CoE Announces 2020 Outstanding Teaching Assistants

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The senior class in each undergraduate degree program in UCSB’s College of Engineering selects an outstanding teaching assistant (TA) every year. The class of 2020’s Outstanding TAs are Ryan Kirkpatrick (computer engineering), Koty McAllister (chemical engineering), Michael Nekrasov (computer science), Raphael Ruschel dos Santos (electrical engineering), and Amir Tahmasebipour (mechanical engineering). Read about each of this year’s recipients below. 

Ryan Kirkpatrick is nearing the completion of UCSB’s five-year Bachelor of Science (BS)/Master of Science (BS/MS) Degree Program. After earning his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering (CE) last spring with a 3.93 GPA, he will complete his master’s in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) later this summer. Advised by Professor Li-C Wang, Kirkpatrick is a member of Wang’s Intelligent Engineering Assistant (IEA) Lab. The lab focuses on applying data analytics and machine learning to design and test automation. 
Kirkpatrick began working as a TA in fall 2019, his first quarter as a graduate student. Nine months later, graduating seniors selected Kirkpatrick for the ECE Department’s Outstanding TA Award for 2020. 
“I am incredibly proud to receive this award,” said Kirkpatrick. “During every interaction with my students, I try to make an individual difference in their personal and academic lives. Receiving this award confirms to me that I have been able to do this, and I look forward to seeing them continue to grow and develop throughout their careers.”
As a TA, he developed a classroom strategy to help students succeed in labs that he designed and led. 
“I try to target areas of weakness in a student’s understanding of material, then build up their foundation of information, starting with what they’re missing,” said Kirkpatrick. “From there, it’s easier to explain at a higher level where they can improve and what they need to succeed.”
During his time at UCSB, Kirkpatrick says numerous classmates and faculty have influenced and inspired him to succeed and grow. He is proud to have paid it forward to his students. 
“Despite the many challenges we’ve all faced the past few months, I’m proud to see students continue to strive toward their academic goals and thrive,” he said. “I hope they remember you only have one life to live, so be sure to appreciate the smaller things and live life to the fullest.”
For the second year in a row, graduating seniors have given Koty McAllister the Outstanding Teaching Assistant (TA) Award in the Chemical Engineering Department. He says it is nice to know students enjoy having him as a TA as much as he enjoys being one. 
“It’s a tremendous honor to receive the award,” said McAllister. “I’ve truly enjoyed my experience as a TA at UCSB and grown very interested in a career in academia. So, receiving this award, especially for the second year in a row, is extremely encouraging.”
McAllister, who received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware, infused new material into the process dynamics and controls course for undergraduate chemical engineers. He worked with faculty and staff to add a new simulation project and hands-on lab component. While working with undergraduates, McAllister said he always tries to show passion for the course material and establish himself as more than just a grader. 
“I believe that conveying enthusiasm and offering lots of feedback on assignments help set a tone that emphasizes learning and not evaluation. I also feel that students are much more likely to approach me with questions and concerns if they believe I am legitimately interested in the material and in them,” he added. 
Advised by Professor James B. Rawlings, McAllister’s research focuses on optimal closed-loop production scheduling. The goal is to better understand and improve scheduling algorithms that adapt, in real time, to changing operation conditions, demand, and economics. To achieve this goal, they look at the production scheduling problem as a process-control problem in order to achieve optimal production levels. 
When asked about leaving a special message for the Class of 2020, McAllister reminded graduates to focus on the positive. 
“You’ve spent the past four or so years being taught to solve complex, open-ended problems by some of the best professors in the world,” he said. “Frankly, there are few people in the world more capable of handling, and in many cases, helping to end this crisis or any others than UCSB’s graduating class of 2020.”
Michael Nekrasov knows all too well about the struggles graduating seniors in UCSB’s College of Engineering are experiencing. He lived his own version while preparing to successfully defend his PhD in computer science during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
“Like it is for many of the graduating seniors, completing my degree in March was a bit surreal,” he explained. “Because of the campus closure and lockdown, I gave my talk over Zoom and did not get an opportunity to say goodbye to my lab partners or committee in person. While preparing to defend, I packed up my house. And right after my defense, my partner, who is in her last year as a PhD student in philosophy, and I moved out of our place. I feel the pain of all the seniors who did not get a chance to properly say goodbye to UCSB and each other.”
Nekrasov says learning that he was selected by graduating seniors as the Outstanding Teaching Assistant of the Computer Science Department could not have come at a better time. 
“Being recognized for my work as a TA feels like a great sendoff and reconnects me to the community of outstanding undergraduates that I had the privilege to teach, but didn’t get to say goodbye to,” said Nekrasov, who received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from UC San Diego. “I love teaching. I am so glad to know that I made a positive impact on the next generation of scientists and engineers.”
Advised by Professor Elizabeth Belding, Nekrasov’s work focuses on tackling wireless communication in areas where digital communication infrastructure may be difficult or even impossible to access. Rural and developing regions, as well as areas caught during times of political or environmental crises are examples of challenged environments. His dissertation examined new methods and systems for responding to current and emerging needs for wireless networks. 
While living in the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult, Nekrasov says trying times serve as calls to action. He is confident the Class of 2020 can and will answer the call. 
“To adapt to these changes, we need smart educated people leading us forward. This puts the Class of 2020 on the frontlines of reshaping society and getting us on our feet again,” he said. “Now is the time for all of their ideas to shine, whether they are computer scientists extending coverage to rural regions, mechanical engineers building new types of medical devices, or humanists helping guide our way forward. Having taught and met so many of our graduating seniors, I think we are in good hands.”
Visiting from the Universidade Estadual do Rio Grande do Sul (UERGS) in Brazil, Raphael Ruschel dos Santos studied abroad at UCSB for the entire 2014-15 academic year. His visit was made possible through the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program, a scholarship program reserved for some of the country’s most promising students pursuing degrees in engineering and the sciences. While at UCSB, he participated in the Center for Bio-Image Informatics (CBI) Summer Internship Program, training an autonomous unmanned air vehicle (AUV) system on human detection and facial recognition. 
Four years later, Ruschel returned to UCSB as a PhD student in the computer engineering program. His current advisor, Professor B.S. Manjunath, was one of his co-advisors during the summer internship program. As a member of Manjunath’s research group, he performs research on computer vision and machine learning with a focus on activity recognition and medical-image analysis. His group’s newest research project includes using CT scans to detect signals of COVID-19. 
Ruschel has quickly adjusted to life as an international student at UCSB, receiving the Class of 2020’s Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award for the Computer Engineering Department. 
“Being a TA for the first time and giving lectures in my non-native language were extremely daunting. But I’m really excited to know that the students enjoyed my lectures and that my efforts had a positive impact on them,” he said. “I gave my best to keep the student motivated and create a learning environment where they felt encouraged to participate in discussions and explore new ideas.”
He encouraged seniors to look back and cherish all of their time and experiences at UCSB and to be proud of their accomplishments. 
“Never forget that the struggles you are going through today will only make you a stronger person and engineer in the future,” he said. 
Amir Tahmasebipour arrived at UCSB in 2015 to pursue a PhD in mechanical engineering. He grew up more than 7,400 miles away in Rasht, a city in northern Iran. Tahmasebipour attended the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET), a highly selective academy that provides a unique educational environment for middle school and high school students. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Tehran. 
Advised by Professor Carl Meinhart, Tahmasebipour is part of a research group that primarily studies microfluidics, using numerical simulation and experimental techniques to better understand physical phenomena of liquid at a very small scale. His research focuses on using sound waves to manipulate small particles in a fluid-filled channel that is almost as thin as a human hair. The acoustic force fields spread over the volume of the fluid cavity, enabling contactless manipulation of microparticles, which is promising to researchers because of the gentle cell handling, low cost, and precise temperature control the process makes possible. 
The fourth-year graduate student was the Class of 2020’s selection for the Outstanding Teaching Assistant in the Mechanical Engineering Department. 
“This award means a lot to me and is the best reward I could hope for after all of these years of teaching alongside professors,” said Tahmasebipour. “I like having an engaging classroom experience as a teacher or a student. I always try to incorporate jokes or a lively banter in my lecture, office hours, and sections. I think this creates a fun, friendly environment that helps students learn more effectively.”
He offered some words of wisdom to graduating seniors, whose last quarter at UCSB has been thrown off course by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
“It's been tough for all of us; we're missing our classrooms, labs, and friends. However, we are going to recover from this pandemic eventually and if we keep in touch, which is much easier these days with Zoom and all the social media, we can make up for lost time in the near future,” he said. “Being a graduate of the College of Engineering, unlike coronavirus, is permanent and an accomplishment you should all be proud of achieving.”

Outstanding Teaching Assistants (clockwise from top left) Ryan Kirkpatrick, Koty McAllister, Michael Nekrasov, Amir Tahmasebipour, Raphael Ruschel dos Santos