3 Rice alums win prestigious Soros Fellowships

Award honors, helps facilitate immigrant contributions to the U.S.

Rice alumni Benjamin Chou ‘13, Norma Torres Mendoza ’13 and Muhammad Shamim ’14 are among 30 scholars awarded 2018 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program awards merit-based fellowships of up to $90,000 exclusively for immigrants and children of immigrants who are pursuing graduate degrees in the United States.

Selected from a pool of 1,766 applicants for their potential to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture or their academic fields, fellows are chosen for their focus on creativity, originality and initiative in light of the challenges and opportunities that have been part of their immigration story. The fellowships were established by Paul and Daisy Soros, Hungarian immigrants and American philanthropists.

Muhammad Shamim

Shamim, who earned degrees in computational applied mathematics, computer science and cognitive sciences at Rice, will use his award to support work toward an M.D./Ph.D. in bioengineering at Rice and Baylor College of Medicine, where he is currently enrolled.

The eldest of five siblings, he was born in Pakistan to physician parents and immigrated to the U.S. at 2 years old for his father’s medical residency. “My mother sacrificed her career to raise my siblings and me,” Shamim said.

His parents’ background in medicine inspired him to pursue the field, and his multidisciplinary interests developed further at The Science Academy of South Texas, an engineering magnet high school in the Rio Grande Valley.

At Rice, Shamim’s passion for research grew through several projects, such as improving echocardiogram analysis software for researchers at Texas Children’s Hospital. He was also an engineering computation lab assistant and a member of Rice Emergency Medical Services (REMS).

“It was an honor to comfort and treat patients on what was often the worst day of their lives,” he said. “REMS was an incredible part of my undergrad experience — dropping everything at a moment’s notice to attend to an emergency whether it was in the middle of rush hour or 3 a.m.”

Shamim plans to pursue a career in both medical practice and research as a physician-scientist. His recent work has focused on the computational analysis of genomic architecture, and the National Human Genome Research Institute’s ENCODE (ENCyclopedia of DNA Elements) Project adopted the high-performance computing pipeline he co-developed for processing of 3-D genomics datasets. He is also utilizing augmented reality headsets to correct advanced vision problems, such as spatial distortions in early stage macular degeneration.

“This award is an amazing recognition of the journey that a lot of immigrants take in the United States,” Shamim said. “It acknowledges the challenges our families have overcome and our contributions to this amazing country that we call home.”

Benjamin Chou

Chou, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, Asian studies and energy policy at Rice, will use his award to support his work toward a doctorate/MBA at Northwestern University.

Chou was born in Houston to Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants. His grandfathers both served in the Chinese military and were forced to flee their ancestral homes to Taiwan after the Communist Revolution. Chou’s parents were born in Taiwan and subsequently pursued graduate studies in the U.S., where they met.

“My family’s harrowing experience with politics and war drew me to fight for the twin American ideals that all people are created equal and that everyone should be able to succeed with hard work and determination,” Chou said.

At Rice, Chou won national recognition as both a Harry S. Truman and a Morris K. Udall scholar for his work on environmental and civil rights organizing. After graduation, he served as a fellow for U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and was a policy adviser for the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Prior to beginning graduate school, Chou worked as the political director for then-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and led his political action committee.

“After Northwestern, I plan to return to Texas and continue to work in electoral politics and government to ensure that all people are treated equally and have the economic opportunities to succeed,” Chou said.

Norma Torres Mendoza

Mendoza, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and Hispanic studies at Rice and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, will use her award to support work toward an MBA at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. She is the first Soros fellow to enter Rice’s MBA program.

“My mother and I came to this country undocumented when I was 9 years old,” she said. “We came, like many immigrants before us, in search of the American dream that would provide basic necessities and an actual opportunity to attend college. Through tears, hard work, determination and the unwavering support from various mentors, I became the first person in my family to attend college.”

At Rice, Mendoza co-founded the Young Owls Leadership Program, a nonprofit that has raised more than $250,000 and helped more than 400 students in the Houston area become the first in their families to attend college. It was through this project that she discovered her love and passion to serve as a bridge to resources for nonprofits through consulting work.

“I plan to start my own nonprofit consulting business, where I will merge my love for improving society by leveraging my business-sector knowledge,” she said.

Mendoza said her firm will focus on expanding the American dream to more people by exploring questions about how to create transformative social change and provide interconnected social solutions.

“Given the political climate, this award continues to showcase the importance that immigrants like myself play in our society,” she said. “Overall, my life as an immigrant has been about working hard to leave this country better than I found it. It’s the same work ethic my mother taught me by cleaning houses and the same energy that my uncle instilled in me as he built our Houston road channels.”

About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.