University Medalists & Finalists
Meet recipients of and finalists for the University Medal, honoring graduating seniors demonstrating academic distinction, outstanding character and extracurricular community impact. Read more about our winners: Michael Nastac, a physics and mathematics double-degree student, and Tanay Wakhare, who earned degrees in computer science and mathematics.
The path Nastac set off on while watching Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos” as a child has taken him through some of the most prestigious laboratories in the world and led him to the cusp of a bright career in physics.
“Michael is brilliant, driven, friendly, charming, collaborative, and yet also appropriately competitive,” said physics Professor William Dorland. “Clearly, he isn’t the traditional ‘student leader’ type. He is a scientific leader, already establishing himself as a world-class intellectual force.”
A Banneker/Key Scholar from Pittsburgh, Nastac came to UMD delving into magnetic confinement nuclear fusion and its potential to revolutionize the field of sustainable energy. He began researching plasma turbulence both at UMD and at the University of Oxford, working to construct simple mathematical models that could be handled by present-day computers and help resolve one of the great conundrums of nuclear fusion: the energy input to current fusion reactors is greater than the energy put out by them.
“He never needs someone else to instill a sense of urgency in him,” said Alexander A. Schekochihin, professor of theoretical physics and fellow of Merton College at the University of Oxford. “He is clever, quick on the uptake, industrious, independent, communicative, articulate (and) extremely well educated.”
Nastac is graduating with a 3.99 GPA. He won a poster prize at the 2019 Sherwood Fusion Theory Conference; gave talks at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the University of Oxford and the 12th Plasma Kinetics Working Meeting at the Wolfgang Pauli Institute in Vienna, Austria; and is first author of an upcoming publication in the Journal of Plasma Physics.
Next year, Nastac will be a Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford, pursuing a doctorate in theoretical physics. He plans to continue pursuing solutions to the world’s energy crisis and also wants to teach; as a member of the Foundational Learning and Mentorship Experience (FLAME) program, Nastac taught after-school science lessons to students at Adelphi Elementary School.
“It feels incredibly rewarding to see how much fun these young students are having by learning about the same topics that inspired me to pursue science,” he said. “In graduate school and beyond, I want to continue mentoring others, paying forward what I’ve received from my mentors.”
A voracious reader and dreamer who had an unsettled childhood that stretched across three continents and four U.S. states, Wakhare finally found the freedom he was looking for at the University of Maryland.
Not only did he grow into a promising scholar of mathematics and computer science, but he discovered himself in all the ways college makes possible.
“I pulled all-nighters talking in freshman dorms, I took quantum physics, I classified bones in a zooarchaeology lab, I backpacked through Europe on my own,” he said. “I spent a year exploring every nook and cranny of campus, and fondly remember watching the sunrise from the roof of the McKeldin Library.”
A Banneker/Key, Goldwater and Churchill Scholar, Wakhare earned a 3.96 GPA and a host of university honors, including the Dan Shanks Award from the Department of Mathematics and the J.R. Dorfman Prize for Undergraduate Research.
“He is one of the top undergraduates I have known in my 46 years of teaching,” said mathematics Professor Lawrence C. Washington. “I feel like I am talking with a professional mathematician rather than with an undergraduate.”
In fields ranging from number theory to mathematical physics, Wakhare has authored multiple papers and worked at institutions including the University of Queensland, Dalhousie University, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Center for Nanoscale Research at the National Institute for Standards and Technology.
“Tanay Wakhare is an exceptionally talented young mathematician, by far the best student I have ever met in my career,” said Professor Christophe Vignat of Paris-Sud University. “He has a very promising future in mathematics … and should quickly be part of the leading scientific community of his country.”
Fascinated by artificial intelligence, Wakhare wants to bring more rigorous mathematical principles to the AI world, such as constructing machine learning models that can train on biased datasets without simultaneously mirroring their flaws. He will pursue a master’s degree in advanced computer science at the University of Cambridge as a Churchill Scholar before heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on a doctorate in theoretical computer science.