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, and educational outreach to students?
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 the age of 18, Das is the youngest University Medalist in at least a century, reports UC Berkeley in a press release.
The young Indian American 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, and received the medal May 18.
Born in Kolkata, Das moved to Waukesha, Wisc., at the age of 7 with his parents, Sankar and Kakali Das, and 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 the campus offered an appealing "culture of mutual appreciation where people were genuinely curious across fields," he said in the press release.
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.
Das' early interest in energy continued through the research projects he pursued at the Energy Biosciences Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy, during which he discovered new ways to grow nanowires for use in high-efficiency solar cells.
Das' academic and community service achievements have earned him more than 40 awards totaling more than $300,000. These include the 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.
He also 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.
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.
Watch UC-Berkeley's 2013 University Medalist Ritankar Das Talk about Receiving the Honor: