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3 seniors at Harvard, one at MIT snare Rhodes scholarships

Newly selected Rhodes Scholar Baltazar ‘‘Zar’’ Zavala is a senior at Harvard College. The El Paso resident is interested in becoming a neurosurgeon. Newly selected Rhodes Scholar Baltazar ‘‘Zar’’ Zavala is a senior at Harvard College. The El Paso resident is interested in becoming a neurosurgeon. (Matthew J. Lee/ Globe Staff)
By Emma R. Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2010

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Fresh off his football team’s defeat of Yale Saturday, Harvard varsity player Baltazar Zavala switched on his mobile phone and there it was — a six-word text message that brought tears of joy cascading down his mother’s cheeks.

It read: “Congratulations, you are a Rhodes scholar.’’

The Harvard senior, who was born in Juarez, Mexico, and moved to El Paso when he was 4, said it was hard to know which victory carried more weight.

“I looked at my fiancée and I was like ‘Oh my God!’ ’’ he said in a phone interview last night.

While most finalists for the prestigious academic award went through the final interview stage on Saturday, Zavala, known as Zar, interviewed a day early in Houston and jetted back to Cambridge to be there for his team.

“It was one of the most difficult 30 minutes of my life,’’ he said, recalling the grueling questions asked by the panelists. “I walked out completely flustered and thinking this was it.’’

He is one of three Harvard seniors — Zachary Frankel and Daniel E. Lage are the other two — who won a Rhodes scholarship, in addition to Massachusetts Institute of Technology senior Jennifer Lai.

Several common threads weave through their stories.

They all have countless hours of experience in laboratories, they weren’t sure they would make the cut (32 are selected from 1,500 candidates), they lavish praise on their competitors, and they admit that their parents might be even more excited than they are.

All four were quick to add that they are excited about the experience that awaits them on the other side of the Atlantic when they head to the University of Oxford next year for graduate studies paid for by the scholarship set up by Cecil Rhodes — a British-born explorer, businessman, and politician in colonial South Africa — in his will in the early 1900s.

Lage is going home to Miami for Thanksgiving, where he said he will explain to his family the significance of the prize, awarded to about 80 students worldwide, over a Cuban-style pig roast.

“The one thing I want to do is hug my mom and dad,’’ he said yesterday. “I’ll explain what the Rhode scholarship is and then we’ll roast a pig.’’

His paternal grandparents, who helped raise him as part of an extended immigrant family, played a role in leading him to his passion: geriatric medicine, as well as the intersection of public policy and clinical medicine.

When his grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease recently, he saw improvements that were needed for patients suffering from the debilitating illness.

“Our system can definitely do more for them,’’ he said.

A Harvard grant sent him to France for a summer where he learned about the French health care system. Now, he said, he is ready to tackle learning about the United Kingdom’s medical system.

Frankel, meanwhile, has been working to stave off pandemics, having taken a semester off to work with the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative fighting infectious diseases.

“It’s one that presents a uniquely important challenge to the human species,’’ he said, adding that his approach to the issue is rooted in his background in mathematics and physics.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native said his first phone call after being told he won the award was to his mother, who, he said is “probably more excited about this than I am.’’

Of his competitors, he said, “These are all super-amazing people.’’

Lai, 21, has played piano with the Boston Pops, but her real interest lies in understanding cancer at a molecular level.

“Throughout the whole process, as you apply for this, you can never say for certain that you have it,’’ she said last night from a hotel in San Francisco, where she was staying. “For me, the most rewarding part has been to define my goals. It solidified what I want to do.’’

Laura Nelson of Westwood, a senior at the University of Virginia, and Mark Jia of Waltham, were also among the region’s recipients of the top prize.

The scholarship amounts to roughly $50,000 per year for the students selected.

Emma R. Stickgold can be reached at estickgold@globe.com.