The Taliesin Prize

The Taliesin Prize for Distinction in the Art of Learning—named for the early poet famed for enlightenment and inspiration—was established by the Division of Arts & Humanities in 2020. It is awarded to three graduating seniors who best exhibit a spirit of intellectual adventure in their curricular paths as Harvard undergraduates.

While many prizes take as their starting point conventional standards of academic excellence like a student’s GPA or exemplary thesis, the Taliesin Prize takes a holistic look at a student’s curricular choices. Nominated students are not necessarily those with the most accomplishments, the highest number of courses taken, or the most distinctive joint concentration. The Prize Committee examines the transcripts of nominated students for evidence of intrinsic curiosity, and an indication that the student deliberately charted a path through the curriculum that reflects courage, creativity, and exploration.

Nominations for the Taliesin Prize are made by faculty members in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the spring semester. Faculty members should email a short statement (that includes the student’s name, email address, and your perspective on why the student meets the Prize criteria) to arts-hum@fas.harvard.edu. Nominated students will have the opportunity to submit a short written response about their curricular pathways before Prize selection, but are considered without an application. 

The Spring 2022 competition has concluded. Check back in spring 2023 for the new deadline.

While the Prize is awarded by the Division of Arts & Humanities, the Prize Committee is made up of faculty from all Divisions and will provide no privilege when considering a student with an Arts & Humanities concentration. Nominations are welcome from every undergraduate concentration.

For questions, please contact arts-hum@fas.harvard.edu

Winners of the 2022 Taliesin Prize

Winners were selected by the Taliesin Prize Committee: Prof. Melissa Franklin of Physics, Prof. Katie McLaughlin of Psychology, Prof. Jennifer L. Roberts of History of Art & Architecture, and Prof. Gu-Yeon Wei of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Headshot of Aditi holding her thesis standing on Widener steps

Taliesin Prize winner Aditi Chitkara ’22 graduated with a concentration in Applied Mathematics and a secondary field in Studio Art. The Prize Committee admired Aditi’s deliberate and meandering path through the curriculum that reflected her deep curiosity. While focusing on mathematics and economics, Aditi made space for a broad range of courses that spoke to her philosophical and creative interests. She shared the following statement:

I arrived at Harvard like any other first-year, curious to seek answers to the usual big questions: the meaning of life, what constitutes beauty, the great injustice in the accident of birth, and so on. Naturally, I found more questions than answers in the courses I took, and seeking answers to these new questions became the guiding principle in my course selection. A course on aesthetic philosophy sent me to a calligrapher’s studio in Japan the following summer; studying composition in the works of MC Escher in a studio art course led to a course in Discrete Mathematics. Quickly realizing that most questions are too complex to be fully answered by any one discipline, I developed a deep appreciation for the multiplicity of perspectives the Harvard course catalog offered. It was exhilarating to be in a roomful of policymakers debating volatility and international trade at HKS one semester and a roomful of artist-activists discussing solidarity and political engagement in the Carpenter Center the next. Sometimes these differing perspectives spoke to each other in ways that were unexpected and joyful – insights on how motifs in art reflect the reference frame in our understanding of ourselves and our world from art classes informed my economics senior thesis on cultural transmission as an evolutionary phenomenon – and at other times they only sparked more questions. More than anything, my academic journey at Harvard has taught me that revisiting an old idea with a new paradigm is a generative place to be."

Headshot of Christopher

Chris Gilmer-Hill ’22 graduated with a Neuroscience concentration and a Secondary Field in East Asian Studies, with language citations in Chinese and Literary Chinese. The Taliesin Prize Committee were impressed by his rigorous academic record, including his concurrent Master of Science in Applied Computation completed alongside a diverse range of courses in multiple languages and histories. He is an intellectually gifted and driven scholar. He shared in his student statement:

“I usually say that when I arrived at Harvard freshman year I didn’t know what I wanted to study, but that isn’t quite true: I knew I wanted to study everything, and I didn’t know how I was going to decide what to actually take. Frankly, I never really figured that out. Every semester I’ve been here, I’ve signed up for as many interesting classes as humanly possible, and then had to plead with the requisite authorities for permission to take them all.

