Thursday, May 6, 2021

Jacobs School faculty, lecturers named Distinguished Teachers

 Three members of the Jacobs School community were selected to receive Distinguished Teaching Awards from the UC San Diego Academic Senate. The prestigious Distinguished Teaching Award is bestowed upon up to five members of the Academic Senate, three non-Senate faculty members, and three graduate students at UC San Diego each year, to recognize and honor the important role excellent teaching plays at the University. The Committee on Distinguished Teaching seeks to select those who exhibit creativity, innovative teaching methods, the ability to motivate students to actively seek out knowledge, and an extraordinary level of teaching commitment.

James Friend, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Joe Gibbs Politz, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, received Distinguished Teaching Awards for Senate Members. Katya Evdokimenko, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, received a Barbara and Paul Saltman Distinguished Teaching Award, Non-Senate Members.

Learn more about all three Jacobs School of Engineering recipients below. 

James Friend, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Q: What do you teach?

A: I teach a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, including dynamics, acoustofluidics, computer aided analysis and design, and cardiovascular fluid mechanics, to name a few. 

Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?

A: I think I most enjoy seeing students eager to learn develop in the time I have with them to learn the topics we cover and become better at them than I ever was. I also enjoy learning myself, and teaching new courses gives me the opportunity to really learn the material well enough to be able to teach it. 

Q: Why is teaching an important, integral part of your job?

A: I love teaching! While research is satisfying, and I enjoy the experience of personal and professional growth that it gives me, I really enjoy the consistent reward of seeing students advance week to week, asking questions, seeing the light turn on and them applying what they’ve learned to new things, to things I’ve not considered. And to witness them talking to each other about the material with excitement and new ideas. It’s most gratifying.

Joe Gibbs Politz, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Q: What do you teach?

A: An explicit goal of mine has been to teach courses across our whole curriculum to get a thorough firsthand picture of what students experience in our program. I've taught a wide variety of courses in our lower division, ranging from majority non-major courses for folks just getting into CS, to discrete math, to core programming and data structures courses. I also teach our senior-level and graduate compilers courses, which are about creating and improving programming languages, an area that I find has a wonderful synthesis of theory and engineering.

Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?

A: Lots of things! One of the most impactful is hearing from students that something they learned in my classes showed up in their work or helped them accomplish something in another context. We put a lot of effort into making our courses and projects teach fundamental concepts through practical applications. Seeing that pay off is always gratifying.

Q: Why is teaching an important, integral part of your job?

A: Our students are so inspiring! The come from all kinds of backgrounds, work hard, and take advantage of the opportunities in our classes. Teaching is important to me because it's the most direct way I can use what I know to support them.

Evdokimenko with her students
Ekaterina "Katya" Evdokimenko, lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Q: What do you teach?

A: I teach undergraduate and graduate courses on topics ranging from the Elements of Materials Science, to Biomaterials and Medical Devices and Mechanical Behavior of Materials. I also teach several enrichment classes for the IDEA Engineering Student Center, including Fundamentals of Engineering Applications and Introduction to Engineering Research.

Q: What do you enjoy about teaching?

A: The students’ motivation, their genuine interest and their wonderful questions! Those questions are the key part of the whole entire teaching process, since they promote conversation and help to understand the subject on the next level of complexity. 

When not teaching, Evdokimenko 
can be found scaling rock walls!

Q: You've developed a post-lecture question component to your classes, can you talk about that?

A: I incorporated a daily “extra-credit part” into most of my classes. This part consists of  questions/problems/free responses at the end of every lecture on the topic covered at the previous lecture. I grade this part myself and study the answers before the next lecture to see what students understood and didn't understand, and modify my next lecture accordingly. Also, I am providing my personal feedback to every student for this extra-credit part, which helps them a lot to comprehend the material covered in the class more deeply. This process also gives me the idea on what parts should be discussed in more detail.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Jacobs School faculty, student earn Integrity Awards

Four Jacobs School of Engineering faculty and one graduate student were named Integrity Champions at the UC San Diego 2021 Integrity Awards. They were among the nine recipients across campus honored for their substantial contributions to academic, research and professional integrity over the previous 12-month period. The event is organized by the Research Ethics Program and the Academic Integrity Office in collaboration with the Executive Vice-Chancellor's Office. 

