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Seven Indian Americans Named Soros Fellows

Press Release

The trustees of The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans April 14 announced its cohort of 2020 Fellows, which included seven Indian American students.

The fellowship, a merit-based graduate school program for immigrants and children of immigrants, chose the 30 Fellows from a pool of 2,211 applicants, a record-breaking number.

The class was selected for their potential to make significant contributions to the United States. They will each receive up to $90,000 in funding over two years to support their graduate studies.

The 2020 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows are all the children of immigrants, green card holders, naturalized citizens, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients, or visa holders who graduated from both high school and college in the United States, a news release said.

The Indian American students selected for the Fellowship were Riana Shah, Pooja Reddy, Abijith Krishnan, Meena Jagadeesan, Akhil Iyer, Sanath Devalapurkar and Shyam Akula.

“At a time when all forms of immigration are under attack, it’s more important than ever to be celebrating the achievements and contributions of immigrants and refugees from across the world,” said Craig Harwood, who directs the Fellowship program. “Our country and universities are enriched by the ingenuity that comes from abroad. When we honor and invest in New Americans our nation is stronger—the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows are a perfect demonstration of that.” 

Born in Ahmedabad, India, Shah was 14 when she moved to Queens, New York, with her mother and little sister. As a pupil of a rote-memorization-based education system in India, Shah grew up being told there was always a right and wrong answer.

Her educational upbringing led her to believe that she was a passive bystander in the injustices she saw happening in society. It wasn’t until she began attending a progressive New York City school, Bard High School Early College, that she felt empowered to think critically about complex issues in the world, her bio notes.

While Shah was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, she founded Independent Thought and Social Action International, an education reform venture that redesigns schools to teach students 21st century critical thinking and social innovation skills. ITSA projects have worked across 19 cities and 11 countries, impacting over 100,000 people.

Following her work in education reform, Shah spent several years in technology, venture capital, management consulting and innovation strategy working with public and private institutions, it said.

She is now a concurrent MBA/MPA student at MIT and Harvard. She is a Legatum Fellow for Entrepreneurship at MIT and is the cofounder of Ethix.AI, an AI upskilling program for coders that actively incorporates critical thinking about ethics and bias in algorithm development. At Harvard, she 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, her bio said.

Reddy was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Indian immigrant parents. Growing up, she loved to draw and paint and defined herself as an artist. When her family moved back to India, things shifted—she deepened her understanding of family and community, as well as a humbler way of living, but creativity was not encouraged at her school and she found that there were often lower expectations for women than men.

Reddy moved back to the United States for high school where she was able to dive back into art and express herself again through creative means. Between her experiences in India and attending high school in a majority white district, she resolved to defy expectations based on race and gender, her bio said.

At MIT, Reddy has taken on leadership positions and uses her voice to support others. She especially enjoys being a teaching assistant and tailoring her teaching to individual student backgrounds.

Reddy also lends her experience to peer-mentoring in various outlets at MIT, including her major, dorm, and the greater first-year population. She has also continued her creative pursuits at MIT through metalsmithing, and by running the MIT Art Club so people have a free, accessible creative outlet, her bio said.

At MIT, she was fascinated by the possibility of understanding matter at the smallest scale. Studying materials science and engineering has given she the tools to build structures that create the functional matter and materials used in every industry today, it said.

Her long-term goal is to use materials science to create new materials and devices for information technology. Advancing the nanoelectronics industry would enable new paradigms of information technology and scientific progress, it said.

Born in North Carolina and raised in Arizona, Krishnan is the son of two immigrants, who came to the United States from Tamil Nadu, India in search of economic opportunity.

Krishnan, who grew up attending weekly Carnatic music lessons and Balagokulam, a Hindu cultural enrichment school, has been fortunate to share his New American journey with his parents and younger sister. He still remembers quizzing his parents in the car as they prepared for their naturalization tests, one of the many family milestones Krishnan treasures, the bio said. 

He first became interested in physics after taking a class with his high school physics teacher. Soon enough, he was eagerly searching out every physics opportunity outside of school he could find. He eventually stumbled upon the U.S. Physics Olympiad exam, and after three years of preparation, he qualified for the five-person US physics team and earned a gold medal at the International Physics Olympiad competition, the bio said.

He took his passion for physics to Harvard University, where he spent two summers and a semester researching the renormalization group and topological insulators with Professor Ashvin Vishwanath.
Krishnan also had the unique opportunity to research the dynamics of spin systems for a summer at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany. These experiences led to a first author publication and being awarded the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, it said.

Born in Naperville, Illinois, Jagadeesan is the daughter of Indian immigrants who immigrated separately to the United States and met years after arriving. Her father immigrated to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science, and her mother immigrated as a child when her parents started mathematics Ph.D. programs in New York.
Jagadeesan is currently a senior at Harvard University, in her final year of a joint bachelor’s and master’s program. She studies computer science, mathematics, and statistics, and has been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, her bio notes.

She is broadly interested in research in algorithmic questions, especially those arising in machine learning and economics. She has coauthored six publications in diverse topics in computer science and discrete mathematics. One of her papers, which studies a dimensionality reduction scheme, was selected as an oral presentation at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems.

Jagadeesan has been awarded the Computing Research Association Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award, and both a Siebel Scholarship and Barry Goldwater Scholarship for her undergraduate research. Outside of her research, she has served as a teaching fellow for a systems programming course at Harvard, where she enjoyed working with students from diverse backgrounds and earned a prize for excellence in teaching.

She is pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science U.C. Berkeley. In the long run, she hopes to pursue a research career in computer science, either in academia or in industry, it said.

Iyer was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. His parents, who emigrated from India, taught him the importance of giving back to the nation that gave them so much.

This fostered Iyer’s initial passion to pursue military service, which grew further as he learned about the great examples of leadership set by ancient warriors from Hindu mythology. So did events of 9/11, after which he witnessed his Indian American community come together to help raise funds for New York City firefighters, his bio notes.

These experiences led him to enroll in ROTC while studying at Stanford University.   
In college, he was exposed to the nation’s civil-military divide and the role that he and his fellow ROTC students could have in helping to bridge that gap. One of his most memorable experiences was his involvement in campus and faculty discussions on reinstating on-campus ROTC at Stanford.

During his undergraduate studies in international relations and Arabic, he also researched the challenges of crafting comprehensive solutions to national security problems through Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation as well as the Hoover Institute, his bio added.
After graduating, he was fortunate to work with a group of marines, sailors and soldiers while serving as a Marine Corps infantry officer and special operations team commander.

Through his deployments, Iyer also began to recognize the need to better connect private sector expertise and technologies with front-line operators tackling evolving threats.

As a joint degree candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, he hopes to foster this connection as he continues to give back to the nation in ways that transcend the uniform, his bio said.
Currently, he is exploring issues surrounding technology, innovation and civil-military relations as a Black Family Fellow with Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, as well as the Pat Tillman Foundation, it said.

Devalapurkar was born in Adoni, India, and moved around a lot growing up: his family lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, different parts of India, London and Los Angeles, where he attended high school for just two years before beginning MIT at the age of 16.

As soon as Devalapurkar arrived at MIT, he began sitting in on graduate level courses in math and asking big questions. With a passion for mathematics and physics that has been nourished in the academically vibrant city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he has found a true home, his bio notes.

He is particularly interested in algebraic topology and algebraic geometry, subfields of math, and quantum field theory in physics. His interest owes a lot to his parents’ undying support while growing up, University of Melbourne Professor Marcy Robertson while he was in high school, and to Haynes Miller and Jeremy Hahn at MIT.

Devalapurkar, who maintains a blog about mathematics, hopes to keep up the stimulating conversations he has had with the math community well beyond his Ph.D., it said.

Akula was born in Arcadia, California, to Maya and Rao Akula, immigrants originally from India who fell in love Kuwait, but were forced to leave in 1990 due to the Gulf War.

Leaving everything behind, Akula’s parents started anew in southern California, wanting to give their family the stability their lives had lacked. He is continually grateful for his family’s love and support in all of his endeavors, his bio said.

Long interested in science and medicine, his experiences in college at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in neurobiology, leading as a Civic Scholar with the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community development, and working in a pediatric neurology clinic at St. Louis Children’s Hospital developed his passion for investigating rare diseases and caring for families afflicted with these conditions, the bio said.
After college, he joined the Harvard-MIT MD/PhD program to train as both a physician and scientist, where he was named the 2017-2019 Harvard Stem Cell Institute MD/PhD Fellow.

For his Ph.D. research, Akula joined the laboratory of Prof. Christopher Walsh, where he currently conducts research on rare genetic diseases of cortical malformation to understand how specific genes influence normal human brain development, the bio said.

At Harvard Medical School, he is currently taking part in efforts to re-design training experiences for students as a contributor to the Curriculum and MD/PhD Program Steering Committees, it said.

In addition to receiving up to $90,000 in funding for the graduate program of their choice, the new Fellows join the prestigious community of recipients from past years. 

This was the first selection cycle that the Fellowship was open to all immigrants, regardless of their immigration status, who have graduated from both high school and college in the US. The Fellowship has been open to DACA recipients since 2014, the release said.

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