Commencement Class of 2022

UCLA Samueli Announces Class of 2022 Awardees and Commencement Student Presenters

Jun 15, 2022

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Each year the individual departments of the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, and the school as a whole, bestow honors on graduating students who have made special contributions and have distinguished accomplishments. 

We highlight below this year’s school-wide recipients, including a short interview with each. Respondents’ answers were slightly edited for clarity and brevity.  

 

Emily Rose Dunn

SCHOOL-WIDE OUTSTANDING BACHELOR OF SCIENCE

Emily Rose Dunn

Emily Rose Dunn graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. In addition to being named the schoolwide outstanding bachelor of science student, Dunn also received the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department’s outstanding bachelor’s degree award. While at UCLA, Dunn was an undergraduate researcher in the labs of chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Nasim Annabi and professor Daniel Neuhauser of chemistry and biochemistry. In 2020, she received the Daniel Kivelson Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which she completed in Neuhauser’s lab, developing a program to conduct the time evolution of a wave utilizing the symmetric SOFT operator method. Dunn is also an Amgen scholar at Caltech, where she conducts research on stimulated Raman scattering microscopy. She received a 2022 Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation and will continue her studies at Caltech after graduation.

Q&A
How did you get interested in research as an undergraduate?

I have always been curious, wanting to understand the forces driving fundamental processes and striving to understand the mechanisms of product synthesis. This inquisitiveness inspired me to seek out research opportunities to advance my understanding of complex processes and develop the skills necessary to solve pressing scientific challenges.

When professor Daniel Neuhauser offered me a position as an undergraduate researcher in his lab in theoretical and computational chemistry after noticing my passion for science in his UCLA Chemistry 20A class and during office hours the winter quarter of my freshman year, I enthusiastically accepted. This was my first lab position and marked the beginning of my research career.

Can you describe a project that you worked on? What problem was being addressed and what was the solution?

During my Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at Caltech, I conducted research in carbon dioxide reduction with nanostructured gold in professor Harry Atwater’s lab. The project focused on creating free-standing nanoporous gold to enable greater control of the thickness and uniformity of gas diffusion electrodes (GDEs).

A typical GDE utilizes porous carbon paper, which has to be commercially purchased. This porous carbon paper lacks uniformity in its porosity and limits the length scales and pore sizes of investigation. Developing a method to fabricate the electrode without this paper is advantageous because it enables greater control over the parameters influencing the effectiveness of the catalyst: thickness, pore size, and uniformity. I successfully developed a method and fabricated free-standing nanoporous gold.

You’ll be continuing your studies at Caltech, what are you looking to specialize in?

The focus of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering on fuels, efficiency, and sustainability presents an incredible opportunity for me to pursue the areas of research in which I am most passionate.

I hope to contribute to developing methods to sequester and transform carbon dioxide in graduate school at Caltech because of the potential for broadening scientific understanding and for generating solutions to prevent further global climate change.

What was your favorite experience at UCLA? And why?

One of my favorite experiences at UCLA was when I met my mentees for the first time at the MentorSEAS kickoff. I really enjoyed welcoming the first-years and transfer students to the school and answering questions about the study of engineering in college. I recall how influential this event was when I was a mentee, making me feel comfortable, supported by my peers and part of a larger community. I am grateful to have been able to be on the other side of this event, contributing to improving the undergraduate experience for others.

 

Griffith Collwyn Hesketh Hughes

HARRY M. SHOWMAN PRIZE

Griffith Collwyn Hesketh Hughes

Griffith Collwyn Hesketh Hughes graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering and a minor in professional writing. He also received the Bioengineering Department’s outstanding bachelor’s degree award. During his time at UCLA, Hughes was an undergraduate researcher at UCLA’s Center for Advanced Surgical and Interventional Technology and held multiple officer positions in the Biomedical Engineering Society at UCLA. He was also an emergency medical technician for three years and served as editor of UCLA’s Undergraduate Science Journal. Following graduation, Hughes will be pursuing a master’s degree in bioengineering at UC San Diego.

