Calit2-Affiliated Faculty Groom Award-Winning Engineering Students at UCSD

By Daniel Kane, 858-534-3262

San Diego, CA, November 28, 2006  -- Two engineering faculty members affiliated with the UCSD Division of Calit2 attended an award ceremony recently to praise the students in their labs who walked away with the 2006-'07 R.B. Woolley Graduate Leadership Awards.

Woolley with Yu and RayChaudhuri
(l-r) Venture capitalist Buzz Woolley with award winner Sourobh Raychaudhuri and Ed Yu, who called his student "a model citizen."

Sourobh Raychaudhuri has worked in electrical engineering professor Ed Yu's Nanoscale Characterization and Devices Laboratory, and Barath Raghavan's thesis advisor is computer science professor Alex Snoeren.

“Many Preuss students are shocked to hear that I get paid to go to school, that this is even a possibility,” said Raychaudhuri, a Ph.D. candidate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department in UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering, and a longtime mentor at UCSD’s Preuss School. “These kinds of conversations are one place we can make a big impact as mentors.”

Barath Raghavan, a Ph.D. student in computer science and engineering, also received this Jacobs School award for leadership and academic excellence for the 2006-2007 academic year. In his acceptance speech at a Nov. 14, 2006, awards ceremony, Barath said, “I’m not going to talk about what I have done but a couple of things we could do, instead.”

Leaders in their own ways, Sourobh and Barath shared their forward-looking perspectives and concerns for issues beyond the pressing details and challenges of their Ph.D. programs during the Woolley Graduate Leadership Awards celebration.

The $5,000 fellowship is usually given annually to only one continuing graduate student who has a record of notable academic achievements and demonstrates leadership in professional and Jacobs School activities. However, this year additional funding permitted the awards committee to select two equally deserving mentors. The university named the leadership award to honor retired venture capitalist Buzz Woolley's contributions to UCSD's graduate fellowship program.

“Thanks to Buzz Woolley’s continued generosity, I’m delighted to announce that we will be able to have two awards again next year if there are two outstanding students, as was the case this year,” said Jacobs School associate dean Jeanne Ferrante.

Leading and serving others is not new to Sourobh, who is in his fifth year as a volunteer mentor to the Botball team at the Preuss School, a middle and high school on the UCSD campus that provides intensive college-prep education for motivated low-income students.

The not-for-profit KISS Institute runs the educational robotics program, Botball, in an attempt to actively engage students in science, technology, engineering, math, and project management. Students must design, build and program an autonomous robot to perform various tasks. Botball teams test out their technical and teamwork skills through a series of competitions. Last year, Sourobh led his Botball team to a second place finish in regional competition and a respectable showing at nationals (a trip made possible, in part, by a donation from the UCSD Division of Calit2). He’s hoping his team will make it back to nationals again this year.

“As laboratory researchers, we all know that experiments rarely work the first time. We spend lots of time finding the variables that haven’t worked out and figuring out what we can do to change them,” said Sourobh.

The Preuss students go through some of the same things: their robots don’t work and they need to figure out why. Should they change a sensor? Fix programming code?

“I’ve tried to encourage a hands-on approach to these kinds of problems. As mentors, we help students work through the technical and psychological challenges of experimental work,” said Sourobh.

These troubleshooting insights come from Sourobh’s own research, which focuses on using nanowires as components for building more complex systems. “We have these nanowire building blocks, but to do something with them, we need to be able to build things with them and then interface with what we’ve built. We need to be able to talk to the outside world,” said Sourobh, who hopes to develop sensors and electrical and optical devices.

Much of Sourobh’s research has been done in ECE professor Ed Yu’s lab. “Sourobh as been a model citizen in our lab. Every time he uses a piece of equipment, he figures out the little things that are wrong. Things always end up in better shape after he’s finished than when he started,” said Yu, who noted Sourobh’s involvement in the UCSD student chapter of IEEE, and his efforts in getting graduate student impressions of candidates for new faculty positions.

