Monday, December 9, 2019

Researcher by day, Ironman by night

By Daniel Li

Beril Polat
Not many people have the willpower to complete a 12-hour race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. Not many have the smarts and stamina to earn a doctorate degree in nanoengineering. But the number of people capable of doing both simultaneously is miniscule. 

For fourth-year UC San Diego nanoengineering Ph.D. student Beril Polat, training for Ironman competitions and her graduate school work go hand-in-hand.

“The main reason why the Ironman is so challenging is there’s also a mental aspect to it,” Polat said. “And that kind of challenge helps a lot in grad school because you get a lot of stress from work, deadlines, and publishing. After finishing an Ironman, I came back to lab two days later, and there were some small problems we were facing. I remember thinking that this was so small compared to what I just accomplished so I wasn’t going to let it bother me; I didn’t let it get into my head and tried to solve it.”

Polat completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins University before matriculating to UC San Diego to pursue a Ph.D. in nanoengineering. She’s currently a student in Professor Darren Lipomi’s nanoengineering lab, where she develops tattoo sensors to help patients with neck cancer monitor and regain their ability to swallow. 

Polat is a graduate student in Professor Darren
Lipomi's nanoengineering lab.
 “The reason why we are targeting neck cancer is because after patients get chemotherapy, their swallowing may be affected as a side effect,” Polat said. “We are trying to make a tattoo sensor that they can apply themselves at home instead of coming to the hospital very frequently. They can apply it and that data on their muscle strength will be sent through their phones to physicians so they can monitor it.”

Outside of lab, Polat is an avid member of UC San Diego’s triathlon club. She was introduced to triathlons during her first year at UC San Diego after meeting members from the triathlon club. She recalled being hesitant at first about joining because of her busy schedule, but then fell in love with the team and competitive nature of the sport.  

“In college, I swam varsity for two years at Hopkins, but the stress level was too high for that so I quit,” Polat said. “Because of that, I didn't compete in a sport for years, which kind of rubbed me the wrong way. After coming to triathlon practices at UCSD, the feeling of competing came back to me and it felt amazing.”

Polat recently competed in an Ironman Triathlon this past summer in Canada. The Ironman is considered the ultimate triathlon and test of endurance.

“This was my second time competing in an Ironman Triathlon,” Polat said. “I competed in it for the first time with my boyfriend the summer of 2018. I signed up eight months before the race day and trained every day. My goal is to do at least one every year.”

According to Polat, she starts her day at 6:30 am with training every day. Her morning workouts usually consist of cycling for an hour and running three miles. On the days where Polat trains twice a day, she has a swim workout in the evening at Canyon View pool on campus. 

“I try to train at least once a day, sometimes twice,” Polat said. “I usually go in the early morning because I want to keep a schedule where I am at work from 9 am to 5 pm. I'm not forced to go every day, but I know that if I want to get better and faster, I need to train that much.”
Polat during the 26.2-mile run, the last leg of an
Ironman Triathlon.
Polat appreciates how competing in triathlons has been a healthy escape from her hectic life in graduate school. Her most important takeaway from this experience: time management. 

“I recommend anyone to really commit to a non-school related activity, whether it be a sport, music, or art,” Polat said. “It really keeps you grounded and teaches you how to keep track of your goals. At times, it can definitely be a challenge because it’s hard to juggle both at once. However, if it wasn’t challenging I wouldn’t do it.”

In the future, Polat envisions herself shifting gears and working in industry. Although she enjoys the process of conducting research at her lab, Polat has learned that she prefers having a faster turnaround time for products that she works on.  

“When you conduct research in a lab, it can take a long time to get something out,” Polat said. “You can publish it but getting it into the market is very hard and requires a lot of steps. I like the industry aspect of being able to see people use something that I worked on and designed.”

Her next challenge? Ironman Maryland in September.

