Six ‘New Americans’ with Yale ties win Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships

Three current Yale students and three recent graduates have received Soros fellowships, which support graduate study for immigrants or children of immigrants.
Philsan Isaak, Shyamala Ramakrishna, Beshouy Botros, Omair M. Khan, Zhanlin (Flynn) Chen, and Cinthia Zavala Ramos

Top row, left to right, Philsan Isaak, Shyamala Ramakrishna, and Beshouy Botros. Second row, Omair M. Khan,  Zhanlin (Flynn) Chen, and Cinthia Zavala Ramos. (Photos by Christopher Smith)

Two Yale Law School students — one born to Somalian immigrants and the other to parents from India — and a Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS) who was born in Egypt are among those receiving 2023 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, a merit-based program that supports graduate study for immigrants or children of immigrants.

Three Yale alumni pursuing graduate studies at other universities have also been awarded Soros fellowships.

The Yale winners are Beshouy Botros, a doctoral student at the GSAS; Philsan Isaak and Shyamala Ramakrishna, both J.D. candidates at Yale Law School; Zhanlin (Flynn) Chen ’20,  ’22 M.A., now a medical student at Northwestern University; Cinthia Zavala Ramos ’21, who is now a J.D. candidate at New York University; and Omair M. Khan ’19, an M.D./Ph.D. student at Stanford University.

The 30 fellowship recipients were selected from nearly 2,000 applicants.

Immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees have and continue to make our nation stronger,” said Craig Harwood, director of the fellowship. “The diverse perspectives and approaches that each fellow this year, and the many who have come before them, brings to their fields and our society is remarkable and inspiring.”

In addition to receiving up to $90,000 in funding for their graduate study, the 2023 fellows join an active community of past recipients, including more than 110 from Yale since the fellowship was established in 1998.

Previous Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows include U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the first surgeon general of Indian descent, who helped lead the response to Ebola, Zika, and the coronavirus; lawyer Julissa Reynoso, who is the U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra; Damian Williams, the first Black U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee; and composer Paola Prestini, who was named by NPR as one of the “Top 100 Composers in the World.”

Biographies of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship recipients from Yale follow. More about the winners can be found on the fellowship website.

Beshouy Botros was born in Cairo, Egypt, and moved to Los Angeles with their family at the age of five. They settled in a growing community of Egyptians in southern California, where Botros was able to learn using Arabic, English, and Spanish. Their experience navigating the immigration judiciary as a young child and later as a legal professional taught them about how individual lives become “documented.” Botros started an “undocumentary” archive by submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to examine how federal agencies record claimants’ data.

Botros earned a degree in history from Pomona College, writing their thesis on formulations of race in 19th-century Egypt that drew from a unique set of primary sources. At Pomona, they helped coordinate an initiative to support newly resettled refugees, and later continued this work as a case manager at the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance in Chicago. Botros gained a deeper understanding for how stories are told across different mediums and for the practice of studying and writing about the past by engaging in local arts initiatives and curating with the Arab Film and Media Institute.

In 2018, Botros was awarded an Erasmus Mundus Fellowship from the European Commission to pursue a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the University of Granada and Utrecht University, where they worked alongside queer and trans migrant communities from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. At Yale, their research examines the centrality of Northern Africa, specifically Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, within the emergence of trans medicine.

Philsan Isaak was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota to parents who are immigrants from Hargeisa, Somalia. In 1988, both of her parents fled Somalia due to the escalating civil war and state-sponsored genocide of Isaaq civilians during the Somaliland War of Independence. In 1999, after more than a decade apart, they reunited in Minnesota, where they married and started a family. Inspired by her parents’ determination to create a better life for their children, Isaak became committed to using the law as an instrument to create positive change for future generations.

Isaak completed her early years of schooling at an Islamic school where nearly the entire student body was made up of “new Americans” from different regions. Her multilingual and multicultural upbringing fostered an interest in international relations and, ultimately, international law.

At 16, Isaak began full-time enrollment at the University of Minnesota. As she learned more about the sociopolitical factors that contribute to genocide and forced displacement, she began to see her parents’ experiences in a new light — as examples of a covert system of human rights abuses rather than as an exception to the rule. Under the mentorship of Lisa Hilbink and Gabrielle Ferrales at the University of Minnesota, Isaak conducted research on the Darfuri genocide, and edited and published a student magazine covering conflicts across Latin America.

Isaak completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota at just 18. Eager to learn the law and its role in rectifying rights violations globally, she immediately began at Yale Law School, where she is among  the youngest J.D. candidates in attendance.

Shyamala Ramakrishna was born in New York to parents of Tamil heritage from India. Her mother and grandmother, both classical Carnatic musicians, taught her singing, and by the age of four she was performing onstage at South Indian music festivals.

At Yale College, Ramakrishna was a scholar in the selective Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights with a focus on arts and advocacy. She was the music director of Shades, a singing group that centers Black musical traditions and conducts vocal music workshops at underserved public schools around the United States. She worked in legal research at the American Civil Liberties Union and in arts administration at the Asian American Arts Alliance. At Yale, Ramakrishna majored in ethics, politics, and economics, developing a special interest in the American labor movement. During her time in college, she also performed regularly in New York with her band FORAGER.

After graduation, Ramakrishna worked as a fellow with the State of New Jersey, where she contributed to regulations addressing the discriminatory impacts of algorithmic hiring technology and co-proposed a system of portable benefits for vulnerable contingent workers. She also organized as a volunteer with Court Watch NYC and co-founded a national database of policy proposals to redirect police funding to critical community services.

At Yale Law School, Ramakrishna has supported attorneys enforcing workplace protections at the U.S. Department of Labor and has helped to represent unions at the labor-side law firm Cohen, Weiss and Simon LLP. She was awarded a 2023 Peggy Browning Fellowship in workers’ rights law. She also serves as a team lead in Yale’s Tech Accountability and Competition Project, working to address the social harms of big tech products and business models. Ramakrishna plans to dedicate her career to workers’ rights in the “future of work,” including supporting arts workers in their collective efforts to be valued fairly in the age of digital music distribution. She also remains the lead vocalist in FORAGER, selling out venues in New York City and beyond.

Zhanlin (Flynn) Chen, who was born in Huidong, China, identifies as a member of the Hakka sub-ethnic group, whose name translates to “guest families” in Mandarin due to their history of fleeing unrest during the Qing Dynasty. When he was 12 years old, he immigrated to the U.S. with his mother, who is now a cancer biologist at Vanderbilt University. While volunteering in the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, he witnessed the passing of a young girl with brain cancer, which inspired an interest in a medical career.

At  Yale, Chen double majored in computer science and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and later earned a master’s degree from the university in statistics and data science, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Outside of classes, he worked with Professor Mark Gerstein on the ENCODE Consortium, using supercomputers to understand the meaning behind the human genome. He led numerous computational projects and is the first author of several publications in journals such as Bioinformatics, Nature Communications, and Science Advances. He was also an active member of the Yale Concert Band and the Yale Bands Saxophone Quartet, where he played alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones.

During the gap year before medical school, Chen interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Section 347J Perception Systems working on machine learning-based navigation and path planning software for the Mars rover. Mentored by Shreyansh Daftry, Chen published several conference articles, authored a textbook chapter on planetary rovers, and is named one of the primary inventors for his contributions to a patent at NASA.

Currently a medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chen is co-president of the Digital Health and Data Science Interest Group and founding co-president of the Aerospace Medicine Interest Group. He hopes to bring supercomputing to the bedside to identify and solve complex problems in medicine.

Omair Khan was born in New Orleans to immigrants from India who came to the United States to pursue better educational opportunities for themselves and their family. Growing up in in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward he experienced prejudice and discrimination. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, displacing his family for months before they resettled in Chicago. Soon thereafter, Khan’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer, which inspired Khan to pursue a career in medicine.

Khan attended the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a boarding school, where he received a full scholarship. There, he formed an early interest in science and research through the school’s Student Inquiry and Research Program, which allowed Khan to work in the laboratory of Professor Mashkoor Choudhry at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine. Khan published three scientific papers, including in the journals PLOS One and Shock.

At Yale, Khan studied molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and global health studies. Building off his research experience in high school, he spent four years conducting basic science research in the laboratory of Professor Richard Flavell, Sterling Professor of Immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, where he studied T-cell metabolism and mucosal immunology, eventually authoring two scientific papers published in Nature.

During his summers breaks, Khan explored the private sector at a biotechnology startup in Silicon Valley, working as a health care policy intern in the U.S. Senate, and performing global health field work in one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Bangladesh. He currently is an M.D./Ph.D. student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at Stanford University, working to obtain his Ph.D. in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine under the mentorship of Professor Irving Weissman. Khan also works as a senior fellow for ARTIS Ventures, a life science venture capital firm pioneering investments in TechBio and is the inaugural Jim Valentine TechBio Fellow at the Institute of Education, a nonprofit organization committed to engaging the global community to harness the power of data, innovation, and soft diplomacy.

Cinthia Zavala Ramos was born to two farmers in rural Santa Cruz de Yojoa, Honduras. In 2005, escaping imminent gang violence and hoping to join her parents who had migrated earlier, Cinthia, her younger siblings, and her grandmother hired a “coyote” — a person who illegally smuggles people into U.S. — and made the trek on foot into the United States. Zavala Ramos was only six and her youngest sibling had just turned three. On their second try, they crossed into San Antonio, where she says they were detained by ICE in a detention center for three days.

She and her family settled in a trailer park in South Carolina, following the construction boom in the area and the demand for cheap labor. Zavala Ramos  became the first in her family to finish elementary school, the first to learn English, and the first to properly read and write. Her parents had only been able to finish the third grade in rural Honduras.

While in South Carolina, Zavala Ramos saw her family and others in her community fall prey to deportation, exploitation, and violence. Due to anti-immigration sentiment at the height of a contentious national election in 2016, she and her family members were victims of stalking, harassing, and tampering from their neighbors. She says local law enforcement refused to get involved, so Zavala Ramos found a small bank and a real estate agent willing to help her family leave the trailer park. During this time, she managed to pass 11 high school AP classes while also taking courses at a local community college.

In May 2017, she gave a valedictory speech outing her status as a Dreamer,  which went viral online and catalyzed conversation in her state about education for undocumented students.  Zavala Ramos was admitted early to Yale University with full financial aid.

At Yale, Zavala Ramos double majored in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and ethnicity, race, and migration. During her time there, she co-moderated the Chicanx student activist group MEChA de Yale and spent her breaks taking on internships on Capitol Hill with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, community organizations, and legal nonprofits like Asylum Seeker’s Advocacy Organization and Central American Legal Assistance. She worked closely with fellow undocumented immigrants and immigration attorneys to submit I-589 asylum claims for immigrants and file hundreds of DACA renewal applications.

Currently Zavala Ramos is studying at New York University (NYU) School of Law as an AnBryce Scholar, a full-tuition scholarship based on academic merit, leadership, and socioeconomic adversity. There, she is pursuing coursework to prepare her for NYU’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic and is involved in various student affinity groups. After law school, Zavala Ramos aims to use her education and platform to place undocumented perspectives at the center of the immigration conversation, and to shape the legal codes that affect the lives of immigrants.

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