Social Impact Fellowship Program Empowers Graduate Students to Connect, Collaborate, and Contribute at XPRIZE

Written by
Shelby Lohr, GS (HIS)
Feb. 17, 2023

As a doctoral student in history, I never imagined that I might collaborate with astronauts and spacecraft engineers. With Princeton’s Social Impact fellowship, however, I spent the summer supporting the future of space technology with industry experts.

As a visioneering fellow at the XPRIZE Foundation, I attended several months of brainstorming sessions with space leaders and participated in-person at XPRIZE’s 2022 Science Conclave in New York. From hearing imaginative ideas for energy generation to considering the potential for construction in space, XPRIZE’s visioneering sessions presented novel solutions to contemporary challenges. 


The 90th-floor view from the XPRIZE Science Conclave held in New York City, which Shelby Lohr took part in as part of her Social Impact Fellowship experience.

In 2020, GradFUTURES established the Social Impact Fellowship program. In collaboration with partner nonprofit institutions, graduate students develop professional skills and explore service-oriented career paths. Current nonprofit partnerships include organizations in arts, policy, and entrepreneurship. Since the establishment of the program, a handful of Princeton graduate students–including students in engineering, anthropology, history, chemistry, and French & Italian–participated in the Social Impact Fellowship with the XPRIZE foundation. 

XPRIZE, founded in 1994, offers substantial awards to solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges. The first XPRIZE–a $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight–gave rise to the commercial space flight industry, including Virgin Galactic. Other previous and current XPRIZEs include a $100 million carbon removal XPRIZE, a $15 million global learning XPRIZE, and a $10 million Rainforest XPRIZE. Researchers, entrepreneurs, students, and tinkerers from any background can participate in their competitions.

Some of Princeton’s Social Impact Fellows include Camila Llerena-Olivera (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering), Saadia El Karfi (Department of French & Italian), and Max Horder (Department of Anthropology). Fellows brought their professional training and personal interests to these fellowships as they pursued projects aligned with their long-term professional objectives.

For the past ten months, I also participated in the XPRIZE Social Impact Fellowship; I joined the XPRIZE fellowship in February and explored three different divisions of the foundation: communications, visioneering, and partnerships. As a doctoral student with specializations in the history of modern technology and the history of science, XPRIZE offered a practical, contemporary immersion the practice of technological development. 

Max Horder, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology, put his training to use as a Product Specialist fellow with XPRIZE. Some of his fellowship projects involved directly applying anthropology skills to a professional context, including through transcribing interview information, coding interviews, and extracting interview content. Horder used this data collect to produce a public-facing document for the Foundation. Horder believed his research background informed much of his fellowship work, and hsi XPRIZE projects involved tasks that could “range from [reading] news articles to reviewing academic scholarship and interviewing.”

The fellowship fit Camila Llerena-Olivera’s background well, too. Before Princeton, she engaged in a series of sustainability research projects. Her fellowship at XPRIZE as a Research Analyst “touched on different topics of the environment.” The experience allowed her to develop a “role as a jack of all trades” since she had to “learn more about […] up-and-coming topics.” 

As a fellow, I also gained practical, on-the-job experience. Over the summer, I joined the visioneering program and organized output from prize-generating brainstorming sessions. While partnering with the communications team, I created detailed reports on listener trends and drafted briefs on prospective podcast episodes. Finally, to support the partnerships division, I worked on a research project examining user needs for a beta version of an alumni database. By collaborating with multiple teams within the Foundation, I developed a broader understanding of the multifaceted nature of nonprofit work.

Many of the XPRIZE fellows supported the summer-long visioneering program, which draws in industry leaders to participate in prize-generating sessions. Astronauts, CEOs, and nonprofit leaders all collaborate in the effort. Visioneering fellows pair up with a specific domain through the duration of the summer and contribute to the project through organizing meeting output and background research.

Llerena-Olivera found the experience eye-opening. Through visioneering sessions, she was “exposed to so many people from different walks of life.” Through work with “professors, CEOs, and so many others from diverse backgrounds,” Llerena-Olivera left the fellowship with “a vision” for potential career paths.

Saadia El Karfi, who joined the Visioneering program for the summer, contributed to the Learning and Society prize concept ideation. In this role, she collaborated with a consultant who was “hired to strategize and [develop] prize concept briefs.”  While there were a number of steps involved in producing prize briefs, El Karfi had a hand in developing seven or eight briefs. 

Some of the ideas generated throughout the visioneering program aligned with El Karfi’s own interests. Her academic research “examines how international education impacts [...] political affiliations,” particularly among minority groups. She found the fellowship compelling, as it supported the process of “bring[ing] education to students across the globe, especially students who don't have the means to afford education as a whole.”

Llerena-Olivera, who supported the Climate and Energy XPRIZE domain, drafted literature reviews and organized presentations to support visioneering meeting proposals. She found that such exercises allowed her to further develop her writing skills. Llerena-Olivera took up the fellowship, in part, to better understand the mechanisms driving nonprofits. She “wanted more insight on how the nonprofits [operate],” and believed the experience “did give [her] a better idea” on organizational setup. 

El Karfi believes that the Social Impact Fellowship will “definitely [...] open a lot of doors for us, should we choose to continue our exploration of other domains outside of academia.”