Five Yale-affiliated New Americans win Soros Fellowships for graduate study
As an 8-year-old newly arrived immigrant from Seoul, South Korea, Eric Hoyeon Song didn’t speak English when he first went to school in Buena Vista, California. Making the foreign experience even more alien, he first entered his classroom to see everyone dressed strangely. It was Halloween.
Song is one of two Yale M.D./Ph.D. candidates who are among the 30 graduate students nationwide awarded Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, which are given to immigrants and children of immigrants to support their graduate education. The other Yale student, Stefano Giovanni Daniele, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Italian immigrants.
Also honored with the fellowships are three alumni: Adrienne Minh-Châu Lê ’14, a doctoral student at Columbia University; Saul Ramirez ’19 J.D., a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University; and Wendy Sun ’18, an M.D./Ph.D. student at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Chosen from a pool of 2,211 applicants, a record-breaking number, the fellows were 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 and Daisy Soros Fellows are the children of immigrants, green card holders, naturalized citizens, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, or visa holders who graduated from both high school and college in the United States.
“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.”
The fellowship program was founded by Hungarian immigrants Daisy M. Soros and her late husband, Paul Soros (1926-2013) to honor continuing generations of immigrant contributions to the United States.
Daniele’s parents came to the United States from the agricultural town of Bracigliano, Italy. Growing up, Daniele helped his parents establish financial security in their new country by loading cargo trucks in his father’s warehouse and selling handmade gift baskets with his mother at local fairs.
At Georgetown University, he was motivated to study the brain after witnessing his mother’s struggles with depression and his grandmother’s Parkinson’s disease. He researched Parkinson’s under the mentorship of Kathleen Maguire-Zeiss, professor in Georgetown’s Department of Neuroscience, and was selected as an undergraduate Howard Hughes Research Scholar before being awarded the Excellence in Research Prize for his senior thesis. He also won the Taylor-Weber Scholarship for the highest level of academic achievement in the biology department.
After earning his B.S. in neurobiology, Daniele conducted full-time research in Maguire-Zeiss’ lab, publishing his work on how immune cells of the brain become activated in Parkinson’s.
At Yale, his doctoral work under the mentorship of Professor Nenad Sestan is centered on developing the BrainEx technology and investigating its ability to restore circulation and cellular function in the brain multiple hours after death. His Ph.D. is in neuroscience. His work has shown that the brain has an underappreciated resilience to prolonged interruptions of blood flow, laying the groundwork for future advancements in stroke and cardiac arrest research. He is the National Italian-American Foundation Giargiari Medical Scholar, a cofounder of the Harvey Cushing Neurological Society, and a member of the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 in the science category.
“To me, being a New American means having the special ability of choosing the best parts of your or your family’s immigration story and hardships and applying them to the opportunities only available in the United States to create something truly unique and beneficial to society,” Daniele told The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship program.
Song said he recalls his early days at school in the United States whenever he navigates new challenges and environments. His parents faced financial, emotional, and mental challenges as they were acclimating to life in their new country. He cofounded a nonprofit organization called Project L in support of his goal of providing children with better opportunities, and worked at Teach for America as a campus campaign coordinator during his time at the University of Southern California (USC). After earning his biochemistry degree from USC, he earned a master’s degree at The Johns Hopkins University, performing research on optimizing gene delivery methods that could help brain tumor and cystic fibrosis patients.
At Yale, he has continued to develop drug delivery systems to treat brain tumors under the mentorship of Professor Mark Saltzman. His research focuses on brain tumors but now includes an immunological perspective (his Ph.D. is in immunology) along with his engineering training. Working with his Ph.D. mentor Professor Akiko Iwasaki, he identified a key limiting factor in invoking an immune response against brain tumors, a study that was published in the journal Nature. He wants to continue working on translational research that can one day provide new therapies for patients. Ultimately, he envisions leading an interdisciplinary team that provides chronically ill children with medical help, and is devoted to scientific research that can cure disease while integrating aspects of a child’s development, social stability, and emotional learning.
“The willingness to embrace the new, the strange, and the in-need is distinctly (New) American to me,” said Song. “This means building off of not only my past experiences, but my communities’ hard work and effort in creating a space where new people from all backgrounds can join and feel welcomed. I will always live with this in mind and hope to accomplish work that will reflect the importance of people and community in creating place for future generations of New Americans.”
Lê is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who fled Saigon in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Her parents met in the United States and settled down in in suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina. Lê said she came to understand her heritage and identity through Buddhism, a religious tradition that taught her to embrace the complex history of her family.
