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Four Dean's Medalists, Working Toward Change

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Nancy Joseph 06/27/2023 July 2023 Perspectives
The four Arts & Sciences Dean's Medalist for 2023
The four 2023 Dean's Medalists for the UW College of Arts & Sciences are (from left) Zoe Mikuta, Lucinda Axtelle, Wendi Zhou, and Meghna Shankar. 

“A gem.” “A leader.” “Stellar.” “Unassuming brilliance.” There was no shortage of superlatives in the nomination letters for this year’s Arts & Sciences Dean’s Medalists. The medal is awarded each spring to four graduating seniors, one from each of the College’s four divisions, based on academic performance and faculty recommendations.

The 2023 medalists have diverse interests, but all share a commitment to improving our world. They’ve worked on clean energy research, improved accessibility in museums, written novels that center diverse voices, and grappled with philosophical questions around violence and reconciliation. Here’s more about their impressive accomplishments.

Zoe Mikuta, Dean's Medalist in the Humanities
Lucinda Axtelle, Dean's Medalist in the Arts
Wendi Zhou, Dean's Medalist in the Social Sciences
Meghna Shankar, Dean's Medalist in the Natural Sciences

Zoe Mikuta
Dean's Medalist in the Humanities
English major, History of Religion minor

Not many UW undergraduates can claim to be published authors. Then there’s Zoe Mikuta, who had two young adult novels published during her undergraduate years. The books — "Gearbreakers" and "Godslayers" — have been an Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and have been featured on Buzzfeed, NPR, Publishers Weekly, the Seattle Times, and other media platforms. Mikuta’s third book, "Off with Their Heads," will be published in 2024.

Zoe Mikuta headshot
Zoe Mikuta

All that success did not distract Mikuta from her academic work. “She is entirely self-motivated and committed to her love of learning,” writes English Professor Shawn Wong in his nomination letter, which also praises Mikuta’s generosity when reading and critiquing the work of her peers.

Candice Rai, associate professor of English, notes that Mikuta’s reading responses in her classes dazzled by “showing deep engagement with the texts and course themes; raising important questions about language, power, and place; and grounding her writing in poignant examples from everyday life and her own lived experiences.” Mikuta has been recognized by the Department of English with five departmental scholarships.

Outside of class, Mikuta has been secretary and president of Gal Palz UW, a club for queer women and nonbinary students at the UW. Her novels reflect her interest in identity, bringing Korean and sapphic representation to young adult audiences as a way to learn with one another.

“I value her rich narrative voice, her pursuit of honesty, and her commitment to taking artistic risks,” writes Wong. “Zoe is always motivated to push the boundaries of her ability to express herself in writing…and be an innovative and creative thinker.”

Lucinda Axtelle
Dean's Medalist in the Arts
Ethnomusicology and Anthropology majors

Lucinda Axtelle was a docent at the Washington State Historical Society and the Museum of Popular Culture before she interned at the UW's Burke Museum through the museum’s archaeology curation practicum course, ARCHY 490. Impressed with her work, the Burke asked her to continue with the museum to help make its archaeology exhibit more accessible for visitors with low vision or blindness.

Lucinda Axtelle in cap and gown.
Lucinda Axtelle

Axtelle, who is visually impaired, created education kits that include touchable objects and information in braille, as well as new audio resources that feature local Tribal storytellers.

“Her care for community and public engagement will ensure that she creates a more collaborative and inclusive future for everyone,” wrote Burke curator Peter Lape and Burke collections manager Laura Phillips in their nomination letter for Axtelle. “Not only are her pursuits important to the field of anthropology, but her commitment, motivation, kindness, and optimism will make her an excellent and inspirational colleague and world citizen.”

Faculty in the School of Music have been equally impressed by Axtelle’s work. “Lucy has been a delight and an inspiration to work with,” writes Shannon Dudley, chair of ethnomusicology, who advised Axtelle’s capstone project, an exhibit of musical instruments from the School’s large collection of instruments from around the world. “There was very little advice I had to give her, as she took the initiative at every turn.”

Axtelle plans to apply to graduate school in archaeology. 

Wendi Zhou
Dean's Medalist in the Social Sciences
Philosophy and History (War & Society) majors
Ethics, Human Rights, and Comparative History of Ideas minors

Wendi Zhou has dedicated her time at the UW to exploring the ways we can achieve healing and dignity for survivors of human rights violations, structural injustice, and conflict.

Wendi Zhou standing outside
Wendi Zhou

Zhou participated in more than half a dozen research projects at the UW, including the Summer Institute in the Arts & Humanities, during which she focused on societal responses to legacies of wrongdoing. As a Katz Scholar in the Humanities, she explored how performance can shed new light on the afterlives of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa.

Zhou presented her research on transitional justice at national philosophy institutes and workshops, and volunteered or interned at five justice-oriented NGOs, including the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Post-Conflict Research Center. She also studied abroad in Vietnam, with a focus on environmental, health, and socioeconomic challenges after war.

“This probably sounds hyperbolic but it is the truth: I have never encountered an undergraduate with this much energy, who was so exceptionally self-possessed as to channel it into these many directions,” writes Laurie Marhoefer, Jon Bridgman Endowed Professor. “Wendi believes deeply that historical and philosophical scholarship can make the world a better place for marginalized people.”

Faculty who have had Zhou in their classes appreciate her remarkable intellect but also her thoughtful interaction with classmates. “She is equally comfortable having a good-natured philosophical dispute with her peers or helping someone to understand a point that they find confusing,” writes Stephen Gardiner, professor of philosophy. In the same spirit, Zhou led a team of undergrads to start the Historical Review at UW, aimed at making history scholarship accessible to undergraduates.

Zhou took a whopping eight graduate-level courses as a UW undergraduate, six of them in philosophy. She will take many more this fall when she begins a master’s program in philosophy at the University of Oxford.

Meghna Shankar
Dean's Medalist in the Natural Sciences
Physics and Computer Science majors

When Meghna Shankar joined the research lab of Chemistry Professor Cody Schlenker as a first-year student, Schlenker soon realized his lab’s new team member was exceptional. He recalls that Shankar, with an interest in renewable energy, was soon doing research “more typical of a project a graduate student might pursue.”

Meghna Shankar holding a viola and bow
Meghna Shankar

What struck Schlenker most was Shankar’s persistence in exploring the implications of research results.   “On a number of occasions, Meghna actually pressed me on my answers to specific questions regarding her research results,” Schlenker writes. “…It was a refreshing and astonishing interaction when she pointed out to me that my reasoning was not logically consistent with the data she had gathered. This persistence to get to the bottom of framing a hypothesis supported by the data is uncommon in even the most seasoned of graduate students.”

Shankar demonstrated that same questioning and persistence in her classes. “Her unassuming brilliance and quiet grace shines through as she asks super-relevant general interest questions in class and then challenges me with her more advanced questions at the end of office hours, taking care not to intimidate other students,” writes Marjorie Olmstead, professor of physics.

To create a welcoming environment for UW physics students, Shankar helped rejuvenate the Women+ in Physics student organization and played a major role in the Physics Department’s Undergraduate Mentoring Program. An accomplished violist, she also participated in the UW Symphony Orchestra, appreciating how it provided an important balance to her STEM-focused academics.

“Meg is an exceptional student, a superb researcher, an excellent departmental citizen, and a remarkable individual,” writes Olmstead. “In short, she is a gem.”

Shankar will pursue a PhD in physics at MIT this fall. Read more about Meghna Shankar’s UW experience.

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