Q&A
As a recipient of the Harry M. Showman Prize recognizing outstanding communication of research, why do you think that is an important skill?

Bioengineering is difficult to define. It synthesizes elements of every engineering field, and I think this breadth emphasizes the importance of scientific literacy and communication. Some form of the phrase, “your results are worthless if you can’t communicate them,” has floated around for as long as scientists have tried to share their research. Seeing how people interpret ideas through the lenses of different fields highlights this message, especially when they end up converging on the same idea.

What prompted you to pursue a minor in professional writing? How have your professional writing courses helped you in your other areas of interest?

I’ll admit I originally enrolled in Professional Writing: Science and Technology thinking I would learn to write a research manuscript — a lack of due diligence on my end. But I gradually realized I enjoyed creative writing, not the dreaded book reports or presentations of high school. Before I knew it, I’d taken five out of the six courses for the minor without ever officially joining it.

The courses I completed strengthened my communication, scientific literacy and public speaking skills. They allowed me to write about subjects I would never have explored in my engineering courses and emphasized the importance of a good story.

How did your involvement in the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) impact your UCLA experience?

BMES helped me transition from high school to college. It might be cliché, but it became my home away from home — a fundamental part of my UCLA experience. BMES introduced me to my best friends at UCLA, and it continues to teach me new things about myself and others.

As the academic chair for the past two years I’ve been able to pass on my knowledge and experiences to new students, seeing them as excited and nervous as I was when I first entered UCLA, and having the opportunity to contribute to their story. They are a part of my legacy to the school, and the legacy of all the people who have mentored me.

What have you learned from your experience as an emergency medical technician while at UCLA? Do you plan to continue working in or studying emergency medicine?

I’ve always considered my work as a 911 EMT for UCLA Emergency Medical Services to be a form of storytelling. I arrive on scene and receive a synopsis of the story from the patient, the bystanders and the scene itself. Then I have approximately 10-15 minutes to learn as many details as possible before it’s my turn to tell the tale. It’s an awesome job.

My research, writing minor, experience with BMES, and work as an EMT are all parts of my story. I’m excited to continue writing it by beginning an MS thesis in bioengineering at UCSD next year. My overarching goal is to become a physician-engineer — to exist at the intersection of engineering, medicine and research; to translate benchtop research to the bedside; and to be a storyteller.

 

Vera Smirnova Koutnik

HARRY M. SHOWMAN PRIZE

Vera Smirnova Koutnik

Vera Smirnova Koutnik graduated with a doctorate in civil engineering. Advised by assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Sanjay Mohanty, her research focused on the movement and accumulation of microplastics in subsurface environments. She also served as president of the Engineering Graduate Students Association and held several positions in the graduate chapter of UCLA’s Society of Women Engineers. Following graduation, Smirnova Koutnik will join the Boston Consulting Group’s Los Angeles office as a consultant.

