Berkeley’s top seniors eager to make learning count

2013 University Medalist

Das RitankarBioengineering wunderkind Ritankar Das, 18, named top graduating senior.

As finalists for this year’s University Medal — the annual award bestowed on Berkeley’s top graduating senior since 1871 — Luke Bonham, Danielle Nicholson, Daniel Price and Leena Suleiman exemplify the characteristics of the class of 2013.

The four graduating seniors took time out from the flurry of final exams, frenetic commencement preparations and firming of summer plans to reflect on times past at Berkeley and survey the road ahead.

Luke Bonham

Luke Bonham

Bonham

Luke Bonham, who hails from Newport Beach, Calif., will graduate from Berkeley in May with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. At one time driven to become an investment banker, as a junior Bonham discovered that his true calling lay in the field of basic science. After graduation, he hopes to continue research work on the mechanisms of human disease.

Lesson learned?

There’s still time to change the road you are on. Never be afraid to change paths. The most rewarding experiences of my time at Cal came after I switched tracks from business to science.

New perspective?

I’ve become more eclectic in my interests and I’ve come to appreciate literature and other forms of creative expression. I’m more receptive to different sources of knowledge in that I’ve come to appreciate the clarity and conclusiveness of a well-reasoned argument regardless of its topic.

Guiding philosophy?

Push yourself to take the road less traveled. It is always more challenging, but also provides the most opportunities for growth. If things seem easy, you’ve stopped growing.

Proudest moment?

Climbing to the top of Mount Whitney while battling a case of food poisoning. It taught me that, in facing most problems, the biggest challenges are in my head. Once I thought through them and convinced myself it was possible, the willpower to complete the task was much easier to find.

Inspirational influence?

My father inspired me in many ways. He sacrificed time he could have spent on himself to teach me about the outdoors, learning and life. When I struggled during my transition from business to science, he was always the first person I called for support. He was always able find the words that helped me to keep going.

Words of wisdom?

My father, who strongly influenced my approach to college, would often say, “You might not be as smart as you think you are.” Some classes are easier than others, but entering a class with a sense of entitlement is a major mistake. His words reminded me to enter every class assuming I knew the least and would have to work the hardest to catch up.

Turning point?

Turning down the offer of what was once my dream job with a major financial services firm in order to pursue research in neuroscience at UCSF. The decision was a deliberate step out of my comfort zone and the culmination of the many ways I’ve changed since arriving at Berkeley in 2009.

Favorite quotation?

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” This quote from Albert Einstein reminds me to constantly check my assumptions in whatever I’m doing, be it taking tests, working on projects or doing research.

Post-graduate plans?

Over the last two years, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of scientific research, and I know it’s where I want to be. In the near term, I hope to continue working in the neurology lab at UCSF. How I’ll manage to make that happen in the long run is still unclear, though I expect to apply to a medical program within the next several years. Before graduate school, I’d like to spend more time traveling, and maybe take my first trip abroad — hopefully to Asia, drive Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago and hike the John Muir Trail.

Road ahead?

Looking at how much I’ve changed over the last four years, it’s hard to know exactly where I’ll be. However, I hope to stay active in academic research in some way, shape or form. Research has become a very large part of who I am and I expect that it will be part of me for the remainder of my working years. I’d like to continue studying the mechanisms of human disease because the mechanisms themselves are fascinating, but also because this area is so directly relevant to improving standards of living for people around the globe.

 

Danielle Nicholson

Danielle Nicholson

Nicholson

Los Angeles native Danielle Nicholson will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political economy. During her time at Berkeley, she helped to found the pre-law student group Law in Practice and volunteered at the law school’s death-penalty clinic.

Lesson learned?

Everything is an opportunity — the obstacles, the triumphs, the people — and if you don’t pay attention, they will whiz by. Learn from the mistakes, grow from the failures and revel in the successes because good or bad, these experiences will shape your perspective, goals and behavior in the most subtle of ways.

New perspective?

Coming from a single-sex, 500-student high school, Berkeley opened my eyes to an entirely different world of thinking. The level of diversity within this campus is unparalleled, the drive of the students is beyond inspiring, while the opportunity for growth is somewhat daunting. Rather than restrict us, our education here merely serves as a stepping-stone for the plethora of opportunities ahead.

Guiding philosophy?

Steve Jobs summed it up quite aptly when he said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” For me, that means focus on the big picture — your dreams, goals, passions — and everything else will fall into place.

Inspirational influence?

Michael Telesca — my high-school history teacher, mock-trial coach and Frank Sinatra aficionado. Taking his elective law class and winning the Los Angeles County Mock Trial Championship as his pretrial motion attorney first sparked my interest in the field. And of course, my mom for being a constant source of support and guidance when I most needed them.

Words of wisdom?

“[Insert arbitrary # here] days left.” — Yoshua’s Sproul chalkboard. Regardless of the scientific logic behind his calculations, Yoshua’s message serves as a constant reminder that time is short and every moment at Cal is an opportunity to learn something new or meet someone interesting. Four years (or three, or two) will be gone in no time, and you have to take advantage. You never want to look back and think about the what-ifs.

Campus keepsake?

This past semester I served as the witness for a wedding ceremony at the top of the Campanile. The couple consisted of Cal grads who had met in a class together; the professor who taught that class served as the minister of the ceremony. It’s the little stuff that gets me.

Favorite quotation?

“One should so live that one becomes a form of fiction. To be a fact is to be a failure.” It can be tempting to reduce life to a series of tasks and to-do lists, to condense oneself into the titles and awards on a resume or transcript. This quote from Oscar Wilde reminds me that life is not about the minor achievements and steps, but rather the narrative of the longer journey.

Post-graduate plans?

At this point I am toggling between offers to join a small law firm in New York and a similar position here in the Bay Area. Regardless, I intend to work for a couple years before attending law school so I can enjoy my early 20s.

Road ahead?

I envision myself practicing law and perhaps considering re-entry into the realm of academia. My hope is that whether I am 30, 40 or 50 years old I will be someone the 21-year-old me would have liked and above all, that I will still have my strong sense of motivation and thirst for learning.

 

Daniel Price

Daniel Price

Price

A double major in bioengineering and electrical engineering and computer science, Daniel Price was selected as one of 32 Rhodes Scholars for 2013. An avid snowboarder and rock-climber, he will leave his hometown of Grass Valley, Calif., to begin graduate school at Oxford University in England.

Lesson learned?

As a result of having a car with me in Berkeley for the last four years, I acquired the quite valuable life skill of parallel-parking master.

Escaping the books?

I love to go running in the North Berkeley hills. Taking a different route every time, my goal is to always find some place that I have never been before. I also have a zeal for rock-climbing, so you can often find me at the rock gym or clinging to a boulder somewhere in the beautiful Berkeley parks.

Guiding philosophy?

Many of my best and most impactful experiences have come about serendipitously through stepping out of my usual routine to try something new. As such, I recognize the importance of setting a goal and working diligently toward it, but I try to also embrace opportunities to take detours along the journey in order to challenge myself to grow in new ways.

Inspirational influence?

My greatest inspiration has come from not one but two people: my parents. My father is an incredibly clever engineer and entrepreneur, and is easily the most dedicated person I know. My mother is an exceptional nurse and is absolutely remarkable in her generosity and caring. In a very real sense, my choice to study bioengineering was an attempt to emulate the professions of my parents as well as capture the values they passed down to me. My parents have tirelessly supported me — in spite of my antics over the years, serving as my primary role models. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Words of wisdom?

I’d like to pass on some advice that older students told me when I was fretting over which of the thousand awesome student groups, clubs and organizations to become involved in. It doesn’t matter so much what exactly you become involved in. You will have a spectacular time no matter what. What matters is how you connect, grow and learn with your fellow students. This advice turned out to ring very true for me, so I challenge new students to not be overwhelmed at the wealth of options available on campus — find something that sounds awesome and just go for it.

Favorite quotation?

“Just believe!” — Alex Marshall, my roommate of four years at Cal.

Post-graduate plans?

I will be spending the summer working in Seattle at a company that designs devices to monitor sports injuries. Then, in October, I will be headed to the other side of the Atlantic to study for a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at Oxford. I hope to return to California to work toward a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Stanford University.

Road ahead?

By the end of the next decade, when I will finally be done with my schooling, I imagine that I will be working in a small biomedical-devices company. Interested in the big-picture process by which an idea becomes a real device used by real people, I aim to work as a collaborative presence between engineers, medical professionals and business representatives to make sure important technological advances get translated all the way to the public domain.

 

Leena Suleiman

Leena Suleiman

Suleiman

During her time at Berkeley, Leena Suleiman combined English and integrative biology into an unlikely double major. From Thousand Oaks, Calif., this fall she will continue her studies in 18th-century literature at Oxford University in England.

Lesson learned?

Having mulled over the variety of events and experiences that have saturated the years past, I’ve come to recognize that the most fruitful of either almost always include the opportunity to work with and learn about others — and, of course, the possibilities for growth and connection that follow.

Escaping the books?

I enjoy roller-skating, reading Russian literature, and disrupting my cat’s attempts to nap, but most of all, I love to chat with friends over flourless cookies.

Guiding philosophy?

I was once terrified at the prospect of being forced to abandon the carefully constructed blueprint of my existence and to seek out possibilities in places I did not intend to inhabit. But if I’ve learned anything from eighth-grade summer reading, years after what had been my first encounter with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, it’s this: “What makes the desert beautiful…is that somewhere it hides a well…”

Proudest moment?

The decision to declare a second major at the end of my second year was far from an easy one — I nervously ignored questions of relevance and practicality to do something for no other reason than I wanted to, and I couldn’t be happier that I did.

Inspirational influence?

I have been boundlessly inspired by the professors whose classrooms I was lucky to wind up in during my years at Berkeley. But I am perhaps most indebted to my parents, whose leap of faith years ago meant that some moment, some years later, held the possibility of attending such a school as Cal. Having moved to the United States with uncertain prospects and little money, they carved out, for themselves and for me, a space to call home.

Words of wisdom?

From a graduate student I met in my second semester in Berkeley, I learned to take things one day at a time — or at least to try to. You’d be surprised at what you might miss. From my cat, I’ve learned that sometimes the most productive thing to do is to take a nap.

Turning point?

I did not expect to be motivated by failure so early in my years as an undergraduate. And yet, my miserable performance on an exam, not one month into my first semester, prompted me to change course — I realized that no amount of natural talent could replace the immense importance of sitting power.

Favorite quotation?

It is only a novel…or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. — Jane Austen

Post-graduate plans?

I plan to travel to England in the fall to continue my study of 18th-century British literature at Oxford University. In the meantime, I will devote the long summer hours to MCAT preparation and unreasonable amounts of ice cream. I would also like to salvage my ever-dwindling French vocabulary.

Road ahead?

It is far easier to imagine a portrait of myself as a doctor than to become one, but I certainly wish to breathe life into such a painting in the years to come. More crucially, I hope to remember that the value of education extends far beyond the benefits to an individual, but carries the promise of learning and abilities that better the communities that produced them.