Maryann Benny Fernandes, 26 – FUNDED

“No one else knows your story better than you, and you are your storyteller,” says Maryann Benny Fernandes, who has quite the story herself. Originally from Mumbai, India, she is an international, first-generation, low-income, second-year master’s student in Electrical Engineering, with a focus on Physical Science and Technology, at Stanford University. This New Face of Tech winner wants to become a professor and a space scientist.

“Apart from the hardware side of technology, I am interested in Outer Space Public Policy and want to advocate for space sustainability, primarily targeting sub-cm space debris detection and categorization through innovative antennas and radar systems on spacecraft and CubeSats,” she says.

Before her graduate studies at Stanford, she worked for three years at the Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering and Research, an Indian Research Lab. “My work on the Radiometry System for Early Breast Cancer Detection project was a game-changer for me because I never recognized the impact of research until I observed and reported nonlinear results from the first simulation of a 2.4 GHz microstrip antenna on HFSS under two test conditions — a breast phantom with and without a cancerous tumor ranging from 1 mm to 10 cm,” she says.

“Additionally, with my aerospace engineering courses at Stanford, my curiosity has been amplified because there may be a link between using innovative antennas to capture tiny space debris and early cancer detection,” she added. “I got a head start in this arena by doing a voluntary internship during the summer of 2021, where I studied the similarities of dark matter in the gravitational lensing of outer space with that of cancer cells in the human body.”

What does being the New Face of Tech mean to you?

I feel honored and privileged to be the New Face of Tech. I am grateful to 1DF and HARMAN for believing in me. I feel empowered knowing that all my hard work in walking on my path to my dreams is paying off. I want my journey to be proof that women can play a fantastic role in technology.

Women are underrepresented in STEAM. How can we change this?

For me, education is the key to uplifting women. I feel disgusted and angry when I see and hear young girls being denied education due to political reasons or ignorant beliefs in a family or society. I want to be a professor once I can establish a significant career and be a voice for young girls who dream of studying and women who wish to pursue their studies but have had to give up due to circumstances beyond their control.

What are some of the challenges you have faced along the way?

The Reading and Writing Poetry course has been one of my favorite classes at Stanford, because it gave me the opportunity to reflect on my roots. I wrote seven poems around myriad themes like my childhood space dream, influencers in my life, and the power of love for everyone. Consulting dozens of people for feedback on my poems during the course, I discovered a person I never knew I was. I was transforming into a powerful woman with a life full of beautiful memories, hidden under a heap of hostile encounters.

I jumped into engineering at age 15 and was one of five girls in a class of 80. For a national-level technical competition held outside Mumbai, my two male teammates refused to let me travel with them due to the unsafe train journey. Yet, I was determined and requested my dad to escort me. We won first prize.

Being bullied as a student leader during my senior year of undergrad, while having difficulty speaking because of a growing cyst on my lip that needed surgery, took a toll on my self-confidence and self-esteem. I worked through the bullying and graduated as the valedictorian of my class.

In my master’s education at Stanford, I have received endless support from my family, friends, classmates, professors, and strangers (God sent angels in disguise). To recall one, the Monday after Thanksgiving week of 2021, when I returned to campus from my dad’s funeral in India, I was confident about presenting my final project on radiation cooling. But when I opened my mouth to speak, I blanked out for the first time in my life. Then, instead of telling my inner self, I blurted out to the entire class, “Maryann, I think you have blanked out.” My professor quietly encouraged me, “it’s alright, go ahead,” as my classmates nodded in acknowledgment. That poignant moment reminded me that it is okay to be vulnerable and not keep blaming myself for all outcomes.

How do you stay motivated and focused on your goals?

I stay motivated and focused on my goals through the following three ways:

  1. Faith: I receive my Catholic faith sacraments regularly so that my spiritual life is in shape.
  2. Family: I keep in touch with my family regularly so that I am emotionally and mentally stable.
  3. Service: Getting involved in community service because it gives me the most inward joy and happiness — and words cannot explain how I feel.

I have realized that I am happier and at peace with myself when I don’t miss these three things.

How will funding from the 1,000 Dreams Fund and HARMAN help you reach your goals?

It has helped eliminate a portion of my financial debt in my master’s education at Stanford.