Published: April 22, 2008

An avalanche of accolades for University of Colorado at Boulder senior Ben Safdi continued this spring when he was named one of 13 Churchill Scholars in the United States for 2008, an award carrying a $25,000 academic scholarship for a year of study at Cambridge University in England.

Safdi, who will graduate in May with dual degrees from CU-Boulder in engineering physics and applied mathematics, will study for a Certificate of Advanced Study in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Churchill College at Cambridge. Safdi will work with several high-profile faculty members there, including world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, as well as department chair Brian Greene, one of the founders of "string theory."

In early April, Safdi also was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which provides up to $121,000 for up to three years of funding for master's and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Safdi plans to undertake his NSF fellowship at Princeton University after he returns from Cambridge in fall 2009.

In the past year, Safdi also has been the recipient of a $7,500 Goldwater Scholarship and a $10,000 Astronaut Foundation Scholarship -- the latter presented to him last November by NASA Mercury astronaut and CU-Boulder alumnus Scott Carpenter. He also received the CU-Boulder Provost's Award for Academic Achievement in 2005 and has won or placed in several regional and national math competitions.

"We have a lot of very talented students come through our department," said Professor John Cumalat, chair of the CU-Boulder physics department. "But Ben is really exceptional. In addition to his many academic achievements and outside interests, Ben conducts the type and quality of research that would normally be done by accomplished graduate students."

Safdi has been involved in a research project led by JILA fellow and CU-Boulder professor adjoint of physics Jun Ye to develop a new technique using laser light that can detect faint molecules in human breath samples that may be biomarkers for particular diseases. He also has been working with applied mathematics Professor Harvey Segur to describe and characterize non-linear waves propagating through fiber-optic cables.

Safdi has been a co-author on three journal articles -- two with Ye and one with Segur, an unusual occurrence for an undergraduate, said Cumalat. "It is rare for an undergraduate to produce any publications for journals," said Cumalat. "It is still rarer for this to occur in two different fields."

Safdi, who is minoring in Japanese, also finds time to practice martial arts, play the Japanese flute and rock climb as a professional-level rock climber who practices indoors and outdoors four or five times a week and has been featured in two climbing films. "I find if I don't climb, I have a hard time doing my work," he said. "It may seem like it's taking time out of my day, but really it makes me more efficient."

Safdi said he made the right choice in coming to CU-Boulder as a freshman from Ohio in 2004. "The physics department is one of the best in the world, and Boulder is the center for climbing in the U.S.," he said. "It has always seemed like a perfect match for me."

Safdi advises incoming undergraduates interested in research to meet with faculty members and explore the possibilities. "Try to find an undergraduate research position within your department as soon as possible," he advises. "I found that getting in contact with faculty and getting involved with the department is one of the most important things I did here."

To listen to a podcast with Ben Safdi, go to the Web at: