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Meet Columbia Engineering’s 2020 Valedictorian and Salutatorian

Apr 23 2020 | By Jesse Adams | Photos Courtesy of Emma Schechter and Pranav Shrestha

Emma Schechter and Pranav Shrestha, valedictorian and salutatorian of Columbia Engineering’s undergraduate Class of 2020, are set to receive the School’s highest academic honors. As valedictorian, Schechter will be awarded the Illig Medal and speak as part of Engineering Class Day on May 18. We caught up with the impressive seniors to ask what they’ve gleaned from Columbia, what’s next, and more.

Emma Schechter, Valedictorian

Major: Applied Math

Hometown: Los Angeles, California                           

Why Columbia Engineering?
I have always had a lot of interests, so the interdisciplinary focus at Columbia allowed me to not have to pick and choose what to focus on academically. I’ve always thought that interdisciplinary studies when studying STEM are incredibly important in helping one be a good person in addition to a good academic. I also knew that I wanted to be part of an arts community extracurricular-ly, so living in New York City was a dream. 

Why Applied Math?
I was initially drawn to the flexibility of the program. Since I’ve always had many interests, I feel incredibly lucky to study something that is relevant in numerous disciplines. Applied Math can be relevant in technical and nontechnical studies, as we are in an age of prevalent computation, so I didn’t have to commit to learning about one thing.  

What was your favorite course and professor?
I truly cannot pick one course or professor. I loved Introduction to Numerical Methods with Kyle Mandli, Uncertainty Quantification with Kyle Mandli and Michael Tippett, Modern Architecture in the World with Anooradha Siddiqi, and Computational Approaches to Human Vision with Norma Graham. Professor Mandli has taught me so much and been especially formative in my intellectual growth, but again it’s so hard to pick one! 

What was the most meaningful project you worked on?
In Modern Architecture in the World, we had to design an exhibit, pick where to show that exhibit, and explain the intention behind our choices. My exhibit focused on dialogue between the female body and landscape. While this initially seemed insulated from my other studies, I really began to think about an engineer’s role as a “builder,” as what I was doing was similar to what an engineer does. It’s so important to be aware of the inherent privilege of this role and the effect it has on people using the given device or environment.   

How have you been spending your time away from Columbia?
I pride myself on being a hobbyist so I’ve actually been up to a lot! I’m currently in New York City and have been making jewelry, making videos, and learning animation. I am also the sound designer for “Disco Pigs,” a play in the Senior Thesis Festival for directing students—since the festival is now virtual, I’ve been working on pre-recorded videos that will be integrated into the live performance.

What are your plans for after graduation?
I plan on staying in New York. I do analog video projections at concerts in the city and want to keep doing so. I’m also continuing to work on projects that I have yet to publish, that combine arts and computation along with analog and digital media with the goal of creating accessible narrative works. In a few years, I believe I’ll apply to graduate school for this sort of work existing at the intersection of art and computation. My dream job after graduate school would be writing and producing accessible narrative works involving sound art, analog video, and animation. Plus, I’d love to run an experimental art center that houses works involving some sort of creative computing. 

Who are the most inspirational people in your life?
My grandfather who died when I was in high school was a huge role model for me, a hobbyist and one of the only people in my life interested in STEM and art. He worked in early computing and was a woodworker, actor, and writer. Norma Graham, the professor who teaches Computational Approaches to Human Vision, has also been incredibly inspirational to me—she studies mathematical modeling of vision, has been faculty at Columbia since 1970, and truly encourages interdisciplinary discussion in her course.

What was the most important thing Columbia Engineering taught you?
It taught me to be comfortable with not understanding something. You can’t be an expert at everything, which is why asking for help is so important!

What does engineering for humanity mean to you?
To me it means thinking about the ramifications of our work and always being aware of the privilege with which we approach the task of “building.” It’s easy to lose sight of the people or places we want to help, but to me engineering for humanity means not doing that!

It’s easy to lose sight of the people or places we want to help, but to me engineering for humanity means not doing that.

Emma Schechter
Valedictorian

Pranav Shrestha, Salutatorian

Major: Computer Science

Hometown: Kathmandu, Nepal

Why Columbia Engineering?
Growing up in Nepal, America and an Ivy League education are the proverbial shining city on the hill. A lot of us could not even dream of such an experience—less than 10 people from the entire country are accepted at Ivy League schools. Such an education and the mentorship that entailed was always a distant dream, and the perk of the New York experience put Columbia at the top of the list for me.

Why Computer Science?
I’ve always been fascinated by developing an understanding of how the world works, and computer science offers an entire world governed by simple logical rules and explicit algorithms whose beauty and effectiveness captivate me.

What was your favorite course and professor?
Hands down, Computer Vision with Carl Vondrick. I loved its succinct coverage of everything from the physics involved and traditional algorithms to the state-of-the-art deep learning papers! Professor Vondrick’s teaching style, challenging yet engaging assignments, and straightforward assessments definitely added to the charm. My only regret was not taking it earlier.

How has your education and experience primed you for your career?
Columbia Engineering has played an essential role starting from my very first internship. I was part of the Columbia Center for Career Education’s Startup Internship Program, which was an incredible opportunity as a freshman. This helped me secure my internship with Qualcomm and eventually the research role I’ll be joining full-time.

How have you been spending your time away from Columbia? 
I’ve been staying with my brother in Dallas attempting to stay as occupied as possible—keeping healthy with short jogs and light workouts, catching up with friends, taking time for introspection and exploring interests within and beyond computer science. 

What are your plans for after graduation?
I’ll be joining Qualcomm’s research department working on machine learning compression, primarily the study and deployment of models for Internet of Things devices and low-power chips, and eventually pursuing further studies in a related field. While we’re still a long way away, I’d love to work on projects like the brain-computer interface.

Who are the most inspirational people in your life?
My parents have always been the biggest inspirations for me. The amount of work and sacrifice my parents have had to make for us to be who we are today has been one of my biggest motivators. I also want to thank my brother who has always been my biggest supporter. He was my first teacher, sparking a joy of learning from a very early age, and has always pushed me to pursue new adventures whether it’s hiking a 14er or learning to ski despite my fear of heights. For everything, I’m eternally grateful!

Words to live by?
“Time wasted enjoying is not time wasted.” For over a decade, it’s been a reminder to never feel guilty about the ways I spend my time; to be kind to myself and learn to enjoy life. It’s also a subtle nudge to seek out things I’d enjoy doing.

What does engineering for humanity mean to you?
For me, it’s the ability to look beyond our current obligations and projects to consider our impact on society. Whether it’s on a global scale like tackling misinformation or for smaller communities, engineering for humanity orients us towards our visions of a better society.