Graduating students in each undergraduate degree program within UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering selected one outstanding teaching assistant (TA) to recognize for his or her outstanding service and dedication to student success. The recipients of the Outstanding Teaching Assistant awards for the Class of 2022 are Brian Dincau (mechanical engineering), Chelsea Edwards (chemical engineering), Swetha Pillai (electrical engineering), Connor Sanchez (computer engineering), and Sierra Wang (computer science). Read more about the award-winning TAs below.
The day before his thesis defense, mechanical engineering PhD student Brian Dincau received exciting news — he would receive the Mechanical Engineering Department’s 2022 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award.
“When I read that I was selected by graduating seniors, I was overcome with literal tears of joy,” said Dincau, who was advised by mechanical engineering assistant professors Emilie Dressaire and Alban Sauret. “I work very hard to try and make sure that all of my students feel respected and understood, sometimes to the detriment of my other endeavors. This award helps to validate my hard work and inspires me to keep pushing myself as an educator and mentor.”
Dincau, who served as a TA for three undergraduate courses this year, said that his students actually helped him during the COVID-19 crisis. A highly collaborative research project he was excited to participate in fell through due to limitations caused by the pandemic. He said that his obligations to his students helped renew his sense of purpose. Listening to his students explain how the pandemic was impacting them allowed him to become a more effective TA, adjusting his expectations and becoming more accommodating and flexible.
“This was uncharted territory for most of us, and my students helped me get through it, perhaps, even more than I helped them,” said Dincau, who also urged students to think critically about the community around them and how they could affect it. “The world has a lot of room for improvement, but it is only through their actions that they can play a role in its transformation. Great change often requires sacrifice, but one thing we must never sacrifice is our humanity.”
Dincau will stay in academia after graduation as the new manager of the Microfluidics Lab and Innovation Workshop of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCSB. Students and faculty from across campus use the lab to design microfluidic devices and other scientific instruments. A major component of his position will be training and overseeing researchers working in the facilities.
“I accepted the position before I received the award. Nevertheless, my desire to teach students played a major role in my decision,” said Dincau, whose research focused on suspension flows under confinement, with applications in filtration and clog mitigation. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching lab classes, where students learn to build experiments, challenge themselves, and contend with the physical world. I believe teaching people how to create and encouraging them to share their creations helps foster more critical consumers.”
Already the recipient of the university’s 2021 Fiona and Michael Goodchild Graduate Mentoring Award, Chelsea Edwards has been recognized a second time for her impact on undergraduate students. Graduating seniors selected the fourth-year PhD student as the Chemical Engineering Department’s 2022 Outstanding Teaching Assistant.
“Teaching students has been one of the great joys of graduate school,” said Edwards, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s awesome that this translated to the students, who apparently could tell I genuinely cared about helping them to understand tough material over Zoom and found that I actually did help them well.”
Advised by chemical engineering professor Matt Helgeson, Edwards works to understand how various processing parameters “affect phase separation of polyelectrolytes in aqueous media and the nonequilibrium structures that can result.” While serving as a TA, Edwards said she made a concerted effort during the pandemic to show empathy and encourage students to keep asking her questions until they understood the material, and was happy to hold office hours in the later evening to better align with student work schedules.
“I think these moves were especially important when students had minimal face time with instructors, making it naturally challenging for them to ask questions casually or privately after class,” she said.
While she remains uncertain whether she will pursue a career in industry or academia after completing her PhD in chemical engineering, Edwards knows that she would like to continue teaching. As her final lesson to graduating seniors, she wants students to know that the resilience they have demonstrated over the past few years will pay off down the road.
“Every one of you had an incredibly challenging college experience with unexpected difficulties and hiccups, and you’re coming out the other side stronger for it,” she said. “I think all of you will go very far in your careers if you show the same tenacity that you’ve exhibited already!”
During her final year of the five-year BS/MS program in electrical and computer engineering (ECE), Swetha Pillai served as a teaching assistant for two upper division ECE courses. Apparently, she made quite an impression on her students, as graduating seniors selected Pillai to receive the 2022 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award for the Electrical Engineering Department.
“I’m very honored to receive this award,” said Pillai, who conducted undergraduate research for electrical and computer engineering professor Luke Theogarajan, working on hardware-software interface of systems. “I’m glad I was able to help out wherever I could and have a positive impact on my students.”
Pillai said that the pandemic created a need to adapt to the online-learning format. She made tools and references that students could look back on if they could not make it to class or wanted to revisit a topic. She also tried to be as accessible as possible to students, whether in person, on Zoom, or by email. Pillai said that she had several helpful TAs when she was an undergraduate student and used them as inspiration.
“I picked out what worked the best for me personally and extended that in my teaching style,” said Pillai, who also drew motivation from Professor Yoga Isukapalli, in whose classes she worked as a TA this year. “I tried to help students build their intuition from the ground up, starting with the most basic concepts until they could come to the answer themselves. I feel that it’s especially rewarding when you can figure it out on your own, with just a small push in the right direction.”
Pillai said that it was also important to be relatable and approachable to her students.
“I strived to create a safe environment, so students were comfortable asking questions about their work or even about their endeavors outside of class,” said Pillai, who urges graduates to continue pursuing knowledge and discovery, and never be afraid to ask for help. “There is no problem that can’t be solved. I say this because we tend to fixate and stress on things, inside and outside of class. And sometimes, it may seem like the end of the world, but there will always be a solution.”
Pillai will enter the workforce after graduation as a machine learning engineer at ServiceNow in the Bay Area.
Graduating computer engineering students selected Connor Sanchez, a second-year PhD student, to receive the 2022 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award.
“The students give this award meaning; for this reason, I am grateful and rewarded,” said Sanchez, who works on radar systems applications and design under his advisor, Hua Lee, a distinguished professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department.
Sanchez served as a TA for three undergraduate courses this year. He said that he models his style after the outstanding TAs who mentored him as an undergraduate student at UCSB.
“My TAs smoothed the sharp edges of my experience. I do the same when it is my chance to do so,” he said. “Humor, relatability, and lightheartedness can go a long way. Sharing practical, real-world examples at every step is grounding and motivating for students, as well. Whenever there is a topical overlap with my work, they see how it actually applies.”
When asked what words of wisdom he wanted to give graduating seniors, Sanchez encouraged them to be bold.
“Build something. Build something you are proud of. Build it big. Build today,” he said. “Build the life you want, not the one you should. Build yourself. Build others.”
Graduating seniors in the Computer Science Department selected Sierra Wang as their 2022 Outstanding Teaching Assistant. The second-year master’s student served as a TA for three quarter for CS 170, an undergraduate course on operating systems.
“I feel very grateful and excited to receive this award because I really enjoy teaching,” said Wang, who received her bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Washington. “I try to be as available to the students as possible and make sure they understand what we are working on. I also try to get them excited about the material and give them tools to make their work more enjoyable.”
Wang is co-advised by computer science professors Chandra Krintz and Rich Wolski. Her work in the lab for Research on Adaptive Computing Environments (RACELab) focuses on developing an operating system for the internet of things (IoT), which is a system of interrelated computing devices and technologies that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over the internet. After completing her master’s degree, Wang will pursue a PhD in computer science at Stanford University, where she will have more opportunities to work with undergraduates.
“This award certainly reinforces my love of teaching, which I strongly hope will be part of my career,” she said.