Seven ‘New Americans’ with Yale ties win Soros Fellowships

Thirty fellows were chosen from among a pool of 2,445 applicants for the fellowships, which provide up to $90,000 in funding to support their graduate study.
Headshots of seven people.

Top row: Nikolas Oktaba, Katherine Fang, Harold Ekeh, Ryan Dz-Wei Chow; Bottom row: Jonathan Herrera Soto, James Diao, Sergio Infante

A Yale doctoral student whose mother fled to the United States after helping to overthrow the Communist regime in Poland and an incoming School of Art student whose artwork documents and celebrates his family’s Mexican heritage are among seven Yale affiliates selected to receive the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, a merit-based graduate school program for immigrants and the children of immigrants.

Thirty fellows nationwide were chosen from among a pool of 2,445 applicants for the fellowships, which provide up to $90,000 in funding to support their graduate study. Eligible “New Americans” include green card holders, naturalized citizens, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, individuals born abroad who graduated from both high school and college in the United States, and the U.S.-born children of two immigrants. They were selected for their potential to make significant contributions to the United States.

The seven Yale affiliates include current students Katherine Fang, a 2017 Yale College graduate who is now studying toward joint J.D./Ph.D. at Yale Law School and the School of Management; Nikolas Oktaba, a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences; and Ryan Chow, an M.D./Ph.D. student in genetics at the School of Medicine and Graduate School, respectively. The other 2021 Soros Fellows include two students who will enter Yale in the fall: Jonathan Herrera Soto, who will work toward an M.F.A. in painting/printmaking at the Yale School of Art, and Sergio Infante, a 2018 Yale College graduate who will pursue a Ph.D. in history; as well as two Yale College alumni, Harold Ekeh ’20, who plans to study law, and James Diao ’18, who is a medical student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences & Technology.

Once again, we have an outstanding group of Yale Soros Fellows, and it is wonderful to see four Yale College alumni included in this year’s cohort,” said Rebekah Westphal, director of the Office of Fellowship Programs and assistant dean of Yale College.

In addition to receiving up to $90,000 in funding for the graduate program of their choice, the 2021 fellows join a community of past recipients who serve as an active alumni network. Previous fellows include U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; Olympians Amy Chow and Patricia Miranda; First Lady Jill Biden’s Chief of Staff Julissa Reynosos Pantaléon; author and journalist Aarti Shahani; computational biologist Pardis Aabeti; and more than 680 other individuals.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows demonstrate the immense contributions that immigrants of all backgrounds make to the United States,” said Craig Harwood, fellowship director, of the new Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows. “Each 2021 fellow is a reminder of what is best about this country. Their stories and work fill me with a deep sense of hope for our nation’s future.”

Biographies of this year’s Yale-connected Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows follow. More information on each fellow can be found on the fellowship’s website.

Ryan Dz-Wei Chow was born in San José, California to Taiwanese immigrants who came to the United States in pursuit of educational opportunities. Chow grew up in Silicon Valley and was a nationally ranked junior tennis player. He became interested in regenerative medicine after experiencing a variety of injuries. In high school, while working one summer in the laboratory of Irving Weissman at Stanford University, he became fascinated with the processes that underlie tissue repair and how the dysregulation of these normal regenerative mechanisms can lead to cancer.

Chow majored in developmental and regenerative biology at Harvard College, with a minor in music. There, he conducted prize-winning laboratory work investigating the mechanisms by which lung cancers can shapeshift into different subtypes. At Yale, Chow conducts research in the laboratory of Sidi Chen, associate professor at Yale School of Medicine. His doctoral work focuses on engineering the immune system to eliminate cancers. His scientific contributions to date include the discovery of mutations that sensitize tumors to immunotherapy, the invention of a therapeutic modality that overrides the immune-sensitive camouflage used by tumors, and the identification of genes that restrain the ability of immune cells to destroy tumors. He plans to become a physician-scientist specializing in medical oncology.

Katherine Fang was born in Houston, where she was raised by parents and grandparents from China. After graduating with a degree in global affairs and modern Middle East studies from Yale College, she spent a year teaching English and working on refugee policy at the United States Development Program’s Middle East Regional Office in Amman, Jordan, as a Fulbright Scholar. She has also served as a speechwriter at the International Organization for Migration headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Before entering law school, she was an economic research associate at Harvard Business School, where she investigated issues of gender equity in the labor market. 

As a joint J.D./Ph.D. candidate at Yale, Fang has pursued projects focused on access to public benefits and criminal justice reform. She co-runs the Capital Assistance Project, which pairs law student interns with legal aid organizations seeking to overturn the death penalty. She is a research assistant at The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Harvard University, where she aids retired federal Judge Nancy Gertner in ongoing academic projects and is developing a training program to encourage federal judges to integrate scientific evidence on addiction and mental health into sentencing decisions. She also collaborates with California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu on the Portrait Project 2.0, an empirical study into Asian American representation in law and politics. A former Kerry Initiative Fellow, she recently interned at the Georgia Justice Project in Atlanta, where she worked on an initiative to ensure COVID-19 relief checks remained in the hands of incarcerated individuals. As a Soros Fellow, she plans to continue studying how to build a more responsive, inclusive government.

Nikolas Oktaba was born in New York City to a single mother who came to the United States seeking opportunity and safety from reprisal after helping to overthrow the Communist regime of her native Poland. Raised in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Oktaba’s greatest solace was its small public library. Though he often had to miss school to help his mother in her job as a house cleaner, he always carried a stack of books to read when time permitted.

