A Banner Season for CUNY Student Awards

Two CUNY seniors have won $100,000 Math for America Fellowships to pursue careers teaching math in New York City’s public schools, while one graduating senior and two CUNY graduates won coveted National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships and outstanding students secured other leading academic awards, making this a banner spring for award winners.

The other top awards include two $30,000 Harry S. Truman Scholarships for graduate study leading to careers in government or public service and four $7,500 undergraduate Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships to encourage careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering. Ten undergraduates have won Jeannette K. Watson Fellowships. And earlier this school year, a CUNY student won the top academic honor: a Rhodes Scholarship.

“CUNY students are winning more highly competitive awards and scholarships than at any time in our history,” said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. “The University is attracting an ever-growing number of outstanding students systemwide, and that’s particularly due to our Macaulay Honors College, which is home to many of this year’s winners. These successes demonstrate the quality of CUNY students, assisted by a world-class faculty.”

Math for America (MfA) is a privately funded nonprofit organization whose generous stipends and continuing support separate it from other organizations that encourage people to go into public school teaching. In New York City, MfA teachers receive a $30,000 stipend plus full-tuition scholarship for a master’s degree in mathematics education in the first year; the remaining $70,000 is paid over the next four years, when fellows also earn a regular teacher’s salary.

“I’m ecstatic,” said winner Ann Marie Alcocer, a Lehman College senior. ”I was encouraged by the fact that other Lehman students have won it.” Indeed, she is the fourth Lehman student to earn an MfA Fellowship. “Maybe by teaching students in middle school, I can give them the skills they need to succeed in high school,” she said.

Said Lehman mathematics and computer science professor Katherine St. John:  “Ann Marie really wants to teach, and she has earned the best scholarship in her field.”

CUNY’s other MfA winner, Jian Liu of The City College, will receive a B.A. in pure mathematics with minors in secondary math education and physics this spring. “This is an incredible honor,” he said. “It’s an extremely competitive program and a major boost to my plans to become a math teacher.”

A Chinese immigrant who arrived in New York six years ago speaking only basic English, he will attend either Bard College or New York University – MfA’s two collaborating math education master’s programs – starting this summer. He has been a teaching assistant at Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, The City College Academy of the Arts, the Mott Hall School and A. Philip Randolph Campus High School.

National Science Foundation Grants

Four CUNY students won awards under the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which is geared to assuring the vitality and diversity of America’s scientific and engineering workforce: Lina Mercedes Gonzalez (Hunter College, 2009) is earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University; mathematician Arthur Jacob Parzygnat (Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, 2010), now at the CUNY Graduate Center, explores topological quantum field theory; Evangeleen Pattison (City College 2010), now in a sociology Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin, examines student success in the sciences; and Anthony Pang (City College 2011), will study spacecraft propulsion at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Gonzalez’s research is part of a broad quest to deliver drugs to the specific site where they’re needed. The NSF granted her $90,000 over three years to work on a “swimmer” drug-delivery vehicle. The swimmer – measured in micrometers (hundredths of a centimeter) – is made of polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS, a silicon-based organic polymer that’s used in everything from contact lenses to shampoos. Call it a nanobot, a tiny robot that can be injected into the body to perform medical procedures.

To work, the swimmer needs two systems – guidance and propulsion.

For guidance, Gonzalez turns to infinitesimally small magnetic particles that are naturally manufactured by magnetotactic bacteria. She extracts these particles and inserts them into the swimmer. Once the swimmer is in the body, it can be guided by external magnets.

For propulsion, she is working on a “pea whistle” system that’s roughly analogous to a basketball coach’s whistle; when it’s blown, air is forced into a chamber and exits through a slot; a “pea” bounces in the chamber, producing a warbling sound. Gonzalez said that in the swimmer, a microscale pressure tank will do the blowing and provide the propulsion. (Other researchers take a different tack to nanobot propulsion, trying to emulate flagella, the tail-like parts of many types of cells.)

Gonzalez conducts her research with Carnegie Mellon professor Philip R. LeDuc and professor William C. Messner, who are collaborating on ways to probe cellular mechanics using microfluidics, mechanatronics and control theory.

Gonzalez, who expects to earn her doctorate within three years, intends to become a professor with her own lab. “The math, physics and chemistry I took at Hunter have helped a lot,” she said. She particularly credits Hunter physics professor Steven G. Greenbaum “for guiding me throughout my undergraduate career.” Among other things, he encouraged her to twice work at Caltech, where she “interacted with mechanical engineers and bioengineers, and that helped me make a decision to pursue a career as a mechanical engineer.”

Parzygnat, who describes himself as a mathematical physicist, received a $30,000 NSF grant payable over three years. He said his interest is in understanding quantum field theory (a description of our universe which occurs at the intersection of quantum mechanics and relativity) from a mathematically rigorous point of view.

Rather than working with Feynman path integrals,  which physicists use extensively for computations, mathematicians look at the underlying structure of particle interactions. These seem to be best described by one-dimensional graphs, but analysis hasn’t been developed for such objects. Therefore, most modern research involves a two- or higher-dimensional “tubed” version of these objects. Seeking a new pathway, Parzygnat will utilize topology, algebra and category theory to again consider one-dimensional versions.

