Five students with Stanford affiliations awarded 2015 Soros Fellowships for New Americans

Soros Fellowships provide financial support for study in any degree-granting graduate program in any field at any U.S. university. Fellows are immigrants and the children of immigrants who are chosen for their creativity, initiative and sustained accomplishment.

Five scholars with Stanford affiliations are among the 30 people who recently received 2015 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.

Three of this year’s Soros Fellows are students at the Stanford School of Medicine, including one who earned a PhD in developmental biology at Stanford. The other two medical students also are pursuing PhDs at Stanford – one in neuroscience and one in genetics. One Soros Fellow earned a Stanford bachelor’s degree in 2013. Another will join the master’s program in computer science this fall.

The late Paul and Daisy Soros, Hungarian immigrants and American philanthropists, established the program in 1997 and awarded the first fellowships the following year. The couple wanted to “give back” to the country that had given so much to them and their children, to address an unmet need by assisting “young New Americans at critical points in their educations” and to call attention to the extensive and diverse contributions of immigrants to the quality of life in the United States.

Each fellow receives tuition and living expenses that can total as much as $90,000 over two academic years. Fellows can study in any degree-granting graduate program in any field at any university in the United States. Immigrants and the children of immigrants, they are selected on the basis of merit – the specific criteria emphasize creativity, originality, initiative and sustained accomplishment.


Oswaldo “Oz” Hasbún Avalos (Image credit: Christopher Smith)

Oswaldo “Oz” Hasbún Avalos earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Stanford in 2013. Now a medical student at Columbia University, he will use the award to support his studies.

Since his undergraduate days at Stanford, Avalos, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 2001, has been committed to improving the quality of medical care for “limited English proficiency” patients.

At Stanford, he served as a Spanish interpreter and interpreter coordinator at the Arbor Free Clinic, which is a student-run organization overseen by Stanford School of Medicine. He partnered with professional interpreters to develop an innovative education program for training volunteer medical interpreters for the school’s clinics.

He was the first author of “Revolutionizing Volunteer Interpreter Services: An Evaluation of an Innovative Medical Interpreter Education Program,” published online in June 2013 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

He is continuing his advocacy and community service work at Columbia, where he is the joint clinic manager for four student-run free clinics.

Avalos has been recognized as a White House Champion of Change by the Obama administration. He has received the Westly Prize for Young Innovators of California and has been selected as a United Health Foundation Diverse Scholar for his work on language services.

Cecil Benitez

Cecil Benitez (Image credit: Christopher Smith)

Cecil Benitez, who earned a PhD in developmental biology at Stanford, is a student at Stanford School of Medicine and will use the award to support her studies.

At Stanford, Benitez is the co-director of a free vaccination program for low-income patients. She encourages low-income students to pursue medicine and science through her work as co-chair of the Latino Medical Student Association. Her long-term goal is to improve patient care as an academic physician.

As a doctoral student at Stanford, Benitez was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship. For her thesis, she identified transcriptional networks involved in the development of insulin-producing cells. Her multiple published works include a chapter in a biology textbook.

While she enjoys the creative aspects of research, Benitez wanted to directly connect with patients. She became a certified Spanish interpreter and worked in a free clinic for underserved patients, where her desire to pursue medicine grew.

Benitez was 9 years old when she arrived in the United States with her mother, who was fleeing economic hardship in Mexico. While her high school encouraged her to go to trade school, Benitez’s love of science propelled her to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied the migration of neurons in the spinal cord with a MARC U-Star (Undergraduate Student Training in Research) Award from the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Paras Singh Minhas

Paras Singh Minhas (Image credit: Christopher Smith)

Paras Singh Minhas, who is pursuing an MD and a PhD in neuroscience at Stanford Medical School, will use the award to support his Stanford studies.

At Stanford, Minhas is researching neurodegenerative diseases. He also serves as the manager of the Pacific Free Clinic, which also is a student-run operation overseen by the medical school.

As a physician-scientist Minhas hopes to curtail the alarming rate at which neurodegenerative disorders are increasing across the globe, by finding novel research strategies and investigating the political and environmental questions behind neurodegenerative disorders.

Minhas was born in Baltimore to two Sikh immigrants. At a young age, he was exposed to the debilitating consequences of the neurological diseases that affected members of his family.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Minhas founded the Longitude Pittsburgh Organization, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to empowering adolescent orphans in Ghana and India, and helping them to find sustainable careers. He continues to run the organization today.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Minhas was the first president of the Student Health Advisory Board, pioneering mental health initiatives on campus and in the local area.

Minhas has received Amgen, Goldwater and Marshall scholarships for his research in neurology and policy initiatives in psychiatry.

Gerald Chunt-Sein Tiu

Gerald Chunt-Sein Tiu (Image credit: Christopher Smith)

Gerald Chunt-Sein Tiu, who is pursuing an MD and a PhD in genetics at Stanford School of Medicine, is investigating novel layers of RNA-mediated gene regulation in the Maria Barna Lab. He will use the award to support his Stanford studies.

Tiu plans to research how gene regulation is disrupted in disease and translate that understanding into new therapies as a physician-scientist.

His parents, who are ethnically Chinese, immigrated to the United States from Myanmar. Tiu was born in Anaheim, California.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Tiu performed chemical biology research to discover molecules that inhibit cancer pathways. The work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

After graduating from Harvard, Tiu spent a year in China and Myanmar on a Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship exploring the impact of culture and politics on HIV/AIDS.

Mark Minghao Xue

Mark Minghao Xue (Image credit: Christopher Smith)

Mark Minghao Xue will begin a master’s program in computer science at Stanford this fall. He will use the award to support his studies, which will focus on systems and machine learning.

Xue, who was born in China, plans to use his degree to create innovative software tools that advance human abilities.

His interest in computer science emerged during the eight years he served as an officer and helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps. He applied his software development hobby to create and integrate pre-flight planning and navigational software to help pilots fly more safely.

Before joining the Marines, Xue’s primary focus was math. He excelled in math competitions in high school and finished the majority of Columbia University’s graduate-level math coursework as an undergraduate.

Xue’s parents immigrated to the United States after his father earned a fellowship for a doctoral program at Columbia.