2014 Class of George J. Mitchell Scholars Selected
November 18, 2012. This weekend the US-Ireland Alliance selected the 2014 class of George J. Mitchell Scholars. Members of the diverse class include a cryptologist who deciphered a code that eluded scholars for centuries; a native American; a music composer; a rural development advocate; a Capitol Hill staffer; the Brigade Commander at the US Naval Academy; and the University of Arizona student body president who was thrust onto the world stage following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson.
The nationwide competition attracts nearly 300 applicants from whom twelve are awarded scholarships on the basis of academic distinction, leadership and service. Recipients spend a year of post-graduate study at institutions of higher learning in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Trina Vargo, president of the US-Ireland Alliance and the founder of the scholarship, noted the evolution of the program over the past 13 years: “When the program was first created the vast majority of applicants were interested in conflict resolution and the arts. While those areas remain popular, we have also seen a steady increase in interest in the life sciences, math and finance. Irish universities are conducting cutting edge research in these areas and that is being recognized in the US.”
The very selection of a 2014 class was in doubt earlier this year as the Department of State had intended to eliminate funding for the prestigious program, having informed the Alliance that Europe was no longer a priority. The Alliance enlisted the help of a range of supporters of the program including Senator John Kerry, 28 Members of Congress led by Congresswoman Betty McCollum, university presidents, more than 1100 citizens who signed a petition, and the Irish and Northern Ireland Governments. The State Department reversed its decision in early August.
On Friday evening, Irish Ambassador Michael Collins hosted a reception for the finalists and supporters of the program at the Irish Embassy. The Department of State and the Northern Ireland Bureau, which was represented by Norman Houston, also supported the event.
This year, the Alliance added another layer to the interview process with the introduction of a video interview, provided by the Irish company Sonru. Anne Glusker, Director of the Mitchell Scholarship program, noted that at the earliest stages of the process, the organization was solely reliant on what is on the page. An opportunity to see every candidate answer questions by video provided an added, humanizing element at an earlier stage. Glusker said, “Everyone involved in the selection process found this to noticeably enhance the process but it also meant that the final selection committee had an even more difficult task” when they interviewed finalists on Saturday at the Dupont Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Members of the final selection committee included Ambassador Collins; Nina Bang-Jensen, a senior peace fellow with the Public International Law & Policy Group; author Danielle Evans, the 2011 winner of PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book; Dawn Yamane Hewett, a Mitchell Scholar and an attorney at Arnold & Porter; Andrew Light, associate professor of philosophy at George Mason University and director of the university’s Center for Global Ethics; Michael Moloney, the director of the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board at the National Research Council of the National Academies; Maureen Murphy, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Hofstra University and past president of the American Conference for Irish Studies; and Donald Roth, the managing partner and a founder of EMP Global and a former vice-president and treasurer of the World Bank.
Those selected will begin their studies next September.
Bios of the 2014 Class of George J. Mitchell Scholars
Wardah Athar was born in Pakistan, spent her early years in Oman and Saudi Arabia, then spent several years in Texas before returning with her family to Saudi Arabia. She will graduate from Georgetown University in 2013 with a degree in neurobiology. Her research interest is in the development of the cerebral cortex and neuropsychiatric diseases. Athar is a Howard Hughes Scholar as well as a John Carroll Fellow at Georgetown and is president of the university’s Muslim Students Association. In this role, she has worked to create a relationship between the association and Habitat for Humanity, has organized interfaith discussions and prayer services, and is currently developing a civic engagement and advocacy effort that will address issues that directly affect the lives of Muslim Americans. Athar, an Urdu and Spanish speaker, is chair of Georgetown’s first undergraduate-led committee dedicated to the support and advancement of undergraduate research. She has led the revival of the university’s interdisciplinary undergraduate research journal and is working toward the creation of a Center for Research and Inquiry. She will study Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin.
Mark Brennan, from Highland Park, New Jersey, is a 2012 graduate of Johns Hopkins University, with a degree in applied mathematics and statistics. He is currently a research fellow in Senegal studying food policy, particularly the impact of high gas prices on Senegalese fish and rice farming. Brennan has studied the US role in climate change in regard to which greenhouse gas metric is selected by the international community, and has concluded that the choice of metric would not affect US responsibility as dramatically as had been thought. He has presented his findings to the Department of State and later interned in the department’s Office of Environmental Policy. At Johns Hopkins, Brennan was the director of the Foreign Affairs Symposium and founder and editor-in-chief of the university’s international affairs research journal. For seven years, he spent his summers working with inner city youth in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Brennan’s goal is to combine mathematical analysis with policy application. He has noted that those with the fewest resources are the most vulnerable to poorly designed systems, be they in health care, crime prevention, food distribution or transportation. He will study mathematical modeling at the University of Limerick.
Flannery Cunningham will graduate in 2013 from Princeton University, with a degree in music. She grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she was influenced at a young age by Irish and Scottish traditional music. She developed a deep love of styles such as sean-nós, mouth music, and fiddle tunes. Cunningham primarily writes for choirs, solo or duet singers, and small instrumental and mixed chamber ensembles. She has set to music poems by Walt Whitman, Robert Bly, and John Ashbery. She also enjoys writing narrative and dramatic music: her first oratorio, The Navigator, explored the travels of the sixth-century Irish monk St. Brendan the Navigator with a chamber choir, chamber orchestra, and vocal soloists. During the summer of 2012, she put her fascination with the interplay between text and music to work with a group of Mayan actresses and playwrights in Chiapas, Mexico, leading vocal workshops using effects such as humming, vocal percussion, and repeating melodic patterns. She is currently working on the libretto and score of an opera about the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. She will study Composition at University College Cork.
Emily Fritze, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, is a 2011 graduate of the University of Arizona with a degree in political science. She is currently a special assistant to the Under Secretary of Energy, working on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. As an undergraduate, she was student body president of the student body of the University of Arizona. In the aftermath of the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, she spoke on the same program as President Obama to address a crowded arena in Tucson and a grieving nation. In her various student government roles, she served on multiple university and statewide committees focused on higher education issues. She was also a director of the Arizona Students Association, where she advocated for affordable education by running issue campaigns and helping to draft and pass legislation in the state legislature. Prior to joining the Department of Energy, Fritze worked as an aide on Capitol Hill to Rep. Giffords and was an intern in Giffords’ Tucson office. She also held an internship with the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. She will study Higher Education at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
Sarah Johnson of Mesquite, Texas, will graduate from the University of Alabama in 2013 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Her research involves improving the performance of biofuels in cold weather with a focus on the potential of butanol as a possible alternative fuel source. As an intern at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Johnson performed structural design analysis for external instrumentation mounts on aircraft, and she has also interned at the Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, where she worked on systems integration engineering. Johnson works to interest more students, particularly young girls, in careers in engineering. She serves as president of the world’s third-largest student section of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, has held several positions with the Society of Women Engineers, and played an active role in the University of Alabama’s NASA United Student Launch Initiative. She is a Goldwater Scholar and plans to pursue a Ph.D. She will study advanced mechanical engineering and Queen’s University Belfast.
Lucas Mason-Brown, raised in Belmont, Massachusetts, will graduate from Brown University in 2013 with a degree in mathematics/logic and the philosophy of science. He is a cryptographer who recently deciphered a handwritten code that had eluded scholars for centuries. He uncovered historical evidence attributing the writing, scrawled in the margins of a rare book, to Roger Williams, the Protestant theologian and founder of Rhode Island. After unsuccessfully trying to solve the puzzle purely through statistical analysis, Mason-Brown developed an interdisciplinary approach, studying the history of 17th-century ciphers and the life of Williams, learning that he spoke at least six languages, apprenticed as a court stenographer, and mastered several shorthand systems. With this new knowledge, Mason-Brown was able to crack the code in just weeks. His work was covered by a number of publications, including The Atlantic and the Providence Journal. He is currently co-writing a book about his findings. Mason-Brown has tutored more than 100 students, from high school dropouts struggling to pass their GEDs to advanced undergraduates studying multivariable calculus. He will study Mathematics at Trinity College Dublin.