For example, I'll share something amusing that happened just a few minutes ago: when I realized I still needed to fill out this application, I searched for "Taliesin" in my inbox, and was surprised to also find some old emails from a course I audited on Breton mythology and folklore. Even if it's just an old email, for me it's still a great reminder of how many amazing things I've been fortunate enough to learn over the last four years.

To be sure, treating my schedule like Mary Poppins' magic carpet bag hasn't always gone perfectly; I'm sure my grades might have been better if I'd been able to go to sleep after finishing my Applied Math problem sets, rather than needing to finish memorizing Middle Babylonian vocabulary. But even if my sleep schedule has suffered mightily, I've gained so much more from all the fascinating classes I've taken; I know I wouldn't have these opportunities anywhere else, and I don't regret taking them for a second.”

Photo of Ana Luiza standing in front of Widener Library

Ana Luiza Nicolae ’22 graduated with a Special Concentration in Geography and Identity. The Taliesin Prize Committee applauds her dedication to creating her own intellectual path at Harvard, combining the humanities and sciences in a robust independent form. She made the most of her experiences across disciplines including Classics, Earth and Planetary Sciences, History, Anthropology, and English, seeking challenging graduate-level courses and tutorials that reflected her unique interests. Her student statement read:

“For four years, I have studied the disappearing discipline of geography. Everything that the study of earth, land, migration and people means to me went into the selection of my classes. Using a roughly sketched map, I plotted my courses each semester to try and discover a new geography and time period, acknowledging the gaps I was forced to leave. My strong curiosity for the sense of place fostered in different individuals, past and present, overtook disciplinary consistency, and I pursued a Special Concentration. “Geography and Identity” is but a part of the sprawling project I undertook to understand the way in which humans inhabit landscapes, and how places frame and support our interventions in the world. As I discovered more methodologies to study sometimes identical events (such as the explosion of a volcano through literary and geophysical lenses), the interplay of the sciences and humanities, or lack thereof, became fascinating to me. I approached every semester with the goal of learning how the disciplines I was exploring impinged on each other, hoping to find the reason for my fascination with geographical thinking. I stringed my courses with journalism, environmental activism, and talking with unsheltered people around Harvard Square, who have seen this campus change and its people along with it. As before in my life, this connection to human attachment to space fueled my passion for different world philosophies, ancient cosmologies and natural sciences, and I am proud to have learned to listen to stories of home and belonging.”

Winners of the 2021 Taliesin Prize

Winners were selected by the Taliesin Prize Committee: Prof. Melissa Franklin of Physics, Prof. Maya Jasanoff of History, Prof. Gu-Yeon Wei of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Prof. Alexander Zahlten of East Asian Languages & Civilizations.

Jazz Kaur headshot

Taliesin Prize winner Jaspreet Kaur ’21 graduated with a joint concentration in Folklore & Mythology and Theater, Dance & Media. The Prize Committee admired her academic sense of adventure and creativity in the array of courses she chose to take while at Harvard. While overcoming personal challenges, she pursued courses that spoke to her talents as a storyteller and social justice champion. She shared some of her inspirations in her statement:

 

“As a DACAmented freshman living through the Trump administration, I was drawn to study and find interventions to large scale social issues like immigration, violence against women, and education inequality. 

 

I felt uneasy sitting in classrooms with wealthy peers evaluating low-income communities that resembled my childhood public schools and low-income neighborhood. I found a home in Folklore and Mythology because of its rigorous exploration of ethical hands-on ethnography and fieldwork. Through folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, I learned I did not have to choose between being an academic and belonging in my communities. 

 

Folklore and Mythology introduced the idea that informal culture like rumors, legends, and myths can help illuminate community identity and values. Meanwhile, Theater, Dance, and Media allowed me to explore how power is expressed and challenged in the public sphere through art. Through my two concentrations, I was able to not only understand large scale social issues but reimagine a world where more people have agency. 

 

For example, in “Playwriting: Intersecting Americas” I was introduced to Edwidge Danticat who believes that artists must “create dangerously” because books contain power or they would not performatively be burned to assert power during revolutions. That same semester, for my “Folklore of Emergency: Communal Creativity Amid Crisis” I studied communal folk responses to the Rwandan genocide and the Dakota Access Pipeline. For my final project, I wrote a web series centering two Indian girls who create an anonymous sex podcast provoking conversations in the local Gurdwara community about honor killings, gender roles, and female agency. 

