Newsmakersrss

Newsmakers

The Carnegie Corporation honored Deogratias Niyizonkiza ’01GS as a part of an initiative called Great Immigrants: The Pride of America. Niyizonkiza came to the United States as refugee from war-torn Burundi and later founded a medical clinic and public-health center in his native village. (For more on Niyizonkiza’s work, see Columbia Magazine’s Summer 2014 cover story, “The Road to Kigutu.”)

Two Columbia baseball players signed with teams in the 2016 MLB draft. Pitcher George Thanopoulos ’16CC, who turned down an offer from the New York Mets a year ago to finish his Columbia degree, joined the Colorado Rockies organization. Second baseman Will Savage, who just finished his junior year at Columbia College, was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the sixteenth round.

Brandon Victor Dixon ’07CC has been cast in the Broadway musical Hamilton, taking over the role of Aaron Burr from Leslie Odom Jr. Dixon has been nominated for two Tony Awards in acting. He also produced the 2014 Broadway debut of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which won the Tony for best musical revival.

The short-term apartment-rental site Airbnb hired former US attorney general Eric Holder ’73CC, ’76LAW to create its new anti-discrimination policy. The company has recently been under fire after a Harvard University study and other reports found bias against Black and LGBTQ guests.

Clara Roquet ’16SOA won the 2016 BAFTA US Student Film Award for her short film El Adiós. Roquet wrote and directed the film as a part of her Columbia coursework; it beat out 244 other submissions for the award.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ’87SIPA named Sree Sreenivasan ’93JRN as the city’s chief digital officer. In his new role, Sreenivasan will focus on reaching out to the city’s tech community and promoting civic engagement through technology. He previously held the same title at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, before that, at Columbia University.

Find and connect with all your classmates at alumni.columbia.edu.

Televisionaries

© Atas / NatazSeveral Columbians in the television industry received Emmy nominations this year.

The Netflix series Making a Murderer, which was created, written, and directed by Laura Ricciardi ’07SOA and Moira Demos ’96CC, ’08SOA, was nominated in six categories, including outstanding documentary or nonfiction program. Ricciardi and Demos have just announced that they will release a second season of the popular show.

The Netflix political drama House of Cards, created by Beau Willimon ’99CC, ’03SOA was nominated for outstanding drama series, as well as several acting and technical awards.

Roots, the History Channel re-make of the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel, was nominated for outstanding limited series. It was codirected by Mario van Peebles ’78CC.

Kate McKinnon ’06CC is up for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy for her work on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. McKinnon, who is known for her impressions of Hillary Clinton, also starred in this summer’s all-female remake of the 1984 film Ghostbusters.

Startup Spotlight: Signs of Life

Teresa Cauvel and Sona Shah / Photograph by Columbia Engineering

When Sona Shah ’16SEAS and Teresa Cauvel ’16SEAS entered Columbia’s master’s program in biomedical engineering, in 2014, the infant mortality rate in Uganda was approximately thirty-nine per one thousand births. (The US rate, by contrast, is about six per thousand.) It was not surprising, then, that of the pressing global-health challenges identified in their biodesign class, newborn mortality was near the top.

Within two years, Shah and Cauvel would respond to that particular challenge with Neopenda, a startup that has created a wearable monitor that can measure a newborn’s vital signs and help more of those at-risk babies survive.

“What we found is that hospitals in developing countries are so under-staffed and ill-equipped that a single nurse can take care of twenty, thirty, even fifty babies at the same time,” says Shah.

The low-powered device, which is integrated into a hat, sends vital signs wirelessly to a tablet computer in a newborn unit, allowing nurses and doctors to monitor up to twenty-four babies at once and to quickly figure out which ones need help.

“What excites me the most is that it’s a pretty simple solution to a huge problem,” says Cauvel. “The basic technology has been around for a long time, but we reengineered it for this application.”

Neopenda took off when Shah and Cauvel won third place in the global technology category at the Columbia Venture Competition, a university-wide entrepreneurship contest. They spent their $10,000 prize on a fact-finding trip to Uganda, where they are focusing their pilot studies. Then, in the fall of 2015, Shah and Cauvel participated in a five-month startup accelerator program, which helps entrepreneurs write a business plan and develop their technology (it also comes with $50,000 in seed money).

Earlier this year, Shah and Cauvel launched a Kickstarter campaign for Neopenda, raising an additional $41,000. They also won $100,000 and first place in the Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Challenge and the $300,000 top prize in the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Project. They will use some of that money to fund their first studies on newborns: one at Columbia University Medical Center’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York, and one at a private hospital in Uganda.

Next on the to-do list: perfecting the industrial design by making the monitor smaller, and finding a manufacturing partner. Shah and Cauvel hope to start selling the devices to hospitals in Uganda, at a projected cost of fifty dollars each, by early 2018. And the tech entrepreneurs are determined to expand Neopenda’s reach to other countries where infants are at risk. “We feel like babies’ lives are in our hands,” says Shah. 

