UC's best of the best  


Awards recognize top graduate and undergraduate students 


by Melanie Schefft

Photos by: Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

April 10, 2017


Not one, but two groups of talented students will be honored this year by UC President Neville Pinto for their scholarship, leadership, character and service.

UC’s annual spring commencement ceremonies will honor not only the top undergraduates with the Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence awards, but now will include recognition of the most talented graduate students.

In this inaugural year for the Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence awards, UC’s best and brightest graduate students will be honored for exemplifying the ideals of the University of Cincinnati.

Six undergraduate Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence and three Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence winners were already honored at the All-University Recognition Ceremonies in the TUC Great Hall on Sunday, April 9. The winners will receive special acknowledgement at the UC commencement ceremonies on April 29, in the heart of campus, Nippert Stadium.

Established in 2002, the Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence award is a prestigious honor bestowed by the university president to exceptional graduating students earning a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree. The 2017 PLME winners are Keavash Darren Asani, Wyeth Augustine-Marceil, Jade K. Clark, Gika Okonji, Mohamed Elzarka and Juliana Madzia.

The Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence award is an honor given  by the university president to extraordinary graduate students who have completed their master's or doctoral program. The 2017 winners are Sid Thatham, Jessica Ross and Kendra Leahy Denlinger.

Both groups of students best exemplify scholarship, leadership, character, service and the ideals of the University of Cincinnati.

Undergraduate 2017 PLME award winners are:


Keavash Darren Assani is from Anna, Ohio, and graduated from Anna High School. As a first-generation college student, Assani is especially proud to be graduating this spring with honors as he receives double bachelor’s degrees in biology (biomedical sciences) and Spanish with a minor in chemistry. In addition, he is receiving a certificate in Spanish business as well as pre-medicine.

Ken Petren, UC dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has recognized Assani as an outstanding student and recipient of a UC presidential seed grant. Assani used the grant to investigate how Hispanics and Latinos interpret and feel about the criminal justice system, specifically analyzing their relationship with police officers. He also received two research grants from the Taft Research Center to support his study that analyzes the patient/healthcare provider relationship in emergency rooms in the U.S. and Mexico.

In addition, Assani is also highly involved in his community through the National Kidney Foundation as a director of its junior board of directors.

Throughout his life, Assani was known for his desire to develop an alternative to the heavy and cumbersome oxygen concentrator. His ambition was realized when his design for a prototype of a two-piece nasal set that can produce purified oxygen without a nasal cannula, won the $5,000 first-place prize as part of the 2016 “Next Lives Here” idea pitch competition at UC.

After private funding offers were accepted, Assani will further develop his nasal oxygen prototype after graduation while attaining his master’s degree in healthcare administration. When he is finished, Assani plans to earn a medical degree and will complete a residency in urology. Ultimately, he plans to become a hospital director.



Wyeth Augustine-Marceil is from Marshall, Wisconsin, and graduated summa cum laude from Marshall High School. Augustine-Marceil will graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s degree from UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP).

As a student in DAAP’s five-year industrial design program, Augustine-Marceil took advantage of the mandatory co-op experiences to embark on the “great American road trip.” Augustine-Marceil worked for savvy design firms in four U.S. cities leaving his design imprints on products such as a Craftsman WeedWacker, Karl Lagerfeld watches and a Norton Wi-Fi router. He was the first ever intern in the Chicago office of Lunar Design creating concepts for large medical systems companies.

Augustine-Marceil broadened his global perspectives by spending a semester in Zagreb, Croatia, involved in a variety of projects that included clients such as Booking.com and Nike.

Augustine-Marceil’s leadership skills were best exemplified here on campus when he volunteered every Friday as an assistant art teacher in a local Cincinnati public school (CPS). He soon realized the larger-scale potential that volunteering for some of the more underserved schools could have, eventually expanding the program to more DAAP students. Before long, Augustine-Marceil had created the "Design in Mind" program, which paired creative UC students with local underserved art classrooms.

This program now has more than 50 participants each semester who volunteer weekly to encourage creative thinking and help young students to realize their own creative gifts and career paths. Ultimately, Augustine-Marceil has seen this program grow and expand and touch the lives of more than 700 CPS elementary students in four Cincinnati locations –– inspiring more students to go into the creative fields, potentially enrolling in DAAP or pursuing their creativity in other ways.

After graduation, Augustine-Marceil plans to continue to build upon the “Design in Mind” program and hopes to begin work full time at a design consultancy in the fall, creating a lasting legacy for DAAP and his professional career.

Jade K. Clark is from Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated from Walnut Hills High School. She is graduating with a bachelor of science degree from UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences in communication sciences and disorders (CSD).

On the move from the start, Clark began her freshman year as a member of the Gen-1 Theme House, a mentee in the African American Cultural and Resource Center’s Transitions Program and a Cincinnatus Scholar. Her strong initiative led to leadership in the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association where she serves as president, connecting members with pre-professional opportunities and multicultural concerns in CSD engaging peers in discussions on culturally-aware professional practices. Clark is also an academic coach in UC’s Learning Assistance Center where she supports and mentors fellow Bearcats.

