2015 UCLA Engineering Award Winners at Commencement

By Matthew Chin


The school-wide and department honors for 2015 graduates of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have been announced. Below, a few profiles of this year’s school-wide winners, including Kathryn Dern, the Outstanding Bachelor of Science Award winner; Skyler Ferry, the Student Commencement Speaker; Audrey Pool O’Neal, the doctoral student winner of the Harry M. Showman Prize; Gary Yeung, the undergraduate winner of the Harry M. Showman Prize; and Megha Manjunath, the Russell R. O’Neill Distinguished Service Award winner. Also featured is this year’s National Anthem singer, Ph.D. graduate David McCoul. The winners of the school-wide awards were selected by committees comprised of students, faculty and staff.

Kathryn Dern
, B.S. Bioengineering

The school-wide Outstanding Bachelor of Science Award recognizes an exceptional student who has demonstrated the highest accomplishments in the classroom, research and community service. Kathryn Dern earned a high GPA while conducting research for cancer therapies and volunteering with UniCamp, UCLA’s official student charity. In the fall, Dern will attend the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

What was your favorite class at UCLA, and why?
My favorite class was Bioengineering 176, Principles of Biocompatibility with Dr. (Benjamin) Wu. The class focused on many different aspects of engineering devices and therapeutics to be used in the human body. I learned a lot about the interactions between the body and man-made objects– both what devices do to the body and what the body does in response to foreign objects. The class challenged us to consider the complexity of designing medical technologies and how to ensure that the new technologies we engineer can work with and benefit the body. I found the class material to be very interesting and exciting as we move into an age of new technologies that can have an incredibly positive impact on medicine.

You conducted research in Professor Daniel Kamei’s lab. Can you describe your work?
Over the past two years, I have performed research in the Kamei Lab into the development of improved cancer therapies. Specifically, I worked on the development of a nanoparticle system to use for photothermal cancer therapy. The particles we have developed are called gold nanoshells. They are made of a novel polypeptide-based material coated with a thin layer of gold that allows them to generate heat when irradiated with light. Tumor tissue has a property that causes nanoparticles, when injected intravenously, to collect within the tumor while bypassing healthy tissue. Our gold nanoshells can therefore accumulate within the sight of a tumor, and then irradiated in order to generate heat and kill only those cells in the immediate area of the tumor. This allows for specific, triggered cancer therapy. I have been involved on this project since it began – I helped to optimize the nanoshells so they were the proper size and could generate heat when irradiated, and I helped perform studies with cancer cells in vitro to show that they could be triggered to cause cell death.

What advice would you offer an incoming freshman at UCLA?
I would urge a new freshman to find and pursue activities at UCLA that they are passionate about. UCLA is a wonderful campus that offers so many exciting and unique opportunities to participate in. I am so grateful to have become involved in community service through UCLA UniCamp, research in the Kamei Lab, and volunteering at the UCLA Medical Center.

What roles have you had at UniCamp?
I have been involved as a volunteer with UCLA UniCamp for four years now, and each year has brought a unique role and experience. In my first three years, I was a counselor for a cabin of 10 girls, I led mountain biking around the campsite, and I was responsible for organizing the various daily activities for all of the campers during one week of camp. This year, I am very excited to be a part of the leadership team, and I am working to organize an entire week of camp and train 60 other volunteers to work with the campers in order to help make the week a success.

What is your favorite memory at UCLA?
The UCLA-USC football game in 2012. It was a great win for the Bruins, filled with excitement even when it started pouring rain in the fourth quarter. It was so much fun being surrounded by so much UCLA pride and seeing how great the UCLA community is outside of school.

What got you interested in pursuing an M.D.?
I’ve always been interested in science and health. Through my own family’s experience, I have become very interested in preventative medicine, and I want to help others learn how to lead healthy lifestyles in order to prevent disease in the future. In addition, through the bioengineering program I have learned a lot about the research being performed to develop new biomedical technologies that can greatly impact medicine, and as a physician I want to be able to help translate these innovations from the research lab to the clinic so that patients can benefit from them.

