Kevin Sackel has long seen beauty and elegance in a complex math theorem.
In middle school, the Bethpage native learned 4th-century Greek mathematician Euclid's proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers, and he was hooked.
"I was astounded at how pretty it was," said Sackel, 21. "That really turned me on to math."
A graduating senior at Stony Brook University with a double major in mathematics and physics, Sackel is one of 14 students chosen nationwide to spend the next academic year earning a master's degree at the University of Cambridge on a prestigious scholarship from the Winston Churchill Foundation.
He is the only student from a New York college to be named a Churchill scholar this year and the fourth Stony Brook student to earn the distinction.
With a 4.0 grade-point average and membership in the Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Pi Sigma honors societies, Sackel is greater than the sum of his academic achievements.
He plays the oboe and is a notable campus character. Each Monday, he and a friend stand outside the Student Activities Center with a cardboard sign, giving out free compliments to passersby.
"People deserve to be complimented more," Sackel said. "Plus, it's fun and we meet a lot of people."
The scholarship program, founded in 1959 by friends of the late British prime minister, gives a select group of American students the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in engineering, mathematics or the sciences at Churchill College within the University of Cambridge.
The award includes full tuition and college fees, a living allowance and a stipend for travel expenses. It is estimated to be worth as much as $62,000, depending on the currency exchange rate.
Stony Brook University mathematics professor Christopher Bishop said Sackel probably is the best student he has encountered in his 25-year career in academia.
Bishop first met Sackel as a freshman taking a graduate math class. Sackel was one of the top performers in the course that year, Bishop said.
"He can latch on to a problem and work hard and think hard about it," said Bishop, who was himself a Churchill scholar.
Other members of the Stony Brook math department supported Sackel's application, including professors Moira Chas and Dennis Sullivan, who won the Wolf Prize.
"I had some pretty big names behind me," Sackel said.
Stony Brook is one of 100 schools in the nation invited to participate in the Churchill scholars program. Each institution nominates a maximum of two students.
Because of the intensity of the requirements, the Churchill foundation receives applications only from students whose schools consider them highly competitive, said Peter C. Patrikis, executive director of the Manhattan-based foundation.
The foundation receives 80 to 110 applications each annual cycle, names 20 to 24 finalists who are interviewed by telephone, and awards 14 Churchill Scholarships, Patrikis said.
As for Sackel, he intends to seize the opportunity to travel Europe when he takes up his studies across the pond.
After that, he plans to pursue a career in academia, where he hopes to have his own office and a chalkboard to continue exploring math's infinite possibilities.
"The world is somewhat wide open, I suppose," he said.