CoE Announces Outstanding Faculty Award Recipients

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Every year, the senior class in each degree program in UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering selects an outstanding faculty member. The Class of 2021’s Outstanding Faculty are Joe Chada (chemical engineering), Amr El Abbadi (computer science), Yogananda Isukapalli (computer engineering), Sumita Pennathur (mechanical engineering), and Mark Rodwell (electrical engineering). 

For the second straight year, graduating seniors have selected Joe Chada for the Outstanding Chemical Engineering Faculty Award. Chada joined UCSB’s Chemical Engineering Department in fall 2018 as the department’s initial tenure-track teaching professor. 

“The most fulfilling awards are those given by students,” said Chada. “All of us are here because we like working with our students and helping them to realize their potential as scientists and engineers. Especially in a trying year, it’s an honor to receive appreciation from this class.”

Chada’s primary focus is to design and construct experiments for students that reflect the latest in the chemical engineering field. The goal behind the experiments, which are conducted in the Robert G. Rinker Undergraduate Teaching Laboratory, are to reinforce fundamental chemical engineering principles, expose students to industrially relevant situations, provide hands-on lab training on modern equipment, and enhance opportunities for students to succeed during and after their time at UCSB. With the help of dedicated teaching assistants, Chada says they adapted much of their course content during the pandemic to work better online, creating more engaging content and lower-stress assessments. They were also more flexible on deadlines, but maintained the same quality standards. He says that even when faced with an extreme shift in their learning environment, he continued to be impressed with the work that this class delivered.

“Engineering is a challenging major under the best circumstances; it is even more challenging to complete a lab remotely or design an experiment for equipment that you cannot touch,” said Chada. “This class had some of the best design projects and lab reports that I’ve read to date. Although this wasn’t the senior year that they envisioned, they are more than capable of making an impact on the world.”

Graduating seniors selected Distinguished Professor Amr El Abbadi to receive the 2020-21 Computer Science Department’s Outstanding Faculty of the Year Award.

“It is very heartwarming and fulfilling to be selected,” said El Abbadi, whose research focuses on fault-tolerant distributed systems and databases. Recently, he has explored efficient ways for retrieving data in a distributed library, as well as content-based searching using multi-dimensional index structures. “They are an amazing and very resilient group of students. I am very proud to have played a minor role in their last year, and I am thrilled they appreciated my ‘from home’ instruction, my foibles, and my background noises.”

An elected fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), El Abbadi says his philosophy of teaching is to show students how to develop methodologies on their own in order to learn how to address the unknown challenges of tomorrow and be excited to solve them. He believes that the department’s talented students and dedicated teaching assistants rose to the challenge to overcome the unique obstacles created by the global pandemic and social justice movement.

“Technology has reached a level that enables us to develop computers and algorithms that can provide the scalable infrastructure for solving complex problems, ranging from computational strategies to combatting pandemic viruses to developing a world that promotes fairness, equity, and social justice,” said El Abbadi. “The Class of 2021 possesses the tools, the energy, and the time to change the world to be a better, more equitable, and more enjoyable place.”

For the third year in a row, graduating seniors selected Yogananda Isukapalli for the Outstanding Computer Engineering Faculty Award. Isukapalli joined UCSB’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department as a tenure-track teaching professor in winter 2017, after several years working as a staff scientist in the Wi-Fi division at Broadcom, a semiconductor manufacturing company.

“I am pleased to receive this award; it means a lot coming from graduating CE seniors,” said Isukapalli, who also received the university’s 2020-21 Distinguished Teaching Award from the Academic Senate in recognition of his excellence in teaching and contributing to the teaching mission of the university. “I have taught most of them in many of my classes over the past few years, and I enjoyed seeing them mature as professional engineers. I am honored that they feel I have made an impact through my teaching.”

Isukapalli’s primary role is running the undergraduate capstone program for computer engineering, which focuses on developing students into professionals by pairing them with industry or academic experts to create an engineered solution for real problems.