 

My academic interests have been intertwined with the stakes of my personal and politicalized existence as an undocumented Sikh woman. Throughout my time at Harvard, I learned to “create dangerously.”

 

 

Audrey Pettner headshotTaliesin prize winner Audrey Pettner ’21 graduated with a joint concentration in History of Art & Architecture and Folklore & Mythology, with a secondary field in Celtic Languages & Literatures. Her compelling biography and kaleidoscopic interests impressed the Prize Committee, who took note also of her enterprising spirit and commitment to hard work evident in her transcript. She shared her impressions of her academic journey in her statement:

 

“I’ve always been fascinated by stories. With a few words, a couple evocative descriptions, and an unexpected twist or two you can be fully transported to a world with its own texture, its own rules. In college, I not only wanted to study stories. . . I wanted my four years to become a story. . . for my courses to weave a narrative. I didn’t have many guiding rules in place as a chose my courses freshman year. Sure, I tried to fulfill a few Gen Eds, but I was more concerned with experiencing the full range of what Harvard had to offer. Small seminars, giant lectures, even an advanced anatomy class way above my head—I tried everything. And as the semesters progressed, I watched the unfolding narrative of my coursework spiral in on itself. Above all else, I am interested in humans and their capacity to create. Art, stories, philosophy, governmental institutions: I approached human creativity from every angle. Science classes gave me an evolutionary perspective. Investigations into the medieval Celtic world opened my eyes to rich narrative traditions and the nuances of language. Above all, art history and folklore and mythology lit my path. 

 

“Reading the story of my transcript, I now see moments of foreshadowing, encounters with Genius, and choices made at forks in the road. Harvard gave me the gift of intellectual agency. The narrative is not always clear, and certainly not always logical and linear— but it, and its story, are mine.”

 

 

Andrew Rao headshotTaliesin Prize winner Andrew Rao ’21 graduated with a joint concentration in Mathematics and Philosophy, with a secondary field in Music. The Prize committee was impressed by Andrew’s deep engagement with the range of challenging courses he took while an undergraduate at Harvard. His fearless exploration of the curriculum across the sciences and humanities led him to a thesis at the intersection of math and moral and political philosophy, titled “A Balancing Axiom for Social Choice Theory with Interpersonal Comparisons.” He shared the following statement with the Prize Committee:

 

“My primary goal in choosing my courses has always been pursuing and understanding beauty in all its forms. I came into college with a love for art, literature, and especially music. Naturally, therefore, I have taken courses in these subjects, with an eye towards those which would allow me to understand my own aesthetic and emotional responses to works of art. However, I did not choose to concentrate in these areas, because I wanted to gain an appreciation for a form of beauty that I did not understand before. My parents, both trained as theoretical physicists, have always intoned the beauty of mathematics, but, as I entered college, I didn’t understand it. I wanted to leave college at least knowing what mathematicians meant when they called an argument or theorem beautiful, so I signed on to study math. It took me more than three years of college to honestly claim some understanding of the “aesthetic” dimension of math. One can surmise, looking at my transcript, that in my senior year I focused my math coursework on subjects related to geometry and topology. I love these areas because they, as all areas of math in a sense do, strive to make rigorous some aspect of human experience, in this case our visual intuition. Philosophy is no different, really. Ethics, one of the philosophical topics dearest to me, clarifies my own, often muddy positions on what is right. Both mathematics and philosophy, as well as art, are vehicles of self-understanding.”

 

Winners of the 2020 Taliesin Prize

Winners were selected by the Taliesin Prize Committee: Prof. Melissa Franklin of Physics, Prof. Rebecca Lemov of History of Science, Prof. Melissa McCormick of East Asian Languages & Civilizations, and Prof. Gu-Yeon Wei of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Catherine KernerTaliesin Prize winner Catherine Kerner ’20 graduated with a joint concentration in Computer Science and Philosophy, with a secondary field in Economics and a thesis on deep fake videos. The Prize Committee was impressed by the diversity of her course selections and the challenges she faced in setting a difficult but rewarding curricular path. In her student statement for the Taliesin Prize, she shared the story behind her transcript:

“January 24th, 2018 was the Wednesday of shopping week, and I was a second-year computer science student with a rare hour to kill. Philosophy 8: Early Modern Philosophy was about to start in Emerson Hall. Why not?

