Biology, landscape architecture students named Rhodes Scholarship finalists

Topics: College of Sciences and Humanities, College of Architecture and Planning, Scholarships

November 12, 2010

Matt Tancos
Matt Tancos, ~~~11, aims to earn a master~~~s degree in plant sciences at Oxford. The biology major from Valparaiso, Ind., was raised on a farm and so, he says, learned early "how intricate and connected life is."

A pair of Ball State University students have advanced to the final round of the Rhodes Scholarship selection process, the first time in school history that two students have reached the last stage of competition for the world's oldest and most prestigious international graduate scholarship.

Abigail Shemoel and Matt Tancos, both members of the Class of 2011, will participate in final interviews with members of the Rhodes selection committee on Nov. 20 in Indianapolis. A decision by the committee will be made that evening on up to two winners of the award.

Shemoel is a landscape architecture major and international resource management minor from Kokomo, Ind., and currently a Udall Foundation undergraduate scholar at Ball State. Also a past recipient of the National Garden Clubs Scholarship, she already has studied the effects of environmental management on ecotourism in Costa Rica and recently completed an internship in Argentina with the Foundation for Sustainable Development. She'll spend her final semester as a Ball State student conducting additional research on sustainable community development in Brazil.

Tancos, from Valparaiso, Ind., is a biology major and chemistry minor concentrating in genetics and ecology. He previously earned an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Greater Research Opportunities Undergraduate Fellowship and has completed research internships at both an EPA lab and Cornell University, investigating the microbiological treatment of drinking water for arsenic removal, microbial biofilms on lead drinking water pipes and pathogen diagnostics, in addition to his studies at Ball State.

Administered and awarded by the Rhodes Trust (Cecil John Rhodes, 1853-1902, was an English businessman and founder of the De Beers diamond company), Rhodes Scholarships provide recipients with up to three years of graduate study at Oxford University, U.K. In addition, scholars receive a monthly maintenance stipend to cover accommodation and living expenses.

Scholarships have been awarded to applicants annually since 1902 and are widely regarded as the most distinguished graduate awards in the world.

Landmark event

Ball State has never had a Rhodes Scholar and only a handful of candidates have made it to the state semifinalist stage (a category no longer used; finalists now are selected from specified geographic districts), reports Barbara Stedman, director of national and international scholarships. She calls Shemoel and Tancos' advance "historic" and proof of the university's strategic plan that emphasizes attracting greater numbers of high-achieving students, as reflected in the growing percentage of entering freshmen holding the Indiana Academic Honors Diploma from high school.

"The Rhodes not only is the most prestigious of graduate scholarships it's also the most rigorous in terms of its academic standards and other requirements," observes Stedman. "That two of our students have reached this level in the selection process this year, I believe, speaks loudly to Ball State's success in increasing the overall quality of our students and giving them the additional tools, through immersive learning and other opportunities such as research assistantships and study abroad, to achieve still greater things. This is a landmark event for Abigail and Matt, certainly, but also one in which the entire university community should take great pride and satisfaction."

If successful in her Rhodes bid, Shemoel expects to pursue a master's degree in environmental change and management at Oxford. She sees the opportunity as especially fortunate. The Oxford program is among the best in the world, she says, reckoning that the Rhodes committee probably doesn't see too many landscape architecture majors.

"But that's what I love most about landscape architecture — it's all about good stewardship of the land," says Shemoel, who hopes to make a career working internationally on the issue of adequate and sustainable shelter for millions of the world's poor, possibly with the U.N. Centre for Human Settlements.

Tancos also has international career plans. He will seek a master's degree in plant sciences in Oxford's equally renowned Plants for the 21st Century program. Ultimately, he intends to earn a doctorate in plant pathology in preparation for joining the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) or similar nonprofit organization working to improve crop production in impoverished countries.

The world's fertile soils will soon be pushed to their limits as human population growth becomes a formidable "resource vacuum," says Tancos, who was raised on a farm and learned early "how intricate and connected life is."

While environmentalism typically emphasizes protection of nature, Tancos says, "I believe protection of people should come first and agree with Indira Gandhi that 'poverty is the greatest environmental threat in the world.' Humans will attempt to survive by all means, which include poaching or clear-cutting forests in order to acquire new fertile soil and resources. Plant technology, however, offers one way to alleviate famine and its environmental consequences."

Instincts to lead

Although popularly perceived to be largely a reward for academic performance, the Rhodes Trust also establishes that candidates be adjudged for their "literary attainments" and "energy to use one's talents to the full" as well as their "truth, courage, devotion to duty … moral force of character and instincts to lead."

Only 32 American students are chosen each year as Rhodes Scholars. Notable past U.S. winners include former President Bill Clinton and his one-time senior counsel, now ABC News correspondent, George Stephanopoulos as well as singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, film director Terrence Malik ('Badlands," "The Thin Red Line"), feminist author Naomi Wolf and current Newark (N.J.) Mayor Cory Booker. From Indiana, current U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, a graduate of Denison University, earned his Rhodes Scholarship in 1954.

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