GEM Graduate Fellowships Boost Emerging Talent in STEM

Mar 30 2021 | By Jesse Adams | Credit: courtesy of each fellow

Clockwise: Kelia Human, Kevin Womack, Niabelle Thelemaque, Wendy Fernandez, Julian Velandia, Isaac Donis, Christophe Brown, and Andrea Clark-Sevilla.

Embarking on a career in STEM is challenging enough, but for young scientists and engineers from historically underrepresented backgrounds, systemic issues can make the challenge harder still.

Among Columbia Engineering’s programs and scholarships cultivating a more diverse profession is a special graduate fellowship offered in association with the National GEM Consortium, a network of top private and public institutions from industry and academia devoted to empowering undertapped STEM talent. Over the past few years, nearly a dozen graduate engineers spanning a range of interests have studied and conducted research at Columbia as GEM Fellows, receiving tuition and living stipends as well as support for professional internships.

For electrical and electronics engineer Isaac Donis MS ’21 of Brooklyn, the fellowship has not only provided the chance to work with Professor Christine Hendon on visualizing biological systems, in particular the musculature of uterine walls, but the opportunity to intern with Intel on debugging graphics from medical imaging to gaming. “As a technologist, it’s exciting to work at the forefront of what’s next,” he says. “The GEM fellowship has made my entire master's degree possible. I couldn't afford the opportunity to excel here without it.”

From advancing the frontiers of data science and circuit design to enabling better healthcare, the fellows have been busy innovating. Drawn to Columbia by her interest in machine learning, computer scientist and DSI Scholar Andrea Clark-Sevilla MS ’22 of Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico is contributing to three different research projects with faculty including Pierre Gentine and Ansaf Salleb-Aouissi using data science to detect neurons, model CO2 exchange in the Earth’s climate, and interpret various machine learning methods. GEM has also made it possible for her to intern at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab.

Electrical engineer Julian Velandia MS ’21 of Bogotá, Colombia and Syracuse, New York focuses on mixed-signal design “right at the interface of the physical and digital worlds.” After studies with his advisor, Professor Mingoo Seok, and an internship with Qualcomm, he has been collaborating in Professor Hod Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab to develop a simplified and reliable circuit utilizing Doppler ultrasound technologies.

The GEM program took away the financial burden, allowing me to concentrate on my degree, in addition to providing a network and community who uplifted one another.

Niabelle Thelemaque MS ’21
Electrical Engineering

Following her studies at Northwestern, Californian biomedical engineer Kelia Human had the opportunity to work at a GEM-affiliated national laboratory before starting at Columbia last year. Also a Blavatnik Fellow, she’s now a PhD candidate with Professor Sam Sia designing convenient tests and equipment to improve access to healthcare. “I hope to help remove or minimize some of the barriers that make it difficult to engage with the health system, especially for underserved communities,” she says.

Just as important as all the financial and institutional support, many maintain, has been the sense of community: “GEM is a whole family,” says Dominican-born electrical engineer Wendy Fernandez MS ’21, who began her academic career at a community college in the South Bronx. “We fellows make our own support system.” She’s also received important guidance from her mentor Peter Kinget, with whom Fernandez has investigated integrated circuits, and from staff fostering professional skillsets.

Fellows have gone on to roles at Apple, the Expedia Group, and more. “The GEM program took away the financial burden, allowing me to concentrate on my degree, in addition to providing a network and community who uplifted one another,” says South Florida-based electrical engineer Niabelle Thelemaque MS ’21, who completed her coursework in December and is now developing communication systems for the Aerospace Corporation with an eye to developing satellite technologies.

Fellow Floridian Kevin Womack MS ’21 is currently a data scientist at the Expedia Group and the educational startup Reconstruction as well as serving as an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Morehouse College. “The fellowship has truly been the greatest blessing,” he says. “Pursuing my masters degree would not have been possible without it, and I hope to one day pay it forward.”

Paying opportunities forward and mentoring the next generation is a common theme among fellows past and present. North Carolinian electrical and computer engineer Christophe Brown MS ’20 developed data-driven analysis for artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things with Professor Zoran Kostić before joining Apple as a software engineer.

“I believe each of us has unique experiences and talents that allow us each to deliver value that cannot be matched, and I want that potential to be awakened in everyone,” he says. “You have to push yourself, but you will never regret giving yourself an opportunity for growth and development like this.”