Princeton gives highest awards to top students

At left: At a reception before the Alumni Day luncheon, President Shirley M. Tilghman (left) and Dean of the Graduate School William Russel (right) congratulated the winners of the University's highest awards for students: (from second from left) Pyne Prize winners Landis Stankievech and Sarah Vander Ploeg; and Jacobus Fellowship recipients Kellam Conover, Vasily Pestun and Ning Wu. Unable to attend the event was Jacobus Fellowship winner Thomas Clark.

Photo: John Jameson 

Student award winners at Alumni Day

Princeton University recognized the winners of the highest honors it awards to students at Alumni Day ceremonies Saturday, Feb. 23.

Seniors Landis Stankievech and Sarah Vander Ploeg shared the University's Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, and graduate students Thomas Clark, Kellam Conover, Vasily Pestun and Ning Wu were presented as co-winners of the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship at a luncheon in Jadwin Gymnasium.

The Pyne Honor Prize, the highest general distinction conferred on an undergraduate, is awarded to the senior who has most clearly manifested excellent scholarship, strength of character and effective leadership. The Jacobus Fellowship, which supports the final year of graduate study, is awarded to students whose work has displayed the highest scholarly excellence.

The previously announced winners of the top honors for alumni also were honored at the luncheon: Lawrence Goldman, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, who earned graduate degrees from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1969 and 1976 and was this year's James Madison Medalist; and 1980 graduate John Rogers, chairman, chief executive officer and chief investment officer of Ariel Capital Management, the nation's largest minority-run mutual fund firm, who was this year's Woodrow Wilson Award winner.

Pyne Prizes

Stankievech, who is from Trochu, Alberta, Canada, is majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering. He was one of three Princeton students named Rhodes Scholars this year, and plans to earn a second bachelor's degree at Oxford in a joint program in philosophy, politics and economics.

He has served as a team leader in his engineering courses, guiding other students in their efforts to create projects ranging from a furniture-moving robot to a two-stage rocket to a hypersonic jet. "Qualities that I would use to describe Landis are 'seated right up front and ready to learn,' a thirst for knowledge and a real knack for engineering analysis, a natural and effective leader, and a humble helper of his peers," said Michael Littman, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Stankievech also has taken several courses in the philosophy department. "Every one of the papers he wrote for my Aristotle course was outstanding, as good as any piece of undergraduate work I have seen in 10 years of teaching at Oxford and Princeton," said Hendrik Lorenz, associate professor of philosophy.

A gifted athlete, Stankievech is a member of Princeton's ice hockey team, earning conference, league and district academic honors. He has been involved in several youth programs, including teaching youngsters to skate in the Special Olympics Skating Program and coaching in the Princeton Youth Hockey Program.

In recognizing him at the Alumni Day ceremony, Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman noted that Stankievech plans to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford to gain "the insights he needs to tackle problems that 'require more than engineering innovations,' to use his own words. Landis, we wish you every success in this quest," she said, "and we thank you for setting an example of academic and athletic excellence that Princeton will long remember."

Vander Ploeg, who is from North Haledon, N.J., is majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and pursuing a certificate in musical performance. She has been named a winner of a 2008 Marshall Scholarship, and will use her award to obtain a master's degree in vocal studies at the Royal College of Music in London. She also plans to work on outreach programs with an arts policy group there.

An accomplished lyric soprano, Vander Ploeg has performed many operatic and music roles, including the title role in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" and a lead role in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." She has been a soloist in the Princeton University Chapel Choir and a member of the Chamber Choir. She was one of the winners of the Princeton University Orchestra's 2007 Concerto Competition and performed as a soloist with the orchestra, in which she also plays the viola. She was the principal viola in last April's world premiere of Prokofiev's "Boris Godunov" on campus and has performed on tours in Portugal and Austria.

Vander Ploeg's senior thesis combines her interests in public policy and the arts. It is a study of the role of music and intellectual property law in post-apartheid South Africa, where she believes that music can contribute greatly to national reconciliation. She conducted research for her thesis in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg last summer. She also has spent a semester studying arts policy and music performance at Oxford University.

"Sarah epitomizes the best of Princeton: academic brilliance, artistic creativity, public spiritedness, proven leadership and unshakeable integrity," said Robert Hutchings, diplomat in residence in the Wilson School. "She is a rising leader of exceptional promise."

During the Alumni Day ceremony, Tilghman added, "Sarah, thank you for sharing your musical talents with us and for mastering the knowledge that will allow you to champion the arts, both onstage and off, in years to come."

Jacobus Fellowships

Clark, a doctoral student in politics, earned his bachelor's degree in political science from Rutgers University. His interests include the interaction between the elected and unelected branches of government and the ways in which the American Constitution balances competing notions of power and democracy. His dissertation examines the power struggle between Congress and the Supreme Court and how the popularly-elected legislature can limit the power of an appointed judiciary.

"His research productivity is unmatched by any other graduate student I have taught in my 20 years of graduate teaching," said his adviser, Charles Cameron, professor of politics and public affairs. Clark was unable to attend the luncheon because he was at a conference on the Supreme Court at Emory University, where he has accepted an assistant professorship beginning this fall.

Conover, a Ph.D. candidate in classics, earned his bachelor's degree in Greek and Latin from Swarthmore College. His dissertation, titled "Bribery in Classical Athens," examines the pervasive, yet often neglected, phenomenon of bribery in Athenian ideology and law of the classical period.

He demonstrates that taking a bribe was regarded not as an act of greed but as the severing of a kind of friendship between a citizen and his community. "Conover's discussion is sure to change the way Greek bribery is thought about (or too often not thought about at all)," said Andrew Ford, professor of classics. "… at least an equally important contribution the work stands to make will be to provide a dossier of the many overlooked corners of classical literature in which bribery and other enticements against friendship occupied the attention of artists, historians and moralists."

Pestun is a doctoral student in physics. He earned his bachelor's degree from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and his master's degree from Moscow's Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics. He has focused his research on string theory. 

His dissertation, titled "Open-closed String Duality and Topological Theories," sheds new light on the relationship between gauge theory and gravity and, ultimately, on the fundamental workings of the universe. "Pestun has demonstrated the ability to crack hard problems that almost no one else in the world can," said Igor Klebanov, professor of physics. "I think he has the kind of insight into physics and mathematics that makes me expect some truly important contributions from him in the future."

Wu is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering. He earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from the National University of Singapore. He has developed a strong interest in the science and engineering of soft materials, specifically, the electrohydrodynamic patterning of thin polymer films. 

His dissertation explores the spontaneous formation of hexagonal and other periodic patterns -- rather than the random patterns one might expect -- that result when such film is subjected to an electric field. His work could have practical applications in optical and electronic technologies. "Ning is an extraordinary young man with a bright future ahead of him," said his adviser, William Russel, dean of the Graduate School and the Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor of Chemical Engineering. "His facility with theory and computation is impressive, but he also picks up experimental tools easily. With both equations and experiments, he probes deeply to understand the mechanisms and develop a sound physical intuition."