NEXT Innovation Scholar mixes global outreach with new ideas

From Dubai to UC: Jonathan Raj's journey of innovation and leadership

As a first-generation student from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jonathan Raj’s international background has shaped his expertise in intercultural communication and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Raj embarked on his academic journey at the University of Cincinnati through the Accelerated Engineering Degree (ACCEND) program, which enables students to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years. Before completing his bachelor’s in bioengineering and biomedical engineering and his master’s in mechanical engineering from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), Raj was a dynamic member of UC’s NEXT Innovation Scholars (NIS) program.

“The innovative design thinking I cultivated while helping to develop NIS connected me with incredible people and exposed me to projects and experiences that pushed me out of my comfort zone, fundamentally altering my approach to interdisciplinary problem solving,” Raj explained.

Aaron Bradley, director of the NIS program, praises Raj's contributions. “I can’t say enough about the impact he had had on the program, from the enthusiasm and curiosity he showed on every project he participated in to the leadership roles he voluntarily stepped into as he became a mentor to younger students and spearheaded his own new initiatives.

“As one of 10 students in our first cohort, Raj said 'yes' to the ambiguity of our program, and I believe much of our current success can be traced to his dedication and commitment to the program as we’ve grown.”

Engineer, advocate, scientist

UC student Jonathan Raj sitting in classroom with whiteboards covered in sticky notes in backgroound.

Jonathan Raj during one of his human-centered instructional design workshops. Photo provided

Rising through the academic ranks, Raj became one of UC’s first students accepted into the prestigious Stanford University Innovation Fellows cohort. With his team, Raj spearheaded a student-led design thinking session that was incorporated into the curriculum of the university's honors program.

Back in Cincinnati, Raj designed and led workshops for UC’s College of Nursing, the Warren Bennis Leadership Institute and several community nonprofits — discovering his passion for instructional design along the way. To date, his workshops have introduced over 1,000 students and community members to empathic interviewing and human-centered design.

While developing the NIS social innovation pillar, Raj negotiated partnerships with the New Life Furniture Bank, as well as Best Point Education & Behavioral Health. Social innovation projects leverage UC students’ expertise to provide innovation work for local nonprofits, solving problems with design ideology for immediate real-world impacts. 

For his work on the NIS, Raj received the Neil Armstrong New Frontier Award for innovation leadership. “The training we’ve undertaken to identify emerging trends has fundamentally transformed my worldview,” Raj said. “It has instilled a relentless curiosity about everything from the potential of lab-grown meat to the distinction between entertainment and distraction.”

Global gains

UC student Jonathan Raj sits in the center holding his cell phone while surrounded by dozens of Tanzanian school children.

During his NIS trip to Tanzania, Jonathan Raj excited children from the remote village school in Burere by demonstrating different features on his cell phone. Photo/Melanie Schefft

Raj’s interest in global health led him to GlobeMed, a student nonprofit organization that partners with Social Action for Children and Women to aid refugees from Myanmar who now live in Thailand. GlobeMed’s fundraising efforts consistently raise over $10,000 each year to support community health outreach workshops.

While in Southeast Asia, Raj was first given the opportunity to apply intercultural communication to build a global partnership. This skill would serve him well for the culminating project of his NIS experience.

In 2022, Raj and his NIS team headed to Tanzania with UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub corporate partner Village Life Outreach Project. Raj applied human-centered design strategies while there, uncovering valuable insights into educational and nutritional programs. His innovative recommendations for a community-based chicken farming initiative helped to bolster childhood nutrition, generate income for community members and create a new career exploration curriculum for elementary and middle school students.

UC student Jonathan Raj stands among other UC students at an outdoor Tanzanian elementary surrounded by trees and leaves.

As part of his NIS trip to Tanzania, Jonathan Raj discussed educational and nutritional issues with leaders from the remote village school in Roche. Photo/Melanie Schefft

“The most impactful part of the trip was the connections I formed in such a short time,” Raj said. “It is rare that you get to spend so much time getting to know and work with complete strangers in a setting that challenges and develops all its participants.”

Reflecting on his experiences, Raj said, “Transitioning out of NIS has given me a lot of opportunity to think about sustainable leadership. The amount of change I've witnessed in my three years with NIS is astounding and has been so rewarding.

“While I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished from the foundation that I helped lay, it is also hard to let go of that which I have been invested in for so long. I leave, however, with absolute trust that the student and program leadership teams will do a fantastic job as NIS continues to grow.”

Innovative journeys

Portrait photo of UC student Jonathan Raj with building windows in background.

Jonathan Raj. Photo provided

Looking ahead, Raj is set to join AtriCure full-time in its engineering development program (EDP). “I’ll be rotating through various engineering departments, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the company while receiving personalized leadership development from senior directors,” Raj shared.

“My passion for biomedical engineering was sparked during childhood hospital visits, where I was captivated by medical devices and procedures,” Raj said. While at UC, his collaboration with EnableUC, a student organization dedicated to creating 3D-printed prosthetics for children, fueled his passion for modeling a critical skill for his first post-collegiate role.

“I hope to develop key skills as a biomedical engineer," Raj added, "which I can blend with my human-centered design experience to better understand how research can translate to industry and engineering.”

With a remarkable journey marked by innovation, leadership and global impact, Raj exemplifies the transformative power of cross-disciplinary education and international collaboration at UC.

Featured image at top: Jonathan Raj on UC's campus. Photo/Andrew Highley/UC Creative + Brand

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