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.

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.

IDEA Scholar: Cindy Ayala

For mechanical engineering student Cindy Ayala, the IDEA Center and IDEA Scholars program knew what she needed before even she did.

“Through the Summer Engineering Institute, they gave us resources before we knew we needed them,” Ayala said. “In the same way, they gave us mentors before we knew what questions to ask. But then when the questions started to come up, we knew where to go and what resources to look for.”

For Ayala, those questions centered around graduate school.

“I was leaning towards going into industry when I first got here and didn’t think I’d be applying to graduate programs my freshman year, but as I got further along I realized how cool it is to be able to do research at a university,” Ayala said.

She’s starting a joint PhD program in bioengineering through UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco this fall.

To be fair, Ayala did get to do some pretty cool research. She worked in Professor Joanna McKittrick’s lab her freshman year, and then conducted research for Professor Juan Carlos Lasheras, studying how cells migrate in 3D spaces. For her senior design project, Ayala and her teammates developed an automated blood smear system in collaboration with the UC San Diego Medical School, to make it easier to analyze patients’ blood samples.

Her advice to students?

“There are so many resources available through the IDEA center,” Ayala said. “There’s always scholarship opportunities, events and such a large network of mentorship. It’s this very large network of people there to help you.”

IDEA Scholar: Jose Manuel Rodriguez

Jose Manuel Rodriguez knew he wanted to be an engineer since he was a young boy. He grew up helping his dad fix things around the house, and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that came with restoring function to cars, doors, sinks etc.

“I always kind of treated school as a game,” Rodriguez said. “I was always trying to get the high scores. I didn’t like seeing anything other than an A. I liked the feeling of doing well in classes. That’s what kind of motivated me.”

A first generation college student, Rodriguez was so motivated to go to and succeed in college that he skipped his senior prom to attend the IDEA Center’s Breakfast with the Dean and learn what the Jacobs School had to offer.

“I said, ‘You know, I’d rather decide about my future than have this one night of fun. I’ll see my friends, they’ll be there. So I went to Breakfast with the Dean and Triton Day rather than go to my high school prom.”

That decision paid off. Rodriguez decided to attend UC San Diego, and is graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, having worked on jet engines and even helped restore motion to a young boy’s arms.

Rodriguez, who grew up in Fontana, was also a Chancellor’s Scholar. The scholarship funds he was awarded through that program helped relieve a lot of stress about paying for college, and allowed him to get involved in things like the Rocket Propulsion Lab, where he worked to design a biofuel jet engine.

Rodriguez said his senior design project was one of his most memorable projects and learning experiences. He and a team of three other engineering students designed a motorized brace in 10 weeks that would allow a five-year-old who has a rare virus to move his arms for the first time in three years.

“It really didn’t hit me until we were talking to the prosthetist who said ‘You’re making a really big impact in this child’s life,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like it’s really interesting the way engineering is basically the medium between science and society. You’re that medium, trying to make science practical in a way that impacts real life.

As an IDEA Scholar, Rodriguez participated in the Summer Engineering Institute—at that time a five day college preparatory program that has since been extended to a month-- which he said not only helped prepare him for classes, but helped him form a supportive community of friends on campus.

“The IDEA Scholars program really helped me because there were people that come from my background. You relate to them more. And they understand what you’re going though and you understand what they’re going through and the type of struggles they’re having as well. It helps having people to turn to who are like me.”

Rodriguez advises prospective students to not be afraid of asking questions or asking for help.

“One of the troubles I had was asking for help my first year. I’ve always been a person who went through everything alone, never had help from anybody. But then my first year I kind of struggled a bit with classes—not too much but to the point that I was frustrated that everything wasn’t clicking right away. I’d spend time trying to figure things out by myself, and as soon as I made that leap of asking questions to a TA or something-- because that was totally foreign to me, asking questions—that made such a difference. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be curious about things. Put yourself out there.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Shirley Meng among finalists of the prestigious Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists

University of California San Diego nanoengineering professor Ying Shirley Meng is among the Finalists of the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. She is one of 31 of the nation’s rising stars in science who will compete for three Blavatnik National Laureate Awards in the categories of Chemistry, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Life Sciences. Each of the three 2019 National Laureates will win $250,000—the world’s largest unrestricted prize for early-career scientists.

