Alumni-in-Residence: Spring 2023

Location: United States

Amrita Vijayaraghavan ’07 smiling Amrita Vijayaraghavan ’07

Amrita Vijayaraghavan ’07 was raised in Oregonian suburbs which, at the time, were a lot more “I, Tonya” and a lot less “Portlandia.” She spent a transplanted adolescence outside of Cleveland, where her first paid job was playing the violin under a 25-foot animatronic Jesus at an evangelical megachurch. In 2011, Amrita co-founded Vijay & Stephens, where she now creates original scripted works for television, and writes, produces, and directs a variety of live, written, and recorded projects.

Amrita graduated from Amherst College with a degree in music and mathematics. After college, she moved to New York City. She worked as a classical music agent, venue manager, festival producer, stage manager, technical director, live-event curator and producer, and the managing director of a progressive startup opera company.

Q: What impact do you hope to have through your career?

A: My goal as an artist is to hold a mirror to the world as I see it, with message-driven work that explores universal human experiences, and is unafraid of complexity, nuance, depth, and contradiction. I want to make creative work that allows people to connect and find commonalities across boundaries, and to tell stories that both reflect our current world and build the world in which I wish to live.


John Erikson smilingJohn Erickson ’82

The son of a NASA engineer, Dr. John Erickson ’82 has always had a natural curiosity and passion for innovation. He joined the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) in 2019 as a senior fellow and has been the acting chief technology officer since 2020. At NIIMBL, John applies his perspective and extensive industry experience to help ensure that NIIMBL investments are aligned with current industry needs. He supports the management of a portfolio of impactful projects, and helps lead technology initiatives and projects that will benefit the biopharmaceutical manufacturing ecosystem.

 John received a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and Chemistry from Amherst College and a Master of Science and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). John initially worked in industrial enzymology at Rhône-Poulenc before joining the biopharmaceutical industry and working for GSK. There, he held a variety of roles in process development, project management, and manufacturing for over 29 years. One of the highlights of his time there was working with other industry colleagues on the A-mAb case study that brought to life the concepts of Quality by Design. Most recently, John served as vice president, biopharmaceutical and steriles manufacturing science and technology, where he was responsible for scientific oversight and support for commercial biopharmaceutical drug substance and sterile fill/finish of biopharmaceuticals and small molecules.

Q: Was there an Aha or Eureka moment at Amherst after which you knew the career to pursue?

A: I came to Amherst with interests in math and science and a desire to discover something novel but didn’t have a specific career plan. In my junior year at Amherst, my father took a sabbatical to teach chemical engineering at MIT. When I was home for Thanksgiving, he introduced me to some of his colleagues, one of whom did research in biochemical engineering. He talked about using enzymes to make medicines and other compounds that couldn’t be made otherwise. Recombinant DNA was still very new then; and I think he also talked about making novel medicines from living cells in culture. I remember sitting in his office thinking, “This is it!” I could use biology, chemistry and math in the same field.


Rich Andre '09 smilingRich André ’09

Rich André ’09 is the senior policy advisor for State and Local Initiatives at the American Immigration Council. In this role, he advises state government officials on their immigration policies, including COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, Afghan refugee resettlement, and federal advocacy. 

 Rich earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Spanish from Amherst College and a Master of Arts in Public Policy from Princeton University. As a proud son of Haitian immigrants, Rich takes his work on immigration policy very personally. He hopes he can advocate for more welcoming, humane, and sensible policies for immigrants and other marginalized groups throughout his career.

 Rich previously served as deputy director of State and Local Initiatives at New American Economy. Before that, Rich managed the NYCitizenship program at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, where he launched Cities for Action, a national coalition of more than 150 mayors advocating for sensible immigration reform. 

Q: Was there an “aha” or “eureka” moment at Amherst after which you knew the career to pursue?

A: Having graduated in the middle of the Great Recession (May 2009), it took me almost a year to find a full-time job that both aligned with my values and paid the bills. I struggled with self-doubt during that time, and ended up relying on my community of family and friends (including many Amherst classmates) for support and encouragement while I searched for the right opportunity. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that support system.


Crystal Valentine ’04 smilingCrystal Valentine ’04

With two decades of experience as a technology executive, computer science researcher, and professor, Crystal Valentine ’04 lends her technical and operating expertise to the Cross Creek team. As a venture capital investor, Crystal supports technical diligence across all the firm’s investments. She loves the research investment process and is interested in data and technology-driven companies across multiple sectors. 

