UCF senior John Vastola has been selected as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and one of the most prestigious academic scholarships in the world. The Rhodes Scholarship provides the selected scholars with fully funded graduate study at Oxford University.
Vastola is one of about 18 candidates from Florida, Alabama and Louisiana who will attend the district interview on Saturday, Nov. 21, in Birmingham, Ala. Two district candidates will be chosen for the award to join 30 others from districts around the country.
Simply being named a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship is a massive honor. And Vastola is more than worthy of it as he has a long and impressive academic resume.
“The Rhodes represents an opportunity to engage with the world in a way that I never really have before,” said Vastola, a McNair Scholar at UCF. “The opportunity means a lot to me, and a lot to my family, and I hope I will be able to make everyone proud.”
“John Vastola is one of the smartest young people I have met,” said Richard Klemm, Vastola’s advisor. “He instantly picks up on things he hasn’t encountered before. He is now my learning assistant for my undergraduate quantum mechanics class, and has been excellent as a teacher. He was also the president of the math student’s organization last year, and this year is the president of the physics student’s society.”
UCF’s only Rhodes Scholar to date, Tyler Fisher, was awarded the scholarship in 2002. It enabled him to earn a master’s in European literature at the university.
Vastola is pursuing a double major in mathematics and physics with the goal of becoming a mathematical physicist. He hopes to use his studies to improve the global community and bring important issues to the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
“I want to be a scientist, but I want to be a scientist that engages with the world and the public about science,” he said. “Many important issues facing the world today—climate change, clean energy, developing and refining the advanced technologies that drive the modern world—require scientific expertise and consultation, and I feel that too often, especially in mathematics and the physical sciences, scientists are content to isolate themselves from society and solely focus on their work.”
Vastola’s passion for his chosen subjects has driven him to excel as an undergraduate student. He has a cumulative GPA of 3.95 and has taken 12 graduate courses in his fields, all of which are considered to be the most challenging graduate courses offered at UCF, including Quantum Field Theory I and II as well as functional analysis and topology.
Currently, Vastola is working on his Honors in the Major thesis in physics with Klemm. This program requires students to complete and defend a thesis based on a student’s original research on a problem. Vastola’s chosen thesis is on a quantum field theory problem that would normally be considered a doctoral dissertation topic, but his advisor said he is confident that Vastola will be able to succeed at this advanced level.
“John’s pursuit of academic excellence and his quest for new knowledge exemplifies that which we seek in our best and brightest students,” said Alvin Wang, dean of The Burnett Honors College. “John is a great example of what honors students can accomplish when given the opportunity to showcase their talents.”
Beyond honing his academic prowess, Vastola also finds time to be an active leader in the community. During the two summers he spent researching at Vanderbilt University through the ICubed fellowship, he also worked with artists to convey science research through art that can be understood by the general public. Vastola helped revive the Math Club at UCF, and he serves as the president of the Society of Physics Students and Pi Mu Epsilon chapter,an honorary mathematics society.
“We are thrilled to see John selected as a finalist by the Rhodes Scholarship Committee,” said Morgan Bauer, director of The Office of Prestigious Awards at UCF. “This is one of the most prestigious academic scholarships in the world and this recognition is further proof of the caliber of students being produced at UCF.”
Vastola is interested in studying quantum field theory, gauge theories, the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, and differential geometry through the Oxford master course in mathematical and theoretical physics.
“Regardless of what happens, I am incredibly grateful to have been selected,” Vastola said.