AUB graduate student Antranik Sefilian has been selected as a Gates Cambridge Scholar to pursue his PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Darwin College, University of Cambridge. Sefilian is the first person from AUB to be granted this scholarship, one of the most prestigious in the world.
Established in the year 2000 by the largest single donation to a UK university of $210 million donated to the University of Cambridge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is awarded to outstanding students from countries outside the UK to pursue full-time postgraduate studies at the University. Leadership potential and a commitment to improving the lives of others are amongst the main criteria for selection.
Around 6,000 applicants were assessed for the scholarship this year by a committee representing the Gates Foundation and academics from Cambridge University. Only 220 students from around the world were shortlisted in February upon recommendation from potential PhD advisors at Cambridge. The list was shortened to 110, and then, through another rigorous evaluation process, the final 55 international students were selected. Sefilian, who had already secured admission into Cambridge, is the only Lebanese amongst them.
“Such highly prestigious awards and fellowships at the best world universities means that our AUB students are as good as you get in terms of quality anywhere in the world,” AUB Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Talal Nizameddin, told us. “I tell AUB students the sky is the limit in terms of your aspirations if you're willing to work for it. I salute and congratulate Antranik for his personal achievement.”
A less than easy journey: In tandem with a mentor
Over the years, Sefilian worked hard through obstacles that came his way. He had to secure his own funding for his growing academic ambitions, from high school, to undergraduate, graduate, and now postgraduate education. From the age of 13 – 21, he worked as a jeweler, all the while earning awards of excellence for his academic achievements.
He joined AUB in 2014 to pursue his master’s degree in Physics and earned a Graduate Assistantship (GA) to fund it. He maintained academic excellence throughout, with a GPA of 91.
At AUB, he was exposed to a new world of opportunities. He approached Dr. Jihad Touma with a confident “try me” that started two years of working together. He became a GA in labs at the Physics Department and then was made assistant instructor for undergraduate courses offered by Dr. Touma.
“Antranik’s autonomy in thought, exploration, and execution was evident all through,” Dr. Touma told us. “His hunger to learn, ability to face his mistakes and move past them with renewed strength and confidence are remarkable and extremely desirable traits in the open-ended explorations that our field presents us with.”
Dr. Touma mentored Antranik and walked him through as he entered the world of astrophysics. During an actual walk one day, Dr. Touma raised an idea for a very ambitious academic venture to his student whose capabilities he obviously trusted. After a casual “why not, let’s go for it,” the duo took off to much hard work that has put them on the road to international conferences, dialogue and collaboration with international academics, and the Gates Cambridge recognition.
“My mentor became my friend,” Sefilian told us. “He shaped my opinions. He made me who I am. Things have been difficult. But there are people in AUB who are like stars, shining gems. Were it not for AUB, the department, and my advisor, I wouldn’t have been here today.”
Contributions to Astrophysics
In his research on astrophysical dynamics, Sefilian, supervised by Dr. Touma, investigated the complex process of planet formation in binary star systems, studying mechanisms for protecting planetesimals – the building blocks of planets – from destruction and promoting their growth to planets. He also critically examined the recent hypothesis of the existence of a ninth planet in the Solar System which was proposed to explain some observed features exhibited by icy objects beyond Neptune.
Towards his PhD degree at the University of Cambridge, Sefilian will conduct further research in the area of planet formation within and around binary stars, with the goal of understanding and unveiling the mechanisms that explain the origin of exoplanets – planets outside the Solar System – in such systems.
Dr. Jihad Touma calls the story of Antranik “A truly remarkable tale, a mixture of genes, environment, and much, much serendipity.”
“It was a true pleasure working with someone of Antranik's maturity, dedication, and passion – maturity in acknowledging the arduous and rigorous demands of our craft, then the dedication and passion for the subject matter, without which he would not have been able to put in the hard work required by the challenging problems we set out for ourselves,” added Dr. Touma. “The outcome to my mind – and the mind of his thesis committee members – is simply remarkable, not to say brilliant.”
Giving back in service
Antranik is determined to help others pursue their education and shape their future the way his was. “Being a student and instructor at the same time was a magical combination. I was learning how to teach from my advisor, he showed me what being a good mentor means. I do not want to simply be a professor,” he said. “My goal is to shape the next generation as much as I can at this stage and in the future after I get equipped with the required skills that I will be gaining at Cambridge and the Gates community.”
Emulating the scientific community he will be joining at Cambridge, Sefilian also has the goal of extending the sharing of knowledge within the region. “It is my responsibility to promote the establishment of such communities in our region,” he said. “We have pioneers in the Arab world who can collaborate within scientific community networks.”
Sefilian spoke to us about coming from a community that transmits crafts across generations. As an academic, scholar, and student, he hopes to apply this notion of transmitting his craft (knowledge, skills, and values) in his education of the next generation.
“This is one way of serving the community,” he said. “The community and my personal experiences have shaped and sustained my drive to excel and serve. No one can do it alone. It is a self-consistent cycle: The community helped me, and I in turn help it. That’s how we grow as a world. The collective affects a component, and the component in turn has an effect on the collective. We too are like planetary systems!”
In one of the interviews he had to undergo for the Gates Scholarship, Sefilian was asked what makes a good leader. His answer was, “You have to give everything that you have to the other person – you have to devote your whole academic, mental, and all skills learned and acquired throughout the years to be transmitted to the other.”