Prior to joining Cross Creek, Crystal served as chief data strategy officer at Eventbrite (NYSE:EB) and vice president of Technology Strategy at MapR Technologies. Earlier in Crystal’s career, she earned a distinguished reputation in the field of computer science, serving as a tenure-track assistant professor of Computer Science at Amherst College. As a professor at Amherst, Crystal taught courses on big data, databases, and computational biology. She also authored several academic publications on algorithms and high-performance computing–as well as big data and computational biology.

Crystal was named 2020 Tech Executive Who Matters by HMG Strategy, Data Innovator of the Year in 2019 by the Women Tech Council, a Person to Watch in 2018 by Datanami, and winner of the Silver Stevie Award in 2017 for Female Executive of the Year in the computer software category. She studied computer science at Amherst College and earned her Master of Arts and PhD in Computer Science at Brown University. Crystal also holds a patent for Extreme Virtual Memory.

Crystal is an aviation enthusiast, having flown all over the United States and the Caribbean. On weekends, she enjoys golfing and skiing with her family and hiking with her dog in her beautiful hometown of Park City. 

Q: How do you use your liberal arts education in the work you do today?

A: Being an investor is an interdisciplinary and collaborative endeavor. While I rely heavily on my technical background (having studied computer science), investing is really a combination of art and science. In my view, the building blocks for being a good investor include: natural curiosity, the ability to learn about new ideas quickly, and good communication skills.


Beselot Birhanu ’17 smilingBeselot Birhanu ’17

Beselot Birhanu ’17, also known as Bessy, grew up in the Bronx, New York, as the daughter of a political asylee from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Growing up, Bessy attended the Prep for Prep program (Contingent XXIX) and Ethical Culture Fieldston School (Class of 2013). This program and school are dedicated to providing academic and social guidance and progressive education, respectively, to its students. Bessy’s background and upbringing cultivated her interest in health disparities, and her passion for advocacy grew with time. Bessy is a fourth-year medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS), applying to combined Medicine-Pediatrics residency programs.

While at Amherst College, Bessy was heavily involved in the pre-health community. Bessy volunteered as a Massachusetts-certified emergency medical technician with Amherst College Emergency Medical Services and co-led Project Salud and the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program. She was also a resident counselor for three years, a member of the African and Caribbean Students’ Union, and upright bassist in a jazz combo group. Bessy feels her anthropology degree at Amherst still informs her humanistic and holistic view of medicine.

After graduating and completing the post-baccalaureate program at Amherst, she returned to New York to attend medical school at ISMMS. As a medical student, she was co-director of the Mount Sinai Human Rights Program. As co-director, she helped expand resources to provide remote forensic medical evaluations to asylum seekers in detention centers. Bessy was also a member of the Executive Board of the ISMMS chapter of the Student National Medical Association during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a member, she partnered with the administration to advocate for systemic anti-racism changes throughout the medical school and hospital system.

Recently, Bessy has become more involved in promoting equity through other channels by serving as an MD admissions committee member and a curricular redesign committee member. Due to her experiences, Bessy remains passionate about reducing health disparities and looks forward to engaging in global health opportunities while serving migrant and refugee communities. 

Q: Tell us about a job you did not get or take. How did this shape your career path?

A: I did not take more traditional clinical research coordinator roles after graduating, and I don’t regret it! Now as a member of the admissions committee, I enjoy seeing the many non-traditional paths people take into medicine and the unique perspectives they bring. Every applicant is different, and I think it is far more important to do work that is both meaningful to you and demonstrates that you are willing to challenge yourself and grow.


Gil Schmerler ’64 smilingGil Schmerler ’64

Gil Schmerler ’64 has worked in education since graduating from Amherst, where he decided to become an educational administrator in his senior year. Before retiring, Gil was on faculty for 30 years at Bank Street College of Education. There, he worked as a teacher and administrator in public, private, urban, suburban, traditional and alternative schools. In Gil’s various roles, he needed an understanding of psychology, sociology, English, civic understanding, anthropology, and even math. During his time in education, Gil had considered himself a progressive educator, even when that description was not always welcomed.

Q: What impact do you hope to have through your career?

A: Mostly, the 150 students I advised will leave their own marks on the educational world. I’ll take a small amount of the credit (or blame).