In her scholarly work, Lê seeks to further understanding of the past in order to help heal the wounds of the Vietnam War. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Columbia University with a focus on civil society during the war, anti-colonial movements, and global migration. Her dissertation will tell a story of the Vietnamese Buddhist anti-war movement.
At Yale, Lê received a B.A. in history and was awarded a department prize for her thesis on how Vietnamese women shaped and responded to changing ideas of femininity, morality, and patriotism during the French colonial era. Before starting her doctoral studies, she worked for four years as a digital campaigner and nonprofit strategy consultant in New York City, collaborating with a range of organizations focused on refugee resettlement, women’s rights, gun reform, creative technology, and civil participation. She is ordained in the Order of Interbeing, a community in the Lam Tê tradition of Buddhist meditative practice.
“Being a New American means dedicating my lifetime to carving a space for belonging and putting down roots for my community in the U.S.,” Lê said. “It also means helping to build a bridge back to our past. I want future generations of Vietnamese Americans to be able to know our history, to reconnect with the pain and beauty of it, and to understand who we are and why we are here.”
Ramirez was born in the United States and raised in Santa Ana, California, a predominantly working-class Spanish-speaking, immigrant community. His parents had relocated from El Sabino, an impoverished rural town in Guanajuato, Mexico. Their education had been limited to grade school, and they supported their six children by working in low-paying, precarious jobs for over 40 years.
Ramirez graduated from the University of California-Berkeley, where he majored in Chicano and ethnic studies and minored in education and global poverty and practice. He completed an honors thesis that analyzed Central American unaccompanied immigrant minors’ experiences. His legal internships during college cemented his desire to pursue law, particularly to mitigate the immigration- and criminal-law-related consequences some of his loved ones experienced.
At Yale Law School, he was awarded the C. LaRue Munson Prize for representing clients and undertaking policy advocacy through the Advanced Criminal Justice Clinic, Advanced Sentencing Clinic, Advanced Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, and Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic. He was the vice president of the Latinx Law Students Association, alumni chair of First-Generation Professionals, and co-director of the Rebellious Lawyering Conference. He served as a research assistant to law professors James Forman Jr. and Issa Kohler-Hausmann. Mentoring he received from Yale sociologist Monica Bell informed his aspiration to study sociology at the doctoral level.
As a Ph.D. student at Harvard, Ramirez hopes to generate legal and sociological scholarship on “crimmigration,” the intersection of immigration and criminal justice systems. He hopes to eradicate mass incarceration and deportations, issues that impact families like his own.
“For me, being a New American has a two-fold meaning,” Ramirez said. “On the one hand, I have encountered and transcended education-, income-, and language-related adversity, which has thankfully made me a resilient person. On the other hand, I have had the privilege of pursuing my passion for social justice through the academic, personal, and professional milestones I have reached thus far.”
Sun was born in Jinan, China, and immigrated to the United States before kindergarten. As she adjusted to life as a New American, she discovered that her family’s struggle to obtain nutritious foods was a common experience for those on food stamps, and learned how unhealthy food choices contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
At Yale, where she majored with distinction in neuroscience, Sun spearheaded wellness initiatives, wrote for a campus food and health publication, and conducted research on the neural mechanisms of food choice, regulation of craving, and behavioral change. She received a $20,000 research award from Yale and was a co-first author on a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She is also first author of several forthcoming manuscripts. Her non-academic writing has been featured in Business Insider, USA Today, and Yahoo! News.
Following her training in the Harvard-MIT M.D./Ph.D. program, Sun plans to become a psychiatrist-neuroscientist. She aims to conduct cognitive neuroscience research and translate her scientific findings into new therapies with the goal of developing and improving treatments for diet-related diseases.
“Being a New American means overcoming challenges and making the most of new opportunities,” said Sun. “To me, it has meant discovering my passion for helping others through neuroscience and clinical care. I would not be where I am without the excellent opportunities that being a New American has brought to me, and I am proud to be part of this community.”
The new Soros Fellows join a community of recipients from past years, which includes former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, California Surgeon-General Nadine Burke-Harris, Stanford AI leader Fei-Fei Li, computational biologist Pardis Sabeti, legal expert Jeannie Suk-Gersen, and award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang, and more than 650 other New American leaders.
“Once again, we are delighted with this year’s awards for our Yale applicants,” said Rebekah Westphal, director of the Office of Fellowship Programs. “Any student looking for support in this fellowships process may contact us for advice and support with practice interviews via the Office of Fellowships and Funding.”