Introducing SEAS First-Years

Oct 29 2014 | By Melanie A. Farmer

Columbia Engineering first-year students are getting more and more settled in their college routine and their new lives on Morningside. Get to know a few of these outstanding members of the Class of 2018, their road to Columbia, and why they chose Engineering as their new home away from home for the next four years.

Arunavha Chanda

Hometown: Calcutta, India

Who Inspires You: I’ve learned from Steve Jobs' independence and innovation, Bill Gates' dedication and social work, my father's tenacity, humility, and character, and my mother's love for the family and sacrifice.

Dream Job: To be a tech entrepreneur and create products that will help the world; to also focus on charitable work and social service

Go-to App: WhatsApp, Skype, FIFA 14, and the QuizUp

Reading: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Potential Major: Computer Science or Computer Engineering

The stellar Columbia Engineering faculty is what got Arunavha Chanda hooked on the Engineering School. “Students not only get to do research with professors, but some also go on to coauthor publications with professors,” says Arunavha, 19. “This kind of groundbreaking approach to undergraduate research is something really unfathomable anywhere else.”

Arunavha was born and raised in Calcutta, India, to a family of doctors, and it was presumed he would follow suit. But in middle school when Arunavha was bed-ridden for months with synovitis of the hip joint, the computer became his best friend. “Writing new advanced programs, designing web sites, developing new games out of common programming languages—all gave me the thrill that no other subject could,” he says. “I knew then that I loved this more than biology and this was what I wanted to study.”

This past summer, Arunavha loaded up on his computer acumen; he took courses in Python, Java, and in Reverse Engineering. In the summer of 2013, he attended workshops at NASA Kennedy Space Center, and to fuel his interest in the arts, he did a theater workshop in Nola Studios in New York City. He was bitten by the acting bug as a high school student and starred in a few school plays. He plans to take acting courses while at Columbia and potentially more theater workshops. Essentially, Arunavha is taking it all in, and aims to one day fulfill his goal of becoming a tech entrepreneur and as he puts it, “create products that will help the world and that everyone will enjoy as well.”

Carlos Romero

Hometown: Boston, MA (born in Santo Domingo, DR)

Dream Job: To work as a project manager at NASA, helping humanity get farther into space as well as making space travel more efficient and sustainable

iPhone or Android: Android

Go-to-App: X-Plane, a flight simulator

Reading: The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

Potential Major: Mechanical Engineering

For Carlos Romero, 19, the recent years leading up to Columbia Engineering were by far the toughest. Born in the Dominican Republic, Carlos spent the majority of his childhood residing in Kissimmee, FL, before moving to Boston, MA, in the eleventh grade. Due to a culmination of personal challenges, including his father’s illness and his mother’s drastic salary reduction at work, Carlos and his family were homeless for some time—an experience that he will never forget, and one that pushed him to work even harder toward his dream of becoming an engineer. Senior year, he was named the valedictorian of his graduating class.

“This title of valedictorian meant the world to me because I was able to go from homeless to hero at my school,” says Carlos. “It showed that even with all of the difficulties going on in my life, I was still able to keep my head in the game and come out with the highest honors.”

Before the start of the academic year, Carlos spent the summer in ASP, the academic summer bridge program at Columbia, taking courses in physics, University writing, calculus, and chemistry. He intends to major in mechanical engineering, building on a childhood interest that stems from his love of subways and trains. He also finds that with mechanical engineering, the opportunities are limitless. “Almost every discipline of engineering can be used by mechanical engineers. There are mechanical engineers working on a spectrum ranging from biomechanics to automotive design.”

Carlos is focused on doing a good job at Columbia; his family, a constant inspiration. “We have been through the good, bad, and the ugly, but we’ve always stuck together and used our abilities in order to solve problems. Since no one in my family has been to college in the United States, I am motivated to get the education that was unavailable to them and use it in order to better society, no matter what I end up majoring in or where I end up working. These values are what drive me to learn as much as I possibly can.”


