CoE Announces Outstanding Teaching Assistants of 2020-21

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Graduating seniors in each degree program of UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering selected an outstanding teaching assistant (TA) to recognize for his or her outstanding service and dedication to student success. The Outstanding Teaching Assistant awards for the Class of 2021 are Michael Christensen (computer science), Boning Dong (computer engineering), Rohit Karnaty (electrical engineering), Joseph Pinheiro (mechanical engineering), and Mike Schmithorst (chemical engineering). Read more about the award-winning TAs below.

Michael Christensen
A sixth-year PhD student, Michael Christensen is advised by computer science professor Ben Hardekopf and is a member of the Programming Languages Lab. His research focuses on applying programming language theory to improve hardware design. He says that he is “honored and elated” to know that he made a positive impact in his students’ lives.

“I really try to have meaningful, individual interaction with every student who needs it,” said Christensen, who has served as a TA for six different computer science courses. “It’s important to come across as someone who cares and is willing to dig deep to help students fix a bug in their code or understand a particular concept. When I was an undergraduate, I was helped immensely by many patient and friendly TAs. I try to be just as encouraging and hardworking for my students.”

Christensen says that flexibility, optimism, and empathy have been key to handling the challenges brought on by the pandemic. He believes that the Class of 2021 will be much stronger for having succeeded during such trying times.

“We’ve all had to learn to be patient with others, and with ourselves especially,” said Christensen, who adds that his experience as a TA has made him look forward to being a mentor in an industrial setting. “I want to tell the Class of 2021 not to fear doing difficult things. Try to work on things that really matter to you and that will make the world a better place. And never stop learning.”

Married with two young children, Christensen says he and his wife are looking forward to starting the next phase of their lives. He has accepted a position as a research scientist at Facebook.  

Boning Dong
A fifth-year student in the Electrical and Computer Engineering’s BS/MS program, Boning Dong served as the TA for the computer engineering capstone courses this year. He said he focused on making sure his students had a good “user experience” in the capstone courses. In addition to his willingness to schedule extra virtual meetings with students, Dong also tried to help students grasp a deeper understanding of the material.

“I think this is really important for project-based classes, like capstone,” explained Dong, who received his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering last June. “So, if I can help them connect the knowledge that they learned in the past four years by explaining why, rather than just solving their issue or answering their questions, this project-building experience will be a way to practice their previous knowledge instead of simply performing a task they’re rushing to finish.”

After completing his master’s degree this June, Dong, who was born and raised in Beijing, China, will work for Apple as an embedded software engineer. He said that his experience as a TA has improved his communication skills and taught him the importance of being a strong communicator.

“I am extremely honored and grateful to be recognized by my students. It gives me more confidence to pursue potential future educational opportunities,” said Dong, who offered some parting advice to the Class of 2021. “Always step out of your comfort zone, try new things, and work hard to push the limits.”

In addition to earning his bachelor’s degree last year, Dong also received the college’s Hynes-Wood Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to student activities. He also received the University Award of Distinction for contributing greatly to the quality of life of other UCSB students.

Rohit Karnaty
Born and raised in southern India, Rohit Karnaty is a fifth-year PhD student, who is advised by electrical and computer engineering professor James Buckwalter. His research focuses on radio frequency (RF) circuit design and device modeling with special emphasis on gallium nitride. The Buckwalter group seeks to develop transmitters and receivers that can be used in 5G and beyond.

Karnaty served as the TA for communication electronics classes (ECE145A/218A, and ECE145B/218B), courses he completed in his first year or graduate school. He tried to help students focus on the important concepts they needed to take away from their assignments and labs rather than worrying about their grades.

“I am really honored to receive this award,” said Karnaty, who majored in electrical engineering and minored in physics at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. “I am pleased that the students found me to be helpful especially in these stressful times. It was also fun to interact with a lot of people even though we were all joining classes remotely from different places in the world.”

Holding office hours and lab sessions remotely posed challenges to Karnaty and his students. He tried to be as flexible as possible when holding online sessions, even recording office hours so that he could make the videos of the meetings available to students who could not attend.

“I imagine it’s been extremely tough for the Class of 2021 to try to graduate and work remotely during the pandemic, so they should be extremely proud of what they’ve been able to achieve this past year,” he said. “I hope they cherish this moment before entering the next stage of life and use it as a source of inspiration for their future endeavors.”

Karnaty plans to work in industry after completing his PhD. He says teaching has helped him have a deeper understanding of his field and made him a more confident researcher and teacher.

Joseph Pinheiro
A fifth-year student in the Mechanical Engineering Department’s BS/MS program, Joseph Pinheiro was recognized in his first and only year as a TA, a major accomplishment for the transfer student from Allan Hancock College.

“This award truly means a lot to me,” said Pinheiro, who transferred to UCSB in 2018. “I would always make the class and office hours about the students, and I would focus on the students’ questions no matter what I had prepared ahead of time. As much as possible, I asked students questions and encouraged them to find the answers themselves. I found that helped students understand material better than simply answering their questions.”

Advised by Professor Paolo Luzzatto-Fegiz, Pinheiro’s master’s research involves analyzing images taken from an experiment conducted aboard the International Space Station. The analysis will be used to develop a simulation of cohesive sediment aggregation in lakes, rivers, and oceans to simulate the environmental impact of these cohesive sediments.

Pinheiro says that even before being a TA, he was interested in a career in academia, but having received this award with a year of experience under his felt, he now feels that teaching is the right path for him. And, in fact, he recently was offered a position as a part-time engineering instructor at Hancock.

In addition to thanking the professors he worked with, he offered some advice to the Class of 2021.

“Through the last four years, you learned the skills you need to change the world,” he said. “Whether it was in-person or remote classes, you pushed through to the finish line. There are many great ideas in the minds of this graduating class, and I can’t wait to see what you accomplish in the future.”

Mike Schmithorst
A third-year PhD student, Mike Schmithorst is the Chemical Engineering Department’s 2021 Outstanding Teaching Assistant. Schmithorst says that he has tried to be extra attentive with emails and more accommodating this year, since there has been no in-person interaction during the pandemic.

“It’s a huge honor to be recognized by the graduating students,” said Schmithorst, who worked as a TA this past year for the course Chemical Reaction Engineering (ChE 140B). “I always try to provide the level of guidance and support that I would want from a TA in a class that I was taking.”

Advised by Professor Brad Chmelka, Schmithorst’s research focuses on understanding the distributions of active sites in zeolite catalysts for a variety of applications, including the mitigation of automobile pollution.

“To the Class of 2021, I’d like to say congratulations on your accomplishments in the face of a lot of adversity over the past year,” said Schmithorst, who received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Carolina. “Hard work and patience pay off!”

Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award recipients (clockwise, from top left) Boning Dong, Joseph Pinheiro, Michael Christensen, Rohit Karnaty, Mike Schmithorst