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P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans

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Q&A: Mathematics PhD Student Ashvin Swaminathan Looks Back At The Fellowship

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    2017 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow Ashvin Swaminathan sitting with his paternal grandmother, who passed away in Chennai during the summer of 2018. Ashvin wrote, "I owe my interest in and ability to do mathematics to her."

Ashvin A. SwaminathanThe Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans provides two years of funding for outstanding graduate students who are immigrants and children of immigrants. After two years the Fellows join a lifelong community of past Fellows. We asked Ashvin Swaminathan, a 2017 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow, to look back at the first two years of the Fellowship and what they have meant to him.

Born in New Providence, New Jersey, Ashvin A. Swaminathan is the son of Indian immigrants who embody the American Dream. From his parents, both of whom earned graduate degrees in the United States after spending the first twenty years of their lives in economic hardship, Ashvin has learned to be grateful for the freedoms and opportunities that the US has afforded him. He was the valedictorian of his high school class and received early election to Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate at Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard with degrees in both mathematics and physics, Ashvin began a PhD in mathematics at Princeton University.

Why did you apply to the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans?

As a college senior applying to PhD programs in mathematics, I learned from conversations with my academic elders that securing an external source of funding would permit me to devote significantly more time to research and teaching during graduate school. Consequently, I applied to several fellowships, not knowing which one (if any!) would accept me. Nonetheless, I was especially drawn to the PD Soros Fellowship for two key reasons. First, the application and interview process provided me with an intriguing opportunity to tell the story of my family's New American experience. I utilized the application to explore a personal struggle that has dogged me since childhood: reconciling my decidedly western academic and artistic tastes with my traditional Indian familial background and upbringing. Second, the PD Soros fellowship, unlike every other "fellowship" I applied to, actively cultivates a diverse community of New American scholars and artists who are united by their commitment to uphold, protect, and champion the liberal values enumerated in our Constitution.

You're now finishing up the second year of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship program. Has the Fellowship been what you expected?
The PD Soros Fellowship has been everything I hoped for financially, and beyond my wildest dreams socially. I am incredibly grateful for the financial support that the Fellowship has provided me with, and I owe it to the Fellowship that I have been able to spend the majority of the first two years of my PhD program on learning background material and working on research problems. While I was initially quite nervous about meeting and interacting with the other PD Soros Fellows, the various group exercises and activities that we engaged in during our Fall Conferences helped me to quickly bond with my peers on a deep and personal level. I wish these conferences occurred with greater frequency!
 
Do you have any favorite memories from the past two years as a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow?
My mother, who is a middle school science teacher, receives a book in the mail each summer from the head of her school. These books are intended to offer new ideas or perspectives that can be used to improve the experience of both students and teachers in the classroom, but my mother tells me that these books tend to be less useful than they appear. So, when the director of the PD Soros Fellowships, Craig Harwood, sent me a copy of 2007 PD Soros Fellow Michelle Kuo's "Reading with Patrick" in the mail, I was not particularly looking forward to reading it. To my surprise, I found the book captivating from the very first page, and I was so drawn to the story of Patrick's desperation and hardship and Michelle's bravery and generosity that I read the whole book in one sitting. "Reading with Patrick" taught me the sobering lesson that while we immigrants are focused on achieving the American Dream for ourselves and our families, many people in forgotten parts of America lack the resources to do so. While I have long forgotten what I learned from the many celebrated works of literature that my English teachers made me read, I will never forget "Reading with Patrick," and I consider the opportunity to hear Michelle speak in-person about her life's work to be the highlight of the PD Soros Fellowship.
 
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of applying to the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans?
 
To future PD Soros Fellowship applicants who are seeking to pursue graduate study in a field like mathematics: In the interview process, I was faced with difficult questions about how mathematical, or more generally, theoretical science researchers are effecting some kind of positive social change. It’s important to emphasize your passion for what you do and to consider the broader applications of your discipline on society.
 
Where are you with your PhD in mathematics? What's next?

At the end of my first year of graduate school, I passed my PhD qualifying examination, a four-hour oral test that covered a wide variety of topics, many of which feature prominently in my research. I am currently working on several problems in the rising field of arithmetic invariant theory, the most significant of which can be stated as follows: How often do "superelliptic" equations have integer solutions? Together with my advisor, I have developed a promising approach toward answering this and related questions by combining techniques from number theory, representation theory, and algebraic geometry. Moreover, I recently received approval from my department to teach undergraduate courses, so I hope to add teaching to my workload in the coming academic year.