Two Harvey Mudd College rising juniors are among 10 inaugural fellows selected for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Program, an initiative of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that aims to increase faculty diversity at The Claremont Colleges by supporting underrepresented students to pursue careers as professors.
Cesar Orellana and Willie Zuniga were each selected to receive the prestigious fellowship based on demonstrated academic ability and stated aspiration to pursue a doctoral degree in their respective fields. The MMUF Program provides academic and co-curricular support through events, faculty mentors, stipends for research and repayment of undergraduate loans up to $10,000. The program continues to support fellows during their graduate and postdoctoral careers through grants, mentoring and training. Since 1988, the MMUF Program has engaged more than 4,000 students, more than 500 of whom have earned PhDs.
Orellana, who is majoring in mathematics with an emphasis on operations research and systems engineering, hopes to pursue a course of study in graduate-level mathematics that marries his love of math and engineering. He cites the Engineering Mathematics course (E72) as one of the most stimulating he’s taken at Harvey Mudd and would like to eventually teach courses like it that “apply mathematical and computational methods to the solution of real-world problems.” Orellana says the support system the fellowship provides makes the prospect of graduate school much less daunting.
“One of the most intimidating thoughts for me about pursuing a graduate-level education was the sheer difference between the environment there and the environment at Mudd,” says Orellana. “My biggest fear was that I would be alone with a lack of a support going in, and that this would adversely affect my ability to do the best I can in my future research. Mellon Mays has made me feel a lot more confident in my ability to pursue graduate school with a network of friends and colleagues to help me get through it.”
Orellana is participating in summer research with Liz Orwin ’95, professor of engineering. He is a member of the Engman Fellowship lab, a group working on a corneal transplant project involving electro-spinning—a process by which he creates aligned collagen fiber matrices that simulate the environment in which corneal cells live in the body.
Zuniga, a physics major, calls the fellowship an exciting opportunity and great honor. He hopes to pursue a PhD in physics and then become a professor of physics who can have a meaningful impact on students’ lives. He sees the fellowship award leading to opportunities in which he can serve as a role model and mentor.
“I must be aware of the issues that hinder underrepresented groups to success and combat those issues on campus when I see them come up,” he says. “It really helps motivate someone when they have a person in their life who went through what they’re going through, and who can be there for them as a mentor and a friend. I hope to make the most of [this fellowship] and have a real impact in supporting underrepresented groups in higher education and academia.”
Zuniga is working on two summer research projects with Liang Yang, assistant professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They are seeking signatures of dark matter in the South Pole and—with the Enriched Xenon Observatory—are searching for the neutrino-less double beta decay of Xe-136. This fall, Zuniga hopes to continue research with Harvey Mudd Associate Professor of Physics Ann Esin to investigate the time evolution of strong magnetic fields in brown dwarf stars.