If this sounds abstruse, it is. Are there practical payoffs? Perhaps, but the applications of many areas of mathematics have taken years to become evident.

Parzygnat veered into mathematics as a freshman thanks to the Macaulay Honors College, when he got advice on what math course to take from a Macaulay junior, Joseph Hirsch, who now also is working toward his Ph.D. in math at the Graduate Center (Parzygnat’s doctorate will be in physics, possibly in 2015). “He advised me to take an honors abstract algebra course. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was too advanced for me, and I didn’t do phenomenal, but I learned I wanted to go into math. I wanted a real challenge and I knew I’d be in good company,” Parzygnat said.

Evangeleen Pattison, now working toward a doctorate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, received a $30,000 NSF stipend in each of three years, plus her university will receive $10,500 a year to support her work. She will explore how race and ethnicity factor into widely varying higher-education completion rates among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors.

In general, students who declare STEM majors are less likely to finish than those in other fields, but non-Asian racial and ethnic minorities have the highest attrition rates, she explained. Although 33 percent of whites and 42 percent of Asians who start STEM degrees complete them, there’s far greater attrition in other groups, according to 2010 statistics from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Approximately 22 percent of Hispanics, 18 percent of African-Americans and 19 percent of Native Americans who initially declare a STEM major finish those degrees.

“I will investigate what happens to underrepresented minorities who declare a STEM major in college but do not complete a STEM degree.  Specifically, I will focus on the social processes operating within the undergraduate universities these students attend,” Pattison said.

“These disparities are troubling on equity grounds but also problematic in terms of sustaining the country’s STEM labor force, given that underrepresented minorities will soon constitute the majority of the population [by 2050, the Census Bureau predicts]. Many researchers have thoroughly investigated the role of academic preparation on STEM outcomes. Developing a more complete understanding of social processes can provide policymakers and postsecondary institutions with the ability to address gaps in STEM degree completion,” she said.

Pang, who received an NSF grant of $121,500 over three years, will work toward a doctorate with MIT professor Manuel Martinez-Sanchez on plasma dynamic simulations for space thrusters. Already offered a fully paid research assistantship for the project, Pang will develop simulations for both plasma thrusters and ionospheric interactions with spacecraft.

“Long distance, interplanetary space exploration missions are most viable with advanced plasma propulsion engines and, as such, it is a priority to expand our understanding of the field,” Pang said. Martinez-Sanchez, director of the MIT Space Propulsion Laboratory (SPL), has pioneered the development of radio-frequency propulsion systems and is known for research on Hall thrusters and electrospray propulsion. “With time and extensive effort, Martinez-Sanchez’s work could make the Mars mission a reality,” Pang said.

As a City College undergraduate, Pang has already ventured toward space with Professor Charles Watkins, for two years working on CUNY’s multicampus “cubesat” program. In this NASA initiative, students design small but very real satellites that the space agency launches during its big-science missions; he worked on the structures, mechanisms and thermal control subsystem team. Earlier, he worked on robotics with professor Jizhong Xiao, then joined a student initiative to modify a Lister diesel engine to run on biofuel made from the oil-rich seeds of the jatropha plant.

Last summer he did computer modeling at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of research into the movement of polar and Greenland ice sheets. “We looked at how the propagation of meltwater from ice sheets affects lubrication under the ice sheets and accelerates the process; the faster the ice sheets move, the faster they become icebergs, melt and cause the sea to rise,” he said

As a Colin Powell Fellow and president of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, Pang initiated and is still involved in a community outreach program where undergraduates teach engineering classes at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering on the City College campus.

Truman Scholars

The two Truman scholars are Ayodele Oti of Macaulay Honors College at The City College of New York and Gareth Rhodes of City College and the CUNY Baccalaureate program. They graduate this spring.

Oti is majoring in international studies and focusing on sustainable development and environmental public health. This spring, she is in Costa Rica, studying Spanish, tropical marine biology and Latin America under a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. Her career goal is to advise governments in developing countries about public health programs, particularly to improve maternal and child health.

Rhodes, who earned his baccalaureate in three years, studies political economy and public policy. He is a Colin Powell Fellow and is in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in legal studies. He interned with Andrew Cuomo, both as attorney general and as governor, the White House scheduling office and Rep. Charles Rangel’s Harlem office. “From these internships,” he wrote, “I have gained an appreciation and interest in the role of government and public policy in the livelihoods of ordinary Americans.”