Ying Shirley Meng
Ying Shirley Meng
Shirley Meng, a materials scientist and engineering professor at UC San Diego, utilizes her pioneering research in creating novel techniques to measure, control and optimize energy storage materials from the atomic scale to the system level. Dr. Meng’s work manipulating the functional interfaces in energy storage devices has led to higher energy, more powerful, safer and longer life batteries. Her work aims to provide solutions to humankind’s grand challenge for abundant, clean and sustainable energy.

Meng is faculty director of the UC San Diego Sustainable Power and Energy Center. She directs the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion in the Department of NanoEngineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

Read the full press release from The Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences.  

Now in its 13th year, the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists recognize the past accomplishments and the future promise of the most-talented faculty-rank scientists and engineers aged 42 years and younger at America’s top academic and research institutions. This year, the Blavatnik National Awards received an unprecedented 343 nominations from 169 academic and research centers across 44 states – a record in all three categories. The three 2019 National Laureates, chosen from the 31 Finalists, will be announced June 26.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Computer Science PhD student earns 2019 Google PhD Fellowship

Congratulations to UC San Diego computer science PhD student Tiancheng (Kevin) Sun, who has been awarded a 2019 Google PhD Fellowship.

Sun’s research interests include computer graphics and computational photography. He is advised by UC San Diego computerscience professor Ravi Ramamoorthi, who directs the UC San Diego Center for Visual Computing.

In 2017, Sun was named winner in the undergraduate category of the ACM Student Research Competition at the 44th SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. He also won first place in the undergraduate category of the 2018 ACM Student Research Competition.

Statement from Google: Google is pleased to announce the recipients of the Google PhD Fellowships for 2019. These awards have been presented to exemplary PhD students in computer science and related disciplines. We have given these students unique fellowships to acknowledge their contributions to their areas of specialty and provide funding for their education and research. We look forward to working closely with them as they continue to become leaders in their respective fields.

At UC San Diego, Sun is the recipient of a Jacobs Fellowship, a prestigious fellowship for incoming Ph.D. students to the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

HackXX 2019: code – the future of women in STEM

By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha

Students swing into gear an hour into the hackathon.
Photos by Xochitl Rojas-Rocha
On Saturday, April 6th, young coders from universities across southern California gathered for the third annual HackXX, a 24-hour, women-centric hackathon at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. HackXX has doubled in size each year since its inaugural event in 2017. This year, more than 200 students bundled themselves into the university’s Price Center, clustered around their laptops, and got to work.

Striving for Change

Jiazhen Rong, a fourth-year bioengineering and biotechnology student, said that while no one ever actively discouraged her from pursuing computer science, the way the field was portrayed left her with the impression that coding was “for boys.” That lack of representation took its toll, at least for a while; Rong didn’t explore programming until her junior year in college.

At HackXX, she has sensed none of that former pressure. “I really feel like this event values women,” she said. She and her two teammates, Haihao Sun and Sid Limaye, created an application that allows the user to combine an original photo file with a famous art piece for a fun, new image. Their idea, they said, was to build on what Snapchat achieves with simple filters.

Rong’s teammates, Sun and Limaye, were two of many young men who participated in the hackathon. The event is open to students of all gender identities, backgrounds and disciplines. Attendees traveled from multiple universities throughout California, some with project ideas and teams, some without. The only requirement was that they treat their fellow coders with respect.

“The goal of TESC is to empower engineering students to grow and succeed throughout their college lives and careers. We constantly seek new opportunities and ways to achieve that goal, and celebrating womxn in STEM at HackXX fits perfectly with our mission,” said Colin Feeney, president of UC San Diego’s Triton Engineering Student Council (TESC). TESC hosted the 2019 HackXX.

C: \>code -- The History and Future of Women in STEM

Students present their project, "Safehouse," to the judges.
After what was literally a sleepless night for some, the hackers had their projects judged according to general performance and presentation. In first place were cognitive science freshman Yana Pyryalina (UC San Diego) and computer science senior Sara Kazemi (CSU Monterey Bay), with a project called “The Callout.” The two coders designed a virtual reality simulation to train and prepare women to respond to misogynistic microaggressions in the work place. In one simulation, a male supervisor encouraged the viewer to “wear [her] hair down” and “wear something tight” for an upcoming meeting with potential investors. The simulation then offered the viewer a series of responses, all focused on drawing the supervisor’s attention to how his comments made his employee feel.