This year, the topics of capstone projects ranged from designing a portable coagulopathy test, to ensuring a robotic arm’s path remains free of collisions, to automating the anti-corrosion process on navy vessels. The move to remote learning made it an especially challenging year for capstone, leading Isukapalli to modify the projects and meet virtually with students more often than usual.

“Being accessible and creating an inclusive environment have significant impacts on learning,” said Isukapalli, who also received the 2020-21 Northrop Grumman Excellence in Teaching Award. “I teach several project-based courses where I give students the freedom, encouragement, and the resources they need to succeed. As they work on these projects, it’s essential to follow through with them by having many one-on-one interactions. Customizing the content and support for students has led to some fantastic outcomes.”

Isukapalli said his students responded to the challenges with resilience and grit, showing a remarkable collaborative spirit to make their senior projects successful.

“Our experience through the pandemic is yet another example that adversity is not always under our control, but we can choose how to respond,” he said. “I am confident that the graduating students are ready to use the technical and life skills you have learned at UCSB, not only to overcome life’s many challenges, but continue to work toward a bright future.”

Graduating seniors in the Mechanical Engineering Department selected Professor Sumita Pennathur as their Outstanding Faculty of the Year Award winner. A pioneer in nanofluidics, interfacial science, and biological engineering, Pennathur’s work has revealed unique physics at the nanoscale, making it possible to model, predict, and control fluids and the molecules they contain.

“Teaching means the world to me,” said Pennathur, who has applied her discoveries to develop novel biomedical technologies, which has led her to found three startup companies. “Getting voted the best faculty of the year is always an honor, but this year is especially gratifying because of the difficulties involving the pandemic.”

Pennathur says that providing encouragement is one of the most important ways that she can impact students, adding that they just need to be reminded that they can overcome the challenges they face. She says that the pandemic gave her the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with her undergraduate students to learn more about who they are and what they need to succeed.

“This has been invaluable to me as a teacher and mentor. We can all acknowledge that Zoom made certain conversations possible and more accessible, and we should continue to capitalize on that going forward,” said Pennathur, whose previous awards and recognitions include the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists for Engineers (PECASE) from President Barack Obama, the Defense Advanced Research Programs Administration (DARPA) Young Faculty Award, and election as a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE). “The challenges of this year have made these students uniquely capable of identifying and ultimately solving the challenges our society is faced with. We are proud of the people they have become and will be going forward, taking care of each other and our society.”

Mark Rodwell joined the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at UCSB in 1988. An elected fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the recipient of IEEE’s David Sarnoff Award for exceptional contributions to electronics, Rodwell teaches several undergraduate core classes, including the junior-level courses Circuits & Electronics I/II (ECE 137A/B). 

On paper, the course sequence offers two terms of basic transistor circuit design, but Rodwell says that it provides much more than that, a snapshot of electrical engineering, both theory and design. Students start by learning about transistors and how to use them to process signals. The rest of the way, students learn how to design and build useful working gadgets to do useful, tangible, physical things, such as amplifying signals from a microphone to a speaker to make a public address system. The project requires students to invent, test, debug, fix, and retest. Along the way, students must also review and use quite a bit of math, officially outside the scope of class, that relates to the character of infomration signals and to the operation of control systems, those which are found in electronics and most modern machinery. 

“Students are learning how a great deal of electrical engineering fits together, and on a simple level, what it is all for,” explains Rodwell, whose research group works to extend the operation of electronics, such as semiconductor devices and communications systems, to the highest feasible frequencies. “I hope these classes provided a clearer picture of what senior- and graduate-level courses will cover, and why they might be interested in learning those subjects.”

This year marks the third straight year and the seventh time overall that graduating seniors have selected Rodwell for the Outstanding Electrical Engineering Faculty Award.

“I hope that it means that students are not only learning the material of my classes, but are also getting some sense of their future careers,” said Rodwell.

2021 Outstanding Faculty winners (clockwise from top left) Amr El Abbadi, Joe Chada, Mark Rodwell, Yogananda Isukapalli, Sumita Pennathur