The highest honor the University of Maryland bestows on an undergraduate, the University Medal is awarded at each spring commencement to the graduate or graduates who best personify academic distinction, extraordinary character and extracurricular contributions to UMD and the larger community.

Two medalists have been selected this year: Michael Nastac, a physics and mathematics double-degree student, and Tanay Wakhare, who earned degrees in computer science and mathematics.

Read on for more about their accomplishments as well as this year’s four finalists.

Michael Nastac—Medalist
The path Nastac set off on while watching Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos” as a child has taken him through some of the most prestigious laboratories in the world and led him to the cusp of a bright career in physics.

“Michael is brilliant, driven, friendly, charming, collaborative, and yet also appropriately
competitive,” said physics Professor William Dorland. “Clearly, he isn’t the traditional ‘student leader’ type. He is a scientific leader, already establishing himself as a world-class intellectual force.”

A Banneker/Key Scholar from Pittsburgh, Nastac came to UMD delving into magnetic confinement nuclear fusion and its potential to revolutionize the field of sustainable energy. He began researching plasma turbulence both at UMD and at the University of Oxford, working to construct simple mathematical models that could be handled by present-day computers and help resolve one of the great conundrums of nuclear fusion: the energy input to current fusion reactors is greater than the energy put out by them.

“He never needs someone else to instill a sense of urgency in him,” said Alexander A. Schekochihin, professor of theoretical physics and fellow of Merton College at the University of Oxford. “He is clever, quick on the uptake, industrious, independent, communicative, articulate (and) extremely well educated.”

Nastac is graduating with a 3.99 GPA. He won a poster prize at the 2019 Sherwood Fusion Theory Conference; gave talks at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the University of Oxford and the 12th Plasma Kinetics Working Meeting at the Wolfgang Pauli Institute in Vienna, Austria; and is first author of an upcoming publication in the Journal of Plasma Physics.

Next year, Nastac will be a Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford, pursuing a doctorate in theoretical physics. He plans to continue pursuing solutions to the world’s energy crisis and also wants to teach; as a member of the Foundational Learning and Mentorship Experience (FLAME) program, Nastac taught after-school science lessons to students at Adelphi Elementary School.

“It feels incredibly rewarding to see how much fun these young students are having by learning about the same topics that inspired me to pursue science,” he said. “In graduate school and beyond, I want to continue mentoring others, paying forward what I’ve received from my mentors.”

Tanay Wakhare—Medalist
A voracious reader and dreamer who had an unsettled childhood that stretched across three continents and four U.S. states, Wakhare finally found the freedom he was looking for at the University of Maryland.

Not only did he grow into a promising scholar of mathematics and computer science, but he discovered himself in all the ways college makes possible.

“I pulled all-nighters talking in freshman dorms, I took quantum physics, I classified bones in a zooarchaeology lab, I backpacked through Europe on my own,” he said. “I spent a year exploring every nook and cranny of campus, and fondly remember watching the sunrise from the roof of the McKeldin Library.”

A Banneker/Key, Goldwater and Churchill Scholar, Wakhare earned a 3.96 GPA and a host of university honors, including the Dan Shanks Award from the Department of Mathematics and the J.R. Dorfman Prize for Undergraduate Research.

“He is one of the top undergraduates I have known in my 46 years of teaching,” said mathematics Professor Lawrence C. Washington. “I feel like I am talking with a
professional mathematician rather than with an undergraduate.”

In fields ranging from number theory to mathematical physics, Wakhare has authored multiple papers and worked at institutions including the University of Queensland, Dalhousie University, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Center for Nanoscale Research at the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

“Tanay Wakhare is an exceptionally talented young mathematician, by far the best student I have ever met in my career,” said Professor Christophe Vignat of Paris-Sud University. “He has a very promising future in mathematics … and should quickly be part of the
leading scientific community of his country.”

Fascinated by artificial intelligence, Wakhare wants to bring more rigorous mathematical principles to the AI world, such as constructing machine learning models that can train on biased datasets without simultaneously mirroring their flaws. He will pursue a master’s degree in advanced computer science at the University of Cambridge as a Churchill Scholar before heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on a doctorate in theoretical computer science.

Kristen Edwards—Finalist
Edwards was the first in her family to go to college, and she came to UMD with a dedication to helping underserved communities. A Banneker/Key scholar graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a 3.98 GPA, Edwards will pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying how to address climate change and water insecurity through machine learning.

At UMD, Edwards is part of a team that developed a 3D-printed, soft robotic hand in the Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing Lab. She also designed a machine-learning program at the Anderson Lab at Cornell University to predict New York state power-grid emissions.

“Her innate ability to take charge and lead her peers in executing research projects has resulted in a level of productivity that is truly uncommon at any stage,” said Ryan Sochol, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

The winner of the Spirit of Maryland Award and A. James Clark School of Engineering Dean’s Award, Edwards said her proudest accomplishment was providing college advice to first-generation students and families through the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

“As I continue in my life and education, I know I am not only chasing my own dreams, but acting as a guide to help others chase theirs,” she said.

Megan Gaines—Finalist
Earning a double degree in biological sciences and psychology with a 4.0 GPA, Gaines excelled in the UMD classroom. But she expended just as much effort outside of it, from working as a tour guide on campus to tutoring fourth graders and volunteering as an infant cuddler with Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital.

“Megan is an amazing person,” said Sabrina Kramer, associate director of the Integrated Life Sciences Program in the Honors College. “She is brilliant, hardworking and cares so much for the people around her.”

A Banneker/Key Scholar and member of the Omicron Delta Kappa Honors Society, Gaines won the Integrated Life Sciences Service Award, volunteered with MobileMed, and spent two years assisting with research at the National Institutes of Children’s Health and Development. She plans to spend the next year working with the AmeriCorps Literacy Lab to help kindergarten and elementary school students reach grade-level reading standards. After that, Gaines will apply to medical school.

“As a doctor, I want to help advocate for patients that do not receive the same level of care and increase access for all, as I have tried to do with everyone I have worked with during my time here,” she said.

Emily Jaffe—Finalist
From running campus recruitment drives for bone marrow and blood stem cell registries to volunteering on a medical mission to Ghana, Jaffe has used her UMD career to deepen her interests in biology and global health.

Jaffe, who has been interning at Gryphon Scientific in Takoma Park since February researching public health issues including the genetics of coronaviruses, is graduating with a degree in biological sciences and 4.0 GPA.

“It is not easy to achieve Emily’s academic record and remain so consistently committed to serving others,” said Susannah Washburn, director of the College Park Scholars Public Leadership Program and associate clinical professor in the School of Public Policy. “Overall, Emily is whip-smart, caring, calm, persistent and incredibly hardworking.”

Jaffe has also been a research assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and the Linda Joy Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center for Women at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. A volunteer elementary school tutor with the Turtles and Eagles Science Club, she will be attending the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“I am certain that with the strong foundation I have built at UMD, I am well positioned to take on new educational, community and global challenges that I will face,” she said.

Shifali Mathews—Finalist
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Shifali Mathews is building toward a career in research and policy that will not only help her family’s homeland but populations all over the world that are vulnerable to health impacts of the changing climate.

Mathews is a member of the first class of UMD’s new accelerated B.S.-M.P.H. program, concentrating in environmental health sciences, graduating with a degree in public health science and 3.966 GPA. A Philip Merrill Presidential Scholar and president of the Alpha Epsilon Honorary Society, she also participated in Global Fellows and the Gemstone Honors College program.

“Shifali is mature, flexible and able to engage with and adapt to new cultures and environments,” said Joan Burton, director of the Federal and Global Fellows programs and Individual Studies Program. “(She) is poised to take leadership and help solve some of the most challenging health issues of our time.”

Mathews worked in several federal government offices as an undergraduate, including as a health equity fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice. She also spent 18 months as an intern with the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, doing outreach with the Black Lungs Clinics Program to coal miners with terminal conditions.

She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental epidemiology and find sustainable solutions to climate-related global health issues.

“UMD’s dedication to sustainability and proximity to the nation’s capital empowered my mission to advance environmental and climate justice,” Mathews said.