UC's president shines light on Presidential Medal of Excellence winners
Five grads honored from diverse majors have one common goal — service to others
As the University of Cincinnati celebrates spring commencement a little differently this year under the global quarantine, five new graduates are honored remotely for the impact they've made and the legacies they leave.
Receiving the Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence award, the university's highest honor granted to undergraduate students who exemplify scholarship, leadership, character and service, are Farhan Ilyas, College of Medicine; Angela Brown, Carl H. Lindner College of Business; both Nana Agyeman, and Din Selmanovic, the College of Arts and Sciences.
And the prestigious Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence, awarded by the university president to exceptional graduate students goes to Crystal Whetstone, receiving her doctoral degree this summer in political science.
UC’s President Neville Pinto honored their achievements in a remote livestream ceremony on April 30, for going above and beyond in academic excellence, innovation agenda and the impact they've made in service to others — all tenets of UC’s strategic direction called Next Lives Here.
All five honorees credit UC’s educational opportunities, student resources and faculty support as the key to their success.
Charting a map for medical school
It was during a run through Burnet Woods that Farhan Ilyas had the idea to map out his favorite places in the city. But charting his city map eventually evolved into navigating his journey as a student. “I focused on routing my academic excellence, scientific research and service and leadership,” says the fourth-year medical sciences undergraduate student in UC’s College of Medicine.
After graduating Cincinnati suburban Mason High School, Ilyas entered UC’s unique medical sciences program with big dreams of going on to medical school.
Even after encountering obstacles on his path toward his envisioned future, Ilyas adapted by creating a new map for charting his academic pacing.
“I would sprint but I soon learned how to pace myself,” says Ilyas. “To create a healthy balance in my schedule, I mixed it up a bit and took a dance class and Spanish courses to help me relax and control any stress that may have interfered.” Those strategies worked.
While navigating the newly-chartered waters, Ilyas maintained his 4.0 GPA and scored in the 98th percentile on the MCAT exam.
As part of the medical sciences program, Ilyas completed seven semesters of paid research. Beginning in his first year, he worked in the Nasimuzzaman laboratory at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) studying a gene in sickle cell mice. Since 2017, Ilyas has worked in the laboratory of Laura Conforti, UC professor of nephrology and hypertension, studying the functional characteristics of T lymphocytes in lupus nephritis.
In an earlier publication, Conforti called Ilyas “a perfect fit for this profession due to his integrity, empathy, humility and determination,” adding that he is “an intelligent young man, gentle talking, yet curious and inquisitive.”
Throughout these experiences he wrote a research proposal, sealing the deal with a competitive stipend and later received an award from the American Physiological Society. He is currently working to publish those results in his first paper in a scientific journal. “That was interesting research,” he says. “We found that these T-cells are hyperactive and possibly triggering the Lupus symptoms.”
But while serving as a student volunteer in underprivileged communities, Ilyas found one of his greatest rewards.
“Just as I explored the areas around Cincinnati on my runs, I wanted to explore communities that differed from mine,” he says. “After nearly 160 hours working at Crossroad Health Center, helping patients schedule and get to their referral appointments, I finished my internship with a project redesigning a way to prevent patients from falling through the cracks.
From there, Ilyas helped the city’s Hispanic population get medical and mental health resources safely through the Cincinnati Su Casa Hispanic Center and simultaneously worked collaboratively to rebuild UC’s Muslim Student Association.
As his run through the university nears its conclusion, Ilyas takes pride as the president of UC’s College of Medicine Tribunal. Here he represents the undergraduate student body developing seminars instrumental in preparing students for MCAT exams and medical school applications, while also enhancing their professional development.
“Looking back on the last four years of honing my skills as a leader and helping underprivileged communities access health care, I’ve especially enjoyed growing as a scientist and researcher,” says Ilyas. “I plan to pursue a medical degree and am most interested in specializing in oncology.
“While my run through the University of Cincinnati will soon end, I am grateful for the adventures I have seen and look forward to the places I will go.”
Shoot for the moon
Angela Brown, fourth-year business student in UC’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business, grew up being motivated most by her father who always said, “Shoot for the moon, and just in case you don’t make it, you’ll still land amongst the stars.”
Throughout her life, she has held onto those pearls of wisdom, which for Brown has paid off significantly as a high achiever on and off campus.
As a first-year transfer student, Brown immediately felt at home in UC’s Ethnic Programs and Services where she enjoyed a comfortable atmosphere to study, relax and surround herself with students who are just as driven as she is.
Through that program, she made a lasting impact on UC’s campus by helping to develop a midstream process for transfer students to apply for UC’s prestigious Darwin T. Turner Scholarship Program — formerly a grant only for students coming right out of high school.
“Receiving the Turner scholarship meant more than the monetary assistance it brings,” says Brown. “It’s the culture, community, family and distinctiveness it holds that makes me so proud.”
While making an academic impact, Brown secured a Forbes Under 30 Scholarship and the renewable merit-based Business Fellows Scholarship based on community service, diversity engagement and academic success within UC’s Business Fellows program.
