The University of Alabama

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

(L-R) UA students Alex Flachsbart, Yhni Thai, Adam Knight, Laura Godorecci and Laura Dover were named to USA Today's 2009 All-USA College Academic Team.

(L-R) UA students Alex Flachsbart, Yhni Thai, Adam Knight, Laura Godorecci and Laura Dover were named to USA Today's 2009 All-USA College Academic Team.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama once again leads the nation with five students named to USA Today’s 2009 All-USA College Academic Team.

Laura Dover, a junior from Jasper majoring in philosophy and Spanish; Adam Knight, a senior biology major from Tuscaloosa, and Ynhi Thai, a junior from Long Beach, Miss., majoring in chemical and biological engineering, have been named to the Second Team. Laura Godorecci, a senior from Northport, majoring in interdisciplinary studies and classics, was named to the Third Team. Alexander Flachsbart, a senior economics and political science major from Concord, Calif., was named an Honorable Mention.

UA has the most team members of any school with five. Harvard, the U.S. Naval Academy, Louisiana State University, Florida State University and Southern Illinois University each have three team members.

This year’s team brings UA’s total for the last seven years to 36, a figure that tops all other colleges and universities. In addition to this year, UA had the most students on the list in 2008 with seven, in 2006 with six and in 2005 and 2003, both with five.

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.

Laura Dover, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Second Team
Hometown: Jasper
Majors: Philosophy, Spanish
Career Goal: Medical doctor

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Laura Dover observed how the Spanish-speaking students at the Tuscaloosa school where she tutored felt lost in a sea of English speakers. So Dover, a junior from Jasper, decided to do something about it.

“The solution to this problem seemed to me a simple one: expose Hispanic children to English before they begin their primary education, at an age when they are most receptive to language skills,” says Dover. 

She approached the Tuscaloosa City Schools about starting a summer class for Spanish-speaking preschoolers, but money was tight. So she went to Jumpstart, an existing summer program for at-risk students, and received permission to set up her program using Jumpstart’s resources, including facilities, lunchroom staff and busing. For a teacher’s salary and supplies, she requested and received a grant of $5,000 from the Hispanic Jumpstart program.

“I have been in public education for 12 years and have never met anyone as dedicated and eager to help those who are less fortunate,” Kristi Garcia, an English as a Second Language specialist with the Tuscaloosa City Schools, wrote in her recommendation letter. “Her knowledge of community needs and determination to ensure the success of this endeavor was simply astounding.”

Dover and two other students put up fliers to advertise the program and visited soccer fields, restaurants and churches. Dover also visited families personally to urge parents to enroll their children; as a result, eight Hispanic children joined the pilot program in the summer of 2008. 

“Perhaps the success of this program is portrayed best through the words of 5-year-old Cassandra: ‘I can’t wait to start kindergarten,’” Dover says.

Dover is double-majoring in Spanish and philosophy and plans to go to medical school. Among her many accomplishments, she is enrolled in UA’s Honors College, received a grant from the Daniels Community Scholar Program and serves as vice-chair of UA’s Blackburn Institute. In November 2006, she was declared champion of the Moral Forum Tournament debate, a program sponsored by the UA Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, which judges students’ ability to debate and engage on moral topics.

“Finally, I should mention Laura’s moral courage,” Dr. Kathleen P. Cramer, senior associate vice president for student affairs, wrote in her nomination letter. “This ability to take a stand for what is fair and right has continued to be her strength throughout Laura’s academic career.”

Dover is the daughter of Mike Dover and Lynne Dover.

Adam  Knight, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Second Team
Hometown: Tuscaloosa
Major: Biology
Career Goal: Medical researcher and professor

Adam Knight tackles lots of problems – sometimes with a test tube, and sometimes with a paintbrush. When he’s in the lab, Knight works on a problem that’s close to his heart: Parkinson’s disease. Originally he had dreamed of becoming an artist and scientist. But when his grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he decided to pursue medical research. He joined the Caldwell Lab at UA his freshman year, and he’s been charging ahead ever since. His work, in fact, analyzed interactions between different components of Parkinson’s. Being an artist, as it turns out, came in handy.