Videos with each of the recipients, as well as a recording of the ceremony, are available here:

 The Jacobs School’s Integrity Champions are:  

Stephanie Fraley, associate professor of bioengineering, was recognized for her work to maintain academic integrity during the remote teaching necessitated by the pandemic. She led the Department of Bioengineering’s transition to remote instruction, developing a range of streamlined material and approaches for the department to use. In her own courses, Fraley developed new teaching approaches that both promoted novel ways of learning, and simultaneously ensured that academic integrity could be maintained in the new remote learning environment.


Huihui Qi, assistant teaching professor of mechanical engineering, and Curt Schurgers and Saharnaz Baghdadchi, assistant teaching professors in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, were recognized for their efforts to develop pedagogy to transition assessments in large courses from written to oral exams. While the switch was instigated by the move to remote learning, the faculty believe that oral exams actually allow more adaptive questions, more insightful and helpful feedback for students, and encourage a more thoughtful approach to academic integrity, and are developing plans to continue to use oral exams and other more authentic assessment methods even after a return to in-person learning, to enhance academic integrity in their large courses. Qi, Schurgers and Baghdadchi were also honored for volunteering considerable time to assist other faculty transition their courses and assessments to virtual.


Ross Turner, a Materials Science and Engineering PhD student, was recognized for serving as a mentor and role model for other students, demonstrating what it means to prioritize ethics and integrity in all his research and projects. Turner led a group of graduate students in developing, packaging and delivering at-home activity kits for students in San Ysidro Unified School District when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a transition to remote learning. He also served as a student voice as the Jacobs School transitioned to remote instruction, advocating for alternative testing schedules for students in different time zones. As an advocate for ethics and integrity, Turner was instrumental in organizing and providing graduate student feedback on initial draft's of the Jacobs School of Engineering's Research Ethics Initiative guidelines. He was also selected as a Science Policy Fellow through the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy program to dig into the policy implications of his scientific research on directed energy and high-energy lasers.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Sloan Scholar Isabel Albelo: using sunlight to create fuel


UC San Diego materials science PhD student Isabel Albelo has her sights set on a lofty goal: generating carbon-neutral fuels through a reaction powered by the sun. It might sound like science fiction, but this field of photocatalysis is real and booming, as society works to find solutions to climate change. 

“It’s kind of the ideal as far as renewable energy goes,” Albelo said of this type of artificial photocatalysis. “When people think of renewable energy, they think of solar cells. The technical limit on that being efficiency in our power grid; electrical energy can be more difficult to transport and requires upgrades in battery technology. Whereas with artificial photosynthesis, you’re forming either liquid or gas fuels, which are things we have pipelines for, we know how to combust, that we can use in current industrial processes. It’s basically making the things we’re already using but in a carbon neutral way. So it's really exciting.”

Albelo is a PhD student in nanoengineering Professor David Fenning’s Solar Energy Innovation Lab. She’s also a Sloan Scholar, and received a four-year fellowship worth $40,000, meant to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists of outstanding promise. Her interest in this research is personal. 

“It’s become obvious that the climate crisis is the challenge of this generation and every one that comes after,” she said. “I grew up in a very active, outdoorsy family, and those are things I want to be able to do and want others to be able to do for the rest of their lives. So from that perspective, I think it’s really easy to find a driving force to do this work.”

Though she began her PhD during the COVID-19 pandemic, Albelo has still been able to start her research, thanks to UC San Diego’s Return to Learn protocols allowing in-lab research at reduced capacities. Her current project is a collaboration with UT Austin, optimizing the performance of photoactive nanoparticles to reduce carbon dioxide.  She uses a solar simulator-- a small laser-- to pass a liquid full of carbon dioxide through the laser, and get different chemicals and fuels out . 

“The CO2 reduction reaction is a bit of a black box as far as the mechanism,” Albelo said. “You put in CO2 and can get methane, carbon monoxide, formate… it’s kind of a mixed bag of different things. So that’s one of the challenges that I’m working on is being able to force your reaction to produce one thing, and produce it efficiently.”

For Albelo, the Sloan Scholar program has been more than just a scholarship—it’s provided a sense of community during a time when that was harder to come by due to social distancing and pandemic precautions. 

“When I first moved here, as far as interpersonal interactions, I had my roommate, two friends I already knew, and then the Sloan Scholars welcome program. Getting to interact with other first year incoming PhD students that way was really awesome. It’s a really exciting and uplifting program to be involved with as far as their work for representation, which is hugely important.”


Monday, April 12, 2021

UC San Diego researchers developing COVID-19 vaccine technology—no refrigeration or second dose needed

UC San Diego nanoengineering professors Nicole Steinmetz and Jon Pokorski have been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 that is stable outside of the cold chain and only requires a single-dose.

Such a vaccine could greatly boost global vaccination efforts, particularly in resource-poor areas of the world, the researchers said. A single-administration vaccine could also enable vaccination of livestock, which could help prevent future outbreaks, the researchers add.

Steinmetz and Pokorski’s proposed vaccine will package mRNA that encodes for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and its domains inside virus-like particles derived from a plant virus called Tobacco mosaic virus. The vaccine will then be packaged into slow-release implants that are made of protein/polymer blends. Steinmetz will lead the vaccine development, and Pokorski will lead the delivery technology development.

The researchers note several key advantages of this technology. The approach uses virus-like particles, which are materials that look like a virus but are non-infectious. Because they look like a virus, they can stimulate and enhance the body’s immune response.

Plant viruses are easy to produce in large scales because they can be grown on plants. Another advantage is that they are extremely stable at high temperatures, which means they can withstand the melt processing techniques that will be used to manufacture the implants. These manufacturing methods are also inexpensive and easy to scale. At the same time, the high degree of thermal stability means that these vaccine candidates are not required to be stored or shipped in refrigerators or freezers.

The NIH award will provide the team $434,500 of funding over two years.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Sloan Scholar Alemayehu Bogale: revolutionizing our understanding of plasma physics


Alem Bogale, left, presents research from his
undergraduate studies at University of Chicago.
Alemayehu Bogale is a first-generation Ethiopian-American who was born and raised in Chicago, and is now an engineering physics PhD student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego. He’s also a Sloan Scholar, a fellowship awarded to 12 incoming UC San Diego graduate students each year, meant to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists of outstanding promise. Sloan Scholars receive a $40,000 award to be used over four years.

Bogale works in Professor Farhat Beg’s High Energy Density Physics lab, where he researches plasma physics and works on particle-in-cell simulations that influence the design of experiments on high-powered laser facilities around the country. His goal is to revolutionize our understanding of plasma physics through the concerted use of numerical methods, computer simulations, and laboratory experiments.

In the following Q&A, he shares how he become interested in engineering physics, what his research goals are, and how he takes his coding frustrations out on the punching bag.


Q: What is plasma physics and where does your research fit in?

 Plasma physics isn't covered that much in mainstream science and is often confused with the plasma found in our blood. It is the study of the 4th state of matter, which occurs when atoms found in a gaseous state are heated up to the point where the electrons break off from the rest of the atom, leaving positive ions and negative electrons. The particles are now highly influenced by electromagnetic forces as well as thermal properties. The beauty of plasma physics is just how broad the study of it is. To the surprise of most, 99% of the universe's matter is in this plasma state (not counting dark matter). If we genuinely seek to understand the origins and laws that govern the universe, we must understand plasma. My research is centered around the higher end of this spectrum at pressures above 1 MBar. For context, you would achieve this if you heated 1mg of Hydrogen to 10,000,000 C and confined it to about a cubic centimeter. At scales like these, we have to throw away the textbook because matter behaves differently than the more familiar solid, liquid, gaseous, and even lower-end plasma states. Until recently, we haven't been able to study this in the lab, but with the emergence of high-powered lasers, we can now produce conditions comparable to astronomical environments such as planetary interiors, neutrons star, accretion disks, and supernovas. While this is very exciting when working in these extreme conditions, we have to consider radiative, relativistic, and quantum mechanical effects that make it challenging to process. High energy density physics is a very new field and is growing every day.

Q: What are some applications of your research?

