Two Seniors Win Mitchell Awards for Academic Excellence

Leon Dean and Ashty Karim pose together in suits at the George H. Mitchell Awards ceremony at UT Austin. Seniors Ashty Karim and Leon Dean received George H. Mitchell Awards for Academic Excellence given by the University Co-operative Society.  The McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering was the only department to produce two winners.

The awards celebrate University of Texas at Austin students with exemplary academic records who have made an extraordinary contribution to their fields of study through a research project, literary work, musical composition, humanitarian project or similar undertaking. A total of seven Mitchell Awards were presented May 3 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin.

“This is an extraordinary group of gifted students – students who not only have stellar academic records, but who also have already made and who undoubtedly will continue to make exceptional contributions to their disciplines,” said Chairman of the University Co-op’s Board of Directors and Ernst & Young Professor of Accounting, Dr. Michael Granof.

Ashty Karim was honored for his research project, “Characterization of plasmid burden and copy number in Saccharomyces cerevisiae for optimization of metabolic engineering applications.  Under supervising Professor Hal Alper, Karim works in the area of metabolic engineering to optimize chemical processes within cells to increase cells’ production of valuable substances, such as novel fuels and pharmaceuticals.

Scientists insert genes into cells using constructs called plasmids to produce useful products. Yeast cells are often used because they grow fast and are easily cultured, however inserting genes is a metabolic burden that reduces cell growth rates. Karim studied the optimal design and copy number of plasmids to insert to achieve the highest copy number with the lowest burden. His work will improve yeast cells’ ability to serve as chemical factories for producing medicines, biofules, and other important products.  It’s also an important starting point for scientists and engineers optimizing cellular systems.

Leon Dean was recognized for co-authoring Polarity-Switching Top Coats Enable Orientation of Sub-10 nm Block Copolymer Domains,a paper featured in the journal Science about research he conducted with Professors Grant Willson and Chris Ellison.  The work showcases processes they developed that could increase the capacity of hard disk drives by fivefold- an impressive feat considering current production methods are nearing storage capacity limits.

The researchers developed materials and processes that allow the patterning of isolated magnetic bits on disk drive surfaces as close together as possible, thus maximizing information stored while preventing data loss from thermal instability. They used block copolymers, materials that self-assemble at the nanometer length scale, to form regular line-space patterns.  Then they designed a special top coat that allows the block copolymers to achieve the desired orientation relative to the plane of the surface simply by heating.  These processes create some of the smallest features in the world in record time. The work may lead to increased computation power and information storage capacity while reducing device size and power consumption.

Karim and Dean’s awards were in the Science and Technology category and they each received a $2,000 prize. Award ceremony attendees included the Provost, Deans, and Vice Presidents of the university, as well as past grand prize winners of the award. The Mitchell Awards were developed by University Co-op President and CEO George Mitchell and the Co-op’s Chairman of the Board, Dr. Michael Granof.

About the University Co-op

The University Co-op fulfills its 117-year old mission as a non-profit corporation by returning all profits to its owners – the students, faculty and staff of The University of Texas at Austin. Since 2000, the Co-op has given over 33 million dollars to UT Austin in the form of gifts, grants and rebates.

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