Five Students win prestigious Harper Dissertation Fellowship

Five students in the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) were awarded the William Rainey Harper Dissertation Fellowship for 2015-16, one of the highest honors that the University of Chicago confers on doctoral candidates.  Each PSD award includes a $5,000 stipend.  The five recipients, working in five different branches of the physical sciences, were selected based on the dedication, creativity, scientific skill, and professional promise they have shown in their research to date, particularly in their work toward the doctoral thesis.

James Dama, a fifth-year in the Chemistry program, works on developing new theories and techniques of multiscale modeling of molecular matter.  James’s research makes conceptual connections between models used at the various scales between picometers and micrometers, or trillionths and millionths of a meter—a range crucially important in biology and industry.  In addition to building on his research with the Voth Group, the project draws inspiration from continental and analytic philosophy.  In his research proposal, James cites concepts from Heidegger’s Being and Time, Nietzschean perspectivism, and Anscombe’s Intention to explain his models and argues for the potential of philosophical thought to inspire further insight into multiscale representation and control.

A fourth-year in the Astronomy and Astrophysics program, Laura Kreidberg studies the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, known to astronomers as “exoplanets.”  Using innovative techniques of observation with the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes to analyze these atmospheres, Laura has produced groundbreaking results in her research.  Considering the fact that her undergraduate research at Yale centered on black holes, and that she only came to exoplanets after beginning doctoral work, her rise to prominence in the field is particularly remarkable.  In one widely-cited paper that was covered in the New York Times, she detected clouds in the atmosphere of the super-Earth exoplanet GJ1214b.  Her doctoral thesis will present the results of her research on the atmospheres of five exoplanets, as well as open-source software she designed to model transit light curves, called the BATMAN code.  Outside of her research, Laura has served in UChicago’s Women in Physics and Astronomy Mentoring Program; she has also delivered public talks and published YouTube videos to share her research directly with non-academic audiences.

Daniel Koll majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy at Harvard before coming to UChicago to join the PhD program in the Geophysical Sciences.  His research focuses on the theoretical climates of terrestrial planets—rocky planets similar to Earth, which are smaller and even harder to observe than the hot Jupiters and super-Earths that Laura focuses on, but which could potentially harbor life.  His doctoral thesis aims to understand how the climates of these planets differ from Earth’s and to develop new techniques for characterizing these planets from 2018 onwards with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.  Daniel has also served as part of PyBot Club, developing a program curriculum for teaching the Python programming language and robotics to middle school students, and he proudly helps organize the bi-annual Geophysical Sciences barnyard animal roast.

Yuancheng Zhu, a fourth-year student in Statistics, studied Mathematics at Fudan University in Shanghai as an undergraduate.  His doctoral thesis is on statistical estimation and inference procedures under computational constraints.  This research finds its practical impetus in astronomy, where data are collected on a remote telescope and a statistical model needs to be transmitted to Earth, as well as in cloud computing, where a large volume of statistical analyses may need to be stored. Yuancheng’s project offers a mathematical description of how the statistical error of a model is affected by any compression that is used to limit the transmission or storage costs.

Finally, Simion Filip, a fifth-year in the Mathematics program, was awarded the fellowship for his project “Hodge Theory and Flat Surfaces.”  The dissertation uses methods from Hodge Theory to construct proofs in other domains of mathematics, algebraic geometry and Teichmüller dynamics.  This summer, Simion travels to several conferences in Europe, including France and Germany, to present results from his dissertation to international audiences.  A dual citizen of Romania and the Republic of Moldova, Filip studied at Princeton and Cambridge before joining the Mathematics department at UChicago.  While a student here, he mentored high school students as part of the OSP Upward Bound Program.

Despite the fact that they are still early in their careers as researchers, each of these scientists has already made a measurable impact on his or her field.  They have also reached outside of the scientific community to share their knowledge with the general public.  Their innovative projects were chosen for the Harper Fellowship because they demonstrate the excellence, innovation, and interdisciplinarity in research that we strive for: they are works in progress, yet they already bear the stamp of the University of Chicago’s mission to lead the way in research at the frontiers of human knowledge.