Q&A
As a recipient of the Harry M. Showman Prize recognizing outstanding communication of research, why do you think that is an important skill? My research, both in the lab and field, has improved the understanding of why and how microplastics may eventually move through subsurface soil to groundwater. Communicating research is essential to help the scientific community advance and close research gaps. In a fast-paced field, such as microplastics, communicating my research and engaging with other researchers was crucial to developing new research directions and finding meaningful collaborations. I also believe effective communication helps inform and shape public policy to protect the environment. Thus, scientists have the responsibility to reach out to people beyond academia and make their research findings accessible to the public. What are you most proud of in your time serving as president of the Engineering Graduate Students Association (EGSA)? I really enjoyed all aspects of being involved with EGSA, but I am most proud of the tight engineering community that we built. Together with the board, we made sure to support students through the pandemic by creating online opportunities for them to make friends and eventually grow those connections in real life. We hosted large and high-quality events with a diversity of activities that were accessible to all students. Finally, we initiated the first-ever student satisfaction survey of engineering graduate students, which evaluated the biggest issues students face. We presented our findings from the results of the survey to the dean’s office to take action. We plan to administer the survey annually and continue using the results to improve the graduate student experience at UCLA. After earning your undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemical engineering you shifted your Ph.D. focus to civil and environmental engineering. What made you decide to shift your focus? Was it a fairly smooth transition? When deciding on what I wanted to do for my Ph.D., I focused more on selecting labs doing research that interested me rather than selecting a specific department. Since I have always been interested in sustainability, environmental engineering seemed like a natural transition for my skills and interest. I also felt excited about the environmental engineering research I would do in professor Mohanty’s lab because of its large societal impact. I have always been a person who enjoys learning new things, so my excitement to take classes and do research in a completely new field in addition to my previous engineering research experience made my transition smooth. Professor Mohanty and my lab mates were all very supportive of me, which also enabled me to have a very great experience from the beginning. Starting in August, you will be working as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. How do you intend to apply your Ph.D. studies in the role and what sort of an impact do you hope to have? I believe that engineering taught me the indispensable skills of problem solving and critical thinking, which can be applied to any topic to solve any issue. I also learned how to solve complex problems sustainably by using engineering solutions that are economically feasible while focused on maximizing societal benefits. I plan to apply these sustainability concepts in my future job as a consultant by advising clients to use sustainable solutions to resolve their issues. As I love learning, this job will allow me to work on a variety of projects in different disciplines and have a direct impact on the clients. Ideally, I hope to be a spokesperson for sustainability in my work and advise clients on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
Wenzhong Yan

HARRY M. SHOWMAN PRIZE

Wenzhong Yan

Wenzhong Yan will graduate with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in the summer of 2022. His research has focused on origami-inspired robots and soft robotics, along with physical intelligence, rapid prototyping and computational fabrication. His faculty advisor is Ankur Mehta, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. After receiving his doctorate, Yan plans to seek a faculty position so he can continue working on impactful research and generating new knowledge.

Q&A
As a recipient of the Harry M. Showman Prize recognizing outstanding communication of research, why do you think that is an important skill? I think research only thrives when it is properly and effectively communicated to the public. Being able to communicate the novelty and importance of scientific findings is critical to a researcher’s daily life — giving talks, writing papers and proposals, lecturing students, supervising mentees, etc. Effective communication of scientific findings also allows the advances and discoveries from the scientific process to become more accessible to the public, which greatly benefits our society by lowering the information barrier in the decision-making process at all levels, from the government to individuals. Can you describe your thesis in simple terms? What does it address? And what applications could generate from it? My thesis centers on answering a scientific question: How do we create autonomous robots without requiring silicon-based electronic components? It explores origami-inspired, cut-and-fold methods to generate autonomous robots from widely available functional sheet and thread materials, such as copy papers and sewing threads. The resulting robots are electronics-free and nonmagnetic, enabling practical applications in extreme environments. For example, they can work close to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) [machines] and nuclear power plants. These robots are also ultra low-cost (less than $1), easy to fabricate with minimal tooling (cut-and-fold), and engaging to build. These attributes make the robots ideal educational [tools] and learning aids. How did you get interested in origami/soft robotics and related topics? The story started from a crazy conversation with my advisor, professor Ankur Mehta, where we debated the feasibility of creating an autonomous robot from a piece of paper without the need for discrete electronics. Since then, I had been thinking about the solutions until the origami-inspired method came to my mind. From then on, I have been obsessed with origami robotics, which developed into my Ph.D. thesis topic and eventually summarized as a research funding proposal co-drafted by Mehta and me.  Although similarly, the field of soft robots has interested me recently since they also share flexibility and versatility, akin to origami. What has been the most memorable part of your UCLA experience? The most memorable part of being at UCLA is when I recall all the people I have met and all the experiences I had. [I also] realized just how much I have accomplished and how much these experiences have molded me into the person I am today. Over the last few years, I have grown from having trouble writing in English to being a skilled writer for academic papers and grants.  
Matthew Xuehan Wang

RUSSELL R. O’NEILL DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD

Matthew Xuehan Wang

Matthew Xuehan Wang graduated with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and math-economics. Wang is also a 2022 recipient of the Engineering Achievement Award in Student Welfare. While at UCLA, Wang was president of the UCLA chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the largest computer science organization on campus, and led the ACM Teach LA program. Wang has held software engineering internships at Amazon Web Services, Meta, Adobe, Booz Allen Hamilton and AudioNotch. He will be pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at UCLA next year and will intern at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative this summer, working on educational technology and software engineering.

Q&A
For someone not familiar with ACM Teach LA, what does it do and what was the biggest change that it underwent during the year you served as president? ACM Teach LA is a committee of ACM at UCLA focused on providing equitable K-12 computer science education. We work with Title I schools to teach classes, run after-school programs, and create one-off events. By far, the biggest change the club faced was the COVID-19 pandemic. I became president just as UCLA and the LAUSD shifted to virtual learning; the daunting task was juggling effective virtual learning without burning out our student volunteers. A highlight was a collaboration with Building Engineers and Mentors (BEAM) at UCLA to physically ship robot parts to fourth grade students so they would learn to build and program [robots] in real-time. To virtually teach our developers, I developed an open-source curriculum spanning 20 lessons and 15 hours of video content teaching web development from zero prior experience. All of this work has continued to pay dividends, even as we return to in-person instruction; it has formed a strong infrastructure of teaching curriculum and has since been used by other clubs at UC San Diego, Boston University and University of Waterloo. What was your most important responsibility as president of the ACM at UCLA? Among other things, our student ACM chapter is the de facto student association for the computer science major at UCLA. As president, I view my core responsibility as uplifting and giving a platform to marginalized students. To start my term, I polled various students on problems they faced and what I could do to help. There were several recurring themes: digital accessibility, impostor syndrome, a lack of a cohesive onboarding experience to the major (particularly for transfers), and feelings of exclusion and lack of dialogue from the major, department, and student organizations. These concerns guided my priorities as president. Representing students was demanding but also incredibly rewarding. In your resume, you mention that your passion is, “empowerment through equitable computer science education.” What do you mean by that? And is that something you want to continue to do during grad school and beyond? In the broadest sense, education is the most empowering mechanism for intergenerational mobility. I chose my double major in math-economics because I wanted to study policies that uplift people out of poverty. Education — particularly early-child interventions — has extraordinarily high returns on investment. Outside of economics, I view education as a fundamental right — everyone deserves a right to a world-class education. On the surface, it comes naturally to me; I’ve taught computer science in some way for the past nine years! Looking at the numbers, computer science education is high in demand, applies in many domains, and is effective for social mobility. As computers become more integrated into our lives, people deserve to know how they work. The people who are disproportionately negatively affected by these systems also receive the least access to computer science education. We as computer scientists and software engineers have an obligation to build more equitable systems and better inform the public about how they work. This is a driving reason behind my research interests in graduate school and is absolutely something I’d want to focus on in my career! Generally, what are your career goals? I’m not sure! One side of me wants to explore academia, particularly a combination of computer science and education. How can we improve computer science pedagogy to make it more hands-on, equitable and inclusive? Can we build better software interfaces (debuggers, compilers, editors) to make learning to code easier? How does accessibility play into computer science education? The other side of me wants to explore these applications in industry — how they blend with traditional software engineering. This next year will help me decide: I am pursuing a thesis-driven M.S. in computer science at UCLA (and hoping to collaborate with the great folks in the education department here). This summer, I will intern at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in an EdTech+ software engineering role. Broadly, I want to work in a field where I can make access to education more equitable; whether that be in academia, industry or policy is still up in the air!
Maeneka Rai Grewal

Undergraduate Student Speaker

Nicholas Snyder

Nicholas Snyder graduated this June with his B.S. in chemical engineering. His interest in chemistry and sustainability led him to join The Morales-Guio Lab at UCLA where he assisted with carbon dioxide reduction experiments and conducted research on electrochemical phosphate recovery from wastewater. In the fall, he will be studying at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, to obtain his M.S. in energy science and technology before returning to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford University, where he has currently deferred for two years. He plans to continue researching sustainable applications of electrochemistry with the ultimate goal of becoming a university professor or staff scientist at a national laboratory. Snyder has been invited to participate in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (chemistry) this summer. The invitation is reserved for highly talented young scientists recruited worldwide who have an excellent academic track record.

Q&A
What message do you hope to leave with your fellow Class of 2022 students? Engineering is great. The feats of engineering have made our lives more convenient, and the challenging problems that lie ahead of us will make our careers interesting. But engineering isn’t everything. As we advance into the next stage in our lives, it is important to take the time to enjoy everything about life that isn’t engineering-releated as well. Make time for your families and your friends; solidify your current relationships and strive to build new ones. From your experience, what is it that makes the Bruin engineering community unique? How have you seen UCLA engineers going above and beyond to help one another succeed? You’ve said it yourself in the question here — what makes the Bruin engineering community unique is the frequency with which UCLA engineers go out of their way to help their peers. Just this quarter, when I’ve been working in group projects and had other things that required my immediate attention, my groupmates were extremely understanding of my situation and picked up for my slack. In the Tau Beta Pi tutoring room, I’ve witnessed students volunteer their time to excitedly teach others about everything from recurrence to triple integrals to kinematics. I’ve also seen how my fellow upperclassmen are part of a multitude of organizations that provide mentorship and guidance to new students, often in the form of simply going to get a bite to eat and chatting about how they’re adjusting to UCLA. These are all specific moments that I’ve been privileged to be a part of, and they are all reflective of the overall culture of UCLA — one of collaboration over competitiveness. Looking back, is there any advice or lesson you would impart to your freshman self? I would implore my freshman self to get out of my dorm room more and meet new people. Looking back on my time at UCLA now, I am of course proud of myself for working hard in my classes, but what I really value are the relationships I’ve built with my peers and professors. I wish I would have taken more time to meet people from all ends of campus, although I am very grateful for the bonds I have developed over my four years. Congratulations on your upcoming master’s and Ph.D. programs! How do you hope your research during your graduate studies will make an impact on sustainability? Thank you! Currently, as part of [professor Carlos] Morales-Guio’s electrocatalysis group in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, I’ve conducted research related to electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide to [make] useful products like ethylene and electrochemical phosphate recovery from wastewater for reuse in fertilizers. As a graduate student, I plan to continue researching the sustainable applications of electrochemistry, but I am not sure the exact project I would like to work on yet. For now, I will expose myself to as much interesting electrochemistry research as I can. My hope is to join the ever-increasing number of engineers and scientists dedicated to improving sustainability worldwide and, rather than making one momentous discovery that suddenly solves everything, [I’d like] to be part of a concerted effort to chip away bit by bit at the obstacles preventing a completely sustainable society. Whether I work in electrochemical wastewater treatment or electrocatalysis or something completely different, this is my goal.
Emily Rose Dunn

Graduate Student Speaker

Sandeep Singh Sandha

Sandeep Singh Sandha is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Computer Science at UCLA. After finishing his Ph.D. this summer, he will join Amazon Alexa as an applied scientist. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee and an M.S. from UCLA. Sandha’s research is focused on creating uncertainties-aware machine learning systems. While at UCLA, he served as the president of the Computer Science Graduate Student Association for four years, coordinating social events for the graduate student community. He has also served as the coordinator of UCLA’s free STEM program, also known as the Los Angeles Computing Circle (LACC), for high school students for the past four years. Under his leadership, the STEM program admitted more than 150 high school students from 40 different schools in Los Angeles. Sandha was awarded the outstanding mentorship award by the Computer Science Department in 2021.

Q&A
Throughout your time at UCLA you’ve served as a mentor to high school students in STEM. What drew you to mentorship and what about it do you find rewarding? Did you have mentors in your academic career that stand out as inspirations to you? When coordinating a UCLA STEM program for high school students, my goal was to motivate them for advanced studies by outlining an “enriching trailer” of college life and the value of a top university platform such as UCLA. LACC was a team effort of several UCLA faculties and graduate students to give high schoolers access to technical experts and carefully designed simpler courses. We kept the program free of [charge] to encourage participants from all backgrounds, [including those from] underrepresented communities. My experience was immensely rewarding as I felt directly connected to students who are unable to participate in paid STEM curriculums or lack good school resources. My journey to UCLA wouldn’t have happened without mentorship from similar initiatives during my schooling in a remote village in India. What message do you hope to leave with your fellow Class of 2022 students? Every student’s journey to graduation is uniquely filled with experiences of making everlasting friendships, learning from the best minds and overcoming unforeseen difficulties. I hope to leave my fellow graduating students [with] a message to admire their journey [while] celebrating their graduation. This journey was extremely hard for our generation during the pandemic when some of us lost our dear ones. Some of your research has been implemented by Arm Research, a U.K.-based semiconductor and software design company. Can you describe your research in general terms? How does it feel to see your research have an immediate impact? My research aims to enable artificial intelligence for large production scale applications by understanding deployment issues and ground-up design using a new way of thinking. My research on training machine learning models is used by Arm Research to design the next generation of the central processing units, or CPUs, for billions of devices, such as smartphones, supercomputers, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and laptops. It feels privileged to be part of UCLA and to have direct technical contributions that impact my everyday life and all the people around me. It also reveals the platform’s strength that UCLA provides to its graduate students to impact everyone around us. How do you hope to continue to make an impact after graduation as an applied scientist at Amazon? I am driven by building software systems that can scale and democratize knowledge. At Amazon, I am excited to join the Alexa team. I hope to scale Alexa’s outreach to even more people in a safer and privacy-preserving manner. It allows me to develop algorithms that directly impact the lives of hundreds of millions of Alexa users.
Youngbo Shim

Undergraduate National Anthem Performer

Youngbo Shim

Youngbo Shim graduated with a B.S. in civil engineering. He will be pursuing an M.S. in civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, with a concentration in energy, civil infrastructure and climate. He has been an active member of the UCLA chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), where he has led UCLA’s Sustainable Construction Building Team to a 2nd place national finish, and co-managed UCLA’s Sustainable Solutions Team to a 1st place regional finish in the 2022 ASCE Tiny House Challenge, which qualified the team for the national ASCE convention. Outside of engineering, Shim has been a trumpet performer in the UCLA Bruin Marching Band for four years.

Q&A
Were you nervous about performing the anthem at commencement? How have you been preparing for it?

If anything, I was more nervous about racing to complete my projects before commencement! In all seriousness, I’ve been practicing for this performance, but it’s been a struggle to keep the noise level down in the apartments! The trumpet is more of an escape for me now, it’s something I can go to when I need a break from it all. I’m glad I’ve been able to keep music as a part of my life these past four years.

What was it about your UCLA Bruin Marching Band experience that kept you sticking with it for four years? What is your favorite memory as a member of the band?

There are a few experiences that are truly once-in-a-lifetime. Performing in the UCLA marching band is one of mine. The thrill of playing as loud as you can to energize the already massive, excited crowds, in football stadiums and on basketball courts… It’s surreal. Also, the band is made up of a wonderful eclectic group of students, many of whom I would never be able to meet if it weren’t for this. My favorite memory was definitely playing courtside in the March Madness games in Portland and Philadelphia!

What are your career goals after obtaining your master’s?

I don’t have a specific initial job in mind yet, but my ultimate goal is just to do anything in my power to mitigate climate change. Whether that comes from minimizing the environmental impact of the construction industry or reducing energy and water usage through the advocacy of green buildings is still to be determined. Eventually, I would like to serve as a chief sustainability officer for city-level governments — to be in a position to drive sustainable solution-based policy for the benefit of underserved communities.

Sara Hubbard, Dannela Lagrimas and Natalie Weber contributed to this story.