CoE Announces Prestigious Student Awards for Class of 2021

Monday, June 7, 2021

Every spring, the College of Engineering at UC Santa Barbara bestows four special honors upon graduating seniors. Read below to find out who received the three prestigious awards and who was selected to represent the Class of 2021 as the student speaker for the college’s Undergraduate Commencement Celebration.

Hynes-Wood Award
In recognition of his selfless contributions to student activities at UC Santa Barbara, Abel Semma has received the 2021 Hynes-Wood Award. He has served as an officer in the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and has been extremely active in Math/Engineering/ Science Achievement (MESA), an academic success program for pre-college and university students.

“I always believed that, we should strive to leave, whatever it is that we are involved in, better than we found it. This applies to NSBE for me,” said Semma, who earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. “I had a memorable experience my freshman year at UCSB, but I also wanted to see that the next generation of NSBE members have a better experience than I did, so I was motivated to work on and bring new events to NSBE. Receiving this award means a lot to me because it is a reminder that I achieved my goal.”

While holding multiple leadership roles in NSBE, Semma brought in guest speakers, hosted workshops, and found ways to ensure that members stayed engaged and involved during the pandemic. He has interacted with hundreds of K-12 and undergraduate students though the MESA program, serving as an undergraduate mentor to high school students, as well as organizing and participating in several Science and Technology MESA Day events. After graduation, Semma will move to Portland, Oregon, to work as a field applications engineer at Intel.

“Not only did I receive a high-quality education from the College of Engineering, I have also been involved in activities that have helped me develop my soft skills, which I believe is one of the most important factors to succeed in life,” said Semma, who also received a University Award of Distinction for his contributions to student life. “I have no doubt that by combining these two, I will be able to accomplish whatever I desire.”

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
Described by computer science assistant professor William Wang as “the strongest undergraduate I have supervised in the past ten years,” Tony Sun is the recipient of the  College of Engineering’s 2021 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. Sun was also named an Outstanding Senior of the Computer Science Department, graduating with the highest grade point average among his peers.

“It’s a great honor to receive this award,” said Sun. “Much of the credit goes to my family, friends, and mentors for feeding my curiosity and pushing me to the best of my ability. Special shout-out to my mother and father, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to put in a position to succeed.”

Sun’s research experience started his sophomore year as part of the Early Research Scholars Program, a team-based, year-long research program for undergraduates. Working for Professor Wang, Sun investigated algorithmic fairness in artificial intelligence (AI), with an emphasis in natural language processing (NLP). During his time at UCSB, Sun has first-authored two papers that were accepted to the top venue for NLP, the  Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL). Within a year of publishing, one of the paper’s has been cited more than one hundred times and is  now part of the curriculum in courses at Stanford and Princeton. Sun has also completed internships with Amazon Science and Google, positions typically reserved for graduate students. Papers that he wrote during those internships were also accepted by prestigious conferences, including the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, the best conference for algorithmic fairness research.  

“Research at its core, I think, is all about indulging one’s curiosity. It’s a beautiful process that pushes humanity forward and makes life better for the next generation,” said Sun, who also founded the Personal Finance Club on campus. “There’s a quote I really like on the left wall of the main entrance in Harold Frank Hall. It reads, ‘The vision to imagine; the means to achieve.’ I’ve taken these words as an approach to thinking big and excelling at the highest level. The lessons I’ve learned and skills I’ve picked up at UCSB will stick with me for a lifetime.”

After graduation, Sun will begin working at Google, while simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at Stanford University.

John and Sheila Lake Excellence Award
For demonstrating outstanding academic performance and an extraordinary level of engagement within the Computer Science Department, April Sanchez is the recipient of the college’s 2021 John and Sheila Lake Excellence Award, which is named for alumnus John Lake and his wife, Sheila.

“This award means the world to me because I’ve poured my heart into all the work that I’ve done at UCSB,” said Sanchez, who as a freshman switched her major from economics and accounting to computer science, despite having no prior programming experience. She is graduating with honors and a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

After changing majors, Sanchez was admitted into the department’s Early Research Scholars Program (ERSP), a team-based, year-long research program for undergraduates that provided her with a first-hand understanding of how to apply computer science to solve real-world problems. Working alongside esteemed faculty during ERSP motivated Sanchez to pay it forward and become an undergraduate learning assistant (ULA) to help teach other students. ULAs assists students with their programming assignments during lab, hold office hours, and provide written feedback to students about their assignments. In addition to serving as a ULA for six different classes, Sanchez also served as a program co-lead, creating new course materials and helping students manage their assignments during the pandemic.

“When we switched to remote learning last spring, my job as a ULA felt more important than ever,” said Sanchez, who also continued her research beyond ERSP by working with professors Tobias Höllerer and Giovanni Vigna. “I could see that students were really struggling, so I made myself more available by offering more office hours and being more responsive.”

Sanchez also helped the department with its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts around recruiting, and volunteered at the Tapia Virtual Conference, which provides a supportive environment for underrepresented groups in computing and informational technology. After completing a summer internship at Google, Sanchez will return to UCSB in the fall to complete the department’s five-year bachelor’s and master’s degree program.

“I’m a first-generation, Mexican American college student and the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. My parents immigrated to the United States and worked tirelessly to give me this opportunity, and I hope that I’ve made them proud,” said Sanchez. “My degree will also allow me to represent and inspire other women and people of color in the field of computer science, especially those of Mexican descent.”

Student Commencement Speaker
Tiffany Cowan, who has earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, has been selected to represent the Class of 2021 as the student speaker during the College of Engineering’s live virtual commencement celebration. Born in Takasaki, Japan, Cowan immigrated to the United States at a young age with her mother and two older siblings.

“As an immigrant and youngest child of three, I feel like making my family proud has always been most important to me,” said Cowan. “My family has sacrificed a lot for me, and I hope this degree will help me give back to them in some way. Though the circumstances of the pandemic aren’t ideal, I’m thankful that my family in Japan can now watch me graduate on Zoom, too.”

During her time at UCSB, Cowan was an active member of campus, joining the Society of Women Engineers, the Japanese Student Association, and the Japanese Language Club. She was also involved in Womxn/Hacks, a 36-hour all-female-identifying hackathon dedicated to giving womxn of all backgrounds and fields the opportunity to delve into coding in a supportive and inclusive environment. Cowan’s team won the competition in 2020. She described the hackathon as one of her favorite memories from UCSB.

“Walking into a classroom and only seeing a handful of women can be a bit discouraging. However, I felt seen, heard, and safe at Womxn/Hacks, and it showed me how much I’m capable of accomplishing,” said Cowan. “It was also incredibly fun building and programming a robot in 36 hours with my best friends.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cowan says that the transition to remote learning was a difficult adjustment. She found it challenging to hold herself accountable for schoolwork, and she missed the face-to-face interaction with her classmates and friends. Cowan says the goal of her speech is to reminisce about the memories that she and her fellow graduates created together.

“I hope that my fellow graduates will be reminded that despite all the hardships, it was our hard work, determination, and friendships that brought us to this amazing milestone and prepared us for the achievements ahead of us,” she said.

In August, Cowan will begin her new job as a system validation engineer for NVIDIA, where she will be testing and debugging as a member of the DGX team.


College of Engineering's Class of 2021 award winners (left to right) Abel Semma, April Sanchez, Tiffany Cowan, Tony Sun