Class of 2024 Selects Teaching Assistants of the Year

Monday, June 10, 2024

Graduating seniors in each undergraduate degree program within UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering select 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 2024 are Cassidy Tobin (chemical engineering), Eric Hsieh (computer engineering), Junrui Liu (computer science), Kunjesh Agashiwala (electrical engineering), and Anders Seawright (mechanical engineering). Agashiwala and Liu also received the award last year. Read more about the award-winning TAs below.

A rising fifth-year chemical engineering PhD student, Cassidy Tobin is co-advised by materials and chemical engineering associate professor Christopher Bates and chemistry and biochemistry professor Javier Read de Alaniz. She designs light-responsive materials that, when illuminated, can reversibly drive assembly of proteins. Currently, her research group is working with a protein whose assembly and disassembly is responsible for color camouflage in squid. She and her collaborators are making a novel color-changing, biomaterial system that responds to light. 

Tobin has served as a TA for chemical engineering lab courses three times, most recently in the lab for seniors. She believes that making herself available and approachable are essential to helping students succeed in courses that require them to solve open-ended problems.

“It’s really rewarding to hear them propose new and creative methods to measure a certain variable or to think about the lab’s objective in a way that I hadn’t considered before,” said Tobin, who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. “I’m very excited and grateful to the graduating seniors for nominating me. I’m glad to know that my efforts positively impacted them.”

After completing her PhD, Tobin plans to work in industry or become a scientific consultant. She adds that receiving this award encourages her to stay involved in teaching through science outreach activities, which she has been involved in at UCSB through the School for Scientific Thought, a Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP) program that introduces high school students to concepts of science that extend beyond the typical classroom. 

Eric Hsieh, an electrical and computer engineering master’s student, admits that he has occasionally doubted his ability to be an effective teaching assistant for this year’s computer engineering capstone courses. That is why he often took time to reflect on his time as an undergraduate student and consider what help he would need most as a student in that situation. He also thought about how supportive TAs were when he was an undergrad, most notably, Min Jian Yang and Connor Sanchez. All of that reflection seems to have paid off, because the Class of 2024 selected Hsieh as Computer Engineering’s Outstanding Teaching Assistant. 

“This is my first year being a teaching assistant, and I often doubted whether I was helping the students,” said Hsieh. “I am pleased to know that I have been able to assist them in their academic journey. It has been a rewarding experience working with everyone in the class, and I appreciate them for giving me this great honor.”

While pursuing his master’s degree with an emphasis in control systems, Hsieh has been assisting in the lab of ECE professor Luke Theogarajan, working on electronics for electro-wetting experiments. Researchers in the lab aim to improve lab-on-a-chip systems for the field of microfluidics that can be widely implemented without requiring excessively high voltages. Their work could greatly enhance automation and portability for chemical lab analysis. After completing his master’s degree, Hsieh plans to work in industry, although, he says returning to graduate school to pursue a PhD remains a possibility. 

“I have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a commitment to lifelong learning, and I would love to help those who share the same passion,” said Hsieh, who grew up in Taipei City, Taiwan. “My dream has always been to become a teacher, and I have been a volunteer tutor for junior high school students the past three years. Receiving this award has reaffirmed my plans and boosted my confidence in achieving my goals.”

Junrui Liu, a third-year computer science (CS) PhD student, studies programming language (PL) and verification. Advised by CS assistant professor Yu Feng, Liu works to ensure mathematically that computer programs perform the way they were intended to function, and he studies how to automatically design programs that are not prone to errors. For the past three years, Liu has served as the TA for CS162, an undergraduate course on programming language. 

“Being a TA for the course has provided me with some of the most fulfilling experiences that I’ve had at UCSB,” said Liu, who earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Vassar College and a master’s degree in computer science from Yale University. “I want the students to have as much fun learning about the beautiful ideas of programming language theory as I did as an undergraduate. I strive to present the material in such a way that students may begin to think that the big ideas and fancy algorithms are actually quite natural. I hope that through this the student will feel empowered, continue learning, and become great independent learners even after this class.”

Graduating seniors seem to appreciate this method, electing him for the second-straight year as the CS Department’s Outstanding Teaching Assistant of the Year. He says that being recognized is especially rewarding, because he plans to pursue a teaching-focused position once he completes his PhD. 

“I’m extremely fortunate to teach something that I’m deeply passionate about, and I’m extremely honored to receive this award,” said Liu, who also expressed gratitude for his advisor. “Professor Feng has acknowledged my passion for teaching, and he allows me to take on a greater teaching responsibility by restructuring the class and designing new course materials.”

Kunjesh Agashiwala is just a few weeks away from completing his PhD in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) from UCSB. After graduation, he will begin a career in the tech industry with Siemens. He says that being recognized as the Electrical Engineering Program’s Outstanding Teaching Assistant for the second year in a row is a tremendous honor and gives him a sense of immense pride and satisfaction. 

“Teaching has been one of the great joys of graduate school, and I feel incredibly overwhelmed that my teaching pedagogy has been well received,” said Agashiwala, who earned dual degrees in physics and electrical and electronics engineering from Birla Institute of Technology and Science, in Pilani, Indiana. “Moreover, it boosts my confidence and motivates me to continue striving for excellence in my future interactions with undergraduate students.”

Agashiwala said that he aims to positively impact his students by breaking down complex topics into manageable steps. Rather than simply providing solutions, he guides students to develop a natural understanding of the subject matter, moving beyond textbook definitions. 

“I also emphasize the practical applications of their studies, as understanding the real-world implications of what they are learning is crucial. By connecting theory to real-life scenarios, students gain a deeper appreciation for the subject and its relevance,” said Agashiwala. “Adopting these teaching techniques has greatly benefited me as well. This philosophy is deeply meaningful to me, reflecting the hard work and dedication of my past TAs, professors, and teachers. As an educator, I feel a responsibility to pass on this knowledge and support the next generation of learners.”

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 component 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. 

A second-year mechanical engineering master’s student, Anders Seawright worked as a teaching assistant for three different courses this year. He put in extra time this year to master the material of his classes in order to be as helpful as possible for his students. That extra effort and emphasis on creating a positive workspace paid off in a big way for Seawright, whom graduating seniors voted the 2024 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award for the Mechanical Engineering Department.

“I feel super touched; I honestly started crying when I read the email announcing the award,” said Seawright, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UCSB. “The past few years, I’ve really been trying to put myself out there more. I’ve put in a ton of effort and really love being a TA, but it’s still always hard to tell what people really think of you. This recognition gives me confidence to just keep being myself.”

Seawright has worked in the soft robotics lab of mechanical engineering associate professor Elliot Hawkes. He plans to enter industry after completing his master’s degree, but he admits that receiving the Outstanding TA Award has made him strongly consider returning to pursue his PhD in a few years. 

“I already know that I’m going to miss it here when I leave,” he said. “I’m especially going to miss working with such a talented and wonderful group of students.”

Related People: 
Christopher M. Bates, Kaustav Banerjee, Elliot Hawkes, Yu Feng, Luke Theogarajan
2024 Outstanding Teaching Assistants (clockwise from top left) Cassidy Tobin, Anders Seawright, Eric Hsieh, Junrui Liu, Kunjesh Agashiwala

2024 Outstanding Teaching Assistants (clockwise from top left) Cassidy Tobin, Anders Seawright, Eric Hsieh, Junrui Liu, Kunjesh Agashiwala