Meet Columbia Engineering’s 2022 Valedictorian and Salutatorian

Ahmet Cem Karadeniz and Maya Venkatraman speak about life at Columbia Engineering

May 06 2022 | By Allison Elliott
Ahmet Cem Karadeniz and Maya Venkatraman

Ahmet Cem Karadeniz, valedictorian, and Maya Venkatraman, salutatorian

The Columbia Engineering undergraduate Class of 2022 have had a historic four years. After starting on campus in 2018, they experienced much together, from the Art of Engineering course, an expanded Makerspace and entrepreneurship programming, to two years of a pandemic that saw them taking classes remotely, while staying connected online.

This year’s valedictorian and salutatorian shared in those experiences, as well, and in the process, discovered new insights about themselves, the world, and their plans for the future as they look forward to Engineering Class Day on May 16. As valedictorian, Ahmet Cem Karadeniz will be awarded the Illig Medal and make an address. We caught up with Ahmet and salutatorian Maya Venkatraman to learn what they’ve taken away from their extraordinary Columbia experience.

Ahmet Cem Karadeniz

Major: Mechanical Engineering

Minor: Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Hometown: Istanbul, Turkey

Why Columbia Engineering?

As a high school student aspiring to take an entrepreneurial career path, I was looking for a lot more than an education. In addition to academics, I was drawn to Columbia Engineering for its wide range of opportunities. I was excited to collaborate with an extremely smart and motivated cohort of students, participate in research, perform in projects and initiatives that were beyond imaginable to me at the time, and interact with the vibrant city of New York. Now, graduating from Columbia, not only has my experience exceeded all my expectations, but I am extremely proud to be a Lion.

Why Mechanical Engineering?

Growing up, I always found it fun to build stuff. Whether it was Legos at a young age or robots for competitions at high school (at Hisar School in Istanbul, Turkey), being able to produce objects of my imagination felt exhilarating. In addition, I have a natural inclination to tackle problems by visualizing them in my head, and I always did well in mathematics and physics—with an interest in applications rather than theory. Thus, it was a no-brainer for me to study mechanical engineering.

Favorite course or educational experience?

Computer Graphics and Design, which I took with Professor Sinisa Vukelic in my sophomore year. It was the first time I got to design a novel product solving a real-world problem, and I felt genuinely excited to spend hours designing components. The course encouraged students to identify interesting problems and get creative with their solutions, which made it feel more like a fun personal project rather than a final exam. After the course, I started researching with Professor Vukelic and I remained in his group until graduation.

Most meaningful project?

Two projects truly stood out from the rest. The first is definitely our experiment CARMEn (Characterizing Antibiotic Resistance in Microgravity Environments) for NASA’s SPOCS payload design competition, which got launched to the International Space Station and was led by my brilliant friends. The second is the part that I designed for Professor Vukelic’s research group which was used in the group’s experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Both of these projects had a tangible impact which went well beyond the scope of school projects and made them extremely meaningful to me.

The most important thing Columbia Engineering has taught you?

To take determined steps in goals and initiatives, backed by discipline and commitment, while there appears to be a dozen other responsibilities to juggle. At Columbia, it is quite often that students have many overlapping deadlines, with each one seeming more important than the other. Multitasking through responsibilities successfully, without being spread too thin across them, is an extremely essential skill that I learned here. In that sense, Columbia has primed me extremely well for my career and any other endeavor I might take place in after graduation.;

Plans for after graduation?

I will be working as an investment banking analyst at BofA Securities (formerly Bank of America Merrill Lynch).

Your dream job?

I hope to eventually found and manage my own company.

The most inspirational people in your life?

My family.

Your hobbies?

I like to spend the majority of my free time by socializing or with physical activity. I love weightlifting and enjoy a wide variety of sports—soccer, basketball, swimming, cycling, and running.

What does engineering for humanity mean to you?

For me, our school’s vision, engineering for humanity, means using our knowledge and skills with purpose to have a tangible impact on our communities and, in a broader sense, humanity.

Maya Venkatraman

Major: Computer Science

Minor: Mechanical Engineering

Hometown: Newton, MA

Why Columbia Engineering?