Skyler Ferry
, B.S. Civil Engineering

The student speaker represents all 2015 graduates at commencement and is selected through a competitive process. After graduation, Ferry will start a job as an associate with CAST Management Consultants, a financial services firm in Los Angeles. He’s also in the process of getting his Engineer in Training certification. Further out, he’s exploring graduate school in management or education. Ferry was also a recipient of UCLA’s Chancellor’s Service Award.

Can you share something from your speech?
I wrote my speech to commemorate one of the greatest role models in my life, my grandmother. She was recently diagnosed with cancer and therefore will not be able to make it to commencement, but I wanted to make sure that her spirit and presence are there with us as we all graduate. My speech focuses on a few main values that I have grown up on: appreciation, love and laughter. UCLA has given us so many opportunities and memories, therefore it is so important for us to recognize how fortunate we are to be a part of such a unique and amazing community. Finally, I at least try to insert a few laughs in there. If nobody laughs at least I will, which honestly is good enough for me.

What was your favorite class at UCLA, and why?
What’s great about getting a degree within UCLA Engineering is the opportunity to diversify our studies by taking classes in other departments. One of my favorite classes was Materials Science and Engineering 104 with Professor Esther Lan. I went into it having no relevant interest and went out fully enjoying my experience, for which I thank Professor Lan. I regret never telling her how amazing a lecturer she was, because she is living proof of how instructors that are passionate about their work can inspire their students in ways they never thought possible.

When you meet students who have not been to Dance Marathon (DM), how would you get them to go? (Ferry was on the board of directors for the Pediatric AIDS Coalition, which organizes the fundraising event.) Obviously I don’t want to pressure someone to do something that they are nervous about doing, but in all honesty I think our times in our life where we are the most vulnerable are where we find our greatest successes. As someone who has danced at Dance Marathon for five years, a total of 130 hours, I have gotten the opportunity to learn so much about the fight against pediatric HIV/AIDS as well as learn what it is like to be a part of a team that is passionate about something. There is no doubt that DM is hard at times, but the payouts outweigh the costs every year. I love DM and everything that it stands for, and I encourage all students to see how they can get involved.

What other organizations or projects were you involved with at UCLA? I was a member of the Student Alumni Association for four years, where I got to volunteer and help plan several UCLA traditions such as Dinners for 12 Strangers, the Beat ‘SC Bonfire and Rally and Spring Sing. This past year I got to emcee the bonfire with one of my greatest friends, which was such an amazing opportunity that I am so glad to have experienced. My other big commitment was working as a New Student Advisor under UCLA New Student and Transition Programs for the past three years. As an NSA, I got to personally counsel and mentor over 400 incoming UCLA freshmen and transfer students. It has been amazing seeing my students flourish on UCLA’s campus. I am even lucky enough to graduate with a handful of my previous transfer students this year (congrats, guys!).

What would you tell incoming freshmen to help them get the most out of their UCLA experience? What I usually open with is that college is a great opportunity to find and embrace who you are as a person. If you discover that you have a passion for community service, then go and follow that passion. If you want to get more in touch with your cultural background, then UCLA can help you make it a reality. If, on the other hand, you want to continue to play video games and browse forum sites like Reddit, then I don’t see anything wrong with that, either. We all are different, we have different interests and different definitions of what makes us successful. My success is no greater than your success and once you finally can embrace that, then I think you will realize that UCLA is your home.

The Showman Prize is awarded to one undergraduate and one graduate student. The prize recognizes students who have effectively communicated the achievements, research, results or social significance of any aspect of engineering.

2015 Showman Prize Graduate Student
Audrey Pool O’Neal, Ph.D., Mechanical Engineering

O’Neal was an engineer at General Motors, where she worked for 10 years. The company sent her to UCLA to earn a master’s degree, but instead of returning, she became intrigued with emerging smart materials and continued on as a doctoral student. O’Neal is also the associate director for undergraduate programs at UCLA’s Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity (CEED). Her graduate advisor was Professor Adrienne Lavine, director of the Modeling of Complex Thermal Systems Laboratory.

