Ten from MIT awarded 2020 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans

Julia Mongo | Office of Distinguished Fellowships
Published by MIT News on April 14, 2020

Ten MIT students and alumni are among the 30 recipients of this year’s Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. The MIT-affiliated winners are Pelkins Mbacham Ajanoh, Sanath Devalapurkar, Mohamed Ismail, Connie Liu, Mark Aurel Nagy, Jin Park, Pooja Reddy, Riana Shah, Anthony Tabet, and Jason Ku Wang. They were selected from a pool of over 2,200 applicants.

As Soros winner Pooja Reddy notes, “I could not have asked for a better environment to grow than MIT. I was always surrounded by other immigrants and children of immigrants in all my classes. … With a real emphasis on education, my professors always showed so much compassion, which made me feel seen as a person. This drove me to persevere and learn more.”

The P.D. Soros Fellowship provides up to $90,000 in funding for graduate studies. Interested students should contact Kim Benard, assistant dean of distinguished fellowships. The deadline for this year’s application is Oct. 29, 2020.

Pelkins Mbacham Ajanoh ’18

Pelkins Mbacham Ajanoh graduated from MIT in 2018 with a BS in mechanical engineering. The Soros fellowship will fund his graduate studies at Harvard University where he will earn dual MBA and MS in engineering sciences degrees.

Ajanoh was born and raised in Limbe, Cameroon. He lost his father at age 13, and his mother subsequently immigrated to the US to financially support her children. After graduating high school and receiving the top score on Cameroon’s national exam, Ajanoh joined his mother in Texas, earned an associate’s degree at a community college, and enrolled at University of Texas at Arlington. After learning of MIT’s need-blind admissions policy, he applied to MIT and was accepted as a transfer student.

At MIT, Ajanoh became interested in the topic of creating economic opportunity in vulnerable communities through entrepreneurship, which led him to found CassVita, an agribusiness that converts cassava into shelf-stable flour. CassVita empowers over 300 farmers in Cameroon and its products are sold in over 30 supermarkets locally and internationally. In recognition for his work at MIT, Ajanoh was awarded the Albert G. Hill Prize and the Suzanne Berger Award for Future Global Leaders.

Sanath Devalapurkar

Sanath Devalapurkar will graduate from MIT in May 2020 with a BS in mathematics and a minor in physics. His Soros award will support his doctoral studies in mathematics at Harvard University.

Devalapurkar was born in Adoni, India, and lived in several different countries and U.S. states while growing up. After graduating high school in Los Angeles, he matriculated at MIT at age 16. Shortly after arriving at MIT, Devalapurkar began sitting in on graduate-level courses in mathematics, which fueled his passion and curiosity for the field. He is particularly interested in algebraic topology and algebraic geometry, subfields of math, and quantum field theory in physics.

Devalapurkar credits his interests to his parents’ unwavering support, his mentors in high school, and to Professor Haynes Miller and postdoc Jeremy Hahn in the MIT Department of Mathematics. During his time at MIT, Devalapurkar has worked on projects at the Emory Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), MIT’s Summer Program for Undergraduate Research, and the University of Chicago REU, all of which have helped reinforce his enthusiasm for math.

Mohamed Ismail

A PhD student in building technology in the MIT Department of Architecture, Mohamed Ismail is researching the application of structural optimization to the alleviation of housing insecurity in the Global South. Born to Sudanese parents who immigrated to the U.S. for educational opportunities, Ismail moved with his family to the Philippines when he was eight.

In the Philippines, Ismail witnessed how environmental issues are in fact human rights issues, which led him to environmental activism. He returned to the U.S. for college to learn how the built environment could improve societal well-being rather than harm it. Ismail received his bachelor’s degree in civil and structural engineering at Duke University before receiving his Master of Architecture at the University of Virginia. After graduating, he became a faculty lecturer at the UVA School of Architecture, teaching parametric structural design and digital workflows to architecture students.

At MIT, Ismail was an MIT Tata Center fellow, working with the Digital Structures research group to design low-cost, low-carbon structural components for housing in developing economies. Following his PhD, Ismail hopes to enrich the design profession with new methods that integrate structural performance into the architectural design process.

Connie Liu ‘16

An engineer turned educator turned nonprofit founder, Connie Liu graduated from MIT in 2016 with a BS in mechanical engineering. She was born in San Diego, California, the youngest of three children, to parents who had emigrated from China.

Growing up, Liu had a strong interest in science and social impact. At MIT, she focused on developing assistive technologies for people with disabilities. Seeing the impact her inventions had on real people inspired her interest in educating and empowering youth to create ideas that could make a change.

After graduating MIT, Liu relocated back to California to become a high school teacher, leading classes in such topics as smart wearables and design engineering for social good. Two years later, Liu founded  Project Invent, a national nonprofit that teaches high school students throughout the U.S. how to invent technologies that can make a difference. 

For her work on Project Invent, Liu has been recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and as a Westly Prize winner. While continuing to serve as executive director for Project Invent, Liu is now pursuing an MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Mark Aurel Nagy

Mark Aurel Nagy was born in Budapest to a Chinese mother and Hungarian father. Although he immigrated to the U.S. soon after, Nagy and his siblings spent summers abroad under the care of extended family while his parents worked full time to make ends meet.

At Brown University, Nagy found himself drawn to the complexity of the brain, an interest that only deepened when he lost his Hungarian grandmother to neurodegenerative illness. After completing his BS with honors in neuroscience and physics, Nagy enrolled in the MD/PhD program in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology.

At Harvard, Nagy completed his neuroscience PhD in Professor Michael Greenberg’s lab. His dissertation work employed next-generation sequencing-based assays to understand how sensory experience shapes neuronal function. Nagy has also been developing a company that leverages approaches created during his PhD to engineer better viral vectors for gene therapy of neurological disorders.

Nagy is currently completing his MD studies. As a practicing physician-scientist, he hopes to make lasting improvements to patient care through scientific advancement and, as a gay person of color, increase visibility for underrepresented minorities in the sciences and medicine.

Jin Park

Jin Park is pursuing a MD/PhD in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. Born in Seoul, South Korea, he came to the U.S. at the age of 7, settling in the immigrant community of Flushing, Queens.

Growing up as an undocumented immigrant, Park and his parents — a restaurant line cook and a beauty salon worker — had limited access to health care and would often forgo medical treatment. These experiences imparted Jin with a deep conviction that health care should be a right in the U.S.

Park graduated from Harvard with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, winning the Hoopes Prize for one of his two senior theses. He has several pending publications from his research in the laboratory of MIT professor Tyler Jacks. Outside of the classroom, Park taught immigrants preparing for their naturalization exam through the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Chinatown Citizenship Program, eventually becoming the director of the program.

Being a DACA recipient has played a pivotal role in Park’s life. He has provided public testimony to the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in support of legislation for Dreamers. He has written for CNNThe New York TimesThe Boston Globe, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and is a plaintiff to litigation being heard in the federal judiciary which counters arguments that seek to end the DACA program. In 2019, Park became the first DACA recipient to be selected as a Rhodes Scholar.

Pooja Reddy

Born in Boston, to Indian immigrant parents, Pooja Reddy is a senior majoring in materials science and engineering. After graduating MIT in May, she will begin a PhD in materials science and engineering at Stanford University.

Growing up, Reddy loved to draw and paint. When her family moved back to India, she found that her creativity was not encouraged at school and that there were often lower expectations for women than men. Reddy returned to the U.S. for high school where she dived back into art and creative expression. Between her experiences in India and attending high school in a majority white district, Reddy resolved to defy expectations based on race and gender.

At MIT, Reddy has used her voice and leadership positions to support others. She has been active as a teaching assistant, and as a peer mentor in her major and dorm. She has continued her creative pursuits through metalsmithing, and by running the MIT Art Club.

Reddy discovered a passion for solid-state physics and device technology through her work with Professor Geoffrey Beach in the MIT Laboratory of Nanomagnetism and Spin Dynamics. Her long-term goal is to use materials science to create new materials and devices for information technology.

Riana Shah

Riana Shah is a concurrent MBA/MPA candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management and Harvard Kennedy School. She is a Legatum Fellow for Entrepreneurship at MIT and the cofounder of Ethix.AI, an AI upskilling program that incorporates critical thinking about ethics and bias in algorithm development. At Harvard, Shah is a Zuckerman Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership and is part of the From Harvard Square to the Oval Office Program, which prepares promising female candidates to run for office.

Born in Ahmedabad, India, Shah was 14 when she moved to Queens, New York, with her mother and younger sister. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, Shah founded Independent Thought and Social Action International (ITSA), an education reform nonprofit that redesigns schools to teach students critical thinking and social innovation skills. Subsequently, Shah spent several years in technology, venture capital, management consulting and innovation strategy working with public and private institutions.

Shah’s work has been featured in the Huffington PostWomen of Influence, and Google’s Generation In Project, and she is the podcast host of Venture Vignettes. She has spoken at the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and the International Forum on Child Welfare.

Anthony Tabet

Anthony Tabet is an MIT PhD student in chemical engineering who is creating brain-machine interfaces that can be used to study or treat brain tumors like glioblastoma. After completing his studies, he hopes to start an academic research lab focused on translational technologies to improve human health for the most challenging-to-treat diseases.

Tabet’s parents fled to the countryside during the Lebanese civil war that nearly killed his entire paternal family. He was born in a town outside of Beirut and later immigrated with his family to Minneapolis. At age 16, Tabet began his undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota. He majored in chemical engineering, studying polymeric materials for energy and biomedical applications. A Goldwater Scholar, Tabet received an Amgen Scholarship to fund his summer research at Stanford University. After graduating, he completed an MPhil in chemistry at Cambridge University in the UK as a Churchill Scholar.

Tabet is passionate about translating research ideas from the lab into commercialized technologies. While living in Minneapolis, he became frustrated with the barriers that entrepreneurs face in starting companies in the Midwest. In response, he cofounded the company CoCreateX to streamline how scientists and engineers find resources, capital, and community.

Jason Ku Wang

Jason Ku Wang is a first-year MD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Wang is the son of immigrants from China’s Hubei Province who came to the U.S. following the Cultural Revolution. Wang was sent to live with his grandparents in Wuhan, China, for the first four years of his life before rejoining his parents in the U.S. and eventually settling in Los Angeles.

Wang’s interest in medicine was inspired by his father’s journey from rural barefoot doctor to U.S. physician. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, Wang also discovered a love for computer science and statistics and delved deeper into the intersection of computation, biology, and medicine. He is the author of 12 journal publications, including six as first author, and received the Stanford Deans’ Award for Academic Achievement.

During college, Wang became interested in technology development. He interned in data and software engineering at Facebook and Tableau, and cofounded Stanford’s interdisciplinary health care hackathon (Health++). After graduating Stanford, Wang spent a year at Tsinghua University in Beijing as a Schwarzman Scholar, and completed a public affairs internship at Johnson and Johnson. As a physician, he hopes to further explore how computational advancements can democratize access to high-quality health care.

Note: This article has been updated to include Jin Park as an additional fellow from MIT, bringing the total to 10 for this year.

By Julia Mongo
Julia Mongo Staff Writer and Advisor