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University of Utah Student Named Rhodes Scholar

December 9.2002 — Gretchen J. Domek, a University of Utah biochemistry student, was one of 32 American students named a Rhodes Scholar on Saturday. The competitive two-year scholarship to Oxford University for international graduate study covers educational costs, travel expenses, and a living and vacation stipend, and is renewable for a third year.

Domek, from St. Cloud, Minn., joins a prestigious group that includes national Rhodes Scholars such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Harvard president Neil Rudenstine, as well as local Rhodes Scholars such as Scott Matheson, dean of the U of U law school, and Pat Shea, former director of the Bureau of Land Management. As Domek noted, “The organizers told us it was the 100th anniversary of Cecil Rhodes’ will, which spelled out the Rhodes program, so it was a good year to win.”

Domek, who was accepted to the U’s medical school and hopes to study infectious diseases, will begin her studies in England in October, drawing on Oxford’s physiology and psychology programs to create a course of study in medical ethics.

“The University is thrilled for Gretchen,” said Bernie Machen, U of U president, who met Domek when she visited the University as a high school senior and has stayed in touch with her. “She is a prime example of someone who made the most of her time at the U, pursuing all of her academic interests and getting involved in the Honors Program, cross-country skiing, and the Newman Center, as well. She chose to make college a rewarding experience, and it shows.”

Among this year’s 32 recipients are four students from Harvard and two students each from Columbia, Cornell, Duke, and Yale universities. The scholarships are often dominated by “prestigious private universities,” said John Francis, associate vice president of undergraduate studies at the U. “What strikes me about our students is that they achieve so much and they’re also usually working, so they have much less time on their hands.” Domek works in biology professor David Goldenberg’s lab, spent two years on the U’s cross-country ski team, and volunteers extensively at the University and in the community, including spending a summer volunteering at medical clinics in Ecuador.

“Gretchen is clearly a person who relishes rising to a challenge,” said Francis. “She has enormous enthusiasm, whether it’s about her major, the ski team, or learning about infectious diseases. She immerses herself, but she doesn’t lose perspective. Usually, Rhodes Scholars are those who stay the course, who achieve in many areas, and who are altruistic besides being enormously bright.” As for Domek’s latest achievement, Francis said, “It’s richly deserved.

To become one of the 95 Rhodes Scholars selected each year worldwide, Domek put together an extensive application, received the University’s endorsement, was interviewed at the state level, and then was recommended to the district level. (The 50 states are grouped into eight districts.) There, a seven-member committee interviewed her for 30 minutes. “Basically, seven well-educated people are firing questions at you,” says Domek. “They wanted to know how I’d reform the U.S. educational system and the health-care system. They even asked if it’s good to give people proteins as drugs.”

When the four finalists from each district were announced later that day, Domek, whose mother died of cancer in 2000, called her father to tell him of her selection. “He said, ‘You’re kidding, right?'” says Domek, laughing.

Domek had planned to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship for some time. “Another girl in my hometown got it, and her family was good friends with my family, so it had always been in the back of my mind,” she said. “I had thought about it for five years, but then it all happened in only five days.

“It’s the kind of scholarship I’m good at because they want you to be well-rounded and good at lots of things-academics, athletics, service,” she added.

Domek credits several University of Utah faculty members with providing guidance and encouragement, both in and out of the classroom. “I took a medical ethics class from Peggy Battin three years ago, which I loved, and next term she’s teaching ‘Medical Ethics of Infectious Disease,’ which couldn’t be more perfect,” said Domek. In addition, Domek mentions David Goldenberg in biology, Richard Ernst and Joel Harris in chemistry, and Ann Engar from the Honors Program.

“Individuals don’t win the Rhodes Scholarship,” said Domek. “It’s really the combined effort of the community and the University.

“I see this as a way to give back to the University,” she added. “I’m an out-of-state student, and the U welcomed me with open arms. The weekend I was flown out here to look at the school, one of the first people I met was the president. We’ve kept in touch since then,” she said. “I remember once, at a ski meet, seeing Bernie and his wife, Chris, standing there in the cold with the few other people who attend cross-county ski meets. It’s pretty unusual that a university president is going to do that.”