What is the name of your dissertation and what is it about?
My dissertation title is “The Effect of Particle Size and Processing on the Properties of a Barium Titanate Polymer Composite.” In layman’s terms, our objective was to create a composite material that could serve as a structural capacitor. It can store and discharge significant amounts of electricity while subject to realistic static and dynamic loads, like vibrations or impacts. This research has military and automotive applications.

How did you get interested in that topic?
I took a smart materials class with Professor Gregory Carman and he introduced me to barium titanate. I was looking for a thesis topic at the time, and Professor Carman made it so interesting to me that I knew I wanted to work with it and collaborate with his lab in some capacity.

The Showman Prize recognizes communication of research, and I understand you worked with undergraduates on your research. What did you do for them, and what did they do for?
I had the privilege of working with 11 undergraduate students and two high school students while completing my dissertation. I’d like to think that I helped them learn the scientific method and helped introduce them to the excitement of discovery and exploration that comes with original research. In turn, they gave me a passion to do the work. Seeing engineering principles come to life through their eyes was infectious. I was very fortunate to see two of the undergraduate researchers pursue advanced degrees in engineering, and eight of them won local and national awards for the research that we accomplished together. They have definitely given me more than I have given them and I am very grateful.

You also work with the Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity (CEED). What is your role there and what has been most rewarding about it?
I am the associate director for undergraduate programs in CEED. In this role, I have the opportunity to work with an amazing team of colleagues and serve as co-instructor for the Introduction to Engineering Disciplines course, as well as to direct CEED’s undergraduate research program. The most rewarding part is watching freshmen come into our program and graduate a few years later. The time seems to fly, yet the transformation of the student is remarkable. They learn to be engineers, leaders, and professionals while we watch. It doesn’t get much better than that!

What’s next for you?
Working with the undergraduate students in research has shown me that I want to teach. In the immediate future, I plan to work part-time with CEED while pursuing an instructor or lecturer position.

2015 Showman Prize Undergraduate Student
Gary Yeung
, B.S. Electrical Engineering

Yeung, also named the Electrical Engineering Department’s 2015 outstanding bachelor’s student, was an undergraduate researcher in Professor Abeer Alwan’s Speech Processing and Auditory Perception Laboratory. A paper he co-authored was accepted to Interspeech 2015, a big conference in speech processing.

What was your favorite class at UCLA and why?
I believe that all subjects related to my studies should be treated with equal importance.

How did you get interested in speech processing?
I am interested in singer synthesis, which is fundamentally speech processing.

What advice do you have for incoming freshmen?
In science, we must gain knowledge to understand reality, not to feel good about ourselves.

What’s next for you?
I hope to receive my Ph.D. in electrical engineering and pursue further research.

Megha Manjunath
, B.S. Computer Science

Named after a former UCLA Engineering dean, the award recognizes outstanding contributions to the undergraduate student body, student organizations, the school, and to the advancement of the undergraduate engineering program through service and participation in extracurricular activities.
Manjunath was the 2014-15 president of the Engineering Society of UCLA (ESUC). In the fall, she will attend law school at Santa Clara University.

What was most rewarding about your tenure as ESUC President?
I’m most proud of ESUC’s collective effort in improving and increasing engineering alumni relations. Personally, I was really lucky to have had the support of alumni who helped me with everything from school to career advice. It is really no secret those kind of relationships are invaluable, so I wanted to extend that opportunity to the rest of the engineering student body and ultimately help foster a stronger Bruin Engineering community.  A lot of hard work went into it, and by the end of this school year, ESUC successfully hosted two alumni networking mixers and started an engineering alumni mentorship program, all of which were completely student run. Although this is just the beginning, and there is so much room for expansion and improvement, I think we did a really great job laying the proper foundation for future students and administrators to build upon.

