Penn Arts and Sciences Names 2019 Dean’s Scholars

Penn Arts and Sciences has named 20 students from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, and the Graduate Division as 2019 Dean’s Scholars. This honor is presented annually to students who exhibit exceptional academic performance and intellectual promise. The Dean’s Scholars were formally recognized as part of the Levin Family Dean’s Forum on March 14.


Angus (Gus) Beane (Physics) is a senior Goldwater Scholar and Vagelos Science Challenge Award winner who is completing both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics. He spent the fall working full-time at the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CAA) in New York City, where his mentor, Professor Melissa Ness, commended his “persistence, curiosity, and excellent interpersonal skills.” Similar praise came from his mentor at Penn, Professor Robert Ghrist, who commented on Gus’s ability to “assimilate and then expound on the most difficult and sublime topics with the ease of a seasoned expert.” Elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, Gus is first author on three papers covering a broad range of topics in his field.

Marcello Chang (Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Physics) is a senior Goldwater Scholar in the Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in the Molecular Life Sciences who is sub-matriculating into master’s programs in computer and information science and chemistry. The research project led by Marcello in Professor Arjun Raj’s bioengineering lab involves innovative computational vision software and the creative use of commercial crowdsourcing through Amazon. The objective is to establish mathematical and geometric criteria to use computational methods to assay in vitro organoids and tumors. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, Marcello is also the recipient of a Vagelos Science Challenge Award.

Stephen Damianos (Political Science) is a senior Perry World House Student Fellow studying political science and journalistic writing. A committed and compassionate advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, Stephen has conducted research on the rising levels of incivility in politics and the judicial considerations in immigrant-bond proceedings. Mentors in his courses and advocacy work comment on his independent and thorough research into the policies and legal systems with which he is engaged. He was awarded a Truman Scholarship in 2018. Stephen is the President and Founder of Penn Undergraduates for Refugee Empowerment (PURE), an organization that seeks to empower refugees with the transferable skills needed to succeed as active citizens.

Eric Eisner (History, Jewish Studies, and Philosophy) is a senior Benjamin Franklin Scholar whom faculty describe as “a singular thinker” who is able to “build upon and challenge received knowledge to produce forceful and even creative interpretations.” He has combined his interests in American history, humanistic philosophy, and Jewish studies in a senior thesis which examines the 1826 “Maryland Jew Bill,” which allowed Jewish citizens to hold public office in the state. According to his advisor Professor Beth Wenger, Eric’s thesis “sheds light on much broader issues of political participation in antebellum America.”

Nicholas Joyner (Cinema and Media Studies) is a senior multimedia scholar and gifted storyteller whose work in visual journalism has impressed mentors across several departments. His undergraduate work focuses on giving voice to neglected communities and includes a short film on Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, as well as a mapping project examining history through city monuments. Nick’s mentors, including the journalist Buzz Bissinger, praise the “distinct, consistent, and confident voice” in Nick’s writing and film-making. Nick balances an intense academic workload with his role as editor-in-chief of Penn’s alternative weekly, 34th Street, where he leads the magazine’s editorial direction and oversees a staff of more than 100 students.

Mark Macerato (Mathematics and Physics) is a double major who is also completing a master’s thesis in mathematics. Professors from both departments praise the technical sophistication and depth of analysis in Mark’s work as being on a par with that of a Ph.D. student. The thesis project results have been posted to the arXiv as a joint paper with Professor Ron Donagi and his physicist collaborator Eric Clark, and submitted to the Journal of Topology. Professor Donagi has described Mark as “the BEST undergraduate student I have met in my 30 years at Penn.”

Deborah Rabinovich (Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Urban Studies) is a senior who has crafted a broadly interdisciplinary program of study, allowing her to dive deeply into the subjects she cares most passionately about: migration, gender, and human rights. Debbie has lived in Argentina, South Africa, and Vietnam, conducting field research on gender roles and gendered language in social movements, and she is currently engaged in ethnographic research for her thesis, which examines the impact of Know Your Rights workshops on Latina immigrants. Debbie has also interned at the Nationalities Service Center, where she worked on an initiative providing social services to immigrant survivors of domestic violence.

Alexandra Siwulec (Biological Basis of Behavior) is a senior in the Vagelos Life Sciences and Management dual degree program with a passionate commitment to ameliorating educational and economic circumstances to improve women’s health. As a research assistant for Professor Jennifer Prah Ruger, she is honing her ability to interpret scientific data by designing and implementing surveys, conducting data analysis, and reviewing and editing manuscripts. Alexandra also co-founded and leads Global Women Empowerment (GWE), dedicated to improving women’s lives through healthcare, education, and self-sufficiency.

Derek Willie (English and French and Francophone Studies) is a senior and a Benjamin Franklin Scholar who has distinguished himself as an outstanding linguist and scholar. A Wolf Humanities Undergraduate Fellow, Derek is writing an honors thesis in English as well as conducting an intensive Independent Study for the French and Francophone Studies program. His advisors in the English department refer to him as an “intellectual leader” who is “especially adept at synthesizing sophisticated content and connecting it to broader theoretical questions.”


Nicholas Berrettini (Italian) is a senior who has pursued global and local opportunities in support of his love of Italian language and culture, from study abroad and English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching in Bologna, Italy, to serving as Community Manager at Italiani a Philly, an organization helping Italians who have just moved or are looking to relocate to Philadelphia. Nicholas’ honors thesis examines representations of Italian masculinity in polizieschi (crime-detective) television series, taking into consideration the models of Italian masculinity propagated by Berlusconism and fascism. He is a member of the National Italian Honors Society.