“The potential for academic spontaneity is incredible at Harvard. That split-second choice pulled me into an inevitable joint concentration in CS and philosophy. Similarly, the next semester I dropped a CS systems course two weeks in to take CS136: Economics and Computation, a field I remain obsessed with to this day. Three semesters later, the CS136 trajectory landed me in a graduate economics research seminar, completely over my head but thrilled to sit among PhDs and math concentrators, dissecting the equations behind systems of rational incentives.

“Hegel emphasizes that the educative journey, bildung, is formative because it transcends the concrete and elevates its student to an understanding of abstract relationships, the universal. I see the universal when my classes talk to each other, and this more than anything has guided me through Harvard. It is impossible not to see the systems of logic supporting philosophical argument outlines or the recursive structure of Cartesian skepticism. I interpreted a research course on blockchain cryptocurrencies by considering decentralized, multiagent systems in terms of Rawls’s game-theoretic theory of justice. I get a kick out of the overlap of ostensibly unrelated ideas - their underlying congruity is evidence of some fundamental order, that we deal in consistent truths, whether they are written in python or German.”

 

Cecil WilliamsTaliesin Prize winner Cecil Williams II ’20 graduated with a concentration in Folklore & Mythology with a unique thesis titled “Dreamscape: A California Sense of Place,” combining ethnography, photo-journalism, screenwriting, and fiction. The Prize Committee was impressed by the bold pathway Cecil forged for himself, persevering through early challenges to gain perspective on the meaning of his undergraduate education. In his student statement for the Taliesin Prize, he shared the story behind his transcript:

“Spring of freshman year I proposed a project that would let me work with an engineering team at MIT to design a suit that uses biosensors to quantify muscle fatigue for competitive motorcycle racers. I had no idea what I was doing. But I did enough leg work to convince the engineering department that I should be allowed to take an independent studies course, as a freshman. That experience was a reckoning. It taught me that I had the freedom to learn whatever I wanted.

“The summer after freshman year, I found myself frustrated by the pressure to choose a career path. It seemed ridiculous. What if I chose engineering to realize semesters later that I really wanted to study government, or theatre, or something not offered at Harvard?

“I kept coming back to the Mark Twain quote, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.” I chose Folklore & Mythology because it would allow me to build a curriculum driven wholly by my curiosities.

“As a result, I’ve been able to spend my undergraduate years exploring my relationship to the place I call home: California. Each semester, I explored a new aspect of California’s essence with an advisor (California travel writing, California landscapes, California pop songs, California through cinema, California history and literatures), and I used the catalogue to experiment with different forms of representation (fiction, journalism, filmmaking, ethnography, photography, and a songwriting workshop I audited) to bring my mythic conception of California to life.”

 

Adele WoodmanseeTaliesin Prize winner Adele Woodmansee ’20 graduated with a joint concentration in Integrative Biology and Anthropology, with a secondary field in Latino Studies. The Prize Committee was impressed by her dedication to a unique field of inquiry through focused independent study and diverse research travel. In her student statement for the Taliesin Prize, she shared the story behind her transcript:

“I grew up in an isolated home in northern Vermont with limited electricity, where my family grew most of our own food. I attended a rural public high school. My current academic focus is interdisciplinary, collaborative research about small-scale agriculture, agrobiodiversity, and rural food security. These interests were shaped by my upbringing and by my thesis research about maize agriculture in Mexico. They developed over the course of my time at Harvard. Although I found few courses addressing these topics at Harvard, I explored them through independent research while taking complementary courses in various fields for my joint concentration.

“I entered college with interests in languages, music (violin/viola performance), and plant science. I took several courses in these topics at Harvard. I also explored new areas through courses not directly related to my primary areas of interest– including a Social Studies tutorial in African American political thought, an engineering class about Systems Thinking, and CS50.

“I took two semesters off during college, which were important in allowing me to maintain focus and excitement about academic opportunities at Harvard. During time off, I hiked the Appalachian trail and conducted research in Mexico.

“I am currently studying abroad in Bhutan for my final semester. I am taking courses in Dzongkha, Restoration Ecology, and Agriculture and Land Management, while interning at the Ministry of Agriculture. I chose to study in Bhutan due to its unique environmental and agricultural policies, and to immerse myself in a completely different geographic and cultural region.”