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The University of Alabama

Seven UA Students Named to USA Today’s All-USA College Academic Team

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The University of Alabama leads the nation with seven students named to the 2008 USA Today All-USA College Academic Team.

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Renee Rivas, a senior biology major from Richardson, Texas, has been named to the First Team. Second Team members include Dana Lewis, a junior public relations and political science major from Huntsville; Michelle McGaha, a senior industrial engineering major from Albertville, and Jackson Switzer, a senior chemistry major from Gulfport, Miss.

Alexander Flachsbart, a senior political science and economics major from Concord, Calif.; Dylan Whisenhunt, a senior chemical engineering major from Birmingham; and Adam Harbison of Crane Hill, who earned his degree in healthcare management in December 2007, were named to the Third Team.

With seven team members, UA students account for more than 10 percent of the 60 students nationwide named to USA Today’s First, Second and Third Teams. UA has the most team members of any school. Yale comes in second with five team members.

This year’s team brings UA’s total for the last six years to 31, a figure that tops all other colleges and universities. In addition to this year, UA had the most students on the list in 2006 with six and in 2005 and 2003, both with five. In 2007, UA tied with Washington University-St. Louis for the most team members with four. In 2004, with four students on the team, UA came in second only to Harvard.

The USA Today All-USA College Academic Team honors the “best of the best” undergraduate academic all-stars from across the nation. The team recognizes college students who not only excel in scholarship but also extend their intellectual abilities beyond the classroom to benefit society.

Renee Rivas Renee Rivas, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, First Team
Hometown: Richardson, Texas
Major: Biology, College of Arts and Sciences
Career goal: Translational research in medicine

In the lab, Renee Rivas rules – as an undergraduate, she’s been a key contributor and author on research into Parkinson’s disease. But Rivas also is making a difference outside the lab – as a mentor and student leader for at-risk students at area elementary schools, part of the UA’s Honors Mentoring Program. Rivas tries to make the world of science and numbers accessible one-on-one with kids who may grow up to be just like her.

“We have one child paired with one mentor, and we have one-on-one time for almost an hour,” Rivas says. “We give homework help and tutoring, and we help with personal problems. It depends on the grade level what problems they have.”

It’s that commitment to humanity that has impressed her many boosters at UA.

“Renee has demonstrated extraordinary compassion, and the students with whom she interacts feel understood and significant – a gift Renee will give to many throughout her life,” wrote Dr. Jacqueline Morgan, director of the University Honors Program, in her nominating letter. “More importantly, however, she is a person who serves through a concern for others.”

That concern for others has fueled Rivas’ passion for biological research. Rivas has focused her research at UA in cell biology and Parkinson’s disease in the lab of Drs. Guy and Kim Caldwell ( Her main project involves screening for genes that may protect against known Parkinson’s disease toxins ( She screened more than 900 candidate Parkinson’s disease genes using a technique involving a microscopic roundworm called C. elegans.

“A serious turning point in our Parkinson’s research came when Renee insightfully and independently came up with a genetic strategy that has greatly bolstered our ability to identify potential genetic susceptibility factors for Parkinson’s,” wrote Dr. Guy Caldwell in his recommendation letter.

The project indentified five genes that may have implications for Parkinson’s. As a result, the Michael J. Fox Foundation ( awarded the lab and its collaborators $250,000 to explore one of the genes Rivas identified as therapeutic target for Parkinson’s.

Rivas’ honors include the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the Benjamin Cummings Biology Prize, the Randall Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. She’s also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Science and Health at the University of Alabama (JOSHUA) and a member of the University Honors Program, the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honors Society, the Anderson Society and Mortar Board.

Her parents are Jewel and Michael Swiateck.

Rivas is the third student who worked in the Caldwell Lab to be named to the USA Today First Team. Cody Locke was named to the First Team in 2006 and Sarah Adair in 2003.

Dana Lewis Dana Lewis, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Second Team
Major: Public relations/political science, College of Communication and Information Sciences
Career goal: Public health communications/public relations
Hometown: Huntsville

When she was 14, Dana Lewis discovered she had diabetes. She’s been fighting the disease with passionate advocacy in the public realm ever since.

“Standing up, speaking out and making noise about diabetes is my most outstanding endeavor to date,” she wrote in her application to the USA Today College Academic Team.

Lewis served both as the oldest National Youth Advocate for the American Diabetes Association and as the youngest person on a national volunteer committee. As a youth advocate in 2005 and 2006, she lobbied Congress on issues involving diabetes and toured the country speaking to audiences ranging from two to 800. On the international front, Lewis also was appointed as a Youth Ambassador to the International Diabetes Federation’s meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, and helped to pass a United Nations resolution setting up a World Diabetes Day on Nov. 14 (

On top of that, she founded and chairs Planet D!, a youth “brand” for the ADA that supports and advocates for children with diabetes. At UA, she worked with Bama Dining to see that nutritional information was posted in campus dining facilities.

“I have watched her over the past four years grow into a competent young adult with passion and skills to make a difference in our world for diabetes,” wrote Dr. Larry C. Deeb, past president of Medicine and Sciences of the ADA, in his recommendation for Lewis. “Such commitment is rare in a person her age.”

At UA, Lewis won the Most Outstanding Freshman and Most Outstanding Undergraduate awards, the Jimmy Nelson Leadership Scholarship and the Delchamps Community Scholar award for students studying advertising or public relations.

She is also a member of the University Honors Program, a fellow in UA’s Blackburn Institute and is participating in UA’s Computer-Based Honors Program, a nationally recognized undergraduate research program that pairs academically elite students with leading research professors and computing technology to complete scholarly research projects in their field of study. Her project there involves developing a database with secure access for WellBama, which gathers employee health data to analyze health-care costs to the university.

She is the daughter of Ron and Doris Lewis.

Michelle McGahaMichelle McGaha, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Second Team
Hometown: Albertville
Major: Industrial Engineering, College of Engineering
Career Goal: Consulting Engineer

Michelle McGaha, who made USA Today’s Second Team for a second straight year, has put the World Wide Web to use in helping to warn coastal populations about the dangers of an impending disaster.

McGaha, who had to learn to use HTML for the project, worked as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) intern with the Pacific Services Center, where she helped to develop an educational tool to prepare people for natural disasters.

The PSC was then preparing a Web service for Hawaiians; the service was known as the Tsunami Hazard Information Service (THIS). Users can plug their home addresses in to call up a Google Map overlaid with a layer indicating an evacuation zone. Before the service went online, PSC wanted a Web template that other emergency administrators could use – a template that could cover fires, flooding, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. McGaha volunteered to build the Web template, which she did. The package she put together, called HEAT (Hazard Education and Awareness Tool) features the template, a user manual and an example of a functional Web site.

“Unlike my project from last year, this software tool already has immediate and global applications,” McGaha wrote in her application to USA Today.

Her volunteer work, and her willingness to pick up new skills, impressed Adam Stein of the NOAA’s Pacific Services Center.

“Michelle demonstrated tremendous initiative by going beyond her assigned task and documenting the process she engineered,” Stein wrote in his letter of reference to USA Today. “Without doubt, Michelle’s ability to learn these new skills and apply them at a critical stage of the software development process was vital to our success.”

McGaha is a member of the University Honors Program and Phi Eta Sigma, Alpha Pi Mu and Tau Beta Pi honoraries, and was named Computer-Based Honors Most Outstanding Freshman and Sophomore Student of the Year. She is also an Honors College ambassador and an ambassador of the College of Engineering, and is an active member of the Society of Women Engineers and president of the Institute of Industrial Engineers. She also won the Randall Outstanding Undergraduate Research award in 2006 and 2007, and she was a member of the 2007 UA Homecoming Court. She was also named as one of The Thirty-One, a women’s honorary society recognizing the 31 most outstanding women at UA and in Tuscaloosa and Alabama.

She is the daughter of David and Sharron McGaha.

Jackson Switzer Jackson Switzer, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Second Team
Hometown: Gulfport, Miss.
Major: Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences
Career goal: Chemical weapons inspector

From inside a laboratory, Jackson Switzer is defending Americans from a chemical-weapons attack. He considers it his patriotic duty to find new ways to detect and defend against these weapons of mass destruction.

“With chemical weapons, relatively poor nations and fanatical organizations can mount real threats to the United States and our interests abroad,” Switzer wrote in his application to the USA Today All-USA College Academic Team. “It is vitally important we as a nation advance our understanding of these weapons.”

Switzer’s research, undertaken in the laboratory of Dr. David Dixon, Robert Ramsay Chair in UA’s chemistry department, involves the chemical weapon sarin. Using computational chemistry models built with the power of supercomputers, Switzer is trying to figure out how quickly sarin decomposes in the atmosphere, how it can be destroyed using chemicals and what gases could be used to help sarin decompose faster in the atmosphere. He’s also studied environmental degradation of tabun, soman and VX.

“Jackson has made significant contributions to the development of computer-based technologies to protect the U.S. in terms of its national security and response to external and internal threats,” wrote Dixon in his letter of recommendation.

In addition to his work in the UA labs, Switzer received a 2006 Hollings Scholarship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which involved a 10-week internship with a research group in the Mapping, Charting and Geodesy Branch of the Naval Research Laboratory in Mississippi (

He also won a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a Henry Pettus Randall Jr. Research Scholarship and a UA chemistry department Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award, and he belongs to the Gamma Sigma Epsilon chemistry honor society, the Anderson Society, Mortar Board and the Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society. He is enrolled in the University Honors Program and the Computer-Based Honors Program. In Tuscaloosa, Switzer has volunteered in the after-school program at the YMCA; he served as a mentor for fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders in the Y’s after-school program.

His parents are Dale Switzer of Gulfport, Miss., and John Switzer of Jackson, Miss.

Alexander FlachsbartAlexander Flachsbart, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Third Team
Hometown: Concord, Calif.
Majors: Political science, economics, College of Arts and Sciences
Career goal: Elected official/international diplomacy/law

You’ll find Alex Flachsbart’s passion where the rubber (specifically a bicycle tire) meets the road.

Flachsbart’s push for “green” transportation at UA has blossomed in the form of the BamaBike program, which will allow students to rent bikes on campus. The bikes can be picked up and dropped off at several spots around the campus. A pilot BamaBike program began on campus this winter.

“Through the implementation of the BamaBike program, I am making a tangible difference in the lives of the constituency to which I am most directly accountable: my fellow students,” Flachsbart wrote in his application statement.

Flachsbart founded the BamaBike task force and has led it since October 2006. In November 2007, the University’s vice president of student affairs approved $25,000 for the pilot project.

“The BamaBike program would not be possible without the hard work, dedication and innovative thinking of Alex Flachsbart,” wrote Dr. David P. Jones, interim assistant vice president for student affairs, in a letter of recommendation for Flachsbart. “As a student, he is leading our faculty and staff through the planning stages of this program.”

In addition to the BamaBike program, Flachsbart served as campus campaign coordinator for the Barack Obama presidential campaign and ran as a delegate in the Alabama presidential primary. He also served as national vice chairman of the National Faith Caucus in the College Democrats of America. He received the Outstanding Freshman of the Year Award, was a semifinalist in the Moral Forum Debate Tournament and is a fellow in UA’s Blackburn Institute and a member of the University Honors Program. Outside of UA, he served as an intern for U.S. Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) and took classes at Wadham College of Oxford University in Great Britain. He is the son of Mark and Michelle Flachsbart.

Dylan Whisenhunt Dylan Whisenhunt, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Third Team
Hometown: Birmingham
Major: Chemical engineering, College of Engineering
Career goal: Energy company executive

Dylan Whisenhunt wants to change what you put in your tank. If fossil fuel supplies begin to dwindle, Whisenhunt is seeking to develop ways to make renewable fuels like biodiesels cheaper. For the last two years, with the help of computer models, he’s rethinking processes used by Alabama Biodiesel Corp. (ABC), a major supplier of biodiesel to Germany.

“My research already has affected biodiesel production techniques in Alabama and has the potential to improve it in the future,” Whisenhunt wrote in his application statement. “The development of the biodiesel separation processes is my most important academic endeavor because of its immediate impact on the industry and its broad benefits to society.”

The results of Whisenhunt’s research have been startling. He has designed two new processes now under consideration by ABC, and his work through computer modeling on water content in biodiesel may help ABC meet Europe’s future standards.

“I am certain that with his reasoning and public speaking skills, as well as his passion for his work, Dylan will have a positive impact on the energy industry throughout his career,” wrote Duane Johnson, chief technology officer and vice president for ABC, in his letter of recommendation for Whisenhunt.

Whisenhunt’s research grew out of UA’s Computer-Based Honors Program, which selects top students to work on research projects with the University’s top faculty members. Whisenhunt received the Charles Seebeck Endowed Scholarship, which goes to a rising senior in the CBHP.

In addition, he has won a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Hollings Scholarship, which includes a 10-week internship, is a finalist for a Harry S. Truman Scholarship and was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship. He is a member of the University Honors Program, Mortar Board and Capstone Men and Women, and is the project coordinator for Books for Africa, a drive to send textbooks and classic literature to African towns. He also trains for triathlon competitions and has been active in UA’s Triathlon Club.

His parents are Jim and Gloria Whisenhunt.

Adam HarbisonAdam Harbison, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Third Team
Hometown: Crane Hill
Major: Healthcare management, Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration
Career goal: Healthcare law

Adam Harbison isn’t satisfied with telling people to quit smoking. He wants to equip a legion of anti-smoking advocates with a toolkit to help them make their college campuses smoke-free.

Harbison, who completed his degree in December 2007, served as National Advocacy Chair for Colleges Against Cancer (CAC), a national program with 366 chapters and more than 6,000 student volunteers. With the help of a professor, Harbison figured out advocates faced three problems when pushing for smoke-free policies on campuses: lack of administrative and staff support, lack of student involvement and lack of resources.

So to help students overcome those obstacles, Harbison put together a toolkit, including tips, media guides, sample tactics, a model policy and campaign timelines. He pushed for the toolkit’s approval from the American Cancer Society (ASC), and by September 2007, he distributed the toolkits to more than 250 college students and ACS staff members during the National Collegiate Leadership Summit.

“I believe the toolkit meets my primary goal: to simplify and strengthen this advocacy effort so that all CAC members, regardless of their experience or knowledge, can mount powerful smoke-free campaigns,” Harbison wrote in his application for the USA Today All-USA College Academic Team.

As he began working on research for the toolkit, he enlisted the help of Dr. Marilyn V. Whitman, clinical professor and program coordinator for the health care management program in UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration to help him publish his findings. She and Harbison also are working on a study about how to make Alabama hospital campuses smoke-free.

“Adam is the most hardworking, dependable, insightful, intelligent and well-rounded individual I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,” Whitman wrote in her letter of reference for Harbison.

Harbison is the recipient of a Harry S. Truman Scholar award and a Betty Loomis Endowed Scholarship and is a member of Beta Gamma Sigma business-program honor society. In addition to his work in the CAC, he served as chairman for the UA Relay for Life, an overnight fundraising event for the American Cancer Society, and served on the state leadership council for the relay. He also served as an intern for Alabama State Treasurer Kay Ivey, was a member of the University Honors Program and played trombone in UA’s Million Dollar Band

He is the son of Phillip and Vickie Harbison.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.