Tandon Faculty First Look Scholars | NYU Tandon School of Engineering

Tandon Faculty First Look Scholars

Meet the 2024 cohort

Group photo of the Tandon Faculty First Look scholars for 2024

Amber Spears

amber spears headshot

Ph.D. Candidate in Civil Engineering at Jackson State University

I was always good at science and math, but it was an initiative called the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP) that really introduced me to the idea of a career in engineering. I won a scholarship to the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering after completing the Summer College Engineering Exposure Program (SCEEP) before my senior year of high school, and that set me on my present course.

Now, at Jackson State University, I’ve been researching how planting easy-to-grow and cost-efficient vetiver grass can mitigate soil erosion and shallow landslides during heavy rains. Not only is it cheaper than traditional solutions — which require heavy machinery to drive piles and build retaining walls, for example — it’s much more sustainable, since it can isolate CO2 from the atmosphere and store the carbon in the soil, while also absorbing heavy metals and other toxic materials.

In addition to my civil engineering work, I’ve always been interested in restorative justice and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I love an acronym I once read about, IDEA, which stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Excellence, and Advancement; you can’t have one without the others, and they all have to be put into action because otherwise, you’re just paying lip service to the concept. That interest actually ties into my civil engineering work: because vetiver grass is an economical and sustainable solution, it is one alternative for under-resourced and over-stressed communities that have increased exposure to natural hazards due to climate change. 

Over the course of my studies, I’ve held both teaching and industry posts, and I’m very focused on practical, hands-on work. No matter where I go next, that will continue to be my focus, but my students will always come first, because they’re the key to the future.

I appreciate being a Faculty First-Look Fellow and want to especially mention Associate Professor Teresa Feroli, who oversees the program and made all of us welcome. I’ve known since I took part in DAPCEP that initiatives like these can be transformational.

Brittany Smith

Brittney Smith Headshot

Ph.D Candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University

My interest in science and technology dates back to childhood, when my father, an electrician, allowed me to help him around the house with projects that molded my love for engineering. In addition to completing hands-on projects, my dad fostered my love for nature through careful observation of animals in nature and watching environmental documentaries together. 

Before coming to Duke, I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut in electrical engineering. As an undergraduate, I was introduced to research through the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program, which allowed me to work on an ingestible device with the ultimate goal of minimizing injury to service members. This experience inspired me to research nanotechnology and wearable sensors at UConn. My current research work melds my disparate interests together: as a doctoral candidate at Duke, I’m investigating sustainable inks and printing processes for flexible electronics, with a focus on novel printing techniques for unconventional electronics and material enhancement.

I am driven to develop new technologies to better understand nature and to find creative solutions to ensure that electronics and nature can coexist sustainably. I hope to find a faculty position that will enable me to further that research in my own lab. I’m also eager to teach; I’ve had the opportunity to guest lecture hundreds of students, and I’ve found it to be a thrilling and rewarding experience. I get a lot of satisfaction from mentoring and am dedicated to increasing diversity in the STEM workforce. I’m a co-founder of Duke’s Engineering Graduate Ambassadors program, which pairs prospective grad students with current ones, and I am motivated to continue such efforts wherever I end up. 

Ellen Yeats

Ellen Yeats Headshot

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Michigan

I was not one of those students who knew in elementary school that I should pursue a career in STEM. In fact, I was intimidated by those subjects, and even though it wasn’t all that long ago, it was still a time when girls weren’t really encouraged to try math and science. Then I discovered the field of biomedical engineering and realized this was a way I could really help people and make a positive impact on their lives. So even though I doubted myself a little at first, when I entered Vanderbilt University for my undergraduate studies, I dove in and joined a research lab. I discovered that not only was I perfectly capable, I loved it!

Luckily, I’ve had strong role models and mentors throughout the years, from Anita Mahadevan-Jansen, whose biophotonics lab I joined at Vanderbilt, to Christine O’Brien, who was then a Ph.D. student but is now on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis. And of course, there are my advisors at the University of Michigan, Zhen Xu and Tim Hall. Wherever I end up teaching and researching, I plan to pay it forward, and I hope I can inspire someone the way they inspire me.

My current work is on histotripsy, a technique that uses highly focused ultrasound waves to destroy cancer cells non-invasively (without surgery). Histotripsy, which was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for liver cancer treatment, destroys tumors without incisions, heat, or ionizing radiation. Sometimes, the ultrasound waves can scatter and de-focus as they move through tissues, limiting the efficacy of histotripsy at certain locations in the body. In my research, I work to correct for this de-focusing by improving the way that the ultrasound waves travel through the body. The ultimate goal is to get to a point where clinicians can expand the range of effective treatment locations, so histotripsy therapy becomes feasible for greater numbers of patients. 

I’ll be applying for tenure-track positions soon, and I know that’s a difficult process, but I think the things I learned as a Faculty First-Look Fellow are going to help a great deal.

Faye-Marie Vassel

Faye Marie Vassel Headshot

STEM Education, Equity, and Inclusion Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University

I’ve had a unique, interdisciplinary academic journey, and I think the Faculty First-Look program will shed light on the next steps to reaching my goal. 

I’ve always been interested in both STEM and the humanities; my mother was an ob-gyn, and my father was a social worker, so I was immersed in both early on. I initially thought about a career as a diplomat helping to shape foreign policy, but in high school my thinking began to change. Thanks to an afterschool program at the American Museum of Natural History, I was introduced to molecular biology and biophysics, and I discovered how much I loved research. I got hooked! 

After earning an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from Stony Brook University, where I also studied Russian, I was torn between MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. I ultimately decided upon MIT, and there I focused on a protein, REV7, which plays a part in DNA damage repair and could ultimately lead to innovative ways to combat chemotherapy resistance. When I wasn’t in the lab, I developed an interest in science policy and took education policy and sociology of education and inequality courses at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. During this time, I also had the great fortune of  finding community based organizations to volunteer with as a math tutor, and I served as a science and math mentor for high school students attending an MIT-student-led non-profit. 

I loved tackling questions in the biological sciences and even started thinking of REV7 as “my protein,” since I had studied it so intensely during my PhD training. However, my interest in gaining a deep understanding of what a research career focused on tackling STEM inequities could look like continued to grow. In turn, after I earned my doctoral degree in 2018, I jumped at the chance to be an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation. Growing up in New York City had allowed me to see the richness in diverse perspectives, but by the end of my Ph.D. it became very clear to me that many individuals from historically underserved groups were still missing from STEM. During my time as a Science and Tech Policy Fellow, I was able to learn about  research efforts focused on advancing STEM equity and how grant funding for such critical work had  evolved; I realized I was still very much committed to pursuing an academic research career focused on understanding factors shaping persistent inequities in STEM.

I’m currently a STEM Education, Equity, and Inclusion Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, and I’m part of the school’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. While my pathway hasn’t been totally linear, I’m very clear about my ultimate career goals: to conduct research that will help reduce the intersectional inequities still faced by many STEM learners.

Luana de Brito Anton

Luana de Brito Anton headshot

Ph.D. Candidate in Civil and Urban Engineering at NYU Tandon

I spent my childhood in the Amazon region of Brazil, and when you grow up near the largest river in the world, it’s impossible not to be aware of the issues surrounding water resources, sustainability, and potability. 

As an undergraduate studying Chemical Engineering at the Federal University of Amazonas, I had the opportunity to intern at Sweden’s Görväln Water Treatment Plant, and I realized that it was exciting to see with your own eyes how your research can actually benefit people on a practical level.

At Tandon, I’ve been studying the light-driven degradation (also known as photodegradation) of pesticides in water, which is an important phenomenon since using pesticides benefits society by improving crop yields and ensuring food supply yet at the same time causes concerns when agricultural runoff leads to pesticides entering surface waters, where they may pose hazards to aquatic organisms and humans. We need to better understand how pesticides photodegrade in a wide range of environmental and engineered systems so we can develop better water-treatment systems using artificial light. That could also contribute to the design of compounds with desired photodegradation kinetics and pathways, leading to more sustainable agricultural practices in the long term.

I’ve been lucky to have great role models at Tandon, like Institute Associate Professor Andrea Silverman and Dr. Jennifer Apell, and becoming a Faculty First-Look Fellow was an extension of the incredible mentoring and guidance I’ve received here. Everyone has been invested in helping me reach my goals, which are to teach, mentor others, further my research, and ultimately, contribute in some way to the preservation and sustainability of the Amazon and other waterways.  

Masoud Nobahar

Masoud Nobahar Headshot

Postdoctoral Researcher at Louisiana State University

When I received word that I had been accepted into Tandon’s Faculty First-Look program, I was very excited for the opportunity and especially for the chance to potentially see Magued Iskander, who chairs the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering in Brooklyn and whose research works are interesting to me; his expertise in the field is widely recognized, and he is known to be a great mentor.

My academic trajectory was launched by another person I admired greatly; growing up in Iran, my best friend’s father was a civil engineer who graduated from Oxford during the 1950s, and he deeply inspired me. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the Sharif University of Technology in 2009 and remained there for my master’s degree, which I earned two years later under the direction of  Dr. Morteza Eskandari, , a structural research engineer with great experience in Continuum and Fracture Mechanics. My dissertation involved love waves, which are surface waves that move parallel to the Earth’s surface.

In 2022 I received my doctoral degree in Geotechnical Engineering at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where my advisor was Dr. Mohammad Sadik Khan, who is known for his work on sustainable infrastructure, transportation geotechnics, and retaining structures. In Mississippi, highway slopes are often constructed on high-plasticity clay, and they can fail in certain instances, such as when there’s heavy rain. I researched ways to predict slope failure and take early action before it occurs. That work won me the university’s outstanding dissertation award. 

Since 2023, I’ve been conducting post-doctoral research at Louisiana State University’s Transportation Research Center, which partners with the state government on projects. It’s exciting work, and I’m equally excited to see where my geotechnical interests take me next.   