Oktaba attended Fordham University in New York and then the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He studied classics, exploring how classical texts still inform discussions of identity and selfhood today. He also pursued his interest in narrative, with a particular focus on trauma, and by learning directly from those impacted by it. He received a Beinecke Scholarship and the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to pursue this work. Oktaba has continued to investigate trauma from different perspectives, including deepening his understanding of it through Himalayan Buddhism while traveling to Asia with the Luce Scholars Program. 

As a Yale doctoral student in comparative literature, Oktaba is continuing his exploration of trauma, paranoia, and genocide. Joining activism and academic rigor, he seeks to study and address trauma in holistic and empathetic ways that are not restricted to the academy. He believes that emotional factors such as fear and anxiety can lead to the spread of trauma and paranoid thinking, creating an atmosphere of conspiracy which, he said, is a boon to the sort of tyranny his mother sought to escape.

Sergio Infante was born in Bogotá, Colombia and moved with his parents to Houston when he was five. His father was a physics teacher and his mother taught Spanish. The year he arrived in the United States, the world was transformed by the 9/11 terrorist attack and an ensuing war in the Middle East that caused hundreds of thousands of families to move from their homelands.

Infante obtained a B.A. in history at Yale and an M.Phil. in modern South Asian studies at the University Cambridge. He earned top academic honors at both institutions as well as prizes recognizing his scholarship in international relations, South Asian studies, French, and Portuguese. As an editor at Foreign Affairs, he saw how academia and journalism could be combined to their mutual benefit. Also noticing a lack of writing on the contributions of migrant laborers to the making of the modern world, he set out to fill that gap.

Infante will start a Ph. D. in global and transnational history at Yale in the fall. He hopes to write a dissertation about the journey that Latin American and European workers took to French Guiana in the 1960s and 1970s to build the “European spaceport” there. In this and other projects, Infante aims to capture the ways the Cold War, European imperialism, and technological change have shaped material lives and aspirations across the world.

Jonathan Herrera Soto was born in Chicago, Illinois to undocumented parents who are originally from Iguala, Mexico. They immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s. As the first U.S citizen in his immediate family, Herrera Soto  grew up with an awareness that he occupied a different world than his loved ones — a world in-between permissibility and illegitimacy, Spanish and English, and citizen and refugee.

Witnessing the injustices his family members faced as non-citizens, Herrera Soto viewed his family as one still on a migration journey: his parents physically arrived but not accepted, and his own journey an extension of theirs. He began archiving stories around him and was accepted into Chicago’s first public arts high school, graduating in its 2013 inaugural class. There he began making artwork about his family’s immigration story.

He continued his education at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he had minors in creative writing, art history, and teaching. He found his voice through the medium of printmaking. He received the Van Derlip Award, given annually to one graduating senior from each department and voted to be speaker of his graduating class. Since graduating with his B.F.A. in 2017, Herrera Soto has maintained a full-time studio practice. He has participated in numerous artist residencies around the country, including the Emis Center for Contemporary Arts in Nebraska, the Kala Art Institute in California, Yaddo in New York, the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico, and the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minnesota. He is a recent recipient of the Santo Foundation Individual Art Award, Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, Metro Regional Arts Council Next Step Grant, and the Brown University Artist Initiative Community Development Grant.

Harold Ekeh, who was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, moved to the United States with his parents and siblings when he was eight. His father went from working at the helm of a civil engineering company in Ananbra State to selling ties and threads at a suit supply store in Queens, New York, and his mother worked at a local Target. Ekeh went to high school in Elmont, New York, where he was an Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist and went on to be the first in his family to go to college.

At Yale, he built on his interests in healthcare policy and law, majoring in political science and government. He worked as a legislative fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus during his sophomore summer where he developed a passion for voting rights after learning more about the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the resulting policy implications for Black and Brown communities. In the fall of 2017, he cofounded Every Vote Counts (EVC), a student-led, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout nationwide and expanding voter access. Ekeh oversees EVC’s growing chapter network, student advisory board, and national strategy. He also works as the special assistant to the president of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Ekeh’s writing has been published in major publications, including the Washington Post and Buzzfeed News. As legal challenges that seek to undermine ballot access surge, especially in minority communities, Ekeh is eager to defend the rights of the disenfranchised and under-resourced.

James Diao grew up in the large Chinatown district of Houston, where he was first raised by his grandparents. When his grandparents returned to Jiangxian, China, he continued to spend every summer with them and his extended family. In the United States, his family later moved to Ford Bend, Texas. Living by the largest medical center in the world piqued his interest in health care. Inspired by his parents’ love of programming and their experiences under Maoism, he also was fascinated by the responsible development of technology. He worked at Apple, where he led projects to validate wearable health features in diverse populations, and also at PathAI, where he built learning models to broaden access to pathologist services. 

At Yale, where he majored in statistics and biochemistry, Diao worked under Professor Mark Gerstein at the School of Medicine to standardize analyses of exRNA biomarkers. At Harvard, he worked under Professor Arjun Manrai to study the impacts of clinical guidelines on marginalized groups. Research that he led, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA, showed that up to 1 million Black Americans may receive unequal kidney care due to their race. His other works on machine learning and precision medicine have appeared in the journals Cell and Nature, among other publications. Following his medical and scientific training, he hopes to give voice to patient perspectives in the development and evaluation of healthcare technology.

Students interested in 2022 Soros Fellowships can contact the Office of Fellowships and Funding for advising and practice interviews.

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