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November 23, 2005

Student wins Pitt’s 4th Rhodes Scholarship

Pitt senior Justin Chalker has been named a 2006 Rhodes Scholar. The dual chemistry and history and philosophy of science major is among 32 students chosen from a nationwide pool of 903 applicants, and is one of only three selected from a public university.

Chalker is an undergraduate teaching assistant under the direction of chemistry professor emeritus Theodore Cohen.

Chalker’s research interests are in synthetic methodology — inventing or discovering chemical reactions that can be applied to medical or biological applications. He also is the founder of the Pitt Y-Sci Fest, a science research fair for local high school students.

Chalker, who also is completing requirements for the University Honors College bachelor of philosophy degree in chemistry, is a Chancellor’s Scholar and a 2005 Goldwater Scholar.

“My first opportunity to meet with Justin and discuss his work came last year, when he was chosen to be a Goldwater Scholar,” stated Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg in a prepared release.

“I was impressed with the breadth of his interests, the advanced nature of his scientific research, and his very positive human qualities,” he stated.

Honors College Dean Alec Stewart also had high praise for Chalker. “He has an absolutely stellar academic background of high achievement coupled with a very philanthropic, outward-looking, public service-oriented world view,” Stewart said. “He is a person for whom the public good is a private value.”

Stewart touted Chalker’s efforts to expand science literacy in the community. As an outreach coordinator with the American Chemical Society student affiliate at Pitt, Chalker has brought science presentations to children as young as age 5 in YMCA day camps and through other hands-on opportunities taken to primary and secondary school students.

Following a grueling weekend of interviews with Rhodes committee members in Kansas City, Mo., Chalker was selected Sunday night. “They asked everything from ‘What was the last non-science book you read and why should we care?’ to questions about ethics in biology,” he said. “They don’t back down; they want to test your mettle.”

“They deliberated right down to the last minute,” he said.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming; it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Chalker said Monday. “I am looking forward to going to Oxford.”

The Meade, Kansas, native came to Pitt after receiving Honors College literature. “I was in a high school class of 30 in a rural town of less than 1,000. I was not even considering going out of state,” he said. He found Pitt attractive in terms of the opportunity to pursue his interests and viewed the prospect of coming to an urban campus an adventure.

“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said, adding the obvious: “Everything went pretty well.”

Chalker credited a number of faculty and staff in the University community with helping him attain the honor.

Citing his mentor’s “contagious enthusiasm,” Chalker called Cohen the “absolute best mentor that anybody could ever have” and expressed thanks to him and others on campus who wrote references for his application.

He also cited the Honors College’s support, coordinated by Amy Eckhardt, in helping him draft essays and craft a competitive application.

Of 11 Pitt students who applied to the Rhodes committee, five were among the 203 ultimately selected for interviews.

Pitt’s last Rhodes scholar was in 1991. Stewart attributed the 15-year dry spell to the fact that some students opt to apply for Marshall Scholarships instead. Overall, the University has had seven Marshall and four Rhodes scholars.

While Oxford’s highly regarded chemistry department was a good match for Chalker, the flexibility of the Marshall may offer educational opportunities more in line with other students’ goals, Stewart said.

The Rhodes, valued at about $40,000, provides two or three years of study at the University of Oxford. “The Marshall is one that lets you go anywhere in the British kingdom,” Stewart said.

“Students are very discerning these days about making long-term professional and educational opportunities congruent with their educational experience,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 7

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