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Student commencement speaker receives prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship

Boris ChernomordiUniversity of Louisville chemical engineering professor Mahendra Sunkara remembers the day Boris Chernomordik came to his lab and asked if he had a place for him in his laboratory.

“When can you start?” Sunkara asked the second-semester freshman.

“Right now!” Chernomordik replied.

This year’s student commencement speaker, Chernomordik has an unabated enthusiasm for learning. He carried a full class load through Speed School of Engineering’s five-year bachelor/master degree program. He mentored high school students, taught a class as a master’s student, published several articles and gave numerous presentations — both in the United States and abroad.

In nominating him to be student speaker, Speed school faculty described Chernomordik as being creative, imaginative, disciplined, self-motivated, and enthusiastic and as having exceptional interpersonal skills.

“It almost feels like a Ph.D. student is graduating rather than a master’s of engineering student. All these years, he had a desk in my lab and behaved as if he was a graduate student,” Sunkara said. “I will surely miss him.

“Boris will undoubtedly become a true scholar-teacher and will make many important contributions to society through research, service and teaching,” he said.

Chernomordik leaves UofL with a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship that will pay, among other things, a $30,000 per year stipend for his doctoral studies. This award comes after his receipt last year of the top award that the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi gives. As a sophomore, he received a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. That award recognizes promising future scientists and typically goes to juniors.

UofL News talked to Chernomordik before commencement. Here’s what he had to say:

You sought participation in a research lab as a freshman. You taught a class as a master’s student. You’ve already published articles and given several presentations. What drives you to pursue your academic career so vigorously?

In short: fascination with science, desire to learn something new and fun and inability to quit doing it.

As a child, I was always intrigued by fun scientific mysteries. While my particular interests evolved, that excitement remains with me. In high school, I started learning about this amazing new frontier called nanotechnology. Senior year, I began to seriously think about what I might like to do for a career. I always enjoyed science experiments and, having come from a family of engineers, I knew that I would enjoy engineering, too. Putting the pieces together, I decided to pursue research in the field of nanotechnology. This was the extent of my interests when I started UofL with the intent of entering the chemical engineering department. Near the end of the first semester, I asked one of my professors to recommend a research mentor. Thus, I started working with Dr. Mahendra Sunkara in my freshman year and never stopped. After a summer internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2007, I became irrevocably dedicated to using my interests in nanotechnology to further renewable energy research — particularly solar fuels.

You’ve also mentored high school students and worked with some of Speed School’s outreach programs. Why? You had a full course load. You didn’t have to do these things.

I enjoy it — that is something I’ve been really happy to learn about myself. I like to share in the joy of discovery with others, especially with younger students. It’s a great feeling when you understand how a piece of this world works and to see it as an integral part of the amazing clockwork — or puzzle. It feels like everything just clicked together and that you are part of it all. It’s an even greater feeling for a kid, when the complexity of everything is more exciting and less daunting. So, for me, it’s both about imparting excitement and experiencing the excitement vicariously.

What do you plan to say to your fellow graduates at commencement?

Whichever different paths we took and whatever obstacles we met, this is a time to celebrate overcoming hardships and establishing promising futures. It is a day when we are officially allowed to indulge in self-pride. Moreover, it is a day when we can once more see the world as children: full of promise and excitement.

You have received prestigious scholarships before. What does it mean to you to enter your doctoral studies with a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship?

It’s nice to know that your mother is not the only one who recognizes your potential. The most important benefit of the NSF fellowship is that it grants me a certain level of freedom and credibility. It says that someone important out there believes that I may have a few interesting ideas to contribute.

Where do you want life to take you?

I am leaving all doors open, but I have a few definitions of an ideal future coming into focus. I imagine a future filled with exciting discoveries, lots of travel and a loving family. Whether I choose industry or academia, I will be a researcher. There is little doubt in my mind about that.

What should we have asked that we didn’t?

I just want to add that I will be pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, but I will always be a Cards fan! Go Cards!

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