Maria Lorena Levano Gavidia (Behavioral and Decision Sciences) is recognized in her program and beyond as an exceptional young scholar. In addition to her stellar academic record and service on her program's professional development committee, Lorena was awarded the GAPSA-Provost Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Innovation, enabling her to research Latino youth beliefs about sexual harassment in high schools. Lorena recently presented a paper on the role of trust in online grooming at the Second Annual Latin-American Workshop on Experimental and Behavioral Social Sciences.


Elizabeth Bynum (Music and Anthropology) is a third-year student pursuing a joint Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology. She has conducted fieldwork in Mexico in preparation for her dissertation, which explores the conceptual and practical links between environmental and music/cultural conservation in Mexico City to understand how these distinct fields construct value. In addition to being invited to present her research at several prestigious conferences, Elizabeth is a gifted pedagogue in the classroom and an outstanding departmental citizen who organizes the Department of Music colloquium series.

Ava L.J. Kim (English): Ava came to Penn with strong background in Asian American and African American literature and two years' experience working as an organizer for homeless communities in New York City. Now a third-year Ph.D. student focusing on queer/trans, postcolonial, and comparative race studies, Ava is embarking on a doctoral thesis which promises, according to graduate chair Professor David Eng, to “expand the field of trans studies in wholly new directions — to date, no one has brought together trans studies of sex with transitional models of development in postcolonial studies.”

Ramey Mize (History of Art) is a third-year doctoral student who is researching American art during the Civil War period. Her dissertation aims to explore the intersection of visual culture with civil, colonial, and imperial violence during a period of immense turbulence in American history. Ramey’s approach is extraordinary in proposing to examine representations from both sides of each conflict, highlighting pictures for special attention from northern and southern states, from Native American and Euro-American artists, and from U. S. and Spanish/Cuban artists. Ramey’s instructors across the board rave about her contributions to their seminars, describing her as “a standout from day one.”

Leah Samples (History and Sociology of Science) is breaking new ground with her research on disability and technology with a dissertation focusing on the rise of rehabilitation engineering and techniques in postwar America. Her project will be a significant contribution to our understanding of the logic of rehabilitation and compulsory productivity and technology as an equalizer of opportunity and access, especially for disabled individuals. Leah has presented her work at the annual meetings of all major relevant scholarly societies, a remarkable accomplishment for a “pre-orals” graduate student.

Luna Sarti (Romance Languages) demonstrates extraordinary breadth, depth, and originality as a scholar, exploring the changing ways in which events of flooding have been understood in Florence from the 14th to the 16th centuries. When characterizing her impact as a researcher, a digital humanities expert, and a passionate and compelling teacher, faculty in her department cite her skills as “a wonderful contributor of ideas and an active listener, who is able to make the best use of her knowledge to benefit the intellectual community in which she operates.”

Julia Simons (Classical Studies) is a third-year doctoral student who has cultivated a wide range of knowledge in pursuit of her study of ancient medicine. At the prestigious Summer School in Osteoarchaeology and Paleopathology at the University of Pisa, followed by a summer workshop on Juvenile Osteology in Romania, she developed skills that will be essential to her dissertation research on spinal malformations in the Greco-Roman world, and she is able to comfortably draw on the medical, anthropological, and archaeological literature on the topic. In 2018 the Classical Studies faculty recognized Julia’s excellence, particularly what one instructor called “her intrepid journey into cross-disciplinary research,” by selecting her as a Paturick Fellow.

Michael Vazquez (Philosophy) is a fourth-year Ph.D. student of ancient philosophy. He has applied his intellectual enthusiasm and sharp instincts to a large range of philosophical problems, from Stoic moral psychology to the history of the philosophy of mathematics, impressing his advisors with his ability to forge illuminating connections between apparently disparate bodies of texts and modes of discourse. In his dissertation, which explores the ancient ethical tradition of Stoicism, Michael is deploying his considerable skills in Greek and Latin to translate the obscure categories and vocabulary of the ancient Stoics. Despite the early stage of his research, his work has been accepted for presentation at several high-profile refereed academic conferences.

Aixi (Lexi) Zhang (Chemistry) stands out among her peers as a deep thinker who is creative in her methods to verify hypotheses and solve fundamental problems in glass physics. A third-year Ph.D. student, Lexi is leading a challenging new project in Professor Zahra Fakhraai's lab aimed at understanding the properties of amorphous selenium (a-Se) thin films and stable glasses. Professor Fakhraai praised Lexi’s design of new experimental characterization tools and her collaborative work with research groups at Penn and Drexel, calling her “an inspiration for all of us in the lab.”

Ningfeng Zhu (Physics and Astronomy) is a key member of a small team at Penn developing the most advanced cryogenic receiver/camera in the world to study the Cosmic Microwave Background. Ningfeng has distinguished himself by combining skills in mechanical design, cryogenic engineering, optical engineering, and condensed matter physics to design an "exquisitely sensitive" receiver featuring 80,000+ detectors and weighing five tons, which will become part of the Simons Observatory program. His advisor Professor Mark Devlin said, “only a physicist like Ningfeng can bring together the science to define the instrument and then do the engineering.”


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