ESUC’s Instagram feed featured UCLA Engineering students answering a question about their engineering interests. What did you think as you started to read all the responses?
That was really such a fun project to work on! I think it is very easy to get caught up in the everyday craziness of engineering, and as a result we forget to appreciate the little things. My biggest takeaway from those responses was, we are all deservedly here, doing what we do, for a reason. Being able to see that big picture from so many different perspectives was quite powerful. Each and every student had something new to share, and I think it is those diverse contributions that really shape UCLA Engineering into the vibrant, nourishing community it is today.

What is your favorite UCLA memory?
During spring quarter last year, my friend (and former ESUC president!) Meet and I were hanging out in Westwood trying to figure out what classes to take in the fall. He was convincing me to sign up for CS 130 with him, which is the equivalent of the CS department’s senior design course. I remember I was a little hesitant about it, but I texted this idea to our other friend (and former ESUC webmaster) Akshat, and once he agreed to sign up for it, too, it was something we all just decided to do. I would have never imagined that one decision to take a class with these two guys would have been so impactful on my life! We were all friends before, but that class brought us even closer together. ESUC has been a major part of my life at UCLA, so I guess that friendship is a little extra special since it was because of Meet I decided to join ESUC, and through ESUC is how I met Akshat. It is going to be weird not seeing them every day anymore, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to keep what we have.

What was your favorite class and why?
CS 181 with Professor (Alexander) Sherstov. It was a class about formal languages and automata theory and I loved it for so many reasons. First off, it was such a wonderful change of pace. Rather than the typical routine of project after project, 181 was more theoretical and it taught me how to think differently. I didn’t even know that side of computer science existed, and that’s what made it so fascinating. Also, Professor Sherstov was so passionate about the class and made the entire experience a positive one. I remember at one point I was having trouble with a concept, and after giving a two-hour lecture, and helping me during office hours earlier that day, he sat down with me at the Bombshelter and just talked to me. He gave me advice and answers to my questions, but most importantly he gave me his time and showed that he really cared about his students.

What’s next for you?
I will be starting law school at Santa Clara University in August. Before joining UCLA, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I also had a special interest in computer science. Once I learned about patent law, I figured it was the perfect fit for me. I am definitely very excited to start this new chapter in my life and be a part of this developing field! Although it is not the traditional path for an engineer, I am really looking forward to seeing what my future has in store for me!

David McCoul Ph.D., Materials Science and Engineering

This is McCoul’s fourth time as the National Anthem Singer at the UCLA Engineering Commencement. Following graduation, he heads to Switzerland for a postdoctoral scientist position at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. His graduate advisor was Professor Qibing Pei, director of the Soft Materials Research Laboratory.

What is the name of your dissertation, and what is it about?
“Dielectric Elastomers for Fluidic and Biomedical Applications.” My research focused on electronic soft materials that move. These materials are called “dielectric elastomers” because they are made of non-conductive, – or dielectric – rubbers, or elastomers, whose surfaces are made conductive. I earned my B.S. in biomedical engineering (Northwestern University), so my dissertation applied this material to a microfluidic device, an anatomically-inspired valve, and a medical device to treat acid reflux.

What’s next for you?
I will be working at EPFL in Switzerland as a postdoctoral scientist. My research will focus on exotic actuator technologies for space applications. An actuator is a device that moves, and I’ll be working mainly on dielectric elastomer actuators. Space satellites and probes can benefit from these actuators because they are light and efficient.

After EPFL, what are your career plans?
I love to teach, so it’s possible I will become a professor. I am also open to working at research facilities in industry or the government sector. Both of these ambitions could apply to either the U.S. or Switzerland, so I’ll have to wait and see where I end up!

Do you plan to continue singing as well?
Well, I would love to. Europe has a lot of opportunities if you happen to have experience singing opera, or want to gain more such experience. Maybe someday you’ll find me singing at the next European opera you attend, but time will tell. For now, I’m looking forward to the release of my solo album, “Time Stands Still,” this year.

Any advice for next year’s anthem singer?
If I had to give any advice, I would say: (a) Don’t be afraid to apply; if you think it would be a cool thing to do, then go for it, and (b) Enjoy yourself! Now’s your time to be honored, and to honor our nation.

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