Every spring, the College of Engineering at UC Santa Barbara bestows four special honors upon graduating seniors who excelled both inside and outside of the classroom. Read below to find out who received three prestigious awards and who was selected to represent the Class of 2022 as the student speaker for the college’s Undergraduate Commencement. A fifth graduating senior also received a prestigious award from the Academic Senate in recognition of her work as an undergraduate researcher.
In recognition of his selfless contributions to student activities at UC Santa Barbara, Daniel Hernandez-Vitela has received the 2022 Hynes-Wood Award. He is receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a specialization in radiofrequency engineering. Since his first quarter at UCSB, Hernandez-Vitela has been an active member of Los Ingenieros (LI), the university’s chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
“I am greatly honored to have been selected for this recognition,” said Hernandez-Vitela, a first-generation college student who grew up in Oxnard and graduated from Channel Islands High School. “This award makes me feel appreciated, and it’s good to know that all of the time and effort I invested paid off and allowed me to positively impact several lives along the way.”
Through LI, Hernandez-Vitela was informed of several research opportunities and learned resume techniques that landed him an opportunity in the Robotics Lab, where he worked on path planning and tracking for autonomous cars. That early research experience paved the way for him to secure future internships and join the LI Executive Board as an academic chair, internal vice president, and co-chair. He also credited LI for allowing him to get over imposter syndrome, a feeling that leads many students, and especially those from underrepresented groups, to question whether they belong at UCSB.
“Breaking away from that mindset allowed me to reach my full potential and accomplish things that I never could have imagined. This put me in a position where I am able to help my surrounding community grow and succeed academically, professionally, and interpersonally,” said Hernandez-Vitela, who fell in love with UCSB during a campus visit as a sophomore in high school.
Hernandez-Vitela said that a sequence of communication-electronics courses exposed him to the field of radiofrequency and allowed him to gain the foundation and knowledge that he will be using after graduation as an RF/microwave engineer at Keysight Technologies.
“I am thrilled to say that I gained a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UCSB, not only because it is a top engineering school, but also because it’s my dream school,” said Hernandez-Vitela. “Ultimately, I would like to thank the Promise Scholars Program, because they provided me with several resources as well as financial support. This allowed me to focus on my academics and extracurricular activities, which were vital to my success at UCSB.”
The College of Engineering established the Hynes-Wood Award thirty-five years ago in honor of Dr. Jacqueline Hynes, the former assistant dean for academic programs in engineering, and the late Dr. Roger Wood, a beloved electrical and computer engineering professor and former associate dean of academic affairs.
Tirrell Award for Distinction in Undergraduate Research
Chemical engineering major Vedika Shenoy is the recipient of the College of Engineering’s 2022 Tirrell Award for Distinction in Undergraduate Research. The annual award, named in honor of the college’s former dean, Matthew Tirrell, recognizes a graduating senior who showed excellence and promise as a researcher during his or her academic career.
“I am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish over the last three and a half years, and I am very honored to be recognized for the research that I’ve worked on,” said Shenoy, who is graduating with honors and a chemical engineering degree. “I’m grateful for all the opportunities to collaborate with and be mentored by other researchers at UCSB and could not have accomplished all of this without the support of my research advisors and mentors.”
Since her freshman year, Shenoy has participated in several types of research projects under the supervision of mechanical engineering professor Megan Valentine and chemical engineering professor Matt Helgeson. First, she worked on developing a microfluidic platform for high throughput characterization of complex fluids. She focused on the fabrication aspect of microfluidics and adapted a widely used microfluidic mixer so that it could be produced via 3D printing, an attractive alternative to conventional techniques because it reduced the fabrication time from days to hours. She was first-author of a paper that was published in the open access journal BioTechniques, and she presented her work during the 2020 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Conference, winning an award in the Student Poster Competition. Shenoy later worked on the development and characterization of differential dynamic microscopy (DDM), which is a form of video analysis in which the properties of a material can be assessed using videos obtained from a simple optical microscope. She also conducted research through programs offered by the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL), the Future Leaders in Advanced Materials (FLAM) and the Research Interns in Science and Engineering (RISE).
“It has been extremely exciting to work on novel problems and make scientific contributions that are useful to other researchers,” said Shenoy, who is graduating with high honors. “The interdisciplinary research collaborations have been incredibly enriching for me and exposed me to different approaches to problem solving than those that I’ve developed as a chemical engineering major.”
Shenoy will begin her career as a scientist in the Research and Development Department at Clorox in August.
John and Sheila Lake Excellence Award
Janson Villanueva is the recipient of the college’s 2022 John and Sheila Lake Excellence Award, for demonstrating outstanding academic performance and an extraordinary level of engagement within the college. The annual award is named for alumnus John Lake and his wife, Sheila.
“It is truly an honor and a privilege to receive this award from my dream university,” said Villanueva, a first-generation college student who is earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. “This honor proves that my dreams are alive and that my undying passion to help my family and community are becoming a reality.”
After graduating from Channel Islands High School in Oxnard, Villanueva entered UCSB as an undeclared major. He had a passion for cars and always wanted to work in the automotive industry, so he set his sights on transferring into the heavily impacted mechanical engineering major. With hard work and determination, his goal became a reality, and he was one of a handful of students accepted into the major. Now, he will graduate with a 3.53 cumulative grade point average and start working in product development for the Ford Motor Company as a Ford College Graduate, a program that provides a variety of rotational job assignments for new hires to expand their social networking and exposure to Ford’s culture during their few years with the company.
