Three New Lustgarten-Whitney Fellows Named

Molecular biologist, pianist, and cognitive scientist/biologist will receive scholarship aid from a program that supports students from non-computational backgrounds applying computer science in a broad range of interdisciplinary areas.

Feb 17 2022 | By Bernadette Ocampo Young
Headshots of Aneeza Asif, Ryan Soeyadi, and Madison Thantu

Aneeza Asif ’21BC, Ryan Soeyadi, and Madison Thantu, recipients of the Lustgarten-Whitney Family Fellowship

While many students pursue their interest in computer science (CS) early in their undergraduate years, there are numerous others in the humanities and sciences who realize later on that they need a CS degree to pursue their dream careers. Recognizing the need to provide avenues for people from non-computational backgrounds to gain the skills necessary for a career in technology, Columbia Engineering launched its MS Bridge Program in 2020. Now in its second year, the program prepares students from diverse academic backgrounds for a seamless transition to the School’s MS program in computer science.

The Lustgarten-Whitney Family Fellowship was established in 2020 to help support highly qualified students from underrepresented and nontraditional backgrounds pursuing a career in computer science (CS) through the Bridge program. This year the fellowship, which is made possible by the generous support of Janet Lustgarten MS’85, is providing scholarship aid to three fellows.

“I am thrilled to support these exceptional young scholars as they expand their knowledge of computer science in the MS Bridge Program,” said Lustgarten, who, as co-founder and CEO of Kx Systems and president of Shakti Software, has seen how diversity in the workplace results in exceptional progress in technology. “Many of the most talented programmers I have worked with in my career came to engineering with strong backgrounds in the arts, humanities, or science. I believe that technologists who can bring knowledge and experience solving difficult problems in other disciplines are essential to successful enterprises today.”

The fellows were chosen for their academic excellence in the program, as well as their potential to apply computer science in different areas. The fellowship is part of a new wave of scholarship aid that has been launched at the School—the Alumbra Scholarship for Leadership in Engineering, which recognizes Latino/a leaders, and the James L. Priest Scholarship, which supports undergraduate students who have demonstrated leadership in and support of the Black community.

“We are very thankful for the support that the Lustgarten-Whitney Fellowship provides to our educational and research mission,” said Luca Carloni, professor and chair of the computer science department. "As computer science increasingly contributes to interdisciplinary advances across the whole university, these fellowships sustain the growth of our MS Bridge program and its goal to broaden the diversity of ideas and people enriching our department.”

The Lustgarten-Whitney 2021 fellows are:

Aneeza Asif, a recent graduate of Barnard College (’21BC) with a BA in cell and molecular biology. She studied the role of CD56 in natural killer cells in hopes of creating future treatments for immunocompromised individuals for her undergraduate thesis. While working at Mirimus Inc., a biotechnology startup that provides saliva-based COVID-19 testing, she noticed that due to the lack of familiarity among both disciplines, the lab team and the technology teams found it difficult to meet the other’s needs. She wants to address this gap by developing tools or processes to alleviate such limitations. Upon graduating from the Bridge program, Asif plans to work at a health tech startup and eventually have her own one day in order to help underserved communities around the world get access to adequate healthcare.

Ryan Soeyadi, a classical pianist with a Bachelor of Music in piano performance from The Juilliard School in 2021. In addition to his studies in the MS Bridge program, he is pursuing a Master of Music in collaborative piano at The Juilliard School on a full scholarship as a Jerome L. Greene fellow. Soeyadi noticed that there is a lack of modern tools for classical musicians and in his junior year of undergrad wanted to build an iOS app to help people find piano accompanists more easily, which he naively thought could be accomplished in a month with no prior knowledge of programming. This led him to apply to the MS Bridge program. The flexibility of the program allows him to continue his musical studies at Juilliard while exploring his new interest in computer science. After the Bridge program, he intends to continue playing piano and develop tools to benefit classical music.

Madison Thantu, who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in June 2021, where she double majored in cognitive science, and human biology and society—an interdisciplinary degree combination that spanned the fields of psychology, computer programming, biology, and sociology. Thantu intends to use a similarly interdisciplinary approach throughout her academic and professional pursuits in the field of computer science. Her goal is to create and advocate for technology that is prosocial, equitable, and empowering. After completing the MS program, she hopes to pursue a career in computer and information research, exploring and designing solutions to technological and algorithmic bias.

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