Class of 2023 Selects Teaching Assistants of the Year

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Graduating seniors in each undergraduate degree program within UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering selected one outstanding teaching assistant (TA) to recognize for his or her outstanding service and dedication to student success. The recipients of the Outstanding Teaching Assistant awards for the Class of 2023 are Varun Hegde (chemical engineering), Min Jian Yang (computer engineering), Junrui Liu (computer science), Kunjesh Agashiwala (electrical engineering), and Aleksei Dillon (mechanical engineering). Read more about the award-winning TAs below.

Chemical engineering PhD student Varun Hegde has worked as a teaching assistant since he discovered a love for teaching as an undergraduate student at Columbia University. He continued to TA undergraduate courses while he completed his master’s degree in chemical engineering at Columbia, and as he pursued his PhD at UCSB. Last year, he co-taught an undergraduate course on transport science/fluid mechanics, which is his area of research, with a faculty member as part of the CSP Technologies Teacher-Scholar Fellowship. Hegde said that finding out seniors selected him for their Outstanding TA Award was a huge honor. 

“It’s a very big deal. I am extremely happy, and I'm super honored, especially since I haven't taught a course since last year,” said Hegde, who is co-advised by chemical engineering professors Todd Squires and Michael Doherty. “It feels nice to know that the teaching experience resonated with my students enough that they would vote for me a year later.”

Hegde expects to complete his PhD in the fall, after which, he plans to work in industry. 

A third-year computer engineering PhD student, Min Jian Yang is the recipient of the 2023 Outstanding TA Award for Computer Engineering. During the 2022-’23 academic year, he served as the TA for undergraduate courses involving design and test automation and hardware/software interface.

“I am grateful that the students chose me for this award,” said Yang, who completed his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at UCSB. “I am pleased to know that my assistance has been helpful throughout their journey and that they have enjoyed their time with me.”

To better assist his students, Yang says, he tries to understand them on a personal level, taking into account their personalities, skills, and attitudes, which allows him to tailor his teaching approach to meet their individual needs. He wants his students to know that as they continue their journey beyond UCSB, they will be accompanied by the ideas that took root during their time together. 

“Having witnessed the remarkable growth of my students over the years as they blossomed into exceptional programmers, engineers, and researchers, I wholeheartedly wish them all the best in their upcoming chapters,” said Yang, who is advised by electrical and computer engineering professor Li-C. Wang. 

Yang works on developing an Intelligent Engineering Assistant (IEA) for data analytics tasks within the semiconductor domain. The system aims to enhance the productivity of engineers on a daily basis while facilitating the collection and communication of knowledge among engineers, across teams, and management levels. 

Junrui Liu, a second-year computer science (CS) PhD student, studies programming language (PL) and verification. Advised by CS assistant professor Yu Feng, Liu builds tools to prove through precise mathematical reasoning that various computer programs are correct and do not exhibit unintended behaviors. This year, he also served as the teaching assistant for two undergraduate courses on PL. 

“It has been a great joy to be able to teach the beautiful ideas from my area of study,” said Liu, who earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Vassar College and a master’s degree from Yale University. “Although the concepts the students learned were very theoretical, I tried to highlight the common themes and distill core principles that they can apply in the future.”

Liu adds that theoretical languages take a long time to make it to industry, but he hoped that the “PL mindset” taught in his courses will help his students to be aware of the hidden common foundations of real-world languages and be open-minded to alternative language paradigms. 

He says that being honored by his students is especially rewarding because he plans to pursue a teaching-focused position in academia once he completes his PhD. 

“This award is extremely encouraging for me, and it motivates me to further hone my teaching skills and improve the course material in innovative ways,” said Liu. 

Born in Mumbai, India, Kunjesh Agashiwala is a sixth-year electrical and computer engineering (ECE) PhD student at UCSB. He earned dual degrees in physics and electrical and electronics engineering from Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani. He worked as a TA for two undergraduate classes this year, ECE 134 (Introduction to Fields and Waves), and ECE 120A (Semiconductor Device Processing). Agashiwala says that this award gives him a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction.

“Teaching has been one of my great joys of graduate school, and I feel incredibly overwhelmed that my teaching pedagogy has been well received,” said Agashiwala. “This award is incredibly helpful for my future endeavors, as it not only demonstrates my ability to communicate complex ideas effectively, but also to foster an inclusive and engaging learning environment.”

Agashiwala’s approach centers around breaking down complex topics into small manageable steps, guiding students toward developing a natural understanding of a topic, and emphasizing the practical applications of what they are learning.

“Understanding the real-life implications of their studies is crucial. By connecting theory to real-world scenarios, students gain a deeper appreciation and understanding for the subject and its relevance,” he explains. “Personally, adopting these teaching techniques has greatly benefited me as well.”

Advised by Professor Kaustav Banerjee, Agashiwala works on integrated circuits (ICs), which play a crucial role in nearly every appliance. ICs are made up of billions of tiny components called transistors, which are connected through an intricate network of dense wiring. His work revolves around developing new wiring technologies for ICs that can significantly improve their performance, increasing communication speeds, and reducing heat generation. Ultimately, the research has significant implications for artificial intelligence, big data processing, and other applications that rely on high-performance ICs to handle vast amounts of data efficiently. 

Agashiwala plans to enter industry after completing his PhD, though he remains open to a career in academia. 

A first-year graduate student through the Mechanical Engineering Department’s BS/MS program, Aleksei Dillon made quite an impression working with undergraduate students, receiving the 2023 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award for the Mechanical Engineering Department.

“It’s nice to be recognized by students for the efforts that I put into make their learning and studying experiences better,” said Dillon, who will work for a medical device company upon completing his master’s degree.

As a TA for mechanical engineering design courses this year, Dillon embraced his role as a resource for students, making an extra effort to ensure that every student who visited his office hours left with a full understanding of the material.  

“I tried to make my office hours and exam review sessions useful, so it’s great to see that these efforts helped my students,” said Dillon, who was advised this year by mechanical engineering associate professor Elliot Hawkes, iterating the design of a soft robot that helps move endoscopes through blood vessels by improving the robot’s ability to turn and match the path of the vessels. 

Recipients of the Class of 2023's Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award

2023 Outstanding Teaching Assistants (clockwise from top left) Aleksei Dillon, Varun Hegde, Kunjesh Agashiwala, Min Jian Yang, Junrui Liu