“Choosing this path was the best thing that has ever happened to me. It showed me my full potential and helped me get my dream job,” said Villanueva, whose parents moved from the Philippines to the United States to provide a better life for him and his brother. “I aspire to be their miracle. They are my motivation to try my absolute best in all that I do. The degree is one of many ways of thanking my parents, who sacrificed a lot for my brother and I to be here in the U.S. I thank them for believing in me and supporting me every step of the way.”
Villanueva was an active member in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE)/Los Ingenieros (LI) organization and the Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement (MESA) program at UCSB. He said that MESA helped him understand that underrepresented students can become prominent faces in engineering and diversify the workforce. Mentors that he met through SHPE/LI guided him on a path to success and taught him how to become a better leader.
“To sum them up shortly, they are life changing,” said Villanueva. “Being first-generation and the only Filipino mechanical engineering student in my class, it makes me extremely proud to be a role model for others to look up to.”
Student Commencement Speaker
Xinmiao (Cindy) Liu, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, has been selected to represent the Class of 2022 as the student speaker during the College of Engineering’s Commencement.
“I’m very honored to be selected as the student commencement speaker,”said Liu, who was born in Guangzhou, China and moved to the United States when she was seven years old. “As hectic as life is right now with capstone, finals, student organizations, and career-related obligations, the process of writing this speech has given me time to reflect on my own four years at UCSB, which I have to say were the hardest but most fulfilling years yet.”
While at UCSB, Liu was an active member in the UCSB chapters of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Phi Sigma Rho, a sorority for female STEM majors that seeks to empower and support women in engineering and technical fields where women have been underrepresented historically. Liu served in multiple leadership positions for the organizations, including president of ASME.
“Being president opened my eyes to many new experiences and opportunities and developed my skills in leadership, negotiation, communication, and coordination,” said Liu, who thanked mechanical engineering faculty members Glenn Beltz, Tyler Susko, and Geoffrey Tsai for their encouragement, insight, and mentorship. “UCSB has fostered an environment where I feel comfortable to try new things. This has opened doors for a variety of experiences that have helped me grow as a person. I’ve honed my personal and professional skills here, preparing me for my next step.”
After graduation, Liu plans to continue her career as a product lifecycle engineer at Illumina in San Diego.
Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research
The UC Santa Barbara Academic Senate has selected Aesha Parekh, a computer science major, to receive a 2022 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, a handful of which are bestowed upon students who have distinguished themselves as researchers. Recipients are selected based on the quality of their work, as substantiated by the nomination and support letters submitted on their behalf.
“It is an immense honor to receive this award and see our research being recognized,” said Parekh, who is graduating with high honors and a 3.99 cumulative grade point average. “I’d also like to acknowledge my co-first-authors — Sophie Groenwold, Samhita Honnavalli, and Lily Ou — who played an instrumental role in our research as we collaborated closely.”
Parekh became involved in undergraduate research through the Computer Science Department’s Early Research Scholars Program (ERSP). Overseen by Diba Mirza, an associate teaching professor, the year-long research apprenticeship program provides undergraduate students with their first research experience. Parekh, Groenwold, Honnavalli, and Ou were part of the team that worked with computer science associate professor William Wang, co-director of the university’s National Language Processing (NLP) Group. They analyzed how gender and seniority bias were manifested in text generated by natural language models, and they designed experiments to quantify bias against African-American English in Generative Pretrained Transformer 2 (GPT-2), a popular language model used for text generation and language translation. A paper, written by the team, was accepted to the 2020 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing, one of the top three NLP conferences, where they later presented their work and generated interest from other researchers.
“When we started, the fields of NLP and machine learning were entirely unfamiliar to us,” Parekh explained. “We ramped up on the area and learned to read research papers, explore research questions, design and conduct experiments, and compose quality papers to submit to selective NLP conferences.”
The team later took on another challenge, studying why women were often perceived as junior to their male counterparts, even when they had the same job titles. They investigated how seniority impacted the degree of gender bias exhibited in pretrained neural-generation models by introducing a novel framework for probing compound bias. Their work was accepted by the International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation, another top NLP conference to be held this summer in France, where they will present their research.
Parekh thanked professors Wang and Mirza, as well as her graduate mentor, Sharon Levy, for their guidance and mentorship.
“They were so patient and supportive, especially during the early days of research when everything was unfamiliar,” said Parekh. “They helped us navigate the challenges that came with a first-time research experience, whether that was learning to curate related work, writing a rebuttal to a reviewer, designing experiments, fine-tuning models, or figuring which significant test to use.”
Earlier this year, Parekh was named a 2022 Outstanding Researchers Award finalist by the Computing Research Association (CRA), distinguishing her among the top ten undergraduate researchers in the nation. The CRA’s membership includes more than two hundred computer science and computer engineering departments in the United States. In addition to her extensive research, Parekh also completed internships at Nvidia, LinkedIn, Shopify, and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Parekh will begin working as a software engineer at LinkedIn in the Bay Area this fall.