Michael Alvarez Navarro

Michael Alvarez Navarro Headshot

Ph.D. Candidate in Electrical Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez

I grew up in Colombia, in a small town called Ocaña. I went to public school, and thanks to the inspirational teachers there, I discovered my passion for mathematics. I also got good grades in chemistry and physics, and I often won local STEM competitions. In high school, I took classes in software and electronics, and when I entered the Industrial University of Santander, in Colombia, I chose to earn my bachelor’s degree in Electronics Engineering. I completed that degree in 2014, which made me the first person from my father’s side of the family to graduate from college. 

After taking on work as a calculus teacher at my alma mater and working as a researcher at the Colombian Institute of Petroleum, where I created a model to estimate the corrosion in oil and gas pipelines, I began thinking about graduate school. On my mom's side of the family, a cousin was studying for a Ph.D. in Puerto Rico, and he told me about the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. I was convinced, and I earned a master's in Applied Mathematics there in 2008. I remained for my doctoral studies in Electrical Engineering, which I’m now completing.I’ve been working on computational imaging and modeling with deep learning techniques, generating phase information from confocal microscopy images.

My goal is to become a faculty member with my own laboratory. I'd like to work on computational imaging problems and artificial intelligence models, focusing on creating new algorithms for classification and enhancing resolution properties (in time, space, and spectral domains) of multidimensional matrices. These improvements have an impact on medical imaging, remote sensing, and robotics, among other fields, so I hope to contribute to the development of innovative solutions to real-world problems.

Nan (Louise) Chen

Nan (Louise) Chen Headshot

Ph.D. Candidate at Johns Hopkins University

Becoming a Faculty First-Look Fellow is something of a homecoming for me, because I graduated from NYU Tandon in 2020 with a combined B.S/M.S degree in Chemical Engineering before entering Johns Hopkins for my doctoral program. You can imagine how excited I am to see everyone; I still consider Ingrid Parades, who now directs the General Engineering program, and Ayaskanta Sahu, who leads the Hybrid Nanomaterials Lab, to be role models and mentors.

At Johns Hopkins, I’m now working with Professor Howard Katz to study polymers, which provide a more sustainable method of energy storage than other materials, and I’m also designing inorganic-organic hybrid devices for sensing and energy storage.

I had become interested in materials science early on, because my mother was a materials scientist. Along with my father, who was a mechanical engineer, they developed engineered stone for use in building projects. I was interning at a manufacturing company when I came to realize how much waste was being generated by some of those processes and turned my attention to sustainability issues. 

I’ll be finishing my doctoral studies in around 2025 and will need to plan my next steps, so the Faculty First-Look program should be enormously valuable in shaping my goals and helping me attain them. Seeing all my old Tandon colleagues is also a great bonus.   

Poorna Talkad Sukumar

Poorna Sukumar Headshot

Postdoctoral Associate at NYU Tandon

My path in academia has been somewhat winding, both chronologically and geographically. You might notice when looking at my CV that there is a decade-long gap between earning my master’s degree in Mobile and Ubiquitous Computing at Lancaster University in the U.K. and receiving my doctoral degree in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. Before all that, I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering from Dayananda Sagar College of Engineering in Bengaluru, my hometown in India. I chose to study computer science because of its popularity at the time. In retrospect, I think computer science was a good fit for me and I don't believe I would have found studying any other discipline as enjoyable. 

I also worked for many years, first as a software developer at a startup in Bristol, U.K., and then as a project associate at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. I also taught at Union College in Upstate New York as faculty for a year, which I really enjoyed.

I feel very grateful that the next stop on my journey is here in Brooklyn. I work with Oded Nov and Maurizio Porfiri on the NSF-funded project for studies of gun violence. In my postdoctoral research, I focus on conducting empirical studies to understand how visualizations of  information pertaining to gun violence can be effectively conveyed to the general public, addressing key questions surrounding transparency and empathy evoked by the visualizations. 

Being a Faculty First-Look Fellow is helping me prepare for my next steps. I don’t really have a geographic wish list of where I’d like to end up, as long as I can be dividing my time between teaching and doing research.

Xi Yu

Xi Yu Headshot

Postdoctoral Research Associate in Computational Science Initiative at Brookhaven National Lab

I’ve always loved mathematics, but I enjoyed it most when it was applied to real-world problem-solving, not just theoretical. Given that, electrical engineering seemed like a good path to pursue. Although I studied for my undergraduate degree in my native China, I wanted to come to the U.S. for graduate school, because electrical engineering programs were of a higher caliber here. I ended up at the University of Florida, where I earned my master’s degree in 2019 and my Ph.D. in 2022.

As a student, I was a Research Intern in the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL) Signal Processing Group. After graduating from the University of Florida, I’m currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Brookhaven National Lab. I feel very lucky and grateful to be a part of this place. The research atmosphere and people there are great, and I have grown a lot.

I’m also thrilled to have been named an NYU Tandon Faculty First-Look Fellow; it’s a wonderful initiative that I'm excited to be a part of. I believe it will lead to interesting connections and collaborations that will further enrich my research. While we’re talking about connections, I should mention one especially important one I made last year: wherever my next move takes me, I’ll be headed there with my new wife because I got married last year!  

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