Friday, November 1, 2019

5th annual SD Hacks draws hundreds of student participants

By Daniel Li

More than 750 students participated in the 5th annual SD Hacks.
Photo credit: Shirley Guo, Triton Engineering Student Council

For 36 hours straight, 143 student teams crammed together at UC San Diego’s RIMAC Arena to participate in the fifth annual SD Hacks hackathon

Held from Oct. 25-27, SD Hacks is an intercollegiate hackathon in which students come together to tackle a given problem by developing technical solutions. The event, organized by the Triton Engineering Student Council, was also sponsored by ten companies and organizations, including the Naval Information Warfare Center, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and Activbody. A total of 435 students participated this year.

Hackers were asked to develop projects that fell into one of the three main tracks: Sustainability, Education, and Health and Wellness. Attendees were also encouraged to participate in various challenges set by SD Hacks sponsors. 

After two hours of judging on the last day, a trio of students from Harvey Mudd College-- Matthew Krager, Alfredo Gomez, and Alice Chi-- emerged as the overall winners of the hackathon. The team developed a tool called EverGreen, which aims to analyze and reduce the carbon emissions of code. 

“Given an expected amount of traffic and set of computer specs, EverGreen is able to capture the environmental impact that a programmer's code will have by using various metrics such as the carbon emitted in the average lifespan of a car,” the EverGreen project submission states. “Since many of today's large computations are done on the cloud, we have provided users with various industry standard AWS instance type-based architectures.”

They received Apple iPads, Bose SoundLink wireless headphones and an Amazon giftcard for their 1st place prize. 

For some students, it was their first time participating in a hackathon. Second-year UC San Diego students Vincent Tran, Steven Liu, Isabel Suizo and Vasundhara Sengupta developed a live-streaming app called 
Steven Liu, Vasundhara Sengupta, Vincent Tran, Isabel Suizo
Photo by Daniel Li

“The concept behind is that you're walking around on the street late at night and things could be a little dangerous,” Tran said. “You don't want to call 911 but you might want to let a friend know, and currently your options are to call or text them.  But that might hinder your ability to get out of a dangerous. If something does happen, you're not gonna be able to whip out your phone and draft up this text. So that's the issue we're trying to solve.” 

Despite having to start over on their project 12 hours into the event, Liu appreciates his team’s positive attitude and how he was able to learn new programming languages. 

“I would describe this weekend as a roller coaster,” Liu said. “Coming in, we were all super ambitious and ready to build something. And as it turns out, development is not always so easy.”

Third-year UC San Diego computer science students William Vuong, Howard Lin, Jack Song and fourth-year student Kevin Vildosola teamed up to create Stutter, an interview prep service that analyzes and provides feedback on how people perform during interviews. 
Jack Song, Howard Lin, William Vuong, Kevin Vidosola
Photo by Daniel Li

 “Ultimately, as college students, we always interview for internships or jobs, but never receive feedback,” Vuong said. “We wanted to give people a way to better prep for interviews so that we can all crush future interviews.”

Vildosola is grateful that he was able to learn from other students who had more experience and knowledge in development. 

“My experience at SD Hacks was honestly amazing,” Vildosola said. “It’s so rewarding because I never imagined I’d be at a stage right now where I could be talking about an app that I helped create.”

According to SD Hacks director and computer science student Jimmy Dang, preparations for SD Hacks started in June 2019, after the HackXX hackathon. The organizing team comprised of 20 members from the HackXX team and Triton Engineering Student Council. Dang explained that the hardest parts of the planning process were attracting sponsors and finalizing day-of event logistics. 

“There were a lot of moving parts in a lot of different areas of the hacking venue, especially moving people from RIMAC arena to Mandeville,” Dang said. “We also had a lot of rebranding to do, given it was our 5th anniversary and we wanted to make sure it was the best hackathon we’ve ever held.”

