Twelve scholars named Princeton’s first Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellows

Monday, Apr 8, 2019
by Denise Valenti for the Office of Communications

Twelve scholars from disciplines spanning the sciences and humanities have been named among Princeton’s first cohort of Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellows, a program aimed at enhancing diversity in the professoriate. 

The fellows program — along with the new Presidential Visiting Scholars Program, which will launch in 2020 — is intended to recognize and support scholars who can contribute to the University’s diversity, broadly defined, including groups that have been historically and are presently underrepresented in the academy or in certain disciplines. Fellows will begin their terms between July 1, 2019, and Jan. 1, 2020.

“The Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellows Program is meant to encourage early-career scholars to pursue a career in academia by supporting their postdoctoral work here,” said Sanjeev Kulkarni, dean of the faculty. 

The program is coordinated by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, with support from the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost. The Faculty Advisory Committee on Diversity, chaired by the dean of the faculty, reviews the nominations and selects the awardees. Up to twelve postdoctoral research associates will be supported each year for a one-year appointment. The award is renewable for a second year.

“I am thrilled that Princeton has started the presidential fellows program to support talented postdocs recruited to research groups at Princeton and to increase diversity in the academic pipeline,” said Mala Murthy, professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. “This is an incredibly valuable investment in our future. There are not enough funding sources at the postdoc level, and Princeton is leading the way in demonstrating that universities can and should do more to support underrepresented minorities at all levels.”

Candidates are nominated by Princeton faculty members, who then serve as sponsors. Each fellow plans a research project for the duration of the fellowship and fellows may be given opportunities to teach or advise undergraduates. In addition to receiving a full salary, each fellow also will receive funding for professional development, such as travel to conferences.

“The program is another way in which the University is showing its commitment to improving diversity and racial integration on campus and the broader academy,” said Rodney Priestley, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering. “More and more, the path to the professoriate requires the completion of at least one postdoctoral research experience. This program helps to increase such opportunity to those underrepresented in their discipline while simultaneously enhancing research on campus.” 

The 2019 Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellows are:

Sama Ahmed

Sama Ahmed holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF). Ahmed’s research focuses on how neural activity related to locomotion modulates the patterns of other behaviors. In addition to his work in the lab, Ahmed is passionate about science communication, establishing the Carry the One Radio podcast at UCSF, focused on bringing the latest advances in science to the public. Ahmed will be advised by Mala Murthy, professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

Christine Allen-Blanchette

Christine Allen-Blanchette will join the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, building upon her expertise in constraining models from machine learning to maintain compatibility with the underlying structure of variation in visual images. Allen-Blanchette is completing her Ph.D. this summer in computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and holds dual bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering and mechanical engineering from San Jose State University. Allen-Blanchette will be advised by Naomi Leonard, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, director of the Council on Science and Technology and associate director of the Program in Robotics and Intelligent Systems.

Melissa Ball

Melissa Ball will join the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, focusing on developing chemistries to realize new forms of hybrid organic-inorganic perovskites. Ball is completing her Ph.D. this spring in chemistry at Columbia University. Prior to pursuing chemistry, Ball worked as an economist and equity strategy analyst. She holds a master’s degree in economics from the London School of Economics and bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science from the City University of New York. In addition to her research in chemical and biological engineering, Ball plans to assess the economic implications of rapid decarbonization through the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Ball will be advised by Lynn Loo, the Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Professor in Engineering, professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the Andlinger Center.

César Colón-Montijo

César Colón-Montijo will join the Department of Spanish and Portuguese from Columbia University, where he obtained a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and is currently a lecturer. Colón-Montijo holds a master’s degree in anthropology and audiovisual communication from the University of Barcelona and a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Puerto Rico. His research spans Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latinx media and cultural studies, and is focused on the production and reception of popular song, music, print and non-print texts and their role in shaping communities and social movements. In addition to his scholarly work, Colón-Montijo is a journalist and documentary filmmaker with experience in radio and television. Colón-Montijo will be advised by Pedro Meira Monteiro, the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Sha Li

Sha Li holds a Ph.D. in physiology from Cornell University and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Science and Technology of China. Li’s research at Princeton focuses on how genetic information controls the embryonic patterning decisions that lead to specific phenotypes. Li will be advised by Ricardo Mallarino, assistant professor of molecular biology.

