By Sarah Yang
BERKELEY: How does an undergraduate top off a whirlwind tenure at the University of California, Berkeley, highlighted by experiments with nanowires and biofuels, brainstorming sessions with corporate executives, poetry readings meant to engender political activism, and educational outreach to students using modern technology?
For Ritankar Das, the answer, of course, is to be named University Medalist, the prize given to the year’s top graduating senior.
Not only is Das completing his studies at UC Berkeley with a double major in bioengineering and chemical biology and a minor in creative writing, he is doing so in only three years.
And at 18, Das is the youngest University Medalist in at least a century. He is also the first student from the College of Chemistry in 58 years — and the first ever from the Department of Bioengineering — to earn the honor, which includes a $2,500 scholarship.
Established in 1871, the University Medal is awarded each year to an exemplary graduating student with a minimum GPA of 3.96. Das is graduating with more than 200 credits and a GPA of 3.99, which includes eight A+ marks. He will receive the medal and give a speech at Commencement Convocation on Saturday, May 18.
“In my 30 years at Berkeley, I cannot think of a single undergraduate student who would match Ritankar’s accomplishments, his range of activities and projects that he initiated and currently leads, and his academic excellence,” wrote Marcin Majda, professor and undergraduate dean in the College of Chemistry, in a recommendation letter submitted to the prize committee.
Nurturing early talent
Born in Kolkata, India, Das moved to Waukesha, Wisc., at the age of 7 with his parents, Sankar and Kakali Das. Das grew up with limited financial resources, often walking several miles with his mother to elementary school in the freezing cold.
Despite these challenges, Das excelled in school, leapfrogging ahead of his peers by doing advanced projects outside of class. At age 12, Das would use a blender and other kitchen supplies to investigate artificial photosynthesis. From his makeshift lab, Das went on to work with researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee while still in high school.
Das and his parents moved to Fremont, Calif., a year before he started college. When it came time to choose his school, Das picked UC Berkeley because this campus offered an appealing “culture of mutual appreciation where people were genuinely curious across fields,” he said.
Das soon made his mark at UC Berkeley, forming a campus chapter of the American Chemical Society, creating and teaching a DeCal course on chemistry internships, and founding the Berkeley Chemical Review research journal. His contributions earned him the Departmental Citation in Chemistry, the department’s top honor for graduating students. He has also served the campus as an Academic Senator and as a graduate student instructor.
“He is modest, and he may seem inconspicuous, but he is serious when he wants his agenda advanced,” said Majda, who was approached by Das last year with an idea for a book. Majda is now working with Das on this book, which tackles education reform and includes contributions from Fortune 50 CEOs, Nobel laureates, U.S. cabinet secretaries and university presidents.
Das’s early interest in energy continued through the research projects he pursued at the Energy Biosciences Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy. He worked to develop better solvents to break down cellulose for biofuels and discovered new ways to grow nanowires for use in high-efficiency solar cells. As a Cal Energy Corps Fellow, Das spent last summer in Taiwan’s Academia Sinica investigating organic light-emitting diodes.
Das’s academic and community service achievements have earned him more than 40 awards totaling more than $300,000. These include prestigious Goldwater, Udall and Pearson scholarships, as well as a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
Off campus, Das serves on the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, which awards $5 million annually to service-learning projects. He also analyzed entries for the Presidential Green Chemistry Award at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.
Reaching out to give students opportunities
Das credits much of his success to dedicated parents and teachers who propelled him forward. “I had parents and teachers who invested in my education early on,” said Das. “Without that help, I don’t think I would have succeeded through the education system. I think a lot of students deserve that opportunity and don’t always get it.”
That belief is manifested in the educational outreach projects Das has taken on while at UC Berkeley. Most notably, he founded See Your Future, a student-run non-profit that presents scientific content to middle and high school students through in-class demonstrations, videos, interactive activities and games. His goal is to encourage disadvantaged students in schools with limited resources to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
“What impressed the committee most about Ritankar Das, in my opinion, is his clearly articulated and concretely implemented social vision,” said Venkat Anantharam, chair of the UC Berkeley Committee on Prizes. “That vision is exemplified by his leadership role as founder and chairman of the See Your Future non-profit. His passion to make a difference to the community demonstrates the kind of engaged citizenship that is the ideal outcome of a well-rounded education.”
Das expects to expand See Your Future nationwide and to find new ways of reaching out to underrepresented communities. He learned through the Poetry for the People Program in the Department of African American Studies that the arts can be an effective vehicle for such outreach. Through this program, Das helped teach multiple poetry courses on campus, organized poetry slams, published his poetic works and even judged Bay Area Youth Poet Laureate competitions. He considers these activities a means of creating a bridge between campus and community.
After graduation, Das, who is fluent in Bengali and Hindi, and conversational in Spanish, will head to Oxford University to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical engineering with a fully funded Whitaker Fellowship. He will then continue his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been admitted to the chemistry Ph.D. program.
(Courtesy UC Berkeley)