2023 Engineering graduate Xander Uyttendaele has been awarded a Churchill Scholarship for a fully funded year of graduate study at the University of Cambridge.
Uyttendaele is among 16 students or recent graduates selected nationwide to receive the award. The scholarship provides funding for those with a “proven talent in research” and “outstanding” academic and personal qualities to pursue a one-year master’s degree at Churchill College, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, England.
Uyttendaele graduated summa cum laude in 2023 with a dual degree in physics and computer science. He told The Daily Pennsylvanian he was surprised and honored by his acceptance.
“The support I received from Penn in applying for this award was really helpful, and I probably couldn't have done it without them,” he said.
Uyttendaele credited the wide range of academics and research topics he pursued throughout his time at Penn as a factor that helped him succeed in winning the award.
“I didn’t really try and specialize all that much,” he said. “I technically got majors in physics and computer science, but really I sort of just did whatever interested me and then, at the end of my last couple semesters, made sure that I checked the right boxes to graduate.”
Uyttendaele approached research with a similar mentality and pursued a range of projects over the past four years. They included natural language processing research, quantum computing research, and nuclear physics research at the University of Washington’s Institute for Nuclear Theory. He also spent a summer in southeast Alaska on the Juneau Icefield doing glaciology research, which was motivated by his current focus on applied math for climate science.
Uyttendaele said that Professor of Computer and Information Science Max Mintz, his "main mentor" at Penn, inspired him to branch out and pursue all his interests.
“As soon as he saw who I was coming into Penn, he really was all on board with helping me achieve my goals,” Uyttendaele said. “He was always encouraging me to take the classes that he viewed as the most hardcore, and along those lines, I eventually ended up TAing his quantum computing class.”
During his time at Penn, Uyttendaele was selected by the faculty of the Computer and Information Science Department for their Teaching Assistant Hall of Fame. He also received Penn Engineering’s Ben and Bertha Gomberg Kirsch Prize in 2023.
Uyttendaele said his range of interests are united by "his love for math," which began in eighth grade, when he started teaching himself math on Khan Academy in his free time.
“I would say a lot of my love for math comes from the fact that there was really no pressure on me at all in those early days,” he said. “I could get tons of problems wrong, and it didn't really matter because I was doing it because I liked it.”
While he was at Penn, Uyttendaele worked with the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and first learned about the Churchill Scholarship from the Center’s scholarship index. He decided to apply due to his interest in Cambridge’s Part III MASt program, which offers a wide range of courses within applied math, theoretical physics, and statistics.
Uyttendaele is currently taking a gap year to ski, rock climb, and hike around the U. S., after which he’ll complete his master’s degree at Cambridge. When he returns, he plans to pursue a Ph.D in applied mathematics with the goal of becoming a researcher, either in academia or industry, and contribute research towards solving the climate crisis.
When asked about what keeps him drawn to math, Uyttendaele cited a combination of the "beauty of the subject itself" and "its important applications."
“I think I need both of those to be happy in whatever work I'm doing,” he said. “I’m still trying to find the perfect balance, but I think I'm getting there.”