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Duke Alumnus, Graduate Student Win Soros Fellowships For New Americans

Award provides up to $90,000 to immigrants and children of immigrants to complete graduate studies

Mohamed Ismail Duke alumnus Mohamed Ismail and graduate student Maria Pia Rodriguez Salazar are among the 30 recipients nationwide of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.

The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships, established in 1997, award up to $90,000 to immigrants and children of immigrants to complete graduate studies in the United States.

Applicants may propose graduate work in any discipline, and are selected based on their potential to make significant contributions to American society, culture and their academic field. This year’s winners were selected from a pool of 2,211 applicants.  

“At a time when all forms of immigration are under attack, it’s more important than ever to be celebrating the achievements and contributions of immigrants and refugees from across the world,” said Craig Harwood, who directs the fellowship program. “Our country and universities are enriched by the ingenuity that comes from abroad. When we honor and invest in New Americans our nation is stronger -- the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows are a perfect demonstration of that.”

Ismail, who graduated from Duke with a degree in civil and structural engineering in 2013, is a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is researching building technology and the application of structural optimization to help alleviate housing insecurity.

The child of Sudanese parents who lived in the Philippines, Ismail learned that a person’s building environment greatly influences livelihood and wellbeing. Ismail hopes that his Ph.D. studies will combine the structural engineering processes he learned as an undergraduate at Duke with the architectural design processes he learned while earning his master’s degree in architecture at the University of Virginia. This overlap will allow for more affordable and creative construction in areas with limited materials.

Maria Pia Rodriguez Rodriguez is pursuing a Ph.D. in cell biology in the laboratory of Cagla Eroglu, where she is investigating the roles of astrocyte mitochondria in regulating proper brain development.

Born in Bolivia to Peruvian parents, Rodriguez immigrated to the United States when she was 10. Before arriving at Duke, she graduated with a degree in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and helped develop stem cell-based therapies in the Regenerative Medicine Lab at United Therapeutics. 

Rodriguez hopes to understand how mitochondrial defects contribute to the pathology of neurodevelopmental disease, while connecting academia and the pharmaceutical industry to more efficiently drive collaborative therapy development. 

The 2020 fellows, who are 30 or younger, come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and are all the children of immigrants, green card holders, naturalized citizens, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, or visa holders who graduated from both high school and college in the United States.

Their backgrounds reflect much of the diversity of recent immigrants and refugees in the United States. Ismail and Rodriguez join 16 other Duke alumni and students who have been awarded this fellowship in the past.

A complete list of this year’s fellowship winners can be found at