Smith School graduate student and professor win coveted Gilliam Fellowship

Professor Susan Daniel and Ph.D. student Ferra Pinnock

Ferra Pinnock, Ph.D. student in Cornell’s Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), and Susan Daniel, Associate Professor at the Smith School, have been awarded a highly-coveted Gilliam Graduate Fellowship grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The grant is for $50,000 per year for three years and includes a stipend and professional development allowance for Pinnock, an institutional allowance to cover tuition and fees, and an allowance to support Daniel in her efforts to advance diversity and inclusion in the Smith School, as well in the field of engineering in general.

“Susan mentioned the Gilliam Fellowship back when I was in the first year of my Ph.D.,” says Pinnock. “I couldn’t really think about it then. But when she brought it up again this year and asked if we should go for it I said, ‘Yeah, why not?!’” There are several possible good answers to Pinnock’s question, “Why not?” There is a lot of competition for the Gilliam Fellowship. Simply finishing the application process takes a lot of work. In 2018 HHMI received 218 completed applications, which were then reviewed by expert panels. In the end, the panels recommended 44 of the applicants be given awards. 

“Every year it is a really tough crowd to rise to the top of,” says Daniel. “But Ferra is special and I knew that we would have an excellent chance of winning a Gilliam. I was thrilled when she agreed.” And both Pinnock and Daniel were even more thrilled when they were notified they had won back in June.

If you had asked Pinnock during her undergraduate years what she would be doing in 2019, she most likely would have said that she would be working in industry—probably formulating cosmetics. “I was really inspired by my eleventh grade chemistry teacher. I admired her and felt compelled to follow in her footsteps,” says Pinnock. “Before going to college, I Googled things and found out that chemical engineers can make good money right out of college. So I majored in chemical engineering.”

Pinnock went to Yale and in the summer after her first year there she worked with Professor Andre Taylor. It was her introduction to research and it changed her path. “I struggled at first in college,” says Pinnock. “I had some real doubts. But that first research experience gave me a boost. I really enjoyed it. And it was great to work with a black professor and a black grad student mentor—to see people who look like me succeeding in the field.”
While discovering her love of research as an undergrad, Pinnock also discovered something far less positive. “I had some moments of deep frustration as a student of color in STEM at Yale,” says Pinnock. “I had to grapple with the feeling that I was not meant to be part of an intellectual community. Honestly, part of me wanted to run away. But at the same time I wanted to see what I could do to make things better for the people who came after me.”

At Cornell, Pinnock has been active in the CUEMPower program, serving as a mentor to a current undergraduate student for the past two years. She has also been heavily involved in the yearly CBE WOMEN event, which Daniel started in an effort to introduce high school girls from rural school districts to the idea of studying STEM in college. Pinnock has mentored an undergraduate student working in the Daniel Lab, and she is also a Graduate Resident Fellow on West Campus.

Pinnock and Daniel share this commitment to making things better, which made them perfect partners for the Gilliam Fellowship. Daniel, who has been on the faculty of the Smith school since 2007, has been involved with several departmental programs aimed at expanding the pool of colleges students apply from for Ph.D. studies at the Smith School. Daniel says, “One of the critical things is reaching out and helping people understand what opportunities are here and giving them the confidence that ‘Hey, you can do this too.’ It doesn’t need to be a closed club. We’re all invited. Especially a place like Cornell, where the motto is ‘any person, any study’.”

A recent effort started by Daniel is called Hometown Heroes. “We fund current grad students to return to their undergrad institutions and talk about Cornell and collect resumes and encourage people to apply for summer research experiences, so they can get a taste of what it might be like to come to Cornell.” Daniel is excited to be able to expand this effort with funds provided by both the Smith School and the Gilliam Fellowship.
When asked why she chose to come to Cornell for her Ph.D. studies, Pinnock answers immediately, “The people! People are important to me. I want to be at a place where the people I am with believe in me and will help me pursue my goals. I felt that clearly at Cornell as soon as I got here. The thought of staying in academia is still a bit intimidating, but I have so many cheerleaders here and in my life.”

Pinnock Is excited about the support the Gilliam Fellowship will provide her academic career. She and Daniel are also thrilled about the support they will have to continue their efforts to increase diversity in the Smith School and more broadly. “To make any meaningful long-lasting change in academia,” says Daniel, “you have to change the climate.” Pinnock addressed this same idea in her personal essay for the Gilliam application. She wrote, “As a graduate student, I have already begun to address the organizations and culture that undermine parity in STEM classrooms. My goal is to cultivate an academic environment that enables all students, across social identities and education levels, to embrace positive perceptions of their value, belonging, and competency in the engineering field.”

It is clear that both Daniel and Pinnock would be doing the hard work of making the academic engineering world more inclusive even without the Gilliam Fellowship. Thanks to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, they will have the financial and personal support they need to continue--and even to expand--their work.

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