Harold McNamara, of Venetia, Pennsylvania, is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale University. He is currently studying in the UK for an M.Phil in micro- and nanotechnology enterprise on a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. His passion for physics and his moral philosophy has led him to a career in the emerging field of nanoneuronics. He plans pursue a Ph.D in physics. McNamara has worked with a company developing a new medical device that aims to transform medical imaging and as a researcher on meteors at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As an undergraduate, he helped develop a project aimed at achieving greater Yale student involvement with the New Haven community. He has also worked as an English tutor for an Iraqi refugee in Amman, Jordan, and has served as a community liaison for a recently resettled Iraqi refugee family in New Haven. A fluent Arabic speaker, he led a group of 12 Yale student volunteers on a service trip to Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo. He is also a distance runner and trekker who completed a 15-day independent Himalayan trek. He will study neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin.
Paul Moinester, raised in Memphis, Tennessee, graduated in 2008 from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in political science and environmental studies. Moinester is currently a senior legislative assistant to Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN). Much of his work has focused on the Congressman’s opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline route that would have run through the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water. President Obama shares that concern, and an alternative route has since been proposed. Moinester has worked as an environmental policy analyst for the Department of Transportation and also in Missouri state politics. As an undergraduate, he was a recipient of the Truman and the Udall scholarships. He was as president of the Student Union, overseeing a $2 million budget, and created a group called Hybrid Living, whose aim was to bring about direct environmental change on campus. In addition, he played varsity soccer. He will study environmental resource management at University College Dublin.
Jonathan Poole of Yarmouth, Maine, will graduate in 2013 from the US Naval Academy with a degree in applied mathematics. He has a passion for rowing and is a member of the Navy’s Division I cycling team. Poole maintains a perfect grade point average. He has played numerous leadership roles at the Naval Academy and is currently brigade commander of 4,400 midshipmen, the academy’s highest student leadership position. He has made the improvement of the treatment of women at the Naval Academy a priority of his tenure as brigade commander. Poole plans to pursue a career as a surface warfare officer, and his ultimate goal is to command a carrier battle group. Following his Navy service, he hopes to return to Maine and follow in the tradition of Joshua Chamberlain who, after leading the Union Army to victory during the Battle of Gettsyburg, went on to become governor of Maine. He aims to increase educational and business opportunities in his home state, and eventually to become involved in politics there. He will study International Public Policy and Diplomacy at University College Cork.
Marian Royston will graduate from Auburn University with a major in history and a double minor in community and civic engagement and political science. She grew up in Roanoke, Alabama, a small town in the heart of the Alabama Piedmont. Roanoke, like most towns in the rural US, is suffering the adverse effects of a post-industrial economy, and it is this background that informs her focus on rural development issues. Royston has conducted oral histories of participants in the Lee vs. Macon County school desegregation case, helping preserve a facet of civil rights movement history that might otherwise have gone unrecorded. She has been an after-school tutor and mentor to middle and high school students in Macon County, Alabama, which has one of the highest child poverty rates in the state. During the summer of 2012, Royston was a Living Democracy Fellow, working as a community organizer in Hobson City, Alabama, the state’s first incorporated African-American municipality. Royston’s long-term goal is to work on rural policy issues to expand social and economic opportunity for rural residents. She will study Community Development at Learning at Queen’s University Belfast.
Robin Tipps, a member of the Quapaw Tribe, was raised in Ardmore, Oklahoma. He will graduate in 2013 from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in sociology-criminology. His goal is to be a tribal attorney, and he hopes one day to be chairman of his tribe. Tipps has been the senior vice chair of investigations for his university’s Integrity Council. His many service activities include work at the same-day surgery clinic at Norman Regional Hospital and as collections assistant at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. The son of a Quapaw mother and a Caucasian father, Tipps has thought a great deal about Native American identity. He grew up 300 miles from tribal headquarters, and the annual ritual of Pow Wow took on great meaning for him, as it was the time when he could connect most easily with his Native American heritage. Tipps has studied in Ireland at University College Cork, and says that what he learned there – about “novel methods of caring for a population while preserving cultural and social traditions” – made him want to go back for further study. He will study Public Law at National University Ireland Galway.