This spring, Park Scholars Nikhil Milind ’21 and Ana Sofia Uzsoy ’21 were named NC State’s third and fourth Churchill Scholars, following in the footsteps of Park alumni Mia de los Reyes ’16 and Chris Cooper ’17. The Churchill Scholarship was established to facilitate scientific exchange between the U.S. and the U.K. It sponsors graduate-level study at the University of Cambridge for 15-17 students, including full tuition, a stipend, travel costs, and the chance to apply for a special research grant. The Park Scholarships program talked with all four alumni about the impact of their time at NC State and their experiences as Park Scholars and Churchill Scholars.
How did your experiences as Park Scholars prepare and support you to get where you are today?
Chris: The broad focus of the Park Scholarships program certainly helped prepare me for success working and living in a different country. Furthermore, through leadership and diversity academy discussions, the program also prepared me to interact with the diverse array of individuals at Cambridge. The strong focus on mentorship and reflection through the Plan of Professional Development (PPD) also served as a key growth opportunity for my personal and professional development.
Ana Sofia: I appreciate that the Park Scholarships program encouraged us to dream big and gave us the support we needed to feel that something like the Churchill was achievable for us. We were encouraged to set goals and think about the concrete steps we needed to take to get there, which I think was critical in being able to eventually reach them.
Nikhil: One of the most influential aspects of the Park Scholarships experience has been the focus placed on reflections. During Freshman Retreat and Senior Retreat, for example, we were provided ample time to reflect on our experiences, choices, and future goals. Senior Retreat was an especially meaningful time for me this year because it gave me the time to think about graduate school and my future goals. I have also benefited greatly from observing my fellow Park Scholars, who gave me the confidence to pursue new challenges and opportunities!
Mia: Beyond the financial support of the Park Scholarship, which helped me pursue research opportunities throughout undergrad, the Park Scholarships program also helped me find and develop mentoring relationships that have lasted to this day.
What did you gain or do you hope to gain from your experiences as a Churchill Scholar?
Nikhil: I am really excited about taking a year to pursue an independent research project. I am hoping that it will give me the latitude to explore the field of human genetics before needing to focus on a specific topic during my Ph.D. I am also looking forward to exploring the U.K. and Europe over the weekends and during vacations!
Ana Sofia: I am looking forward to taking a deep dive into the novel field of machine learning and pursuing a new research project. I’m also hoping that I will be able to have some new experiences and learn both inside and outside the classroom.
Mia: My time as a Churchill Scholar helped me gain independence and autonomy as a scientist. Perhaps even more importantly, I traveled, tried a lot of things for the first time, and made life-long friends.
Chris: My year at Cambridge as a Churchill Scholar provided a unique opportunity to pursue full-time research in an unfamiliar area prior to pursuing a Ph.D. The experience honed my critical thinking and experimental design skills and also provided the opportunity to observe similarities and differences in research practices between the U.S. and the U.K.
Who at NC State had the biggest impact on your life?
Nikhil: I would argue that Dr. David Aylor, my Park Faculty Mentor, had an outsized impact on my life while at NC State. Since I worked in his lab as an undergraduate research assistant, he directly assisted in my professional development. In addition, I was able to talk about and process many of the stressful events that occurred over the last four years with him
Mia: Without the support of Dr. Jo-Ann Cohen, my Park Faculty Mentor, I probably would have dropped my physics major. Even years after graduating, I’m still in touch with her and consider her to be both a wonderful friend and a role model. Dr. Laura Clarke and Dr. Karen Daniels also helped encourage me when I needed it most. I appreciate the research mentorship I received from physics professors Dr. John Blondin, Dr. Karen Daniels, and Dr. Jim Kneller. I also deeply appreciate the friends I made outside of classes, including through the Just Cuz Crew student org.
Ana Sofia: I think it’s too difficult to pick just one! I am so grateful to my PI, Dr. Mary Elting ’07, who I did research with for four years and who has taught me so much about what it means to be a scientist. I was lucky to be mentored by many other faculty members, including Dr. Karen Daniels and Dr. Jim Kneller from the physics department, and Dr. Jo-Ann Cohen from the math department. Additionally, the music department played a huge role in my life for most of my time at NC State, especially the other members of the NC State Woodwind Quintet.
Chris: This is a pretty difficult question as I was lucky enough to have multiple influential mentors during my time at NC State, in part due to the encouragement and value placed on mentorship by the Park Scholarships program. In the chemical engineering department, both Dr. Michael Dickey, my undergraduate research mentor, and Dr. Lisa Bullard, my academic advisor, served and continue to serve as incredible role models. Dr. Kim Roberts ’01, who agreed to be my Park Faculty Mentor my freshman year, has been a constant resource and companion in navigating the ups, downs, and opportunities of college life and beyond (and actually connected me to Michael when I was trying to find a research mentor). Lastly, I’d like to thank all of the Park staff, especially Sarah Ho and Joy Tongsri, whose interactions have pushed me to develop my knowledge of broader societal issues and how they relate to my intended career as a professor.
What advice do you have for Park Scholars and other NC State students navigating their college years?
Ana Sofia: I encourage students to take the time to explore their interests and find what they’re passionate about and what they are motivated to work hard on. It’s common to do things that you don’t actually like just because they feel like things you should do. Don’t be afraid to change directions or step outside of the box if you feel like it! You’ll learn something valuable regardless of the outcome.
Mia: “You are no more or less special than anyone else in the world.” An NC State professor once said that in one of my classes, and I think it’s something every college student should learn.
Chris: With Churchill, as with Park, I feel incredibly lucky to have been selected, and know that there were many equally qualified candidates in both cases who were not offered the opportunity. This certainly motivates me; however, it also provides some perspective, that despite one’s preparation for a specific goal, there are no guarantees. I’ve found that many of the most enjoyable experiences I have had have actually been critical in preparing me for success later in life. While it is hard to predict exactly what skills you may need in the future, you always have the opportunity to pursue what is interesting and exciting to you and the rest will follow.
Nikhil: Some of my most enriching and memorable experiences at NC State have nothing to do with research and everything to do with community. My advice is to take opportunities that allow you to explore and interface with communities that you have never worked with before!
Mia de los Reyes ’16
B.S. Physics and Mathematics, NC State
MPhil Astronomy, University of Cambridge
M.S. Astrophysics, California Institute of Technology
Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina
Current city: Pasadena, California
“I am finishing my Ph.D. in astrophysics at Caltech, where I study chemical evolution and star formation in nearby low-mass galaxies.”
Chris Cooper ’17
B.S. Chemical Engineering and Economics, NC State
MPhil, Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, University of Cambridge
Hometown: Virginia Beach, Virginia
Current city: Palo Alto, California
“I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Stanford University studying self-healing polymer networks with the intention of becoming faculty.”
Nikhil Milind ’21
B.S. Computer Science and Genetics, NC State
Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina
Current city: Palo Alto, California
“My goal is to identify components of pathways underlying complex diseases that may be targeted for precise therapeutic intervention.”
Ana Sofia Uzsoy ’21
B.S. Physics and Computer Science, NC State
Hometown: Cary, North Carolina
“I’m interested in applying machine learning and other computational techniques to astronomical datasets to create novel analyses and make new discoveries.”
For more information on how NC State helps students apply for a wide variety of prestigious fellowships, visit the University Fellowships Office.