Goldwater  Scholars

The University’s four Goldwater scholars, all class of 2012, intend to enroll in doctoral programs. They are:

  • Mark Barahman of the Macaulay Honors College at the College of Staten Island (also a Horace W. Goldsmith scholar). A biochemistry major, he grew up in Israel, where as a teen he worked for an emergency medical organization. In college, he worked first with professor Abdeslem el Idrissi on neuroscience and now with professor Alan Lyons on superhydrophobic (extremely water-repelling) surfaces. He constructed and programmed a 3-D printer now used by other researchers to fabricate surfaces with special properties.
  • Joseph Cammarata, of the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College (also an Andrew W. Mellon scholar). Majoring in biological sciences with a minor in chemistry, he intends to pursue a Ph.D. in synthetic biology. Last summer he studied with Dr. Zach Lippman, a plant geneticist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. At Hunter, he works with biophotonics professor Diana Bratu.
  • Celine Joiris, Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College (also a Horace W. Goldsmith scholar). Majoring in psychology and concentrating in neuroscience, she received a Harcourt Fellowship for undergraduate science research this spring. She studied the effects of stress on kinase Mz, a protein linked to learning and memory, under Hunter professor Peter Serrano and a collaborating lab at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. At Johns Hopkins University last summer, she researched neural systems. She now studies with Dr. Michael Long at the NYU Smilow Neuroscience Center, examining the neural mechanisms that govern the timing required for intricate motor skills, using the song of the zebra finch as her model.
  • Johnson Shiuan-Jiun Ho, Macaulay Honors College at City College. Majoring in biomedical engineering, he intends to improve clinical intervention in neuropsychiatric disorders. Since 2008 he has worked in professor Marom Bikson’s neural engineering laboratory. He now is on a team that, in part, investigates mechanisms of electric field effects on synaptic plasticity in the rat motor cortex. He is named as a team member on two of Bikson’s patent applications, one for a method of reducing discomfort during electrostimulation and the other for a method of neurocranial electrostimulation.

Rhodes Scholar

CUNY’s seventh Rhodes Scholar, Zujaja Tauqeer, a history major at the Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College (2011), won her award last December. She also participates in Brooklyn Colleges’ combined B.A-M.D. program with the New York State Downstate College of Medicine. For her Rhodes study, she plans to pursue an M. Phil. in the history of medicine, concentrating on the relationship between state and science in her native Pakistan. Her parents, both physicians, sought asylum in the United States after her father was arrested and vandals destroyed her parents’ free, rural clinic because they belong to the Ahmadi sect of Islam.

Watson Fellowships

In addition, CUNY freshmen and sophomores won 10 of the 15 Jeannette K. Watson Fellowships, which provide freshmen and sophomores with three years of paid summer internships for professional and personal leadership. They are:

  • Kyle Athayde (2013), Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. With broad interests in English, political science and finance, he aspires to work in politics, writing or education.
  • Esthena Brutten (2013), Brooklyn College. A participant in the college’s peer mentoring program with interests in creative writing and Spanish literature, she works with freshmen, discussing topics like financial aid, plagiarism and study skills. She intends to pursue a career in childhood education or psychology.
  • Michelle Chan (2013), Macaulay Honors College at Queens College. Her interest in becoming a public interest lawyer arose last summer, when she worked on a community health initiative for school-age children in Chinatown. Fluent in English and Cantonese, she is majoring in English.
  • Agnieszka Gugala (2014), Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. Fluent in English and Polish, she volunteers at a Polish supplementary school and tutors math at East Side Community High School. She is considering majoring in math, psychology, art and political science.
  • Elizabeth Kelman (2013), Macaulay Honors College at The City College of New York. A premedical student, she aspires to a career in medicine, public health, public policy advocacy and/or political activism. She helped organize the City Agriculture Network and a community kitchen garden at CCNY.
  • Nicholas Macaluso (2014), Macaulay Honors College at The City College of New York. An engineering major, he intends to work as an engineer for a not-for-profit or nongovernmental humanitarian organization.
  • Katelyn McQuater (2013), Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College. She won a coveted editorial internship at Penguin Books last summer, one of 40 interns chosen from 2,400 applicants. She aspires to a career involving writing.
  • Paul Olivier (2013), College of Staten Island. He has strong interests in international studies, creative writing and English. He hopes to become a Navy SEAL and then to work as a diplomat or defense analyst.
  • Sophia Perlaza (2013), Lehman College. She plans on double-majoring in Italian and political science, with an eye on law or teaching English as a second language. She volunteers with We Are New York, teaching English to new immigrants in the city. She also worked to increase the college’s activity fee in hopes of developing a more vibrant extracurricular life for students.
  • Jose Esteban Rodriguez-Alverio (2014), City College. He hopes to major in theater, film or political science. While in high school, he participated in the All Stars Program “Youth on Stage” and “Young Producers” projects, as well as the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Young Film Critics Program.

The City University of New York is the nation’s leading urban public university. Founded in New York City in 1847 as The Free Academy, the University’s 23 institutions include 11 senior colleges, six community colleges, the William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, the Graduate School and University Center, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, the CUNY School of Law, the CUNY School of Professional Studies and the CUNY School of Public Health. The University serves 262,000 academic credit students and 269,808 adult, continuing and professional education students. College Now, the University’s academic enrichment program for 32,500 high school students, is offered at CUNY campuses and more than 300 high schools throughout the five boroughs of New York City. The University offers online baccalaureate degrees through the School of Professional Studies and an individualized baccalaureate through the CUNY Baccalaureate Degree. More than one million visitors and two million page views are served each month by www.cuny.edu, the University’s website.