As she reached out to secure opportunities beyond campus, Brown was occasionally turned down. But through her steady perseverance, she was admitted to the Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) program, an 18-month career development program with the goal of increasing diversity of its employees within many of the Fortune 500 companies. Through MLT, Brown interned as an associate buyer for Target and eventually worked her way to Amazon in Washington state as a product marketing intern.
“In addition to networking, MLT has taught me to view my setbacks as an opportunity to learn and to come back stronger,” she says.
Beyond her contributions to the university, Brown is grateful for the opportunity to make an impact overseas in three study abroads trips through the business college and UC International.
“Doing business in India, international retailing in Milan and cultural management in Spain helped me develop objective views and admire and appreciate the differences between the U.S. and diverse global cultures,” she says. “I became more culturally aware and gained a better insight into the daily struggles of individuals across the world.”
Back on campus as a recipient of the 2019 Carl H. Lindner Outstanding Junior Scholar award, Brown was also recognized for her energy and work in the classroom and overall commitment and contribution to the university. “This award was more than a scholarship but signified the moment I saw the culmination of my hard work.”
After the positive impression she made while working at Amazon's headquarters, Brown has accepted a position with them as a product marketing leadership development program associate on the artificial intelligence/machine learning team and looks forward to eventually earning her MBA from the University of Chicago, Columbia or Harvard.
“Through the skills and lessons I’ve developed in my time at UC, I look forward to earning my MBA and using my knowledge to help other high achievers reach their goals,” says Brown. “As I look to the future, I will continue to shoot for the moon and pursue everything I do with passion.”
'If I could, I’d be a Bearcat 100 times'
Arriving in this country with little more than what he had in his suitcase, Nana Agyeman also carried big dreams.
Barely 16 years old, Agyeman, now a fourth-year biochemistry student in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences, left the African country of Ghana on the advice of a friend to work in the U.S. and send money back home to his family. But his dream to eventually go to college to become a physician was never dampened, even while working more than 70 hours a week as a press operator at Cincinnati’s Pacific Manufacturing Co.
It was hard work but it was work, he says. Work that allowed him to send enough money back home and finally enroll in college at UC. He became a health care associate for mentally challenged clients, and Agyeman knew he had found his calling in neuroscience.
“While living in Cincinnati I always felt an irresistible attraction to UC’s mission statement. Their commitment to academic excellence and an active effort toward diversity and inclusion resonated with me a lot,” says Agyeman. “All of my diverse and unique experiences, as well as my drive to achieve excellence through the pursuit of scholarship were all actively supported by UC.”
Throughout his undergraduate neuroscience experience, Agyeman maintained a 3.9 GPA while continuing his full-time work in home health care. Eventually his passion for helping people spilled over into his leadership roles on campus in the Alpha Lambda Delta honors organization, maintaining his status on UC’s dean’s list all four years and achieving UC’s highest award in organic chemistry.
Before long, Agyeman became a research assistant at CCHMC in two laboratories performing DNA genotype analysis in the Division of Immunology and genetics work in the Division of Human Genetics.
While bolstering his love for science and leadership, he further developed his passion for helping people as a supplemental instruction leader for medical biochemistry. Through the autonomy of teaching, supervising and creating his own learning materials, Agyeman helped first-year cell and biology students navigate the challenges of their classes.
“This experience was very humbling and deepened my respect for the essential but challenging tasks of a teacher,” he adds.
“UC has molded my character and shaped me into the man I am today,” says Agyeman. “The undying support from faculty and their reaffirmation of my academic and personal qualities all played a role in my development. UC met me at a critical period in my life and helped me transition from a naive boy to a professional man, patriotic citizen, a teacher and a compassionate future physician.”
As Agyeman goes on to UC Medical School where he will work to become a neurosurgeon, he plans to eventually go back to a clinic near his hometown in Ghana to help his people there.
“More than anything, I hope I can energize other potential students to take the leap of faith after seeing an example in me,” says Agyeman. “I hope my time as a student while working full time, volunteering, tutoring and as a researcher passionately involved in innovation will model to current and prospective University of Cincinnati students the spirit of what it is to be a Bearcat.”
Fighting the world’s fight
After Canadian high school swimming and diving champion Din Selmanovic visited his sister on UC’s campus, he knew immediately where we wanted to go.
Standing tall and strong, having achieved more than most young men his age, Selmanovic says none of that came easy.
“I was blessed with a wonderful childhood growing up, but I always knew the sacrifices my parents made as refugees of the Bosnian war and leaving everything behind.”
Now a fourth-year pre-med neurobiology student in the College of Arts and Sciences, Selmanovic never forgot his parents’ example to push beyond the boundaries. He became an NCAA swim and dive team champion, a biomedical research assistant and an empathic student in service to others.
“But as a college athlete, I also saw the darker side of college sports with the depression, anxiety and stress that can come with pushing yourself too hard,” he claims. “So as part of our involvement in the American Athletic Conference [AAC], my committee decided to work on an initiative to provide resources for mental health.”
As a UC men’s varsity swim and dive team rookie of the year, MVP a year later then captain of the team for the past two years, his leadership talents in the water also splashed over onto campus as the AAC’s director of public relations where he organized the “Pow6rfulMinds” initiative to raise awareness and break the stigma of mental health in student athletes across all AAC institutions.
The "6" in Pow6rfulMinds, he says, is a clever branding tool for the American Athletic Conference as a way to represent the organization as the sixth AAC conference. At UC they are moving forward with promoting mental health awareness to not only student athletes but students across all campuses. As a result, UC now has three licensed psychologists for their athletes, and the organization holds an awareness week each fall and spring.
As a UC Neuroscience STEM Fellow, Selmanovic says he fell in love with understanding the mechanism behind stress and mental illness and particularly its role in Alzheimer’s disease. “Because of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s, I had a personal stake in finding the key to this disease,” he says.
He began his research working in UC neurobiologist Matia Solomon’s lab conducting research on sex differneces in neurodegenerative disorders in mouse models, eventually leading to a co-authorship on a scientific publication in 2019.
He currently has a first-authored paper in preparation for publication from other research in the Solomon lab looking at sex differences in stress related brain circuitry in mice.
In addition to his academic experience, Selmanovic accrued nearly 500 hours in service to organizations on and off campus helping to create what he calls "a more diverse" justice where he saw very little.
“My drive to ‘fight the world’s fight’ and help promote a more diverse environment recently led to applying for the Rhodes Scholarship,” says Selmanovic. “I was fortunate to receive the endorsement of the university to complete my application and become the candidate for UC this year.”
Selmanovic will go on to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis in the fall. As he works toward a doctoral degree in neuroscience, he says he'll concentrate on how lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and integrative health all influence disease and are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.
“I hope to go on from there in policy work toward changing the health care system for Americans,” he says. “Stressing out about health care and other life issues affects everything in a person’s life, and I want to do what I can for the greater good of health care for everyone.”
Power of women in politics
As an emerging young political science scholar in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences, Crystal Whetstone has always had a passion for international history. But what shines through in all her most notable research, conference presentations and publications as a graduate student is her desire to make a difference in people's lives.
Now in her last year as a doctoral candidate at UC, Whetstone was the recent recipient of UC’s Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence for her exceptional scholarship, leadership, character and service to the community. She was honored in the livestream ceremony by UC President Neville Pinto on April 30 along with the undergraduate Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence winners.
After completing her master’s thesis at Wright State University on women’s rights in the Middle East and northern and sub-Saharan Africa, transitioning to UC’s doctoral program proved to be seamless as she began focusing on women’s rights in south Asia and Latin America with UC’s notable political science faculty.
“Working with UC professors Rina Williams, Laura Jenkins, Anne Runyan and Amy Lind on women’s rights in Argentina and Sri Lanka is exciting and adds a wonderful diversity to the study of women’s rights globally and their role in modern politics,” says Whetstone. “I’m also delving into the scholarship of teaching and learning through UC’s Graduate Association for Teaching Enhancement [GATE].”
Through GATE, Whetstone has enjoyed working with other graduate students designing workshops and performing research on the latest teaching pedagogy, techniques they can share with other students in the workshops.
“We’re working at a [research institution], even though most of us will end up at teaching institutions, so it’s been a great help,” says Whetstone. “It’s also nice to meet people from outside our department such as biomed informatics, biology and geology. It’s nice to get a wider network within universities.”
While working with the Political Science Graduate Student Assembly, Whetstone helped organize a series of presentations open to the public looking at women’s roles in politics in Tunisia, Brazil and South Africa.
But her favorite outreach efforts, she says, were through the education department where she had great connections to community groups. “With my colleague Alicia Boards, we co-led a group of middle schoolers at the Cincinnati Public School Multilingual Immersion Academy called the Girl’s Action Team where I really felt like I was helping the future women of the world get engaged in politics.”
Whetstone is also involved in a documentary film project as a consultant and co-producer that would have been revealed at the South by Southwest world premiere in Austin, Texas, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The film called “9to5: The Story of a Movement” is based off of the women's group that inspired the Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda film of the same name,” Whetstone says. “But this one is more of a documentary looking at women’s political participation in the labor movement in the 1970s in the U.S. It’s an important film that I hope gets released in time so teachers can start using it in the classrooms this fall.”
Even before she defends her dissertation this summer, Whetstone has already accepted a tenure-track faculty appointment at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville,Texas, in their department of political science.
“As a professor, I will continue my work in the role of women in global politics but plan to keep making a positive impact on human rights everywhere,” she adds.
For more information:
- Presidential leadership Medal of Excellence
- Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence
- UC's Office of Nationally Copmpetitive awards
Featured image at top: UC's round bronze Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence and Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence. Graphic/Ben Gardner/UC Creative + Brand
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