Already nationally recognized as leaders, they're the University's Winning Graduates
A NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION grant winner who develops "intelligent" robots. A Fulbright recipient researching women entrepreneurs in Bahrain. A Jonas Salk Scholar who pursues groundbreaking immunological research. These and other high-achieving winners of prestigious national awards are among the latest crop of CUNY graduates -- who this academic year will be awarded an estimated 447 doctorates, 7,734 master's degrees and more than 18,000 baccalaureates. Many hope to follow the paths of 2010 commencement speakers such as Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman (presiding at his alma mater, City College) and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (addressing Hostos graduates).
Zoie Blackwood, selected this year for the highly competitive Colin Powell Fellowship in International Diplomacy, will be a State Department intern this summer, working in the Bureau of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs in Washington.
Offered to outstanding Baruch College students who survive a rigorous selection process, the fellowship is the latest addition to an already impressive resume accumulated by Blackwood, 22, who immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica with her family when she was a child.
She will graduate in the fall with a B.A. in political science.
"I wanted to be part of the solution to the issues we see in the nation and the world," she said. "I want to have a career where I'm not just making money but also making a difference." One possibility for her might be a United States emissary, "an ambassador," or an executive director of a nonprofit organization, she said.
In the 2008 spring semester, she interned with the legislative staff of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) under the CUNYsponsored Edward T. Rogowsky Internship Program in Government and Public Affairs. In 2009, she participated in the Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) summer internship program at Howard University.
Having an avid interest in working overseas, Blackwood obtained an internship in 2007 through AISEC, an international exchange program with a chapter at Baruch. Teamed with a student from the Netherlands, she spent that summer with a nonprofit organization in Jaipur, India, that developed schools and irrigation projects.
Igor Labutov says that the first "Terminator" movie changed his life. "I was 4 or 5 the first time I watched it, back in Russia [his family emigrated when he was 12], and I was rewinding the videotape over and over again," recalls Labutov (B.E. 2010, Macaulay Honors College at City College). "Every day I thought, 'If I had just one more part I could build the thing,' but I didn't know how to do it."
Now he creates far more practical devices.
As a freshman at the Center for Perceptual Robotics, Intelligent Sensors and Machines at CCNY's Grove School of Engineering, he studied with associate professor of electrical engineering Jizhong Xiao to design a wearable glove that would remotely control a robotic hand Xiao's lab had previously developed.
With a National Science Foundation STEP grant and the help of CCNY professor Norman Scheinberg, during his sophomore year Labutov developed a better design using fiber-optic sensors, and won the award for best student paper at a 2007 international engineering conference.
He then teamed up with Distinguished Professor Theodore Raphan of the Brooklyn College Department of Computer and Information Science. While researching how motion, visual perception and balance play out in Parkinson's disease, Raphan wanted to test his neurological model with a two-footed robot that mimicked human movement. He asked Labutov to figure out how to replicate the involuntary eye movements that stabilize images as the head and body move. Labutov's bridge between the languages of anatomy and electrical circuits lay in the research of Swiss roboticist Auke Ijspeert, with whom he will study this summer under a ThinkSwiss Research Scholarship. Over two years, he developed a robotic vestibular system -- like the inner ear, which maintains balance. Meanwhile, Labutov was part of the CCNY Robotics Club and led a team that helped CCNY leap from 22nd place in the 2008 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition to fourth place in 2009 by improving the vehicle's vision system. That led to research done under a grant Xiao had received for flying robots and to a first prize in the 2010 Junior Science Conference at the Technical University of Vienna.
In the fall, Labutov heads into a doctoral program at Cornell University with a $30,000 NSF graduate research fellowship. His work will again focus on autonomous driving. "Now cars are isolated from their environment, and drivers can only communicate with turn signals," he said.
"Accidents happen because people don't know what others are doing or are distracted, such as by texting. But you'll have no distractions if you aren't doing the driving, with an intelligent transportation system figuring out the best traffic flows and performance."
'If gasping for air and the tightness in my chest didn't wake me, the incessant drone of a nebulizer pump never failed to do the trick," Maurice Selby (City College, B.A., 2010), wrote about his asthma. While those early mornings were some of the most fearful and challenging times of his life, he says, "I never wish to forget them." That experience, and his father's death from colon cancer, motivated him to become a physician.
Selby, an English major with a minor in premedical studies, graduates summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. In the fall, he begins studies at SUNY Downstate Medical Center as a Jonas E. Salk Scholar. His goal is to become a family physician while continuing the research into immunology that began in his undergraduate years.
His interest in the field started with biology professor Jerry Guyden, who in 2007 showed that the "nurse cells" in the thymus gland not only destroy nonfunctioning thymocytes (immature cells that develop into disease- fighting T cells), but help decide which thymocytes will live and which will die because they might be harmful if allowed to mature. Working in Guyden's lab, Selby identified the receptor that allows thymocytes to bind to the thymic nurse cells. His finding "is the first of its kind and may have therapeutic relevance in the development of reagents to combat autoimmune diseases," Guyden wrote to support Selby's Salk application. In 2009, Selby presented his findings at the meeting of the Minority Biomedical Research Support program, run by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
January's earthquake in Haiti refocused Samanta Boursiquot's career plans. She had always wanted to be a medical doctor, but after the tragedy in her homeland, she's hoping to become a clinical psychologist.
"I want to help my people," she said. "Some didn't get injured, but I'm sure all of them have psychological problems."
Boursiquot, 25 and graduating from Queensborough Community College with an associate degree in liberal arts and science, is in her second year of a research internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory funded by the National Science Foundation.
A student member of the American Chemical Society, she also won a $1,000 Queensborough Academic Merit Scholarship. "I'll send some money to my dad in Haiti for my sister who got injured in the earthquake," said Boursiquot, who spoke only French five years ago when she moved here with her mother and a younger sister. This fall, she will enter Queens College.
Taking risks doesn't always pay off. But it has for Andrea Balbas. Balbas, a geology major and spring graduate of Queens College, won a National Science Foundation fellowship for her challenging graduate research proposal on testing volcanic eruption sequences.
"I've always been passionate about unanswered scientific records," said Balbas, who will be heading to Oregon State University to pursue a Ph.D. She wants to track the sun's behavior by using the terrestrial rock record on Earth. "My hope is that understanding the cycles of the sun will help us understand how or if the solar variability affects global climate," she said. She has studied sediment samples from the floor of Long Island Sound, which led to a fellowship from Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees that included attendance at the Independent Ocean Drilling Program in Busan, South Korea. In 2008, she joined Queens College geology professor Stephen Pekar on a National Science Foundation-funded two-month expedition to Antarctica.
Previously, Balbas participated in a NASA Academy at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where she assisted with a group project and conducted her own research on physical processes in the solar system and the universe that have influenced the Earth's biosphere and may do so in the future. For her work, she was awarded the John Mather Nobel Scholarship by The Henry Foundation Inc.
"The work I did at NASA is more similar to the work I'm going to do at Oregon State," said Balbas, who has the option of going back to NASA each summer.
Balbas, whose ancestors are from Mexico and Spain, also won a Ford Fellowship from the Ford Foundation, which "seeks to increase the diversity of the nation's college and university faculties ...."
Lauren Vriens always knew generally what she wanted to do when she grew up.
"I was a little bit of a political science nerd," said Vriens, a Manhattan native who's graduating from Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College this semester with a B.S. in political science.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Vriens, just 13 at the time, became especially interested in the Middle East and its relations with the United States. "Everyone was telling me that this culture is so antithetical to ours and I've since learned that it isn't," she said.
Now 22, Vriens received a Fulbright grant to do research for 10 months beginning in September in Bahrain. She will study how the development of Bahrain affects youth and women entrepreneurs within the country. She also received a Critical Language Award and will spend this summer in Cairo, Egypt, taking advanced Arabic classes.
Last summer, Vriens interned in the public affairs office at the U.S. State Department's Embassy in Bahrain, assisting with high-level events and creating a guide for undergraduate study in the U.S. in Arabic and English. This time she plans to develop a mentor program for high school students.
Most people she socialized with there, she said, "are not in favor of U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they like Obama and they hope he will change that. They are in awe that a black man can become a President in the U.S. Their society is stagnant in terms of social classes."
After completing her Fulbright, Vriens plans to get a dual master's degree in international affairs and business administration. She hopes to work in the field of economic development in the Middle East.
From her childhood on an Iowa farm, Heidi Exline knew that how people grow, buy and consume food is a worldwide issue.>
In August, two months after receiving a Hunter College master's in urban planning, she heads to India on a Fulbright fellowship to research the food system there. "The goal is to help empower the residents to make some changes," she said.
After getting her undergraduate degree in social work at the University of Iowa, Exline eventually became lead project manager of a program that connected excess local farm produce to community food programs working with struggling regional farmers.
In 2009, she began interning at City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's Policy Division, working on food-policy issues. At the moment, there's one major thing left to tackle. "I'm learning Hindi," said Exline.