In second place, a team of coders created a role-playing game called “Maze Rescue.” With cute, Undertale-esque graphics, the game challenges the player to save their friend, a female researcher who has been kidnapped, along with her work, by a mad scientist. The player must solve a maze filled with trivia questions on notable women in STEM to save their friend.

The third place winner was “Safehouse,” an application that sends out a call for assistance when a woman feels like she’s in an unsafe situation. The application is volunteer-based, with the team sending out requests for people to sign their homes or apartments up as “safehouses” where a woman can take shelter until help arrives. The team was inspired by UC San Diego’s safety escort system, which calls a Community Service Officer (CSO) to a student’s location from sunset to 4:00 a.m. daily if they feel unsafe.

HackXX sponsor Northrop Grumman challenged students to find a
way to program a small robot car and successfully remove a hair tie
 from its stand without knocking the stand over, and transport
it through a maze.
While not every team placed, others did reach the final round of judging or took home awards from HackXX sponsors such as Northrop Grumman and iTradeNetwork. One such team won “Best Women in Hack” for devising an application that helps pregnant women identify foods that they can eat, and assists them in planning meals in advance. Another finalist team created a virtual reality simulation of a women’s history museum. By using the virtual reality headset to interact with different exhibits, a visitor can travel to the moon to learn about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, or transport to the cockpit of aviator Amelia Earhart to listen to a recording describing her life and achievements.

For HackXX co-directors Alice Lee, a fourth-year cognitive science student, and Bilguun Bulgan, a graduating computer science student, that moment was more than half a year in the making.

“It’s been really rewarding to see everything come to life, and to see how involved all of our team members are,” said Lee. Some students, she said, see hackathons as just a way to connect with corporations and find a job. With HackXX, it’s different. “Everyone on this team actually cares about what HackXX stands for, and I thought that was really cool.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Student-run research symposium draws big crowd

By Kritin Karkare

Undergraduate student Lucas Patel presents his
 research. Photos courtesy of Lab Expo. 

The UC San Diego Biomedical Engineering Society hosted its seventh annual Lab Expo in January, drawing upwards of 800 attendees and featuring research from more than 60 labs from a variety of disciplines across campus, including anthropology, electrical and computer engineering, bioengineering and more.

Lab Expo chairs and bioengineering students Daibo Zhang and Jessica Ma spent eight months planning the all-day student-run research symposium meant to develop scientific literacy, promote interdisciplinary collaboration and encourage scientific advocacy.

Keynote speaker Grant Sanderson.
Keynote speaker Grant Sanderson, a math educational Youtuber with 1.6 million subscribers, drew a large crowd while talking about his approach to communicating math more clearly. Sanderson, better known by his Youtube channel’s name, 3Blue1Brown, developed his own mathematics visualization programming library to help viewers get a more intuitive grasp on abstract math concepts like neural networks and the Fourier Transform. He thinks that his visualization-first approach has merit.

“By focusing on clarity of communication, it makes you think more clearly about what it is you’re doing,” Sanderson said. “Whatever piece it might be, if you think about how you present this to an audience, it will shape your own understanding of the context, rather than letting communication be an afterthought.”
A research poster presentation and the keynote speech were just the tip of the iceberg. What better way to practice communicating science than to have graduate students pitch their research in only five minutes?

The second annual Lab Expo Graduate Showdown (LEGS) featured seven students from different departments including cognitive science and mechanical and aerospace engineering, competing to best condense and communicate their research projects.

Lab Expo chairs and bioengineering students
Jessica Ma and Daibo Zhang.
Only one could come out on top: judges picked Andrew Shibata, a first year cognitive science graduate student, as the winner. Based on his experiences listening to the myriad accents and voices in California, Shibata’s research aims to develop a database of voices characterizing the San Diego region, and study how people’s voices change the longer they live in San Diego.

Next up, the Biomedical Engineering Society is hosting their annual Translational Medicine Day on March 6. This event aims to bring together the research and healthcare communities-- including students, faculty and industry-- to bridge the gap between bench and bedside. More information can be found here: