University of Rochester
Student Honors

Senior Wins Prestigious Churchill Scholarship

Robert Penna ’07 was determined to get into his first choice for a graduate program. When he applied to Churchill College at Cambridge University, he hoped his hard work and motivation would pay off.

His years of studying, research, and determination have not only opened the door to Cambridge but helped secure one of the nation‘s most prestigious awards—the Churchill Scholarship.

Penna heads to England this fall to embark on what he describes as “a year of intense math” at Cambridge University, where he will pursue a Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics.

“It‘s a tremendous honor and I am very humbled to be in such company,” Penna says.

“I think the award very much reflects how fortunate I am to have the guidance and support of my family, friends, and mentors.”

Only about 10 such scholarships are awarded annually to students for graduate study in engineering, mathematics, or science. The scholarship covers all tuition and fees, which is about $25,000, and includes an additional $20,000 for living expenses and $1,000 for airfare.

The Churchill Foundation, founded in 1959, created the program to give American students of exceptional ability and outstanding achievement the opportunity to pursue graduate education at Cambridge.

Students must have outstanding achievement in academic work, high scores on the Graduate Record Examination, capacity for original, creative work, and demonstrated concern for the critical problems of society. Other participating universities include Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Cornell.

Penna, of Eden, N.Y., says he applied to the program because it is a unique opportunity to explore different areas of mathematics.

“I can broaden myself a bit now. You can understand the physics better by seeing it from different perspectives,” he says.

Rochester‘s Churchill Scholars

Robert Penna ‘07 is the fourth Rochester student to receive a Churchill Scholarship in the past 10 years. Other recent scholars include Loren Cerami ‘02, an optics major, Aaron Master ‘99, an electrical engineering major in the College and an applied music (saxophone) major at the Eastman School, and Bradley Allen ‘96, a mathematics and optics major.

The graduate program at Cambridge will allow Penna to strengthen his background in advanced mathematics and physics and, ultimately, he says, enable him to work across disciplines. An added perk, he notes, is that it will afford him his first experience traveling abroad.

“I will be part of an international community, and the teaching style will be different,” he says. “The more approaches I experience, the deeper my understanding will be.”

Penna, who will complete a bachelor of arts with honors in mathematics and a bachelor of science degree in physics this May, already has an established record as a researcher.

With Alice Quillen, an associate professor of physics and astronomy, he has coauthored a paper exploring the effect of solar storms on the space environment at Earth that was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

For the past few years he has worked with Eric Blackman, professor of theoretical astrophysics, to investigate the magnetic pressure and viscosity in accretion disks, celestial areas where gas and interstellar dust accumulate near stars and other space objects.

Blackman says Penna has the right skills and motivation to become a successful scientist.

“One of the things that struck me about him is that he seems to be one of the most mature undergraduates I‘ve encountered,” Blackman says. “Some students don‘t get on that path until they reach graduate school and even then some have trouble transitioning between coursework and research.”

When Penna finishes the master‘s program at Cambridge, he plans to return to the United States and pursue an advanced degree in physics or astrophysics.

“He has the right balance of confidence, ability, humility, and independence” says Blackman. “He doesn‘t just do what he‘s told; he goes off and finds out what he needs to know.”

—Enid Arbelo