GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship Spotlight: Isla Xi Han (GS, Architecture)

Nov. 4, 2021

In the GradFUTURES Spotlight series, Princeton graduate students share in their own words about their experiences in one of the GradFUTURES Fellowship programs: the Community College Teaching Fellowship Program, the University Administrative Fellowship Program, or the GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship Program. 

Where and when did your Fellowship take place?

I was a GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellow at Choose New Jersey in the summer of 2021.


My passion lies in robotics, architectural design, and entrepreneurship. As a Ph.D. student in architectural technology, I research multi-agent construction robotics in CREATE Lab and Leonard Lab. Prior to my Ph.D. program, I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and Economics from the University of Virginia in 2017 and a professional M.Arch degree from Princeton University’s School of Architecture in 2019. My recent projects include developing the award-winning LightVault with robotic arms and co-founding a startup on a smart mindfulness journaling app.

What drew you to the GradFUTURES Fellowship and this particular Fellowship?

Professional work experience can be an essential complement to academic experience in grad school; it helps develop workplace competencies, expand industrial insights, and boost personal development. GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship offered me a perfect opportunity to combine my analytical skill set and passion for tech development in a real-world context, where I developed a white paper evaluating the technology ecosystem in NJ for the non-profit economic development organization, Choose New Jersey.

Can you share a bit about the Organization and the projects to which you contributed?

Choose New Jersey is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit economic development organization that attracts capital investments and businesses into the state of New Jersey by providing resources and guidance to prospective business owners. My primary responsibility during the GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship was to develop a white paper on the technology ecosystem in New Jersey. In order to render an up-to-date tech landscape, I collected and analyzed data on patents, research centers, VC investments, and startup communities and conducted a series of interviews with directors of tech parks and incubators in New Jersey. This research cannot be done without the support of my mentor and colleagues, who connected me to their professional contacts for interviews and resources.

How did these experiences help you?

As a woman in tech, I’m not only interested in researching construction robotics but also curious about the larger picture of technology transfer from the lab into the industry. My previous experience as a GradFUTURES University Administrative Fellow at the Office of Technology Licensing in Princeton University familiarized me with the patenting and licensing processes. Building upon that, GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellow at Choose New Jersey expanded my perspective in the tech industry at the state level.

This experience also helped me build interpersonal and communication skills. I was connected to professionals both within Choose New Jersey and across the state through interviews, field trips, and video conferences. I learned to draft better interview questions and be an active listener. In addition, the process of preparing an engaging presentation and white paper pushed me to think creatively on how to integrate my existing skill set in data analysis and visualization.

Can you share some reflections on the mentorship component of the Fellowship?

I’d like to give a big shout-out to my mentor Rena Sherman, who has been extremely supportive, encouraging, and professional. She made sure that my expectations for this internship were acknowledged and met. She didn’t hesitate to provide support, whether it’s reaching out to professional contacts or extracting information from the online database. Her feedback has also been extremely constructive and helpful.

Choose New Jersey has an amicable and close-knit work environment. As a GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellow, I was invited to individual meetings with professionals specializing in my research topic, pipeline meetings with the entire team, mentorship panels curated for interns, and field trips in Newark. I really enjoyed working for Choose New Jersey.

Best advice for Graduate Students considering a Fellowship through GradFUTURES?

Sometimes you don’t realize how transferable your skill sets are until you have to apply them in different circumstances – this works both ways between industry and academia. The GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship gave me the chance to reevaluate my skills and research field from a novel perspective. It’s both reassuring and freeing to see how academic trainings can be situated in real-world contexts.   


Interested in a GradFUTURES Social Impact Fellowship? Apply Here!


Read more GradFUTURES Fellowship Spotlights here!