5 Alumni TED Talks You Might Have Missed

MARY BASSETT '79PS

MARY BASSETT ’79PS
“Why your doctor should care about social justice”
February 2016, TEDMED

New York City health commissioner, Columbia epidemiology professor, and health activist Mary Bassett thinks there’s one thing to blame for the lack of equitable health care in the US: institutional racism. Here she explains why health-care professionals have a moral obligation to change the system.

 

JOEL PUTNAM ’15SIPA

JOEL PUTNAM ’15SIPA
“How to crowdsource your laws”
July 2014, TEDx

As this election season shows, the Internet has changed politics. But what if it could change policies? With the help of the Internet, communication consultant Joel Putnam suggests that it’s possible to bypass elected officials altogether and allow citizens to vote on specific policy proposals.

 

CANDY CHANG ’07GSAPP

CANDY CHANG ’07GSAPP
“Before I die I want to...”
July 2012, TEDGlobal

Artist and urban planner Candy Chang turned an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood into a giant chalkboard and asked her neighbors to answer a fill-in-the-blank question: “Before I die, I want to...” The answers became a beautiful testament to the vitality of the community.

 

CAMERON RUSSELL ’12GS

CAMERON RUSSELL ’12GS
“Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model”
 October 2012, TEDx

“I’m on this stage because I’m a pretty, white woman,” model Cameron Russell admits in this candid talk about privilege and the complicated ways that society rewards beauty.

 

Mike Massimino Photograph by Jane Nisselson / Columbia Engineering

MIKE MASSIMINO ’84SEAS
“Spaceflight”
November 2012, TEDx

All kids want to go to space when they grow up. Mike Massimino actually did it. Here the former NASA astronaut, Columbia engineering professor, and author of the forthcoming memoir Spaceman explains how “rethinking normal” made it happen.

Leave Them Laughing

Photograph by Ryan Lash

They say a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” says comedian Negin Farsad ’02GSAS, ’04SIPA. “For me, the medicine is challenging stereotypes. And the sugar is a really sophisticated poop joke.”

Farsad admits that scatological humor is the last thing that people expect from her — a relentlessly cheerful, Iranian-American, Muslim comedian with two master’s degrees. But she thinks that means she’s doing something right.

“There’s always an assumption that I’m going to be clean or safe, because I’m an ethnic woman,” she says. “So there’s a particular moment in every show when people realize that I’m different. That’s what I’m after.”

Farsad is what she likes to call a “social-justice comedian,” which means that she wants to start a larger conversation about social issues, but in a way that “doesn’t feel like an afterschool special.” This dialogue takes many forms: in addition to performing stand-up, she is a filmmaker, a TED fellow, and, most recently, the author of a memoir, How to Make White People Laugh.

“If you’re trying to take on the dominant culture about how they treat outsiders, you have to speak to that culture directly,” Farsad says. “I’m not interested in preaching to the choir. I’m interested in changing minds.”

Farsad is intimately familiar with being treated differently. Growing up, she felt like the only Muslim kid in Palm Springs, California (“one of the top five gay cities and one of the top five retirement communities — so it’s basically people listening to Lady Gaga while adjusting their catheters”). After studying theater at Cornell, she wanted to explore the sense of otherness that she experienced as an ethnic minority, so she enrolled at Columbia for a master’s in African-American studies. “I knew that the Black struggle wasn’t my struggle, but I wanted to fight it anyway. It felt Iranian-adjacent,” she says.

“I’m not interested in preaching to the choir. I’m interested in changing minds.”

But in the post-9/11 world, the rhetoric around Muslims in America was changing, dangerously. “I thought, how could people associate this kind of violence with a whole religion and an entire region — that’s just crazy. That’s like stereotyping 1.6 billion people. Who does that? Americans.”

Farsad was particularly frustrated with the lack of Muslims in pop culture. The less visible Muslims were, she felt, the more feared and misunderstood they became. After leaving a public-policy job in 2008, she organized a group of fellow Muslim comics to tour the country. (Film from the tour became Farsad’s 2013 documentary The Muslims Are Coming!)

Now, Farsad also hosts a podcast called Fake the Nation, a political roundtable with a rotating cast of comedians. And she stars in the new movie 3rd Street Blackout, a romantic comedy that takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “That one isn’t so political,” Farsad says. “Though when you’re Iranian, people seem to think everything is political.”

Some of the reactions to Farsad’s work have been heartbreaking: “I’ve heard every racist, sexist, hate-filled slur you can imagine.” She’s also had pushback from some fellow Muslims, who have objected to her unorthodox methods. But she says that there are certainly enough positive reactions to keep propelling her forward.

“I always think about the ex-Marine who had been stationed in Afghanistan,” she says. “He came in angry and left laughing.”

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