Clark has conducted research projects in areas of pediatric communication disorders through the Women in Science and Engineering program, the McNair Scholars program and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities program, where she is the only undergraduate trainee. She was awarded a University Research Council grant and presented at national and local conventions.

In pursuit of her certificate of Spanish for social work and health care services, Clark has volunteered nearly 150 hours with the Hispanic community in Cincinnati, advocating for those who do not always have a voice in society.

As a recipient of the Yates Fellowship award, Gallagher Health Scholarship and Outstanding Undergraduate Award from the Ohio Speech-Language Hearing Association, Clark has brought local and national attention to UC and will continue on as a UC graduate student.

Clark has been recognized for her academics, leadership and service through membership in The Lambda Society, Cincinnati Women in Excellence and Spirit Together, Sigma Phi, Mortarboard, the National Society of Leadership and Success and the University Honors Program and plans to continue lifting others as she climbs toward becoming a speech-language pathologist.


Gika Okonji was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and later moved with her family to Cincinnati, where she graduated from Sycamore High School. As a proud Darwin T. Turner Scholar, Kolodzik Business Scholar and member of the UC Business Fellows Diversity Program, Okonji will graduate summa cum laude this spring with a bachelor of finance and marketing degree from the Carl H. Lindner College of Business (LCB).

Consistently described by her mentors as possessing a holistically developed sense of professionalism, academics, character and engagement, Okonji has also demonstrated a high standard of leadership through her co-op experiences at world leading companies such as Macy’s, the Clorox Company and Google, with the support of Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a national professional trajectory fellowship.

Okonji’s exchange student and study-abroad experiences to universities in France, Slovenia and Dubai have only enhanced her abilities to think three-dimensionally as a research assistant with a global perspective.

“After everything she has accomplished through her professional experiences, student leadership and academics — what makes her shine the brightest — is her ‘we’ not ‘I’ approach,” says Curtis Eaton, assistant director, LCB.

As president of the UC African Students’ Association, Okonji has spearheaded several successful fundraising events, helping other students across campus on five different study and service abroad experiences throughout Africa.  She also assisted in curating a service learning experience, leading a group of 15 students to the Federal Republic of Ethiopia.

No matter how far her success takes her, Okonji says she will never forget being that young girl in the village of Igbuzor living in poverty. Upon graduation, Okonji has accepted a position with Google doing marketing and consulting. Prior to her start date, Okonji will take advantage of the opportunity to travel.

She plans to dedicate the next year to service through education and helping to create a more sustainable environment for children and families in developing countries all over the word. Okonji hopes to create a narrative of their lives to promote global awareness in her community.


Mohamed Elzarka is from Mason, Ohio, and graduated from William Mason High School.

As a member of Phi Beta Kappa with a 3.97 GPA, Elzarka will graduate from UC with a dual bachelor of science degree in neurobiology and a bachelor of arts degree in public health. He will also earn a minor degree in medical sciences and a certificate in international human rights.

As a UC undergraduate student, Elzarka has achieved great success with nationally competitive awards, currently as a finalist for both a Truman Scholarship and a Fulbright Award. He has also been recognized as an honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship.

In his student role as director of advocacy of the UC chapter of GlobeMed, Elzarka organized campaigns to advocate for refugee women and children from Burma through Social Action for Women (SAW) in Mae Sot, Thailand. During the summer of 2017, Elzarka will lead a grassroots, on-site internship team to Thailand for a month of interaction with SAW, GlobeMed’s partner.

While traveling abroad as a UC Honor’s student, Elzarka has researched international nonprofit organizations in Guatemala and has studied infectious diseases in South Africa and Botswana. All of his community participation and leadership positions have one thing in common: his deep desire to promote global health equity and social justice.

Elzarka’s outstanding leadership skills are most apparent as a peer leader for a medical sciences learning community comprised of a diverse group of students who share academic interests. Here, Elzarka excels at connecting first-year students with critically needed resources and facilitates academically focused discussions. In his current student government role as executive director of mental health services, Elzarka aims to integrate mental health education into UC’s first-year experiences.

After graduation, Elzarka looks forward to blending his research and community engagement interests by pursuing a career in global health. As a recent recipient of a study/research grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, Elzarka hopes to develop his passion and leave a lasting impact on global health.


Juliana Madzia is from St. Clairsville, Ohio, and she graduated from St. Clairsville High School.

In an ideal blend of her love for biological sciences and social sciences, Madzia will graduate in the spring with a Bachelor of Science degree in neurobiology with a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies from UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Madzia’s academic and leadership prowess were exemplified as a biochemistry supplemental instruction leader at the UC Learning Assistance Center while maintaining her position as co-president of GlobeMed at UC, where she worked in Thailand to enhance the movement for global health equity.

In 2016, Madzia gave a successful TEDx UCincinnati talk on “What Neuroscience Tells Us About Racism,” in which she discussed the molecular basis of brain development and how early life events can shape one’s attitudes toward difference.

As an avid distance runner, Madzia joined the UC women’s cross country and track team and won the Cincinnati Flying Pig half marathon in 2014 and 2015. In UC's 2016 cross country season she earned all-conference honors and led the team to its highest finish in American athletic conference history.

