Awards, People

Getting to know the 2017 University Medal runners-up

By Joel Bahr


Each year, distinguished graduating seniors from UC Berkeley are given the opportunity to apply for the prestigious University Medal – an award given to an exemplar of the university’s highest ideals. Candidates must have overcome significant challenges, made a difference in the lives of others and carry a GPA of 3.96 or higher.

This year’s University Medal, a prize established in 1871, was given to Grant Schroeder . Schroeder will receive a $2,500 prize as well as the privilege of speaking during this weekend’s graduation ceremony. The runners-up for the award – Helia Bidad, Giana Cirolia, Tucker Huffman and Sam Kumar – are distinguished scholars in their own right and will receive a $500 award as a tribute to their academic efforts. These graduating seniors represent some of Berkeley’s very best. Below is a brief introduction to each of them, as well as some of their favorite memories of Berkeley and a glimpse into what they will be doing after graduation.

(UC Berkeley photo by Sara Yogi)

Helia Bidad

Hometown: Los Angeles

Major: Society and environment

What’s next: A one-year break from academia that will include fulltime work with a startup. Law school, with a focus on environmental law relating to food systems and agriculture, is also an ambition.

Greatest inspiration: “My greatest inspiration has definitely been my parents and their resilience. My family immigrated to the United States from Iran when I was 4 years old. My parents traded hard-earned careers as architects to start from the ground up in the U.S. Recognizing the sacrifices they made and how hard they have worked to give my sister and me better lives motivates me to make the most out of all of the opportunities I have.”

(UC Berkeley photo by Sara Yogi)

Giana Cirolia

Hometown: Oakland

Major: Biochemistry

What’s next: A researcher position at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco before ultimately seeking a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

Facing challenges at Berkeley: “On a personal level, I like to take an area that I don’t know much about or I don’t have the skills needed and then try to grow and learn about it. I saw Berkeley as a place where I could take a chance and challenge myself in areas where I wasn’t strong and explore them. I wanted to take the things that I didn’t think I was good at and make sure that I wasn’t avoiding them just because I felt like I wasn’t good at them. I wanted to make sure that I was looking at all my options and that whatever path I chose to go down, I was going down it was because it was the path I wanted, rather than avoiding taking a path I had self-identified as being impossible for me.”

(UC Berkeley photo by Sara Yogi)

Tucker Huffman

Hometown: Elk Grove, California

Major: Chemical biology

What’s next: A Ph.D. program at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

Biggest takeaway from Berkeley: “I learned that it’s important to pursue problems that are hard despite knowing that it’s going to be significantly more work and that the answers won’t be obvious. The idea of the unknown is a big motivator for me. There are gaps in human knowledge and the people who are working on the cutting edge are like modern-day explorers. In chemistry and in science, there are always questions to be answered, and to solve them you have to be willing invest long hours in the lab. Of course, looking at things this way means you have to be humble and accept that you’re going to be wrong about a lot of things, especially when you’re seeking difficult answers.”

(UC Berkeley photo by Sara Yogi)

Sam Kumar

Hometown: San Jose

Major: Electrical engineering and computer science

What’s next: Working on a Ph.D. in computer science at UC Berkeley.

A standout moment at Berkeley: “Even though most of my experience has been in computer science and research, my most breathtaking experience at Berkeley took place during my second semester when I took a Sanskrit class. Before we got to the literature, we had to learn the basics. We started were reading simple passages and doing vocabulary exercises to get the basics, but eventually I was able to read authentic texts from thousands of years ago. Being able to read an ancient language – after only two semesters of studying – was a breathtaking moment for me.”