Rudo Mudiwa

Rudo Mudiwa is a scholar of African gender and sexuality, with a focus on contemporary culture and politics in Zimbabwe, her country of origin. Mudiwa holds a Ph.D. in communication and culture from Indiana University and a bachelor’s degree in political science and communication from Wesleyan College. Mudiwa will join the Department of Comparative Literature, with research examining how anxieties regarding black women’s sexuality and physical mobilities in urban areas have been at the center of debates about how to transform space and imagine a new nation of Zimbabwe in the aftermath of colonial rule. Mudiwa will be advised by Wendy Belcher, associate professor of comparative literature and African American studies.

Benny Rice

Benny Rice will join the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and is completing a Ph.D. this spring from the department of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Arizona State University. Rice’s work seeks to bridge fundamental scientific questions in ecology and evolutionary biology to highly applied questions of human health, in particular, for infectious disease. His postdoctoral research will center on genomic and serological analysis as part of a large-scale survey that Rice and collaborators coordinated across a wide diversity of community and ecosystem settings in Madagascar. With others in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice will focus on developing statistical approaches to analyze temporal, spatial and demographic drivers of acquisition of immunity to provide a window onto pathogen diversity and its determinants in a resource-poor setting. Rice will be advised by Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School. 

Kathrin Stark

Kathrin Stark will join the Department of Computer Science, utilizing her education and research experience in the theory of programming languages and logics as the foundation of her research to design, build and verify a foreign function interface for verified programs. Stark has a passion for hard technical problems that require a mix of theoretical insight and engineering. She will complete a Ph.D. in computer science this year at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany. Stark holds a master’s degree in advanced computer science from the University of Cambridge and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Saarland University. Stark will be advised by Andrew Appel, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science.

Makeda Tekle-Smith

Makeda Tekle-Smith will join the Department of Chemistry, working to develop methods that disrupt the current practices in reaction optimization by integrating software engineering, computational chemistry and machine learning with experimental methods in chemical synthesis. She is completing her Ph.D. this spring in chemistry from Columbia University and holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Pomona College. Tekle-Smith has a deep interest in pursuing research environments in new areas of science to broaden her knowledge of the field. She will be advised by Abby Doyle, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Chemistry.

Cynthia Ursino

Cynthia Ursino holds a Ph.D. and Licenciatura (equivalent to B.A. and M.A.) in biological sciences from the University of Buenos Aires. In the course of her Ph.D. studies, Ursino trained in genetics for two years at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the evolution of reproductive behaviors in birds, especially on coevolutionary interactions between brood parasitic birds and their hosts. Ursino will join the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where her postdoctoral research will bring together a rare set of samples collected in Argentina with cutting-edge genetic techniques. Ursino will be advised by Christina Riehl, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Rafael Valentin

Rafael Valentin will join the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Valentin holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University, where he is a postdoctoral research associate focused on molecular ecology. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in ecology, evolution and natural resources from Rutgers and is a combat veteran of the United States Armed Forces. Using cutting-edge molecular methods, Valentin has developed new techniques for assessing and monitoring the state of biological invasions, which have the potential to mitigate the impact and spread of invasive agricultural pests through early detection. At Princeton, Valentin will use related tools to fuse applied questions about species detection with theoretical inquiry regarding how species introductions influence emergent properties of communities. Valentin will be advised by Rob Pringle, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Xiaohui Xu 

Xiaohui Xu will join the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, focusing her postdoctoral research on developing near-infrared-responsive core-shell microgels and amorphous solid dispersions for controlled drug release. Xu’s research has provided significant contributions to the synthesis of photothermal materials and core-shell and yolk-shell nanoparticles, as well as their application in drug delivery, sensing and catalysis. She is completing her Ph.D. this spring from the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at Chang’an University in Xi’an, China, while undertaking thesis research at the Institute of Soft Matter and Functional Materials at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie in Germany. Xu holds a master’s degree in applied chemistry from Chang’an University and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Zhengzhou University of Light Industry. Xu will be advised by Rodney Priestley, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering.