Monday, July 29, 2019

Chava Angell – nanoengineer and science communicator


By Kritin Karkare

Ask nanoengineering Ph.D. student Chava Angell if nanorobots are going to take over the world and she might just chuckle at you. It’s a question she fields all the time at nanoengineering outreach events, but it never gets old. Her passion for sharing nanoengineering has led her to participate in a San Diego Comic-Con panel about the perception of nanoengineering in society, and the UC Grad Slam research communication competition. She also co-found the NanoXpo showcase at UC San Diego.  

“I think a lot of people view nanotechnology as this magical force,” Angell said. “But it’s very tangible. It’s not inaccessible. I want people to understand it’s just manipulating materials on a different scale.”

As a graduate student in Professor Yi Chen’s lab, Angell manipulates DNA to make nanomachines that could improve drug delivery. She builds 3D structures out of the genetic material, taking advantage of DNA’s different properties like responding to small molecules and changes in pH. In addition to medicines, these nanomachines could deliver proteins and other biomolecules where they’re needed.  

Her DNA robots are meant to solve a common issue when drug molecules are absorbed by a cell: Once a molecule enters the cell, it triggers a process where the cell turns part of its cell wall inside out and produces a compartment called an endosome, which holds the drug molecule inside. Unfortunately for the molecule, the endosome typically merges with lysosomes, which break down the molecule and prevent it from reaching its target. Angell’s approach is to take advantage of the acidification process that endosomes go through. She designed the nanorobots to respond to the endosome’s decrease in pH and expand, letting the molecule break free and continue on its journey.

She’s convinced that DNA nanotechnology like this could be the way of the future.

“It’s pretty bio-compatible. It’s easy to make structures out of as long as you follow certain design rules. It’s easy to target certain populations of cells,” she noted.

Talking nanoengineering

When she’s not working with DNA to improve human health, Angell is often found explaining her work and the field of nanoengineering, making it easy for everyone to understand. Participating in the Comic-Con panel “Nanotechnology in Sci-Fi: Fact or Fiction” was one of her favorite experiences. At the panel, she helped dispel some of the myths behind the nanoengineering commonly seen in movies and TV shows. For example, many people wonder whether the Nanites in Star Trek—nanorobots that took over space ships and founded their own civilization—exist in real life and could take over Earth. Angell helped quell that fear to a room so full that people had to be turned away. 
Chava Angell in science communicator-action at the inaugural
NanoXpo in 2017, which she helped co-found.


 “Honestly I was surprised by how many people wanted to learn about nanotechnology,” she said. “People wanted to know what was possible.”

She said it was cool to see the level of interest people had, and know that there were people from all over the world interested in nanotechnology.

While she’s confident in her ability to communicate nanoengineering to different audiences now, it wasn’t always that way.  

“I needed to force myself to be comfortable with it,” she said.  

Years of participating in public outreach events like Comic-Con and research talks eased her worries about public speaking.

Angell expanded on this vision of practicing communication while co-organizing NanoXpo, a research conference devoted to showcasing the UC San Diego NanoEngineering Department’s different research groups.  The event included a poster competition judged by industry representatives and a networking reception. Graduate students had the chance to connect with industry partners, as well as with other students from different labs.      

Angell is aware that not every graduate student is as motivated to practice communicating as she is, but says there are real benefits to it.

“As an engineer, you need to realize that especially as a Ph.D. student you’re defending your thesis to people who have no idea what your field is,” Angell said. Being able to convey your work and the importance of it is vital.

She believes that creating more opportunities to practice communication will encourage more students to talk about science with people in their field and the public.  

As for whether nanorobots will take over the world? Angell says it’s not likely.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

IDEA Scholar: Manwinder Uppal


Environmental engineering student Manwinder Uppal was eager to get involved in the IDEA Center before she even arrived on campus. The summer before her freshman year, she saw that IDEA hosted a summer engineering program to orient new students to campus and share some tips to make the coursework a bit easier.

“Neither of my parents and none of my family members had gone to college so that was something that I needed,” Uppal said. “I got super excited and thought ‘Yay, an intro to college life!’ As soon as I came to campus I got lost for two hours, so it was good that we had an intro week.”

Since then, she’s participated in skills workshops run by IDEA on things like the python programming language, and was part of the JUMP mentoring program. She also branched out on campus, finding community through the Raza Resource Centro and Women’s Center, and encourages other students to do the same.

“I wish I knew more or went to the Women’s Center and Raza Resource Centro a lot more, because I basically live there now,” she said. “That whole area is really student oriented. When I did have way too much of an overwhelming situation going on with school or something I could talk to one of those advisors easily so it made it homey. That’s what solidified home away from home for me.”

She’ll be working for a year while deciding how best to accomplish her goal of making an impact through sustainable design.

IDEA Scholar: Tania Vazquez


Tania Vazquez learned a lot at UC San Diego—about engineering, and about her approach to life. A first generation college student, Vazquez spent most weekends her freshman year driving back home to Riverside because she missed her family and didn’t feel at home on campus. At one point, she considered transferring to a school closer to home.

Encouragement from her fellow IDEA Scholars and program director Gennie Miranda to stick it out one more year helped her find her place, and learn the importance of channeling fear.

“I realized that a lot of other people had the same fear I had too,” Vazquez said. “I learned that you have to do things even if you don’t quite feel ready for it.”

She pushed herself to get involved with the Humanas Unidas group on campus, even serving as social chair.

“That was the whole point of pushing my boundaries, because I’m not a very social person, but I decided OK I’m going to go for the position that makes me the most uncomfortable.”

She ended up learning a lot and actually enjoying it. She got involved in outreach activities, and dove head first into classes and projects. By her second year, she felt more comfortable on campus, and was sticking around for more weekends.

She said the IDEA Scholars program helped her find her footing and community on campus.
“It helps you make friendships I think, which makes the process a lot easier. If it weren’t for the IDEA program I don’t know if I would have stayed.”

She encourages students who find themselves where she as just a few years ago to remember that they are qualified to be here and belong here.

IDEA Scholar: Ricardo Rueda


Ricardo Rueda was really good at math and physics growing up, but had always thought about becoming a doctor one day. After learning about the intersection of engineering and medicine in high school, he was hooked on bioengineering.

“I started learning about the intersection between engineering and medicine-- it seemed so scifi to me, the things that were going on. It was amazing and I wanted to be part of that,” Rueda said.

A first generation college student from a border town on the Rio Grande in Texas, Rueda was accepted into UC San Diego’s bioengineering department—the 2nd best in the country—and set off down a path that would include research in two professors’ labs, launching a company that provides in-home health monitoring through AI, and a plan to work in the biosensor industry after graduation.

He credits the first step of that process to being an IDEA Scholar.

“IDEA honestly kick started my whole research experience,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do research, and they helped me kick start that passion through the JUMP mentorship program. My mentor had an opening in the bioengineering lab she worked in, so that’s where I started off my research.”

After a year and a half of working in Professor Robert Sah’s Cartilige Tissue Engineering Lab, Rueda’s interests moved more towards bioelectronics. When an opening in Professor Joseph Wang’s Nanobioelectronics lab came up, he jumped at the chance.

Rueda worked on sensing glucose through sweat, and helped develop a microneedle system to deliver targeted drugs for cancer therapy. He plans to work in industry on similar types of bioelectronics systems after graduation.

In addition to the IDEA Center’s mentorship program, Rueda worked as a peer educator for IDEA’s Education Learning Communities, leading weekly review sessions for physics courses, and said IDEA’s summer program was hugely beneficial, as well.

“It kick starts you with a group of people that are in the same vibe. They all have a passion to excel and having this group of people to grind through difficult engineering courses makes a huge difference. It’s helped me build a great network and incredible friendships.”

Rueda’s advice for students is to embrace asking for help.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask questions,” he said. ”There are many positions to fill and opportunities to take advantage of on this campus. Sometimes half of the effort is just reaching out to the right person and even if you don’t get to that person on your first try, there will always be someone more than willing to direct you to the right place, especially at IDEA.”

IDEA Scholar: Melissa Perez

IDEA Scholar Melissa Perez decided to pursue engineering on a bit of a whim.

“I always liked math, but I didn’t really know much about engineering to be honest—there wasn’t much exposure to it at my high school.”

Four years and a degree in mechanical engineering later, Perez said she made the right choice, and is excited to start a career at Collins Aerospace this summer, where she previously interned through the Jacobs School’s Team Internship Program.

Perez said the IDEA Scholars program provided her with access to valuable technical workshops and mentors, but most importantly, connected her to a community of people that pushed and supported each other throughout their undergraduate careers.

“IDEA Scholars helped because coming in I already had friends that I met through the summer program,” she said. “And I think the people I met in IDEA Scholars had similar backgrounds to me, we kind of had similar experiences. We were all in it together.”

Those similar experiences, for Perez, included starting at ground zero with engineering.

“In high school, other people had robotics clubs and classes, and my high school didn’t have any of that—I was coming in here with no knowledge. It was kind of scary, but it has to fall back on you—pushing yourself to learn these things and not being scared of saying ‘I don’t know how to do this, but let me try and learn.’”

Perez got her footing, and wound up serving as a peer facilitator for the IDEA Center’s education learning communities. She planned weekly lesson reviews for calculus, and provided students with homework and test preparation support.

She also joined Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), the electrical engineering honor society, even as a mechanical engineering.

“I really liked it because I got to meet a lot more people from different fields. My engineering friends I had before were mainly from mechanical engineering classes, but now I have a lot of electrical and computer engineering friends, too.”

Her advice to future students: get involved!

“I was kind of overwhelmed in the beginning from classes, but looking back I should have joined groups earlier. Getting involved in clubs helps you meet new people and broaden your horizon.”

IDEA Scholar: Juan Maldonado

Juan Maldonado has had his eyes set on the stars since he was a young boy. Any time in the library was spent in the scifi section.

“That’s where my mind was-- the future,” Maldonado said. “I liked learning about these new technologies coming out, especially rockets. I was really interested in rockets.”

After watching SpaceX launches, and particularly the landing of the Falcon 9, Maldonado decided he wanted to work on rockets. As an aerospace engineer, he had a chance to do that through the Rocket Propulsion Lab and Triton Rocket Club. As an undergraduate, he also conducted research in Professor Nicholas Boechler’s lab.

After graduating from UC San Diego with a degree in aerospace engineering, Maldonado is pursuing a PhD in Aeronatics and Astronautics at Purdue University, while also preparing to apply to be an astronaut.

“I’ll be learning another language—probably Russian—and learning how to fly planes and things like that,” Maldonado said. “That’s something I’ve been interested in since I’ve been a little kid, was applying to be an astronaut.”

Maldonado’s decision to study at UC San Diego was largely influenced by the IDEA Engineering Center. Their overnight program “was awesome,” and the summer engineering program was really helpful, too.

“One of the big things for IDEA that I really appreciate was just getting to know other people and developing friendships with people in my major that I see all the time,” he said. “I still have those friends now which has been super awesome.”

The summer program in particular was so beneficial that he served as a peer facilitator for classes behind him.

His advice to students is to give research a try if you have the opportunity. You never know where it might take you.

“Before I did research I was pretty set on going into industry,” Maldonado said. “Whenever someone brought up grad school I was like ‘Oh nah, I don’t want to do more school,’ because I didn’t know what research was like. But once I did it I fell in love with it-- having to come up with creative solutions, the whole process of doing research. That’s what convinced me to go to grad school-- I didn’t know I wanted to do that until doing research just last summer.

For people out there who don’t know or who might be in the same boat as me and think they don’t want to, if they have the opportunity I’d really recommend they do research because they might be like me and really end up liking it a lot.”

IDEA Scholar: Jasmine Chiang


IDEA Scholar Jasmine Chiang wasn’t sold on electrical engineering when she first learned about the field—it seemed like a lot of chips. But when she found out that electrical engineering underpins how all forms of electronic communication happen, she was hooked.
“All wireless information being sent, all of that needs to be done through signal image processing, and that’s my specialization now,” Chiang said. “It’s such an important part of our lives, to be able to have signals processed efficiently so we can actually send them in wireless communications.. I want to ensure that the technology for people to communicate around the world and even to outer space continues to be revolutionized.”
After graduation, Chiang will return to UC San Diego in the fall to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering with a focus on signal image processing to make that happen.
“When I first learned about signal image processing I was thinking about its use in music—a lot of it requires filtering and understanding of signal processing,” Chiang said. “So I was honestly hoping I could pursue that. But I recognize now that I’m taking all these classes and meeting all these people and realizing there’s so much more I can do. I’m hoping a masters will help me narrow it down and focus in on what I want to be pursuing as a specific job.”
In addition to being an IDEA Scholar, Chiang was involved in the IDEA Center’s JUMP mentor program and was a peer facilitator at the Summer Engineering Institute for two summers, after experiencing how beneficial the program was.
“I knew when I did my summer program, back when it was Summer PrEP, that I really wanted to be a leader for future classes to inspire them to stay in engineering.”
She also studied abroad at King’s College i London, and was vice president external of the ECE Undergraduate Student Council and was on the ECE Day committee board in joint with the other ECE student organizations.