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It’s All About the Benjamins

Identical twins win Goldwater Scholarship a year apart
By Erica Levi Zelinger, Communication Specialist, Pennoni Honors College

March 3, 2014

Alex Benjamin makes up the second half of the identical twin brother duo to win Goldwater Scholarships in the last two years.

Had he competed against his brother Rishon for the scholarship – awarded to college students who intend to pursue research careers in the fields of science, math and engineering – Alex says he would have undoubtedly lost.

But Alex, a junior mechanical engineering and Honors student, says of his brother Rishon, a junior chemical engineering and Honors student, that they tend not to compete with one another.

“Our output is much, much greater when we work together,” says Alex.

One describes the other as extremely loving, caring, and in three words: “better than me.” The other says of having an identical twin like him means that you always have one person who will genuinely and consistently think about how an action – be it professional, academic, personal, or otherwise – will affect me before how it will affect him.  Each is hardworking and humble and both interested in alternative energy systems.

At the crux of Alex’s scholarship application was his ongoing work with Dr. Caglan Kumbur in the Electrochemical Energy Systems Lab in Drexel’s Mechanical Engineering & Mechanics department. His goal is to use experimental and computational tools to investigate techniques to reduce the decline in capacity of a vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB); if the decline can be reduced, the VRFB could be a viable storage technology.

The two have worked together for four years with Dr. Pavel Grinfield, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Math Department, on developing and disseminating a suite of MATLAB routines designed to enable users to manipulate and modify triangular and tetrahedral meshes; additionally, they implemented these routines in the study of dynamic fluid films.

Dr. Grinfield doesn’t harbor on the fact he works with twins. While they both are mature, responsible, thoughtful, and have the ability to lead, Grinfield said, they are completely different. “In fact, opposites in many respects.”

He added, “They don't really know how talented they are and they can go as high as they choose … Good for the Goldwater committee – someone there must be good at evaluating true excellence.”

The Benjamins are both currently on co-op; Rishon is at Inolex Chemical Company, working as a process engineer to optimize the production of “green” polymers for use in personal care products. Alex is at Imaging Sciences, analyzing and conducting simulations on specialized X-Ray systems.

They’ve been co-published, attended several conferences together and – despite focusing on different disciplines – they collaborate on almost everything. “The joy of working together trumps any desire to compete,” adds Alex.

And this is the way it has always been for the Benjamins.

When the brothers emigrated from Mumbai in 2007, they were placed in an intermediate algebra course at Council Rock High School North in Newtown, Pa. They consequently discovered they would not be able to take calculus their senior year. So the pair spent part of their summer break studying the associated textbook, and taking the midterm and final exam.

The hardworking pair took on the subject independently, but they relied on one another.

“The goal is to be the best we both can be and not compete to be better than each other,” says Rishon, a former STAR Scholar who worked on the development of novel polymers for use in fuel cells under the tutelage of Yossef Elabd, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Engineering.

“In fact, it is refreshing to have someone with whom I can discuss a wide variety of topics with and expect to learn new things and further grow as an individual.”

There were occasional moments of confusion, says Dr. Rona Buchalter, Director of the Drexel Fellowships Office. “The first time I met Alex, I was a little miffed that Rishon was seemingly so standoffish. Until I realized I was talking with Alex.” Joking aside, Buchalter says, she’s deeply impressed with each of them independently and even more so as brothers. “They clearly spur each other on to achievement in a very positive way. “

And independent of one another, the two 21-year-olds share similar praise of the Drexel Fellowships Office, another unit in the Pennoni Honors College.

“This office is one of the most efficient and productive offices at the entire university,” says Alex. “The Fellowships Office was always supportive and encouraging and very well-versed with the specifics of every available award. During the application process, I was constantly in touch with them and received prompt, fair and extremely helpful feedback and comments.”

Rishon agrees.

“Their track record of success with prestigious fellowships is proof enough of their abilities,” he adds.

Rishon may be more the jokester – “We are spending most of our time brainstorming ideas for making a billion dollars before the age of 30” – but outside of the classroom, the two also have similar research and co-curricular interests.

Both students enjoy a wide range of sports from cricket to tennis, working out, reading and listening to music. The Benjamin brothers created an applications testing team and also organized a team of Drexel students to participate in the annual Climb to the Top event at New York’s Rockefeller Center to raise awareness and money for multiple sclerosis.

Upon graduation, the Benjamin boys may take divergent paths. Rishon plans to complete a one-year study abroad program at a UK-based institution to get his Master of Philosophy degree. He eventually plans to get a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and work in industry on innovative technology. Alex is unsure whether he will pursue a Ph.D. or not, but is currently securing his BS and MS degrees as part of Drexel’s accelerated degree program.  His co-ops have given him the chance to explore both the worlds of industry and academia, so he feels well positioned to go in either direction.

No matter what Alex decides, one thing is for sure: Rishon’s opinion will play a part.

“Rishon has been a major influence in every part of my life,” Alex says. “He is always involved in my decisions and rightfully so, because he brings a fresh perspective to the matter at hand.”