Like Sourobh, Barath Raghavan has made an impression on Jacobs School faculty through his efforts to improve and serve his home department. Keith Marzullo, chair of the department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) at the Jacobs School explained.

(l-r) CSE professor Alex Snoeren with award winner Barath Raghavan and Buzz Woolley
“We had a life altering experience, we recently moved to a new building. Whenever you move, you have to try to move your traditions, move your life. Barath helped bring over the culture and had helped make our new home a wonderful place to be. Academically, he is an NSF scholar, his research has been great, and he had a paper in SIGCOMM early on, which is a tremendous achievement.” SIGCOMM is considered the leading conference in data communications and networking.

Barath has also facilitated the gathering of student input on faculty hiring decisions and even came up with his own proposal for the CSE academic curriculum.

“It was a wonderful proposal,” said Marzullo.

When it comes to research, Barath works in the areas of networks and security. “I find myself asking questions about what we as users of networks should do with networks, as opposed to what the network will let us do,” said Barath, who has focused on Internet routing, congestion control across networks and more global issues related to the internet.

Barath’s tendency to take wide and thoughtful approaches to problems does not stop with computer science research, a fact that quickly emerged as Barath discussed what more could be done to improve the CSE graduate school experience.

Barath made good on his promise to focus on what he and others could do, rather that what they have already done.

“There are a couple of ideas we tried out this summer that might benefit all research groups. Everyone has half-baked ideas, but in the normal day-to-day research environment of graduate school, you can’t talk about them because – particularly if you’re meeting with your advisor – you don’t want to waste time. But in a broad sense, as a researcher, you should be thinking about these half-baked ideas, that’s really where the seeds of most good ideas come from. Sure, you might go through ten before you come up with something useful, but that’s the way it works,” said Barath.

Barath helped to organize a “half-baked half hour” group in CSE’s systems and networking group this summer and, “it seemed like a success,” he reported. “Professors were not invited because it wasn’t about getting an opinion from a seasoned researcher. It was for us students to figure out how to think about half-baked ideas.”

“Would it be valuable to extend it to all research groups in computer science and engineering and beyond?” Barath asked. “Each research group could have its own half-baked half hour and you could have a mock conference of some sort at the end of the quarter where you present half baked ideas from all over CSE and let people hear about radical ideas in other parts of computer science.”

Barath’s second idea addressed what he described as the need for graduate students to learn to present their work to general audiences and give and get critical feedback.

“At job talks, you have to present to a general computer science audience. How will you effectively present your research to someone who knows nothing about networks and security if you have never given that kind of talk before?” asked Barath. He suggested a practice talk forum in which students give talks on research they have done or research they are proposing.

“You could structure it between groups and make it a department-wide event,” said Barath, whose thesis advisor, Alex Snoeren, a CSE professor, spoke next at the award celebration.

“Working with Barath has been an interesting experience for both of us. When he first came to UCSD, he had this idea that the world was fixed. Now, when I meet with Barath, I ask myself, what is he going to want to change next?” said Snoeren, with a smile.

“I describe Barath’s style of leadership style as guerilla leadership. He is not usually out in front. He is typically in the back whispering things in people’s ears. While this is not necessarily conspicuous, it’s been far more effective. I really think that over the time I’ve been at UCSD, our systems and networking group has changed in many ways and this has been due to a lot of things, but it is in no small part due to Barath’s constant pushing,” said Snoeren.

Buzz Woolley wrapped up the event with a few words. “There is not much I can say because it sounds like everyone understands the reason for the award and the logic of getting engineering students involved in the community.” Turning to Sourobh and Barath, Woolley said, “You spoke about interacting with the faculty members and students. I think you’ve also done a good job interacting with the community. The engineering and technical things are important, but if you can do it in the context of what the society needs and help people use technologies, this becomes even more important.”

Related Links
Nanoscale Characterization and Devices Laboratory
Systems and Networking Group
UCSD Preuss School