His favorite part about SD hacks: interacting with both sponsors and hackers during the event. Dang emphasized that the hackathon would not be possible without the collaboration among companies, student organizations, volunteers, judges and mentors. 

“Being able to interact with the attendees at our event made me feel like all of the effort that was put in, completely worth it,” Dang said. “Seeing people satisfied and enjoyed with our event made me feel satisfied with the work that I, as well as the entire team, put in over the course of four to five months.”


First Place Overall: EverGreen (Matthew Krager, Alfredo, and Alice Chi)

Second Place Overall: Corssary (Jacob Rothman, Jonathan McGowan, Roderick Nappier, and Dhanush Karthikeyan)

Third Place Overall: Ribbit (Sarah Ekaireb, Spencer Congero, Sarah Jung, and Alex Yu)

Health & Wellness Category: Recipe 101 (Xiaolan Huang, Yitian Wang, Moon Jiao, Duolan Ouyang)

Sustainability Category: EcoEat (Spencer Churchill, Moses Lee, Sophia Song)

Education Category: Virtus (Sabeel Mansuri, Subhash Ramesh, Nikhil Pathak, Ayush Shukla)

A full list of winners can be found at

Friday, October 25, 2019

Association for Computing Machinery attracts over 500 students at its fall kickoff

By Daniel Li

More than 500 students showed up for ACM's Fall Kickoff.
Photos courtesy of ACM

This year, a new student organization has been rapidly gaining momentum at UC San Diego: the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). 

ACM’s Fall Kickoff, which was held on Sept. 29 at Price Center East Ballroom, attracted a whopping 500 students, with the line spanning from the ballroom entrance to Library Walk. In the first month since its launch, the club has also hosted over 15 professional and social events. 

According to founder and president Antony Nguyen, a fourth-year computer engineering student, ACM is an international organization for computing catered towards engineers, designers and entrepreneurs. Just last week, the club introduced “Hack School,” a workshop series aimed to teach students the basics of Full Stack Web Development. 

“Our events are geared towards the field of computing and there's so many different areas we hope to explore, including software engineering, as well as mobile app, web and game development,” Nguyen said. “We also host a variety of social events to build a community so that everyone can get to know each other.”

He got the inspiration to start ACM at UC San Diego in January 2019 after stumbling upon UCLA’s chapter, which started four years ago and boasts a membership of over 1000 people. In the subsequent months, Nguyen and several friends teamed up to start a chapter at UC San Diego. 

Before launching the club, the group met over the summer to think of ways to differentiate ACM from the abundance of engineering organizations on campus; one important aspect was how to define membership. 

Students on the ACM leadership board rep the group and its
signature diamond logo. 
“I remember as a first- and second-year student, I joined some clubs and people would ask me ‘Are you part of this club?” Nguyen said. “And this was hard for me to answer because I just show up to events and many clubs really don’t define what it means to be a member.”

Vice President of Membership Kendall Nakai, a second-year computer engineering student, explained that the chapter prides itself on being member-centric and has a membership portal where students can track their progress within the organization.

“We wanted members to have a way to know how far they’ve come in the organization,” Nakai said. “By showing up to events, members can get incentives, such as priority access to networking events. I think it’s important to reward the people who consistently show up to all events.”

Unlike most student organizations, which use Slack as their main method of communication, ACM adopted Discord, a text-messaging platform popular in the gaming community. Nguyen said that this choice was deliberate, as the club hopes to develop more personal connections with its members. 

“Discord is a big reason for our success,” Nguyen said.  “By summer we had over 100 incoming first-years who hadn't even started school on our Discord. Nowadays, the discord is used on a daily basis; people play games with each other, give career advice and just talk about life.” 

Nguyen also attributes the large turnout to the club’s advertising efforts. The team branded itself as part of “the largest computing organization in the world” and distributed flyers across campus. He added that having the entire executive board well-connected within the engineering community gave them a tremendous advantage. 

