Rice Engineering’s Future Faculty Fellows program prepares students to stand out in academic job market

Diverse 2023-24 cohort to bring unique contributions to their fields, inspire future generations.

Twelve headshots of Future Faculty Fellows

Rice Engineering’s Future Faculty Fellows program supports Ph.D. students and postdoctoral associates as they explore the tenure track academic career path, compete successfully for tenure track faculty positions, and launch their careers. All Rice Engineering Ph.D. students and postdoctoral associates may participate in valuable networking events, workshops and panels—but for those who are ready to dive into the academic career journey, the program offers a Level 3 Future Faculty Fellowship. 

Level 3 Future Faculty Fellows prepare to compete successfully for tenure track engineering faculty positions through one-on-one consultation, tailored workshops, and mock interviews. “The Future Faculty Fellows program focuses on preparing and supporting the fellows as they navigate a complex job market,” said Renata Ramos, senior associate dean for academic affairs in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University. “Our program selects top doctoral students and postdocs at Rice Engineering and helps them stand out throughout the application and interview process.”

Fellows also receive a travel stipend and build valuable connections with both faculty and other fellows. “This is a great opportunity to learn and grow while getting mentored by future peers, and I am looking forward to fostering new connections and strengthening my academic profile,” said Paola Cascante-Bonilla, a 2023-24 Future Faculty Fellow.

The 2023-24 Future Faculty Fellows cohort is a diverse group of students committed to research, academic excellence, and inspiring future generations of engineers. Hailing from five countries and representing eight of Rice University’s engineering departments, the fellows are already making unique contributions to academia. 

Meet the 2023-24 Future Faculty Fellows:

Rachael May Alfant, Ph.D. candidate in computational applied mathematics and operations research (CMOR), holds a M.A. in computational and applied mathematics from Rice University and a B.A. in mathematics from the University of Chicago. Her research interest is mixed integer programming with applications in resource allocation and logistics. As a passionate educator, she looks forward to a career focused on teaching and mentoring students in STEM, involving students in mathematical research, and creating initiatives that aim to increase the participation of underrepresented students in academia. Alfant is currently in the lab of Sebastian Perez-Salazar and Andrew Schaefer.

Sohini Bhattacharyya is a Rice Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the lab of Pulickel Ajayan (MSNE), and her current research focus is developing sustainable and economically viable pathways for recycling lithium-ion batteries. Her research has been widely published in scientific journals, and she has won numerous awards from institutions such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. As an educator, Bhattacharyya is dedicated to reducing the gender gap in STEM and issues regarding accessibility to education for people with diverse backgrounds. Bhattacharyya holds Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in materials science from Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, India.

Sujitkumar Bontapalle, a postdoctoral research associate in chemical and biomolecular engineering, researches conjugated polymers-based organic bioelectronic sensors for living and nonliving interfaces. He holds Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He has recently published research in Nature Electronics and Chemical Communications. Bontapalle is pursuing an academic career because he wants to conduct independent research, contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the field of polymers for human-machine interface, and mentor the next generation of scholars. He is currently working in the lab of Rafael Verduzco (ChBE).

Paola Cascante-Bonilla is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science and graduate research assistant in The Vision, Language and Learning Lab (vislang). She received her Master of Computer Science degree at the University of Virginia and a B.S. in engineering at the Tecnológico de Costa Rica. In addition to being a Future Faculty Fellow, Cascante-Bonilla received the Ken Kennedy Institute SLB Graduate Fellowship this academic year, and she has also spent two consecutive summers at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. Her research has been featured in the IBM Research Blog, TechXplore, Rice Computer Science News, and MIT News. She currently works in the lab of Vicente Ordóñez Román (CS).

Jaihee Choi is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the statistics department working in the lab of Ryan Sun. Her research interest involves developing statistical methodologies to extract valuable insights from different complex biological data. Currently, her focus is the development of novel rare-variant association testing methods tailored for interval-censored time-to-event outcomes. Choi came to Rice with a dual degree in applied and computational math / statistics and economics from the University of Notre Dame.

Aditya Desai is a Ph.D. student working in the lab of Anshumali Shrivastava (CS). He is drawn to the collaborative nature of academia and is passionate about teaching and mentoring. His research interest is randomized methods for efficient deep learning, and research areas include efficient large-scale machine learning, applied randomized algorithms and datastructures, and cache-efficient algorithms. While at Rice University, Desai also received the Pollard Fellowship and Ken Kennedy Institute Shell Graduate Fellowship.

Keegan Kirk is a postdoctoral fellow in the computational applied mathematics and operations research department. His research interests lie broadly in the numerical and mathematical analysis of partial differential equations (PDEs) arising in the modeling of solid and fluid mechanics. Kirk holds a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Waterloo, where he won the Applied Mathematics Department’s Doctoral Prize for best Ph.D. dissertation. He is pursuing a tenure-track faculty position for the opportunity to lead a research program and train the next generation of industry professionals and academics. Kirk currently works in the lab of Beatrice Riviere (CMOR). 

Hongchen Shen, postdoctoral research associate in civil and environmental engineering, is dedicated to addressing environmental pollution using nanomaterials. His research focus is on designing functional nanomaterials with advantageous traits, such as enhanced visible light responsiveness, to eliminate waterborne and airborne contaminants. Shen comes to Rice from The George Washington University, where he received his Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Shen currently works in the lab of Qilin Li (CEE). 

Eric Wold, a postdoctoral research associate in the bioengineering department, works in the lab of Jeff Tabor. In his research, he blends chemical and synthetic biology with computational methods to study cell membrane proteins as therapeutic targets and biological signal processors. Wold holds a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry and chemical biology from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he received the 2021 Sporar Endowment Drug Discovery Dissertation Award.

Jiarong Xing, Ph.D. candidate in computer science, focuses his research on systems, networking and security. His research aims to build the next generation of high-performance and reliable data centers by utilizing the extensive capabilities of programmable hardware, including SmartNICs, FPGAs, and switches. Xing was recently awarded the USENIX Security Distinguished Paper Award and has received a Google PhD Fellowship for systems and networking, among other fellowships. Xing is currently in the lab of Ang Chen (CS). 

Zhongyuan Zhao is a postdoctoral research associate working in the lab of Santiago Segarra (ECE). With research recently published in journals such as the IEEE Transactions on Wireless Communications, his research interests include machine learning and signal processing for wireless communications and networking and graph-based machine learning, networked and distributed systems. Zhao earned his Ph.D. in computer engineering from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

John Zito is a Ph.D. student working in the lab of Daniel Kowal (STAT). His primary research areas include Bayesian statistics and time series analysis. Zito comes to Rice University from Kenyon College, where he received his B.A. in mathematics. He is a recipient of the NSF-GRFP Fellowship, which supports outstanding graduate students who have demonstrated the potential to be high achieving scientists and engineers.

All Rice Engineering Ph.D. students and postdocs are welcome to attend Future Faculty Fellows events listed on the website. Upcoming events include an Academic Networking event in October—where experts will share insights about making personal connections and leveraging your professional network— and a Diversity Statement Workshop in November, which provides guidance on writing a diversity statement for academic careers.

The 2024-2025 Level 3 Future Faculty Fellows application process begins in spring 2024. Interested Ph.D. students and postdocs should attend Future Faculty Fellows events this fall.