Eccles Scholarship Alumni Spotlights


Michael Zhao

Salt Lake City, UT

Skyline High School

Michael Zhao knew he wanted to major in math after attending the Canada/USA MathCamp after the 11th and 12th grades in high school. He remembers feeling a similar electrifying feeling during an extra-curricular reading course that was part of his Honors College education. Michael had this “ah-ha” moment while reading Andre Weil’s Basic Number Theory and seeing a classification result whose proof synthesized ideas from what he had thought were totally disparate branches of mathematics. The excitement of that moment struck him as evidence that he was majoring in what he loved. Passion, he thought, should drive learning. He came to see passion as the catalyst for dedication, and dedication as the driver for success. This definition of success exceeds title or salary: for Michael, the pursuit of passion is also the pursuit of the self. Through this experience of “a beautiful mixture of ideas,” Michael remembers, “I understood what Stephen Gelbart described as the agony and ecstasy of modern number theory: that although the ‘promised rewards are great, the initiation process is forbidding’.”

Gelbart’s quote could stand in as metaphor for Michael’s entire time with the Honors College, in which he saw his hard work transform him into a more mature student with a greater awareness of the world around him and his trajectory in it. Michael graduated from the University of Utah in the spring of 2017 with a HBS in Mathematics. He will first attend the University of Cambridge for a Masters of Advanced Study in pure mathematics, and then Columbia University for a Ph.D. in mathematics. Michael hopes to continue on a path to university research after that, but he also plans to continue to build a broad knowledge of philosophy that began with Honors courses where he read Enlightenment philosophers, like Rousseau and Kant, and classical works like The Odyssey and Aeneid.

In fact, what first drew Michael to Honors wasn’t his passion for math, but his passion for philosophy and literature. He was intrigued by the breadth of study the Honors College offered—a place where he could read Thomas Aquinas and David Hume, while also studying Eastern philosophy and literature from texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Daodejing. The solid foundation Michael received in Honors will continue to carry him forward, “I think the events of the past year have forced introspection onto many of us, and I believe philosophy is best suited to help us interpret the world, as technological innovations and scientific discoveries challenge traditional conceptions of ourselves, our relations to other members of society, and to the world.”

Sadly, Michael is no longer with us. He unexpectedly passed away in the fall of 2018. Read more here.




Image credit: Pierce Darragh