 Plasma physics has many applications such as semiconductor fabrication, more efficient particle accelerators, national defense, and even water purification. However, I believe the most exciting and crucial application is controlled fusion energy. At the same time, this has mostly been a thing of science fiction and Hollywood, either being used as a fuel source for intergalactic travel or merged into the weaponized suit of armor of an Avenger. This is becoming less of a fantasy and more of a reality every day as scientists worldwide attack this problem from various angles. The impact of sustained use of non-renewable resources on the environment and public health has become painfully obvious. While renewable but intermittent resources such as solar, wind, and hydro have decreased in cost and increased in power generation, additional costs associated with electricity storage make it financially impractical. The more extensive land use also makes it a difficult choice for densely populated areas. Fusion offers a power-dense resource that is geographically and seasonally independent. Furthermore, it provides a means to greater energy equity for parts of the world that lack the infrastructure. For fusion to become this potential energy resource of the future, we must first understand the system's numerous complexities. Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission; instead of splitting large atoms into smaller ones, it combines smaller ones like hydrogen isotopes into larger ones like helium releasing tremendous amounts of energy without the harmful byproducts. It is also the same energy resource that fuels the stars and is responsible for creating most of the universe's larger elements. Fusion is one of the reasons I got into the field and remain in it.


Q: How did you get interested in science and engineering?

I'm not exactly sure when my passion for science developed, but I can tell you that the mysteries and challenges of the universe have always fascinated me. After watching the Cosmos series with Neil Degrasse Tyson in high school, I knew I was hooked on physics. I completed my degree in Physics at the University of Chicago and while I was there, I had the privilege of being part of the Flash Center for Computational Science which introduced me to the computational side of physics. I was able to contribute to the FLASH code, a radiation MHD simulation code used by the international plasma and astrophysics community. During the summers, I had the opportunity to work at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where I worked on high-order particle-in-cell code. These experiences led me to pursue a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics, where I will be modeling laser-plasma interactions and Z-Pinches.


At a very young age, my mother stressed the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities my sister and I were given through education. We saw her work 3-4 jobs at a time, which instilled a work ethic in us that has served us so well. My sister came to this country when she was 17. I saw her struggles and tribulations, but despite the odds, she is now a Doctor of Pharmacy (I'm so proud of her)! To say the least, the women in my life have had a profound impact on who I am today.

Q: Are you involved in anything outside of class and research?

 My current research and course obligations keep me rather busy, but I'm currently a member of the National Society of Black Physicists and the National Society of Black Engineers. I hope to take on larger roles in the future. I did a lot of science and CS outreach during my undergrad years but haven't had the opportunity. I hope to get back to it when things are a little less remote. 

 I also take advantage of the year-round beach access when I do have some free time. I recently went snowboarding for the first time (and I'm not terrible). I also practice kickboxing and jiu-jitsu so I can take out my frustration on the heavy bag when I can't debug my code haha.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Winter Quarter 2021 senior design projects

 Mechanical and aerospace engineering students who took the capstone Senior Design Course in Winter Quarter recently showcased the projects they worked in teams to develop over the course of the 10-week quarter. The student teams apply their hands-on skills and knowledge of engineering theory to solve a real-world engineering challenge sponsored by a local company or research lab. 

This quarter, students worked on everything from a baseball fielding machine that allows players to practice catching fly balls and grounders by themselves, to a tri-finger robot for AI research, a shoe to protect against stingray stings, and an expandable IV catheter to increase IV fluid delivery for patients with small vein sizes. 

Learn more about the projects here:

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

An outdoor intro to autonomous vehicles

Students in the fall and winter quarters of the Introduction to Autonomous Vehicles class were able to get hands-on experience building small robotic cars and training them to navigate a course on their own, thanks to UC San Diego's Return to Learn protocols and outdoor classrooms. 

“The whole point for this class is that we’re trying to build a robot that, between the perception and computer system, is about $80,” said Jack Silberman, the instructor of the course run jointly by the Departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. 

In previous years, students used the ECE Maker Space to build their autonomous vehicles. They got creative this year and took advantage of UC San Diego's Class Outside the Box tents for both building their robot, and testing it on a track.