When the rules of a local concerto competition prohibited Ben Mildenhall from competing as a violinist — since he had previously taken first-place in that capacity (“winning over older musicians with the glittery Tsigane of Maurice Ravel,” according to a 2009 Wednesday Journal article) — the Oak Park and River Forest High School sophomore simply improvised. He stayed within the rules and entered the competition as a pianist. He won in that category, too.
Today, having earned a bachelor’s degree at Stanford University, Mildenhall is still slaying the competition. His latest achievement? A Hertz Foundation Award — a five-year fellowship that offers mentoring and community support, a stipend and full tuition valued at more than $250,000. It’s only given to about a dozen high-achieving scholars each year who are working in the fields of applied physical, biological and engineering sciences.
The foundation was established by John Daniel Hertz, who also founded the car rental company that still bears his name. According to a foundation spokesperson, however, the philanthropic organization is no longer affiliated with the company.
“Key to its mission, the Hertz Foundation gives Fellows the freedom to innovate in their doctoral studies,” according to a release issued by the foundation. “They are not bound by traditional research funding restrictions or the funded projects of any faculty member.”
The foundation claims as alumni “two Nobel laureates, a Fields Medal recipient, and a National Science Medal recipient.” And then there is Mildenhall, the former OPRF violinist, pianist and math whiz, who also dabbled in competitive ping pong.
After OPRF, Mildenhall went to Stanford, where he “worked on applying probabilistic inference techniques to various problems, including reinforcement learning, handwriting recognition, and procedural content generation,” according to a Hertz statement. Mildenhall also “worked in the Pixar research group on methods for prefiltering geometric data in order to decrease rendering times.”
After Stanford, Mildenhall went on to the University of California at Berkeley to research the development of “new methods for computationally capturing, analyzing, and displaying spatial and geometric data as these problems become increasingly relevant with the rise of new technologies, such as virtual reality headsets and self-driving cars.”
“I’m immensely excited and grateful to not have to worry about funding for my research,” noted Mildenhall in the statement. “It feels like a weight has been lifted. I’m motivated by the intellectual freedom this will provide for collaboration and exploration in my work to bring human spatial awareness and intuition into graphics,” he said.
Since its founding in 1963, the Hertz Foundation, according to its own account, has provided $200 million (adjusted for inflation) to fund the education of more than 1,100 fellows in the fields of science and engineering.