Sara Sakowitz

Hometown: New York City

Dream Job: To develop new cancer treatments and technologies in the research lab while also saving lives in the clinic 

Go-to App: Facebook, because it lets me stay in touch with some of my closest friends, even though they live across the country. (Sara recently appeared in an ad for the social media giant.)

Reading: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a play by Paul Zindel

Potential Major: Biomedical Engineering

In an atypical introduction to college, Sara Sakowitz’s first few weeks at Columbia Engineering involved an appearance on the daytime talk show, Ellen, where she was surprised by host Ellen Degeneres with a college scholarship from Google and its Made With Code initiative. She is currently in the process of starting her own biotechnology company, slated to launch in November. For Sara, pursuing cancer research hits close to home. 

“After my cousin passed away from cancer when I was nine, I realized that I needed to understand the science behind cancer to come to terms with the loss and the impact it had on my family,” says Sara. “I entered my first cancer research lab when I was 16, and I haven't looked back since.”

Sara chose to attend Columbia Engineering because she was hoping to meet up with fellow thinkers, dreamers, and doers. The latter describes Sara to the tee. Even before arriving at Morningside, Sara worked extensively in cancer research, studying a new potential treatment for breast cancer. This past year, she competed in several major high school science research competitions, and was a national finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search. She served as the opening speaker at the National Breast Cancer Coalition's conference in May, and in July, delivered a talk at TED@NYC about her own work as a teenage cancer researcher.

Being on Ellen was not Sara’s first time in the limelight. In February, The Washington Post published Sara’s op-ed piece, “I’m an Engineer, not a Cheerleader,” about her personal experiences as a girl in science and engineering and as the captain of a small, all-female robotics team. At one competition, her team of thirteen girls was mistaken for a group of cheerleaders. She was determined to fight the stereotype and encourage more girls to join the robotics team, which they did. Ultimately, her team grew to 25 members, about four times the size of the team when she first joined. 

“I think so many girls turn away from science because they feel inadequate, as they face everything from a lack of female role models to misrepresented female scientists in the media,” says Sara. “It's critical for more girls to follow their passions in STEM, and that is something I would love to continue pursuing.” 


Lucas Schuermann

Hometown: Norman, OK

Dream Job: Not yet sure but interested in entrepreneurship with a focus on emerging technologies related to artificial intelligence and machine learning

Go-to App: Alien Blue; I enjoy interacting with the large science and engineering-based communities on reddit

Reading: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner, which showed me the true potential of creative, intelligent people coming together with the proper resources to create amazing things

Potential Major: Computer Engineering and Applied Mathematics

Ahead of most of his peers, Lucas Schuermann, 18, already knows what it is like to be a college student. In high school, Lucas participated in a concurrent enrollment program to accelerate his studies in science and mathematics, culminating in full-time enrollment at the University of Oklahoma (commonly referred to as OU) his senior year. As a student at OU, Lucas had an opportunity most high-schoolers don’t get—the chance to conduct college-level research with professors. That experience really made a lasting impression.

“My love for science and engineering only deepened with each new problem that was thrown at me to learn about and solve,” he says. With OU Professor Michael Jablonski, Lucas worked on a proof of the longstanding Alekseevskii Conjecture. He conducted research on theoretical Casimir torques in nanoscale systems with OU Physics Professor Kimball Milton, and later earned semifinalist status in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, with a fellow classmate, for further extension of his work with Milton.

Lucas is an Egleston scholar at the Engineering School, which means he is one of the most highly accomplished students at the School and is receiving a stipend and support for his academic and professional goals, research opportunities, and faculty mentorship. He is also part of the School’s Res.Inc. program, a living and learning center for students interested in building and launching their own startups.

Lucas knew immediately that Columbia Engineering was the right place for him. He says he felt it was one of the few universities with faculty who are genuinely supportive and “want me to succeed.” He adds, “They’ve shown a deep personal commitment to the success of students. I felt I was truly wanted here, and I did not encounter such strong feelings of support and belonging at other schools I toured.”

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