WASHINGTON: A Kolkata-born Indian teenager has become the youngest medalist in a century of the famed University of California, Berkeley, in the process completing a double major in bioengineering and chemical biology in only three years – all the age of 18.
Adding to the lore of the preternaturally bright Indian students, some 100,000 of who are studying in the US at any given time, Ritankar Das is also the first student from the University’s College of Chemistry in 58 years – and the first ever from the Department of Bioengineering – to earn the honor, UC Berkeley officials said on Thursday.
Established in 1871, the University Medal is awarded each year to an exemplary graduating student with a minimum Grade Point Average of 3.96. Das is graduating with more than 200 credits and a GPA of 3.99, which includes eight A+ marks. Das will receive the medal and give a speech at Commencement Convocation on Saturday, May 18, to be addressed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Among other alumni, UC Berkeley also counts Intel founder Gordon Moore and mouse inventor Doug Engelbart, besides dozens of Nobel laureates and a score of Academy Award winners. From the subcontinent, the liberal bastion has also graduated the socialist icon Jayaprakash Narayan, Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan.
Despite its illustrious alumni and great heritage, the university was sufficiently chuffed about its brilliant young graduate to put out an elaborate statement. “In my 30 years at Berkeley, I cannot think of a single undergraduate student who would match Ritankar’s accomplishments, his range of activities and projects that he initiated and currently leads, and his academic excellence,” it quoted Marcin Majda, professor and undergraduate dean in the College of Chemistry, as saying in a recommendation letter submitted to the prize committee.
Born in Kolkata, Das moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, at the age of 7 with his parents, Sankar and Kakali Das, the University statement said, revealing that he “grew up with limited financial resources, often walking several miles with his mother to elementary school in the freezing cold.” Despite these challenges, he excelled in school, leapfrogging ahead of his peers by doing advanced projects outside of class. At age 12, he would use a blender and other kitchen supplies to investigate artificial photosynthesis.
Das soon made his mark at UC Berkeley after he moved with his parents to California. His early interest in energy continued through the research projects he pursued at the Energy Biosciences Institute and the US Department of Energy. He worked to develop better solvents to break down cellulose for biofuels and discovered new ways to grow nanowires for use in high-efficiency solar cells. He also formed a campus chapter of the American Chemical Society, creating and teaching a DeCal course on chemistry internships, and founding the Berkeley Chemical Review research journal, the University said.
After graduation, Das, who is fluent in Bengali and Hindi, and conversational in Spanish, will head to Oxford University to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical engineering with a fully funded Whitaker Fellowship. He will then continue his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been admitted to the chemistry Ph.D. program.