ACM members on a hike just blocks away from campus.
“Having connections before starting your organization is extremely important,” Nguyen said. “The moment we launched our kickoff, we sent personal invitations to our event page on Facebook. It's like a giant chain effect; people start pressing ‘going,’ and then their friends on Facebook will see it too.”

Nguyen stressed the main benefit of ACM is that it’s tied to an international organization, introducing students to a large, diverse network of people. 

“Having a strong network is what gets you jobs at companies, big or small,” Nguyen said. “We can give students connections that otherwise might be harder to get from other clubs.”

Thursday, October 10, 2019

MEMS Q&A with Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

“As a MEMS practitioner for almost 30 years, I fully understand the need to focus at the device level to ensure that the MEMS design meets SWAP (Size, Weight And Power) and other requirements,” said Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. “But I truly believe that MEMS designers must learn to think more about subsystem and system issues, since the future of MEMS will be won by those who cannot only design the device right, but who can design the right device. By taking a much more market- and system-oriented approach to MEMS design thinking, companies in this industry will realize greater success.”

portrait of Albert P. Pisano, Dean, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
Read the full Q&A with Albert P. Pisano and Nishita Rao, marketing manager for technology communities, at SEMI

The Q&A was put together in advance of Pisano's October 24 closing keynote presentation, MEMS and Systems in the Digital Future, at MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress, October 22-24, 2019, at Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa in Coronado, Calif.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

$2 million NSF grant to create intelligent, flexible surgical robots

Professor Michael Yip, principal investigator for the grant.
Photo by David Baillot
Electrical and mechanical engineers at UC San Diego received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop flexible snake-like robots outfitted with smart skin and embedded actuators for use in medical procedures. These robots will enable safer and more efficient endoscopic and intravascular procedures for a wide range of ailments, from cardiovascular disease to cancer.

Flexible, invertebrate-like robots capable of twisting through the tiny, curvy spaces of the human anatomy are called continuum robots.  While versions of these machines exist for surgical applications today, it is difficult for doctors to know where exactly they are in the body during a procedure because the robots can be up to four feet long and lack sensors to detect their position. Furthermore, surgical robots that are currently FDA-approved lack the dexterity and flexibility needed to access spaces deep within the body. This makes it often impossible to localize, reach, and treat diseases, reducing the advantages the precision robotics provide to surgery.

To address these challenges, the researchers plan to create robots that leverage machine learning to teach themselves how to access challenging anatomy, while increasing their physical dexterity by embedding new technologies for actuation and sensing. They plan to develop a thin skin embedded with arrays of antennas, capable of tasks like wirelessly tracking the robot’s position in the human body, making it easier for doctors and surgeons to manipulate it when and where needed.

“Our goal is to develop safe, robotic surgical systems that not only augment what doctors can do, but create new procedures they would have never been able to perform by hand,” said Michael Yip, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego and principle investigator for the grant. “That is the advantage that continuum robots bring – they are an extension of the surgeon’s hands that can reach and perform surgical tasks that otherwise would be impossible to do”.

The researchers also plan to develop new modeling, control and validation platforms to overcome challenges for sensing, testing, and reproducibility in flexible medical robots. Their modeling platform would consider the robot and the human tissue environment as a tightly coupled and controllable system, instead of two distinct entities.

Since there are currently no off-the-shelf hardware solutions for either the robot or biologically relevant testing environments, there are no standardized performance metrics for comparison and validation across this field. This has made it difficult for researchers and industry to objectively determine how much progress is being made with new developments in surgical robotic platforms. The team aims to create these validation metrics, which will have a significant impact on the medical robotics research community by driving down barriers to robotics research and development as well as offering templates and common validation strategies to improve the communication, interpretation, and reproducibility of new research in the field.

The project is a multidisciplinary collaboration including electrical and computer engineering Professors Dinesh Bharadia and Yip, and mechanical engineering Professors Miroslav Krstic and Tania Morimoto.

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.