I was actually a transfer student and began my time at Columbia Engineering as a sophomore. I originally attended University of Chicago, where I was a physics major. While I loved my freshman year there, I was frustrated by the lack of applied coursework in physics and realized that most of the topics that interested me lay in engineering. There were aspects of UChicago that I loved, however, like the urban environment and the core curriculum, which enabled me to explore interests outside of STEM. I was drawn to Columbia Engineering because it combined all of these aspects. With its urban environment, core curriculum and applied engineering coursework, it united what I already liked with what I was missing.

Why Computer Science?

As a sophomore, I was still figuring out my interests and what impact I wanted to have with my career. I chose computer science, because I felt that it gave me the greatest flexibility. With a computer science degree, one can contribute to practically any field. It was a great choice, as studying computer science helped me to develop strong technical, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, while leaving the greatest number of doors open for future career endeavors.

Favorite course or educational experience?

Introductory Biology by Deborah Mowshowitz. I hated biology in high school because it involved rote memorization. Mowshowitz’ biology is incredibly different from the average biology course, however, as it emphasizes a problem-solving approach throughout and forces one to understand larger biological systems. It was the perfect biology class for an engineer, as the method of preparing for exams was to solve problems, rather than regurgitate information. This class not only taught me to think like a biologist but also helped to spark an interest in biomedical research, and I am interested in exploring the intersection of computer science, engineering, and human health later in my career.

Most meaningful project?

My computational research with the Esposito Group in Chemical Engineering. Professor Esposito’s group studies topics related to solar fuels, particularly the production of hydrogen gas through electrolysis. Hydrogen electrolysis is a highly promising means of producing H2 without CO2 emissions, but unfortunately, it is more expensive than traditional GHG-emitting processes. I used CS and data science techniques to model and investigate whether hydrogen electrolysis could be cost-competitive with other means of producing hydrogen, if one runs electrolyzers dynamically based on real-time energy pricing.

Plans for after graduation?

I currently work at Google on YouTube’s Trust and Safety effort. We use data pipelines and machine learning to determine which user engagements are genuine and which are spam, so that we can keep our search and recommendation systems accurate and equitable.

Your dream job?

My dream job would be using computer science or engineering to research a problem that I consider important to society. The two problems that interest me most are energy storage and healthcare. Energy is the issue at the heart of climate change. Although we as a society have engineered excellent renewables, due to variations in sources like solar and wind, we cannot rely on them all the time. Excellent energy storage would enable us to increase renewable production in moments of high sun or wind and store it for times of low generation. Hydrogen, the topic of my undergraduate research, is a promising energy storage technology that I would be interested in pursuing down the line. On the other hand, my interest in biomedical research arose later in college, but I would be very excited to use engineering and computing to develop therapeutics for chronic illnesses. I am particularly interested in drug development for neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Improving outcomes for people with chronic illness not only has the potential to heal individuals, but also to make society healthier and more productive as a whole.

The most inspirational people in your life?

My grandmother is one of the most inspirational people in my life. She grew up while the British occupied India and faced many difficulties in her early life due to the implications of this colonization. She also faced challenges due to the social pressures of Indian society at the time. She hoped to become a doctor but instead was encouraged to have an arranged marriage. She inspires me because despite all the adversity she faced, she still managed to achieve her dream of working in medicine. Although she was never able to attend medical school or practice professionally, she helped to set up and run a medical clinic for a nearby village without good medical access. Her age and the pandemic have not quelled her drive, as she now leads the clinic despite being in her late 80s. Her tenacity inspires me daily to do the best that I can and fervently pursue my goals, as I have had many educational and professional opportunities that she could not. Her story reminds me to count my blessings—that I was able to attend one of the best universities in the country, earn an engineering degree, and contribute to scientific research, when a mere two generations ago this would not have been possible for women in my family.

Your hobbies?

I like to be active, spend time outside, run and play tennis. I also like cooking, singing and studying foreign languages. I enjoy these activities even more when done with family and friends.

Word to live by?

The past few years have been marked by struggle, uncertainty and loss for so many people, and I know that I and many others have wondered why these events had to occur during our time. A quote that helps empower me when thinking about the recent past is the following: “Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

―J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings