You have to be willing to sacrifice some of your comforts in order to challenge yourself and genuinely improve.

Inspiration?
My dad, without a doubt. He has been a model and a constant source of motivation.

Proudest achievement?
Deciding to become a philosophy major. It was especially difficult to write in English when I first came to Berkeley. It would have been simpler and easier for me to keep studying biology like my parents wanted but I loved philosophy. I had a tough time with my philosophy classes throughout my years at Berkeley, but I did it in the end. It has changed who I am and gave me confidence in knowing that I could improve and master skills I thought I really didn’t possess.

Breathtaking moment?
The first trip that I took with my family after coming to the United States was to the Grand Canyon. I saw the canyon at sunset, and it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had. The landscapes in the U.S. in general are very different from those in France much more large-scale and I was blown away by the sight of the canyon.

Favorite quote?
“You [man] are not at home, intruder. You are in the world like a splinter in the flesh…” — Jean-Paul Sartre

Favorite sound?
Birds chirping in the morning the world’s oldest, and best, alarm clock.

Post-grad plan?
Volunteering at UCSF in the fall as well as tutoring for the MCAT. I will also go to Argentina in September, and I will travel to Latin America (to teach) some more in the spring. Off to medical school after that.

Sheel Jagani

Struck by the “imponderabilia of everyday life,” for Jagani, all our experiences boil down to the people who share in them those who teach her, those who learn with her and those who laugh with her.

Sheel Jagani

Sheel Jagani - Anthropology and Integrative Biology

Hometown: Los Angeles
Age:
21
Major:
Anthropology and Integrative Biology (double major)

About Sheel: Benjamin Porter, assistant professor of Near Eastern archaeology, wrote that Jagani “exemplifies the excellence in research and public service that Berkeley strives to impart.” Porter added, “Sheel is showing several signs of a young scientist whose intellectual career will transform how we think about the relationship between human biology and past societies.”

Guiding philosophy?
Try hard. Don’t be afraid of failure. When you do fail, try not to do it the same way twice.

Lesson learned?
In the last four years, I’ve learned more about appreciating the people I have in my life than about any academic subject. The most meaningful insights are ones I gained from other people, not from books. And any other lesson thereafter would have been meaningless without having friends and family with whom to share.

Inspiration?
My grandfather was an amazing man. He guided all of his children and grandchildren toward greatness without asking us to compromise ourselves or our passion. Seeing a part of him in every life he has touched, including my own, is my greatest inspiration.

Proudest achievement?
I am proud of the sheer volume of experience I have managed to cram into four years here at Cal, including classes, research, service, relationships, friendships, concerts and… every episode of “Bones” to have aired. I will always miss Berkeley, but I am proud for trying to take it for all it was worth.

Words of wisdom?
Berkeley is a big place, but that does not mean we have done small things here or have left small footprints quite the contrary, actually. I’d like to pass on this wisdom, with an addendum: The world is an even bigger place, so we must strive as graduates to do even bigger things and leave even bigger footprints.

Turning point?
I spent the summer after my freshman year traveling with friends in Western Europe and had more fun than I could have imagined. However, I also found myself disappointed at how comfortable those weeks were and how much my worldview was not challenged. That is when I realized that I wanted to study the depth and breadth of human difference, to learn about and struggle to understand people that are different from me in every way.

Favorite quote?
“Anthropology is the science which tells us that people are the same the whole world over except when they are different.” — Nancy Banks-Smith

Favorite sound?
I love the sound ankle bells make when wrapped around the feet of Bharatanatyam dancers. Dancers of this classical Indian form wear them during performance to accentuate rhythmic footwork. These sounds bring me back to afternoons, summers and years I spent growing up among fellow dancers who have been like family and shared in a lifelong pursuit.

Post-grad plan?
I have no solid plans for the summer, which actually feels great. I will probably enjoy a nice, long California summer before I leave for Oxford [England] in October to start a master’s program in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology.

Matthew Zahr

Captivated by the experiential knowledge that comes only from the research lab, Zahr worked on incorporating electromagnetic fields into body armor to “make bullets tumble before impact.”

Matthew Zahr

Matthew Zahr - Civil and Environmental Engineering

Hometown: Modesto, Calif.
Age:
21
Major:
Civil and Environmental Engineering

About Matt: Tarek Zohdi, professor and vice chair for instruction of mechanical engineering, described Zahr as “probably the best [undergraduate] that I will ever encounter in my lifetime.” Zohdi wrote, “If he continues to scientifically mature at his current pace, he… will be one of the world’s leaders in computational mechanics.”

Guiding philosophy?
Hard work and perseverance… I have learned that the only things worth having are the direct product of hard work.

Lesson learned?
Unrelenting hard work will eventually pay off in a big way. The difficulty is in not knowing when the payoff will come. Even if there is no end in sight, and the potential benefits may not seem worth the sacrifice, never let up because your payday may be closer than you think.

Inspiration?
My father, Michael Zahr, and mother, Tami Bradley. Throughout my life, they have set outstanding examples of how adults should conduct their lives. They are very dedicated and committed to both their work and family. I have yet to meet anyone who works harder.

Words of wisdom?
From my grandma, Marlene Boranian, and grandpa, Robert Boranian: “Things usually work out for the best.” If the outcome of a situation has not gone your way, take full advantage of the opportunities you do have and eventually you will see that the above statement is true.

Breathtaking moment?
Standing on the summit of Half Dome looking down on Yosemite Valley. The view from the summit was majestic and the feeling of being at a higher elevation than anything in the immediate area was spectacular. At the same time, it was also a bit frightening to look down the mountain and realize just how high I was.

Turning point?
After receiving six letters of denied admission from colleges, I received my letter of acceptance from UC Berkeley. At the time, I didn’t realize the profound impact that attending Berkeley would have on my career and life. I will forever be grateful to UC Berkeley for giving me an opportunity when few others would.

Favorite quote?
“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better and your better is best.” — St. Jerome

Favorite sound?
My little sister’s voice. She is the most important person in my life and I love talking to her. Also, she loves to sing and has a beautiful voice.

Post-grad plan?
I will pursue a Ph.D. in computational and mathematical engineering at Stanford University. My research… reduced order model optimization and developing error bounds for nonlinear model order reduction techniques.