First Look at SEAS First-Years

Oct 30 2013 | By Melanie A. Farmer

The academic year is well underway and Columbia Engineering’s best and brightest are busy navigating not only their new lives on campus but also the hustle and bustle of the great city of New York. Get to know a few of the School’s first-year students, from where they hail, their road to Morningside, and what got them hooked on engineering and applied science!

Vikas Arun

Photo: Jesse Ashton

Hometown: Seattle, WA
Dream Job: No idea yet but when that dream job comes along, I'll know it’s right!
Go-to App: Snapchat—It’s an easy way to keep in touch with my friends across the country.
Favorite TV Show: Shark Tank and So You Think You Can Dance
Potential Major: Operations Research and a minor in Economics—I have always been someone who finds an absurd amount of joy in efficiency.

Vikas, 19, began tap dancing at the age of 9 and has since maintained his equal passions for dance and science. He spent half of last summer teaching dance and choreographing competitive dance pieces in the Seattle area, and the second half living in Los Angeles where he danced for Muse Dance Company. The School’s New York City location was a big draw for Vikas, who hopes to one day perform on a major stage. He continues to train at Broadway Dance Center in midtown and recently joined a dance company set to have its first performance in November. While some may consider tap dancing and engineering polar opposites, Vikas offers a different viewpoint. “Tap dancing is all about musical precision. The best tap dancers are amazing because they can ‘speak’ clearly with their tap shoes. In relationship to the music, they know when to make sounds and when to sit quiet,” explains Vikas. “My engineering background helps me with overlapping disparate rhythm patterns. Studies have pointed to the fact that math and music use similar parts of the brain, and I guess I’m another example supporting that theory!”

Also a bit of an entrepreneur (he started a company in the seventh grade that converted customers’ old VHS tapes to DVDs), Vikas likes that the School provides an exciting entrepreneurial environment. “Through programs like Columbia Business Lab, Columbia has shown that it is dedicated to helping its entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground,” says Vikas, “and a school that fosters that type of environment is definitely one I want to be a part of.”


Jonathan (Jonny) Cohen

Photo: GreenShields Project

Hometown: Chicago, IL
Dream Job: Building my own company or some place where I can think of ideas and work in product design
Go-to App: IFTTT, which stands for If This Than That, an app that lets apps work together
What Are You Reading: The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner
Potential Major: Mechanical Engineering—because I enjoy physics and hardware that moves.

In the seventh grade, Jonny started his own company, GreenShields Project, based on his invention—a device that is affixed to the tops of school buses and significantly improves their fuel efficiency. Jonny and his team have piloted the product and continue to work on raising funds for their startup, gearing it up for the next level of manufacturing and distribution. “I started GreenShields after I learned a little about aerodynamics, and thinking about what could be made more aerodynamic,” says Jonny, 18. Before getting settled on campus, he spent the summer in product design at Medline Industries, and as a result, Medline has five pending patents on products designed by Jonny. On top of leading GreenShields and being a full-time Engineering student, Jonny also serves as chief technology officer at EcoViate, a research and development company focusing on energy and environmental technologies.

An inventor at heart, Jonny realized quickly that engineering is the field to pursue when it comes to innovation. “As for being an entrepreneur, there are few places that can top New York,” says Jonny on one of the main reasons why he chose Columbia Engineering. “I like how diverse everyone’s interests are here. The access to business leaders and mentors that Columbia has given me is amazing, and it’s really convenient to just take a subway to meet them.”

John De Jesus-Peralta

Hometown: Bronx, NY
Dream Job: To land a position at a place like Google. I’ve only heard positive things!
Go-to App: iFunny, an app that displays funny images and GIFs users upload for sheer enjoyment. I use it to de-stress throughout the day.
Favorite TV Show: Breaking Bad
Potential Major: Computer Engineering—I enjoy and I am much more comfortable dealing with conceptual intricacies regarding the physical aspects of hardware rather than programming.

Born and raised in the Bronx, John, 18, is pursuing engineering and applied science because of its limitless opportunities. “It will always be a center for development,” says John. “There really is no limit to what can be achieved.”

Getting a jumpstart to the academic year, John spent his summer in Academic Success Program (ASP), a summer bridge program that supports students. It helped ease the transition to college life and the adjustment to the academic pace and expectations. “Socially, ASP helped me make close friends before starting the school year. It allowed me to settle into the year already comfortable with my personal ring of people I have considered to be like family at this point,” he says. John comes from a line of Columbians; one sister is currently a student at the College a year ahead of him and his oldest sister graduated from Barnard in 2004. He knew early on that he wanted to join the Columbia community. “I feel like, by being here, I am extending my family’s legacy.”

Jacob Graff

Hometown: Rockwall, TX
Dream Job: Undecided—Computer Science is such a broad field and I don’t have nearly enough experience to say for sure what I want to do.
Go-to App: Reddit, a social news and entertainment feed
Favorite TV Show: Breaking Bad
What are You Reading: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
Potential Major: Computer Science—I have a lifelong love of computers.

For Jacob, engineering was something he always wanted to pursue. “I have always been interested in inventing things, in creating products that can be used to actually accomplish a task,” says Jacob, 18. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve been trying to figure out how the world of technology works, and I’d often take apart all the electronics I could get a hold of once I found a screwdriver.”

Jacob has recently developed a mobile application for the Heritage Rose District of New York City. The idea for the app came to him after getting involved with his family on an outreach project to update and rejuvenate historic gardens in Harlem. Jacob’s father and older brother, both rose enthusiasts, have been working with their local chapter of Heritage Rose Foundation to share their homegrown roses in New York. Recognizing the need that each garden could benefit from a website or app, Jacob worked with the City to design a mobile walking tour of the Harlem gardens. For Jacob’s contributions, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer declared June 9, 2012, “Jacob Graff Day.”

In between balancing his course load and studying, Jacob looks forward to exploring some of New York City’s hidden treasures. “I don’t really know what I’ll find but I know that New York City is a great city to explore!”

Nina Sabharwal

Hometown: Los Altos Hills, CA
Dream Job: If it were to exist, it would have to combine singing, traveling the world, and medicine.
Go-to App: Can’t live without Pandora on my iPhone!
Favorite TV Show: The Newsroom and reruns of The Office
What are You Reading: Cien años de soledad by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Potential Major: Biomedical Engineering

Before coming to Columbia Engineering, Nina joined thousands of other hopeful vocalists in San Francisco to audition for American Idol. And while she didn’t get to sing for the celebrity judges, “I did get to high five Ryan Seacrest,” she says happily. Nina, 18, is trained in classical music and opera, and was the lead vocalist of her high school jazz band. A strong love of math and science combined with a genuine passion for the arts, literature, and history, was one of the main reasons why Nina chose Columbia. “For engineers, it is important to understand our world on all levels—physically as well as culturally, socially, and politically,” she notes. “Columbia’s more enriched education provides an opportunity for that understanding.”   

In addition to trying out for Idol, Nina interned at the nanotech department of NASA Ames Research Center this past summer. She helped build a nanogenerator out of polymer films and nanowires. Nina, whose father is an engineer and inventor, ultimately wants to major in biomedical engineering and is drawn to its interdisciplinary curriculum. “It is intimidating and thrilling to me that BME integrates principles from essentially all the applied sciences and physical sciences in an attempt to better understand a system as complex as the human body. And the fact that the field is so new and burgeoning leaves so much to be researched and discovered.”

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