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Three MIT alumni win 2017 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans

Fellowship funds graduate school studies for exceptional immigrants and children of immigrants.
Three MIT alumni are among 30 winners nationwide of the 2017 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. Clockwise from top left: Seyedeh Maryam Zekavat '15, Pratyusha Kalluri '16, and Võ Tiến Phong '15.
Three MIT alumni are among 30 winners nationwide of the 2017 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. Clockwise from top left: Seyedeh Maryam Zekavat '15, Pratyusha Kalluri '16, and Võ Tiến Phong '15.
Illustration: MIT News Office. Photos: Christopher Smith

Three MIT alumni have been awarded The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a graduate school fellowship for outstanding immigrants and children of immigrants in the United States. Selected from 1,775 applicants, the 2017 fellows were chosen for their potential to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture, or their academic field. Each will receive up to $90,000 in funding to support their graduate school studies.

"At a time when the national conversation seems to be on what immigrants are taking away, we are putting the spotlight on what immigrants from diverse backgrounds contribute to the United States,” said Craig Harwood, who directs the Soros Fellowship program.

Pratyusha Kalluri '16

Born on the East Coast and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Pratyusha Kalluri is the daughter of Indian immigrants. Her parents left India in the 1980s, seeking better job opportunities in America. Kalluri remembers growing up with American and Indian children’s books and a name from a Telugu poem, as her parents relayed the importance of education and expression.

As an undergraduate majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, Kalluri became deeply interested in artificial intelligence. At first, she built AI systems to reveal the goings-on inside the human body. At Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she developed an algorithm to identify the gene pathway changes that underlie breast cancer, and at the MIT Media Lab, she developed a device to automate stethoscope auscultation. In time, her research converged on that most complex and least understood of organs — the human brain.

After graduating in 2016, Kalluri was a visiting researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid where she built AI systems modeling facets of human intelligence and human language processing. Kalluri has continued to explore the intricacies of expression, studying literature and other media, and penning stories and poetry that tap into her intersectional identity.

Kalluri will pursue a PhD in computer science at Stanford University. She aims to build artificial intelligence that is more humanlike and understandable by synthesizing symbolic and statistical approaches.

Võ Tiến Phong '15

A 2015 MIT graduate and Marshall Scholarship recipient Võ Tiến Phong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Phong learned his earliest lessons of dāna (generosity), prajñā (insight), and mettā (compassion) when visiting Buddhist temples with his grandmother and parents. In addition to these Buddhist virtues, Phong’s parents were committed to giving their children the educational opportunities they never had because of the Vietnam War. This commitment to education led them to the United States when Phong was 10.

Phong has long been fascinated by numbers and equations. After graduating from MIT with degrees in mathematics and physics, he applied his prestigious Marshall Scholarship to pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Manchester in the UK. He is currently studying theoretical condensed matter physics, a subfield that explores exotic material properties. Through his research, Phong hopes to elucidate fundamental laws of nature and to propose beneficial new technologies.

When not working with equations, Phong loves sharing what he knows through teaching. He has cofounded a science outreach program for underserved students. Continuing educational development work, Phong hopes to expand access to and improve the quality of science education in Vietnam and the U.S.

Phong plans on pursuing a PhD in physics, and hopes to become a professor in condensed matter physics who also works to reform science education. Through this work, he seeks to exemplify the Buddhist virtues of dāna, prajñā, and mettā.

Seyedeh Maryam Zekavat '15

Seyedeh Maryam Zekavat was born in Shiraz, Iran, and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was five years old. As a child, she watched her mother pursue a degree in mathematics and her father a degree in electrical engineering, all while learning English and integrating into a new way of life. Zekavat developed a strong passion for math, which evolved into an interest in leveraging computational modeling and data science for personalized and precision medicine.

While working on her undergraduate degree in biological engineering, Zekavat became interested in applying computational methods to improve mechanistic understanding of disease and to motivate new paths for disease prevention, diagnostics, and treatments. Her research included designing a pharmacokinetic model of engineered biomarkers for early cancer detection at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, a 3-D in vitro model of the blood-brain barrier through MIT’s Amgen-UROP Scholars Program, and a simulation pipeline for brain scans at Massachusetts General Hospital.

At MIT, Zekavat was active in medical hackathons, the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, and the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program. She led community outreach programs with Women in Science and Engineering to inspire young girls to enter STEM fields.

After graduating in 2015, Zekavat joined the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as a computational biologist, seeking to better grasp how computational sciences can be directly applied to big-data analytics to inform the medical care of individual patients. She will be starting an MD-PhD program in the fall.

Inspirational new Americans

Daisy M. Soros and Paul Soros, both Hungarian immigrants, founded the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans in 1997. Since 2013, a total of 16 MIT students and alumni have won Soros Fellowships. In addition to receiving funding for the graduate program of their choice, each award recipient joins a lifelong community of New American Fellows.

More information about the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, and the 2017 class of fellows, can be found at the program’s website. Applications for the 2018 fellowships open on April 19, and are due by November 1. Students interested in applying should contact the Office of Distinguished Fellowships.

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