Originally published on Maryland Today. By Maggie Haslam May 17, 2023
Medalist Isha Yardi (center) and finalists (from left) Kassidy Jacobs, Tesia Shi, Jerry Yang and Sriya Potluri are being honored for their academic achievement, service to the community and exceptional character.
In the disquiet of an emergency room, on the floor of the University Senate or across the table from a struggling math student, the nominees for the 2023 University of Maryland medalist advocated, empowered and changed their university and world.
The highest honor bestowed on a graduating senior, the university medal commends academic achievement, service to the community and exceptional character. Finalists earned at least a 3.96 GPA and 60 or more credits during their undergraduate career at UMD.
This year’s medalist is Isha Yardi, who will earn a B.S. in public health science and participate in next week’s procession of commencement. With an impeccable academic record, a resume stacked with STEM camps and a litany of robotics competition wins, Yardi would have been any engineering program’s dream student. But when it came time to declare an intended major in her application to UMD, the high school senior from Montgomery County, Md., went in a different direction.
“Maryland was the only school I applied undecided,” she said. “(At) every other university, I intended to study engineering. I think fate just works in strange ways.”
Instead, Yardi found her way to public health, where she swapped the programming and mechanics she was immersed in during high school for the “softer” skills she realized she was drawn to: meaningful and intimate work in communities, with a dream to translate clinical discoveries into policy and impact.
As a student in the Honors College’s Gemstone program, Yardi sought out research opportunities beyond campus, serving as a city-level health evaluator through the deBeaumont Foundation and on the staff of state Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s). In 2023, she joined the Youth Power Project as a health policy specialist, where she advocates for national and state level policy around mental health.
“I realized that medicine treats the patient individually, but public health and policy is able to address the needs of entire communities,” she said. “I think a combination of that is really powerful.”
At UMD, Yardi served as director of the Student Government Association’s (SGA) Health and Wellness Committee, where she helped launch the pilot of a gender-affirming care initiative, and founded the Terrapin Think Tank, a student-led health policy incubator that works closely with the Prince George’s County Health Department.
The co-author of 12 published manuscripts and briefs on public health and policy, she was a Colonel Carroll A. Ockert Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis and a scholar with the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine’s Undergraduate Clinical Scholars Program. Yardi received the Spirit of Maryland Award, the School of Public Health Dean’s Outstanding Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa Key into Public Service Scholar.
“Isha is a wonderfully talented and inquisitive student,” said Quynh Nguyen, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and director of the Neighborhood Research Lab. “She sincerely seeks to make the world a better place and does so every day.”
Read on for more about the four finalists for university medalist:
Kassidy Jacobs: As a first-generation college student, Kassidy Jacobs sought to blaze a trail not just for her family, but for other students like her.
A dual-degree graduate in government and politics and criminology and criminal justice, Jacobs packed her resume with internships and leadership experiences at UMD, from the Maryland General Assembly and U.S. State Department to the University Student Judiciary and Terps for Change. She received the Adele H. Stamp Memorial Award and the Spirit of Maryland Award.
But it was her advocacy and agency for other first-generation students that will leave its mark on campus. She conducted outreach to prospective first-gen students, worked in the Campus Pantry and created a resource guide for low-income students. She brought an essential perspective on social inequities to her leadership role at Terps for Change. As chair of the student affairs committee on the University Senate, she voiced support for first-generation college student initiatives in front of the president’s cabinet.
“Terps for Change has undoubtedly benefited from Kassidy’s presence, and I think she has embodied what the Office of Leadership and Community Service-Learning hopes for all our students: to become empowered, socially responsible leaders,” said Mary Murdock, former assistant coordinator for Terps for Change.
Jacobs has set her sights on law school with a focus on educational disparities and poverty alienation.
Sriya Potluri: For Sriya Potluri, mathematics is as universal a language as the spoken word—and one she uses fluently. As a mentor, researcher, accomplished student and peer, Potluri has relied on math to explore her passion for life sciences, connect with classmates, discover her talents as a leader and to help others find success.
A mathematics major in the Integrated Life Sciences honors program with a 4.0 GPA, Potluri has bridged math and science to contribute to integral research—including four publications—for mathematics Lecturer Wiseley Wong and Distinguished University Professor of biology William Fagan, where she developed a mathematical disease model for optimal resource allocation. Among her awards and scholarships, she was awarded the Presidential Scholarship.
“In the 11 years I have been teaching, I have never come across a pre-med student with such a strong ability in mathematics,” said Wong. “The intuition she is developing from problem solving in mathematics will be invaluable to the medical research she does in the future.”
Outside of the lab, Potluri was a mainstay in Maryland’s Math Club, where she helped shape the program as president. She tutored students in math throughout her undergraduate experience; during the pandemic, she partnered with a nonprofit to offer a free virtual summer program for middle school students. Potluri will matriculate to the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine after graduation.
Tesia Shi: As a student pursuing a double degree in psychology and biological sciences, Tesia Shi was familiar with the stress that can creep into college life; but she also sought to understand the often-personal circumstances that can chip away at mental health, such as racism, poverty, intolerance and trauma.
At Maryland, Shi organized campus events as part of CARE to Stop Violence, provided crisis intervention services as a hotline volunteer and co-created the Disorientation Guide, an advocacy and education guide around mental and sexual health and LGBTQ+ advocacy. Just before the pandemic, she co-founded Lean on Me College Park—the university’s first peer-to-peer non-crisis text line.
“Tesia’s success as both a student and a leader is easily attributable to her motivating leadership, her relentless persistence through challenges, and her ability to communicate effectively with peers and superiors alike,” said Daniel Mirny, CEO of Lean on Me National. “She has left a lasting impression on me and on my team.”
Shi is also an accomplished young researcher and a valued leader in the Honors College’s Gemstone program; she earned the Maryland Summer Scholars Award and the Ed Snider Leadership Award and was a Do Good fellow in 2021. She will continue her research and advocacy around mental health as a postbaccalaureate fellow at the National Institutes of Health, where she will work on suicide prevention.
Jerry Yang: In 2019, Jerry Yang was on his way to becoming a medical researcher—but it wasn’t until he began volunteering as an EMT during COVID that he understood that patients needed more than groundbreaking laboratory discoveries.
An experience with an uninsured patient who refused treatment for fear of bankrupting his family served as a turning point for the biological sciences major, who decided to pursue patient-centered medical research, such critical care and emergency medicine, and seek ways to give back. As an emergency department intern at Children’s National Hospital and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Yang was on the front lines of patient care, enrolling patients in clinical trials and participating in research that resulted in four peer-reviewed articles and several abstracts.
“Jerry is, hands down, the very best, most talented student I have ever had in my lab,” said Professor William Prinz, Department of Cell Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “He has that rare combination of practical skills and thoughtfulness that make for truly talented researchers.”
At UMD, Yang was a founding member of Terrapin Think Tank and organized 11 blood drives as president of the American Red Cross Club, collecting donations for over 900 patients.
As a new graduate, Yang plans to spend two years training and working as a firefighter/EMT at College Park Volunteer Fire Department while continuing his research and applying to medical school.