A student from the Information Science community has been recognized as one of Cornell’s 33 most outstanding graduates this year, receiving the honorable distinction of Merrill Presidential Scholar.

Sarah Sinclair, a soon-to-be graduate of the Information Science, Systems and Technology (ISST) program through the College of Engineering, is the first student affiliated with Cornell Information Science to receive this annual award, which began nearly 30 years ago to recognize exceptional Cornell students and their most influential teachers from high school and college. Created by the late Philip Merrill (’55) and continued with support from the Merrill Family Foundation, the honor not only celebrates students’ scholarly achievements but also their leadership in contributing to a better world.  

For the Merrill Presidential Scholars Convocation, to be held May 24 and 25, Sinclair has chosen to recognize Monroe Weber-Shirk, professor in Cornell’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the faculty advisor of the Cornell-based initiative AguaClara, and Adam Johnston, AP Bio teacher at Columbus Alternative High School in Columbus, Ohio. 

“Tech does not exist in a vacuum,” Sinclair said in an interview earlier this semester. “There are ways to apply it to make the world a better place.”

And during her four years at Cornell, Sinclair has dedicated herself to exploring those ways. Since 2012, she’s been a member of the AguaClara Project team, which designs sustainable, gravity-powered water treatment technologies in Honduras and India. Specifically, Sinclair’s projects on the team include the design of an Enclosed Stacked Rapid Sand filter (EStaRS) and the creation of a data-collection app for Honduran plant operators. Elsewhere, in 2014, she spearheaded web development efforts for a local non-profit dedicated to childhood literacy.

Meanwhile, she excelled in the classroom, earning a 4.08 cumulative GPA and a place on the Dean’s list every semester. Her extracurriculars are, frankly, too extensive for this limited space, but the short of it is: she worked as a teaching assistant for Intro to Python and Info Sci’s Human-Computer Interaction course; led an Academic Excellence Workshop on Python through the College of Engineering, and investigated online relationships with Cornell’s Social Media Lab. In her off-time, she sang in Less Than Three, an on-campus a cappella group.

Info Sci Professor and Charles F. and Barbara D. Weiss Director of Undergraduate Studies Paul Ginsparg, for one, was floored by Sinclair’s consistent success while juggling such an ambitious schedule.

“Sarah's accomplishments as an undergraduate here seemed so implausible that I was concerned that her nomination letter might be dismissed as some fabulist account,” said Ginsparg, who nominated Sinclair for the Merrill honor. “But from a uniformly stellar academic performance in a seemingly impossible courseload, to multiple research projects, multiple community-minded activities and mentoring roles both volunteer and course related, she really did it all and did it astoundingly well, earning the effusive praise of instructors and co-workers. Even her a cappella group's performances are over the top.”

As a first-year undergraduate, Sinclair was unclear as to which field to focus her studies but was certain that whatever professional path she took she wanted it to be “human-facing”, to have a direct impact on people and their environment. She enrolled in her first Information Science class as a sophomore and was intrigued. Info Sci was creative, she said, and seemed to incorporate multiple fields of study, like tech, science, math, art and design. The multidisciplinary nature of Info Sci appealed to her because, as she says, “I’m multidisciplinary.”

“I thought, ‘This is for me,’” said Sinclair, who also graduates with a minor in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “It was the right decision.”

Pursuing an Information Science degree through the College of Engineering provided Sinclair a unique learning experience, she said.

“Cornell Engineering is collaborative and provided a good experience in working in a variety of group projects and team settings to tackle difficult problems,” she said. “With Information Science, I’ve been lucky to go into the community and have real-world impact. Info Sci is dedicated to providing students that opportunity.”

Upon graduation, she’s headed to work for Microsoft as a program manager on Windows Photos.

Where does she see herself in 10 years?

“I want to be doing stuff with tech and people, in that I’m having an impact on real lives and can see it and measure it,” she said. “I want to have that opportunity to engage in growth.”

Louis DiPietro is the communications coordinator for Cornell Information Science and Statistical Science.