An accomplished writer and researcher, Madzia was selected as a finalist by the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship Committee.

Among her accomplishments, Madzia served her community as a research assistant/intern at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center from 2014-15 and served as a research assistant in UC’s Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and volunteered at the Cincinnati Exchange Project providing assistance to people suffering from drug addiction.

Madzia has been described by her mentors as a rare combination of intellectual, scientific, research, writing and articulation skills encased in a compassionate person with a commitment to making the world a better place.

Upon graduation, Madzia plans to enroll in an MD/PhD program where she will pursue a doctorate either in epidemiology or sociology.


2017 Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence winners are:


Sid Thatham is from Chennai, India, and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering technology from India’s Anna University. Thatham will graduate from UC this spring with two master’s degrees –– a master’s of business administration from the Carl Lindner College of Business, and a master’s of chemical engineering from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

As a first-year graduate student, Thatham’s passion for helping other international students quickly led to being elected president of the Indian Students Association at UC, as well as a UC international ambassador for UC International and president of the Environmental and Chemical Engineering Graduate Students Association.

By 2014, Thatham became involved in UC’s “Emerging Ethnic Leaders” as a peer mentor for undergraduate students and co-director of marketing for the founding team of TEDxUCincinnati. After becoming part of the speaker series for the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services speaking on “Thrive (not survive) in Graduate School,” Thatham was invited by the people at Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s “Task Force on Immigration” to get involved with the creation of a Center for New Cincinnatians.

While juggling the roles of a business and chemical engineering graduate student, Thatham was soon elected vice president of the UC Graduate Student Governance Association (GSGA), presently serving his second term. Thatham’s leadership skills also reached new heights when he became the business leader for “Hyperloop UC,” a team working toward a prototype for a high-speed transportation system. This project resulted in UC qualifying for the final 30 out of 1,200 global competitors at the SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles in January, for which he later delivered a talk for TEDxCincinnati on the project.

Thatham will graduate this spring having served on the presidential search committee for UC and was recently tapped into Omicron Delta Kappa fraternity, one of the highest collegiate honor societies in the U.S.

Jessica Lynn Ross is a neuroscience doctoral candidate originally from Algonquin, Illinois. In 2010, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in English literature and composition from Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut) where she also pursued pre-medical and neuroscience research concentrations.

Within her first year of study at UC, Ross began to display her strong leadership and research skills through serving as a student ambassador for the neuroscience graduate program and as a part of the Jankowski Lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

As a member of the Jankowski Lab, she investigates muscle pain using molecular biology, electrophysiology and RNA interference.

Throughout her doctoral studies, Ross has published two first-authored and three co-authored peer reviewed publications in high-impact neuroscience and pain journals and presented research at multiple domestic and international conferences. For three consecutive years (2014-16), her talents in research and presentation were recognized with a Young Investigator Travel Award for the annual meetings of the American Pain Society.

Ross’s recent projects have focused on understanding how peripheral pain transduction is differentially regulated between males and females. For this work, she has earned an NRSA F31 predoctoral research fellowship from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS; part of the National Institutes of Health).

Her clear dedication to research excellence is equally matched with a diligent commitment to community education and advocacy. Through her passion to provide accessible role models for female researchers, Ross engages in science outreach efforts through the Association for Women in Science.

According to Michael Jankowski, director of the Jankowski Lab, “Ms. Ross has an exuberant and compelling leadership and communication style that leaves a positive impact and makes others want to dig deeper into a particular problem and continually ask the next question.”

Ross will defend her dissertation this May and will graduate this summer with a PhD in neuroscience.

Kendra Leahy Denlinger is from Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati. This spring, Denlinger will earn her PhD in chemistry where she has focused her research in the area of green chemistry, specifically finding ways to reduce hazardous waste produced in pharmaceutical manufacturing and in other industries.

Throughout her graduate studies Denlinger has been consistently recognized for her high academic scholarship, leadership and service to UC. She has been an active leader in the UC Chemistry Graduate Student Association, currently serves as president for the Greater Cincinnati Association for Women in Science, previously served as vice president for UC’s Graduate Association for Teaching Enhancement and is very active in the American Chemical Society (ACS) Leadership Institute.

Denlinger has also been the recipient of several graduate awards, including the National Science Foundation Scholar Program, UC Department of Chemistry’s Henry Hochstetter Prize for excellence as a graduate teaching assistant and the department’s Research, Industry or Teaching Experience (RITE) Program award to participate in an internship with the ACS.

Through her work in chemistry research Denlinger has presented at three national conferences and several regional meetings. She has also published in the ACS Symposium Series and is an author on two peer-reviewed manuscripts in prestigious chemical and medical journals.

Denlinger’s leadership style is described as “leading by example” for consistently going above and beyond to reach out to help other graduate students. This led to her involvement in the chemistry department’s Consortium for Cultural Diversity in Chemistry and most recently volunteering for the 2017 Distinguished Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine research professor selection committee.

Denlinger will continue to build on her passion for research this fall as a visiting professor in the Department of Chemistry at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Past Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence awardees:

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