“Through my work as an artist, I study things from many different perspectives and discern relationships between different components to reveal a unified theme,” Knight says. “The application of this concept to my Parkinson’s research has led to my discovery of a novel link never before identified.”

His most recent work involved developing a genetic screen to see how changes associated with aging affect susceptibility to Parkinson’s. His work earned him a spot at a world biology conference in San Francisco.

“I was ecstatic to uncover a molecular link between aging and Parkinson’s that had never been shown,” he says.

Knight’s ability to start and follow through on research has impressed his mentors.

“He is the lead scientist on a collaboration between my lab and researchers at Vanderbilt University, with whom we are exploring the effects of heavy metal toxicity in variable genetic backgrounds associated with Parkinson’s,” wrote Dr. Kim Caldwell, UA assistant professor of biological sciences, in a recommendation letter. “Adam initiated the collaboration himself after speaking with a graduate student in that lab at a meeting.”

Outside the lab, Knight still finds time for his art: His abstract paintings were shown in 2007 and 2008 in galleries on campus. He brings the same creative passion to art as he does to science.

“Adam’s drive for excellence and big-solution thinking is stellar,” wrote Dr. Janeann Dill, a New College instructor who taught Knight in her Creativity Seminar. “In combination, Adam has developed appropriate measures of intuitive application across the disciplines of art and science.”

Knight received a Randall Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award and the Parkinson’s Association of Alabama Scholar award and has been listed as an author on three scientific papers. His parents are Susan Knight and Alan Fakih.

Yhni Thai, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Second Team
Hometown: Long Beach, Miss.
Major: Chemical and Biological Engineering
Career Goal: Physician, medical researcher, public health advocate

Discharged wastewater may play a role in the loss of Southeast Florida’s living coral reefs, but how big a role remains an open question. Stepping up to answer that question is UA junior Ynhi Thai.

Thai, during her internship at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, developed a powerful tool to improve research on the impact of wastewater on coral reefs. The program provides consistent delivery of the variables being measured and records data used for calculations and predictions.

“Ynhi’s contributions to the successful execution of our coastal-environmental study, again, cannot be underestimated,” Shailer Cummings, chief scientist and project mentor at the Atlantic laboratory, wrote in a letter recommending her to USA Today. “Her program is a great advance over manually controlling the injection system and recording five to eight variables simultaneously.”

Thai sees her work as having benefits for policymakers around the world.

“It is vitally important that our global leaders receive accurate scientific data for smart, efficient and successful management of both monetary and environmental resources,” says Thai. “My most outstanding intellectual endeavor considerably improved the first and most crucial step in obtaining high-quality results.”

Thai, a member of the UA Honors College, interned at the Atlantic lab as part of the NOAA/Hollings Scholarship. She also received the William Orr Dingwall Foundation Asian Ancestry Grant and a McWane Undergraduate Research Fellowship. This summer, Thai will serve as the project leader for a UA Engineers Without Borders trip to Vietnam, where she will install water filtration systems in rural households.

“Going beyond the norms is a theme with Ynhi: She seeks to pursue many interests while still succeeding in her academics,” writes Dr. Christopher Brazel, associate professor of chemical engineering and Thai’s academic adviser. “She is a quiet leader in the classroom, a diligent student, aggressive in her individual pursuits and highly organized.”

Thai is a member of Phi Eta Sigma, Tau Beta Pi, Alpha Lambda Delta and Phi Beta Phi. She serves as associate editor of the Journal of Science and Health at The University of Alabama, and is active in the Society of Women Engineers and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

After graduation, Thai plans to attend medical school and develop novel materials for disease diagnosis and treatment. She is the daughter of Duong Thai and Lieu Lam.

Laura Godorecci, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Third Team
Hometown: Northport
Majors: Interdisciplinary Studies, Classics
Career Goal: Filmmaker

Laura Godorecci has a lot on her plate – in particular, the UA senior is shooting a documentary on the Slow Food movement. The Northport native, who already had a short film shown at the Cannes Film Festival, has been working on the production for two years. Pursuit of her dream has taken her to Italy, where she shot footage at the world’s first Slow Food university.

Why slow food? Godorecci finds the topic palatable – and filling. The movement started in the 1990s as an alternative to the mass-production of food, she says, and operates “under the concept that good health follows from people eating well.”

“Marrying the fields of film and cultural studies that make up the emphasis of my major, my documentary covers slow food’s beginnings and focuses on the movement’s contemporary attempts at preserving health and culture,” she says. “I am the documentary’s director, producer, writer and cinematographer.”

Godorecci is a student in UA’s interdisciplinary New College as well as a member of the Honors College and the Blount Undergraduate Initiative. Her poise and scholarship make it easy for professors to forget she’s an undergraduate.

“As a faculty we sometimes have to remind ourselves that Laura is only an undergraduate student,” Dr. James Hall, director of New College, wrote in a nomination letter. “Her maturity, intellectual capacity, the breadth of her reading and thinking, often make us feel like we are lucky to have an extra faculty member in our midst.”

Her filmmaking talent and creativity have overwhelmed her professors at UA. One instructor was so taken with Godorecci’s work that she introduced the student to the Italian film critic Gianalberto Bendazzi.

 ”Laura is a standout student who writes voraciously in her journal, who researches thoroughly her subjects, who understands that ‘thinking’ is an activity stimulated by curiosity and who consistently contributes as a leader,” wrote Dr. Janeann Dill, who teaches filmmaking and creativity in New College, in recommending her to USA Today.

Godorecci’s short film “Untitled” was shown in the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner in 2008. In addition, Godorecci is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and received the UA Alumni Honors Scholarship.

Godorecci’s parents are UA faculty members Maurizio and Barbara Godorecci.

Alexander Flachsbart, USA Today All-USA College Academic Team, Honorable Mention
Hometown: Concord, Calif.
Majors: Political science, economics
Career Goal: Public policy analysis, law

Alex Flachsbart set a goal for himself – peddle a bike program to UA’s student body. As a result of his efforts, UA students can save gas and get exercise on the way to class.

The BamaBike program, which allows students to rent bikes, has grown by about 600 percent since Flachsbart got a pilot program rolling in 2008. He convinced UA’s vice president for student affairs to provide the $25,000 in start-up funding, and he supervised the purchase of 36 bicycles, the selection of five rental sites and the posting of a Web site. Eventually, with rental rates approaching 90 percent, the university allocated 30 new bikes and two staff members.

“Thinking globally, acting locally – my favorite maxim perfectly encapsulates the BamaBike program,” says Flachsbart. “And until I have a chance to implement solid policy prescriptions at the national level, I will remain dedicated to our local community one step – and one bike path -at a time.”

Flachsbart’s contributions to UA make him one of the more memorable students to cross the Quad. Among other activities at UA, he helped start the University Stewards, a group that ensures academic recruits received “red-carpet treatment” and has accompanied University President Robert E. Witt to receptions in New Orleans, Tampa and Washington, D.C.

“Alex has made unparalleled contributions to student life during my time at this University,” Witt wrote in a recommendation letter. “Alex doesn’t just talk about change; he enacts it.”

In the past year, Flachsbart helped draft the Alabama Taxpayer Preparation and Assistance Act, a bill which would introduce industry standards for paid tax preparers in Alabama, and is advocating for its passage in Montgomery. He served as campus campaign coordinator for the Barack Obama presidential campaign and ran as a delegate in the Alabama presidential primary. He received UA’s John Fraser Ramsey 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 College. 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.

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.