NYU Tandon’s Faculty First Look initiative is a win-win for grad students and schools

New program helps prepare diverse scholars for faculty careers

Go on any message board aimed at graduate students, and you’ll quickly learn of the challenges facing those in the academic job market: lengthy teaching and research statements to formulate, committees to impress, labyrinth requirements to navigate. It’s daunting for even the most accomplished doctoral candidate.

Some seven years ago, Charlton McIlwain, then an associate dean at NYU Steinhardt, now vice provost for faculty engagement and development, was facing a different challenge: a distressing lack of diversity in the applicant pool. Discussing the issue one day with a friend, Derrick Brown, a computer scientist and tech entrepreneur who had pioneered the idea of Black-related search engines and websites in the 1990s — and, as McIlwain describes him, “a wise soul” — a possible solution presented itself.

As a high school student in South Carolina, Brown had attended a summer course for gifted students in computer science and coding, and he was then recruited to participate in Clemson University’s Career Workshop, an initiative aimed at underrepresented students. Without that early support, Brown might never have gone on to complete his graduate studies at Georgia Tech — with “early” being the operative word. Maybe approaching underrepresented doctoral students before they had even considered applying for professorships could be a way to diversify the pool.

Thus, NYU’s university-wide “Faculty First Look” program was born: McIlwain had hoped to have 10 doctoral students apply for the first cohort, so when more than 100 expressed interest, he knew he had hit upon something important.

The program has been an unqualified success at NYU Tandon, given the school’s mission of paving a path to the STEM professions for all. Tandon Faculty First Look fellows now get feedback on their research, guidance on the job-application process, and the chance to participate in helpful workshops. In mid-March, the 2021 cohort met virtually for an all-hands-on-deck Q&A session, writing workshops (for those important teaching and research statements), and discipline-specific breakout rooms.

They were welcomed by McIlwain, who related the story of his discussion with Brown, and NYU Tandon Dean Jelena Kovačević, who told them: “We want faculty members who are tops in their field, but it’s also very important to us that they represent the world at large. That’s because we’ve learned that diversity and inclusion aren’t merely tangential to excellence; they’re an integral part of it.”

TRIO of diverse grad students

Tandon Faculty First Look

Learn more about how Tandon is helping scholars currently underrepresented in engineering fields who are nearing completion of their doctorates or who are in post-doctoral positions to advance their careers

2021 Faculty First Look Scholars


Awad Abdelhalim
Virginia TechAwad Abdelhalim

I come from the Sudan, and I earned my undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Khartoum, but I always knew I wanted to have the cultural experiences that would go along with attending graduate school in the U.S.

There was never any question that I’d study civil engineering because it’s a field that’s always fascinated me. If you want to be a change-maker, civil engineering lets you make actual physical change. The end products are tangible.

Back in the Sudan, I was involved in the design of public transportation terminals, and I’ve worked with the Washington D.C. Department of Transportation, and my hope is that as a professor, I could help get students as excited about transportation systems as I am. I think it’s important that I’ve had industry experience, because my favorite professors have always been those who’ve worked out in the field in addition to teaching.

The Faculty First Look workshop in March was really well-designed. Even though it was eight hours long, there was no Zoom fatigue because it was so varied and engaging. I appreciated the fact that we got to present our research the way we would in a job interview but in a low-stakes setting.

One of the highlights for me, personally, was presenting to Professor Joseph Chow.  If you know anything about transportation engineering, you know he’s held in exceptionally high esteem. It was amazing to have the chance to network with someone of that stature.

Vidushi Goyal
University of Michigan Vidushi Goyal

I earned my undergraduate degree in electronic and communications engineering in 2015 from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, and arrived in Michigan in 2016. My research focuses on optimizing edge computation and enhancing user experience on various platforms. In layperson’s terms, I’m trying to improve handheld smart devices like phones.

I won’t earn my Ph.D. until 2022, but I’ll be starting to navigate the job-search process before you know it. When I saw a flyer about the Faculty First Look program, I knew it would help me make very good use of this next year.

At the daylong workshop I got to present my research to Professor Rachel Greenstadt. Her areas of expertise are privacy and trustworthy intelligent systems, and she really seemed curious about my work and engaged with me, so that was a great experience. I also really appreciated the writing workshops. The instructors talked about reading between the lines and being savvy about what’s asked for in a research or teaching statement, so I feel that I got a few trade secrets. All in all, I gained a lot of clarity about what I have to do this coming year.

Luis Zambrano-Cruzatty
Virginia Tech Luis Zambrano-Cruzatty

I started my academic journey studying civil engineering at Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral University in my native Ecuador, and before getting to Virginia Tech I worked at a private geotechnical company. I also worked for the Oceanographic Research Institute of the Ecuadorian Navy, which allowed me to take part in an Antarctic expedition, and ran my own company for a while. I practiced my English really hard the whole time.

I got to Virginia Tech in 2016 and met Professor Alba Yerro, who became an important mentor. As soon as I had earned my master’s degree, I joined her research group as a doctoral student. She had just arrived herself, so I was her first Ph.D. student.

I love teaching, as well as research, so even though I know the path to a professorship is competitive and complex, I’ll take the challenge. The March event was very useful, especially that lengthy Q&A session, since it covered so much ground. It was also interesting to meet Professors Debra Laefer and Andrea Silverman from the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering. They seemed genuinely interested in my work, and they gave thoughtful, honest feedback.

Meet All the 2021 NYU Tandon Faculty First Look Scholars


A team effort

Director of Faculty Development Jean Gallagher, who helped organize the March event said: “The day would not have been as successful as it was without the many Tandon faculty members who gave up their time to participate. It’s easy to simply talk about the need for diversity in STEM and the importance of mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers, but they are taking concrete action. I am proud to be a Faculty First Look mentor and grateful – on behalf of both the fellows and the schools who will be lucky enough to hire them in the future – to the Tandon colleagues who have joined me.”

Participating faculty:

Job search panel and Q&A

DeAngela Duff, Associate Vice Provost; Industry Professor of Integrated Design and Media (Moderator)

Juan Bello, Director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress; Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

Semiha Ergan, Associate Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering

Siddharth Garg, Institute Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Yao Wang, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs; Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering


Writing workshop

Jono Mischkot, Director of Writing in the Disciplines for the NYU Expository Writing Program

Abigail Rabinowitz, Director of Writing in the Sciences and Engineering for the NYU Expository Writing Program


Discipline-specific faculty mentors

Joseph Chow, Assistant Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering

Luke DuBois, Co-director and Associate Professor of Integrated Design and Media

Jean Gallagher, Director of Faculty Development; Professor of Technology, Culture and Society

Rachel Greenstadt, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

Nikhil Gupta, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Debra Laefer, Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering

Maurizio Porfiri, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Ludovic Righetti, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Andrea Silverman, Assistant Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering