Julia Mongo | Office of Distinguished Fellowships
Published by MIT News on April 14, 2022
MIT graduate student Fernanda De La Torre, alumna Trang Luu ’18, SM ’20, and senior Syamantak Payra are recipients of the 2022 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.
De La Torre, Luu, and Payra are among 30 New Americans selected from a pool of over 1,800 applicants. The fellowship honors the contributions of immigrants and children of immigrants by providing $90,000 in funding for graduate school.
Students interested in applying to the P.D. Soros Fellowship for future years may contact Kim Benard, associate dean of distinguished fellowships in Career Advising and Professional Development.
Fernanda De La Torre
Fernanda De La Torre is a PhD student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. With Professor Josh McDermott, she studies how we integrate vision and sound, and with Professor Robert Yang, she develops computational models of imagination.
De La Torre spent her early childhood with her younger sister and grandmother in Guadalajara, Mexico. At age 12, she crossed the Mexican border to reunite with her mother in Kansas City, Missouri. Shortly after, an abusive home environment forced De La Torre to leave her family and support herself throughout her early teens.
Despite her difficult circumstances, De La Torre excelled academically in high school. By winning various scholarships that would discretely take applications from undocumented students, she was able to continue her studies in computer science and mathematics at Kansas State University. There, she became intrigued by the mysteries of the human mind. During college, De La Torre received invaluable mentorship from her former high school principal, Thomas Herrera, who helped her become documented through the Violence Against Women Act. Her college professor, William Hsu, supported her interests in artificial intelligence and encouraged her to pursue a scientific career.
After her undergraduate studies, De La Torre won a post-baccalaureate fellowship from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, where she worked with Professor Tomaso Poggio on the theory of deep learning. She then transitioned into the department’s PhD program. Beyond contributing to scientific knowledge, De La Torre plans to use science to create spaces where all people, including those from backgrounds like her own, can innovate and thrive.
She says: “Immigrants face many obstacles, but overcoming them gives us a unique strength: We learn to become resilient, while relying on friends and mentors. These experiences foster both the desire and the ability to pay it forward to our community.”
Trang Luu graduated from MIT with a BS in mechanical engineering in 2018, and a master of engineering degree in 2020. Her Soros award will support her graduate studies at Harvard University in the MBA/MS engineering sciences program.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Luu was 3 when her family immigrated to Houston, Texas. Watching her parents’ efforts to make a living in a land where they did not understand the culture or speak the language well, Luu wanted to alleviate hardship for her family. She took full responsibility for her education and found mentors to help her navigate the American education system. At home, she assisted her family in making and repairing household items, which fueled her excitement for engineering.
As an MIT undergraduate, Luu focused on assistive technology projects, applying her engineering background to solve problems impeding daily living. These projects included a new adaptive socket liner for below-the-knee amputees in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Thailand; a walking stick adapter for wheelchairs; a computer head pointer for patients with limited arm mobility, a safer makeshift cook stove design for street vendors in South Africa; and a quicker method to test new drip irrigation designs. As a graduate student in MIT D-Lab under the direction of Professor Daniel Frey, Luu was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. In her graduate studies, Luu researched methods to improve evaporative cooling devices for off-grid farmers to reduce rapid fruit and vegetable deterioration.
These projects strengthened Luu’s commitment to innovating new technology and devices for people struggling with basic daily tasks. During her senior year, Luu collaborated on developing a working prototype of a wearable device that noninvasively reduces hand tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor. Observing patients’ joy after their tremors stopped compelled Luu and three co-founders to continue developing the device after college. Four years later, Encora Therapeutics has accomplished major milestones, including Breakthrough Device designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Hailing from Houston, Texas, Syamantak Payra is a senior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, with minors in public policy and entrepreneurship and innovation. He will be pursuing a PhD in engineering at Stanford University, with the goal of creating new biomedical devices that can help improve daily life for patients worldwide and enhance health care outcomes for decades to come.
Payra’s parents had emigrated from India, and he grew up immersed in his grandparents’ rich Bengali culture. As a high school student, he conducted projects with NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center, experimented at home with his scientist parents, and competed in spelling bees and science fairs across the United States. Through these avenues and activities, Syamantak not only gained perspectives on bridging gaps between people, but also found passions for language, scientific discovery, and teaching others.
After watching his grandmother struggle with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and losing his baby brother to brain cancer, Payra devoted himself to trying to use technology to solve health-care challenges. Payra’s proudest accomplishments include building a robotic leg brace for his paralyzed teacher and conducting free literacy workshops and STEM outreach programs that reached nearly a thousand underprivileged students across the Greater Houston Area.
At MIT, Payra has worked in Professor Yoel Fink’s research laboratory, creating digital sensor fibers that have been woven into intelligent garments that can assist in diagnosing illnesses, and in Professor Joseph Paradiso’s research laboratory, where he contributed to next-generation spacesuit prototypes that better protect astronauts on spacewalks. Payra’s research has been published by multiple scientific journals, and he was inducted into the National Gallery of America’s Young Inventors.