Sophia Freund Prize Recognizes Those Better Than the Best

Economist Speaks Japanese; Computer Scientist Plays Violin; Gell, Brown Tie for Highest Grade Point Average in Class of '97

Harvard students are often told they're the best. Two members of the class of 1997 were recently told they're better than that.

Aaron B. Brown '97 of Winthrop House and Farmington Hills, Mich, received letters last week officially naming htem co-winners of the Sophia Freund Prize.

The prize is awarded to the student graduating summa cum laude with the highest GPA, according to Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68.

This is the first tie since 1984.

The day before Commencement, Gell was on his way to get a haircut when his Winthrop House senior tutor gave him unofficial notice that he was a winner of the Freund Prize.

"The barber got a really big tip that day," Gell said.

Gell, who is also a former Crimson executive, said he was "really surprised" by the news.

"I kept thinking that it couldn't be me--there are too many smarter people all around me," he said. "I was completely stunned. I'm kind of like Mr. Magoo. A lot of things sorta happen to me, and I'm oblivious."

Gell said he always tries to ensure himself time for study and for relaxation. "A little bit of planning goes a really long way." he noted.

Although he is a self-proclaimed "planaholic," Gell said he "never really focused on becoming valedictorian."

Gell said earning the Freund Prize is not completely based on merit.

"It's partially pure luck," he said. "It may be the difference between having a T.F. at 10 a.m. rather than at 9."Humility--according to those who have worked with him--is a Jeffrey Gell trademark.

Gell's instructors and colleagues were not as quick to dimiss his many achievements.

"He is the best undergraduate I've seen in years," said Kestenbaum Professor of Labor and Industry James L. Medoff, who noted that Gell was "at the very top" of his two large lecture classes.

"I would have enjoyed working with Jeff on a book," Medoff said. "I could have learned a lot."

Assistant Professor of Economics Brian J. Hall, Gell's thesis advisor, hired Gell sophomore year as a research assistant.

"While [Jeff] was working for me, he was busy getting straight A's in all of his classes. Then, of course, he wrote a summa thesis," Hall said in an e-mail message. "What can I say--he is clever, insightful, creative and insanely responsible."

John Gilbert, Gell's high school advisor and French teacher, referred to his former pupil as "quite an amazing yound man," noting that Gell had the highest grade point average in his class--and in the school's history.

Gell was "well-liked" in high school, Gilbert said. "People respected his brains."

"He has the kind of smarts you can't study for," said Vera Gell of her son. "He's always been destined for greatness."

Although she said she is not sure of her son's future plans, Gell's mother said she wouldn't be surprised if she were frequenting the White House in a few decades.

"If he were interested in politics, I could see him becoming the first Jewish president. But, you know what? He's not crooked enough," she chuckled. "If they were looking for someone who was brilliant and honest, he'd be perfect."

Gell laughed after hearing his mother's vision. "There's not enough money in that," he quipped.

"I always wanted him ot join the Rabbinate," said Gell;s clergyman, Rabbi M. Robert Syme of Temple Israel. "His brilliance of mind is accompanied by a beauty of character."

A Marshall Scholar, Gell will be studying economics at Oxford for the next two years, deferring enrollment to Harvard law School.

Pforzheimer House resident Aaron B. Brown will be heading in the other direction next year--Literally.

A computer science concentrator, Brown has accepted a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship and will pursue a PhD at Berkeley in the fall.

Brown's thesis advisor Margo I. Seltzer, assistant professor of computer science, said "his academic record--and what's not reflected in the record--is all great."

Seltzer and Brown presented a paper together at the 1997 ACM Sigmetrics Conference in Seattle--an international scholarly gathe3ring--a few weeks ago.

Originally an advanced standing student, Brown ultimately decided to spend eight semesters at the College.

"Even four years isn't enough to take advantage of all the opportunities Harvard has to offer," he said.

In addition to his academic success, Brown was an "excellent violinist," according to David Marcus, president of the Harvard Redcliffe Orchestra (HRO). Brown has also served as an assistant concenrtmaster for HRO.

Ward Ghoury, upper school dean of Buckingham, Browne and Nichols--Brown's alma mater--said the 1993 graduate-"wonder" played first chair in the school orchestra, and has performed with Yo-Yo Ma '76.

Brown always "worked hard but was not considered intense," Ghoury said. "He is a selfless person."

Joshua Greene '97 Brown's four-year college roommate, called his friend "very organized and focused."

"Aaron has always been very enthusiastic about computer science," he said.

A scientist herself, Virginia Brown said her son always wanted to work with computers, and there were "astonishing opportunities for Aaron at Harvard."

Brown said he is considering a career of academic research and teaching. Suzanne Gauron contributed to the reporting of this article.