Achievements in research | Edhat
By Shelly Leachman, UCSB
As UC Santa Barbara continues its celebration of the Class of 2022, several senior graduates and one faculty member have earned special recognition for their contributions to undergraduate research. Chancellor Henry T. Yang and the UCSB Library have each announced their 2022 recipients.
The Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research has four student winners: Via Bleidner, a writing and literature major at the College of Creative Studies (CCS); Junyi Cheng, a CCS physics major; Aesha Parekh, computer science student; and Carly Young, a sociology graduate.
Hannah Wohl, Associate Professor of Sociology, received the Chancellor’s Faculty Award for Undergraduate Research Mentoring.
Bleidner’s research project is a comprehensive book about her teenage years in Calabasas that was published while she was an undergrad. On a CCS scholarship, Bleidner, during his freshman summer, attended the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference. She left with an agent who helped her develop a book proposal and by her second year she had sold her pitch to Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan.
“If You Lived Here You’d Be Famous By Now,” released in 2021, tackles universal themes of growing up — insecurities, the need to fit in, the desire for more meaning — and examines how technology has cultivated a mass feeling of loneliness among Gen Z.
Nominator Ellen O’Connell Whittet of UCSB’s writing program praised “the research assistant for articulating such a story” like Bleidner’s and noted that “Via’s writing news highlights his fierce commitment to UCSB’s role as a leading research university.
“Writing this kind of work in non-fiction form requires tremendous intelligence, diligence, and hard work,” Whittet wrote, “luckily for us, qualities that abound in Via.”
When nominating CCS physics graduate Junyi Cheng, Nathaniel Craig, associate professor of physics, described her as “the most successful undergraduate student in my group in my eight years at UCSB. and equated the quality and quantity of his research to having “essentially completed a Ph.D. as a first cycle.
Cheng’s research applies the tools of optimal transport (OT) — a field of applied mathematics — to particle physics. Working with graduate student and math professor Kathleen Craig, then with mathematicians Bernhard Schmitzer and Matthew Thorpe, Cheng used OT to study collision events – a new approach. She applied the tools to a number of new research questions in particle physics, according to Craig, and published in two journals.
Aesha Parekh, who earned her degree in computer science, was part of UCSB’s Early Research Scholar Program, a multi-year undergraduate initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. Selected to work on an equity-focused natural language processing project in artificial intelligence (AI), she focused her research on African American English and seniority bias. Papers on both topics have been accepted into top conferences.
Parekh was a finalist for the Computer Research Association’s 2022 Outstanding Undergraduate Research Awards, a national top 10.
Noting his critical thinking and contributions to responsible AI, as well as his “strong research contributions in diversity and inclusion efforts,” proponent William Wang, Mellichamp Chair in AI and Designs, wrote about Parekh: “Judging from references and my experience as an academic advisor, I believe Aesha is among the best undergraduate scholars nationwide.
Carly Young would earn a degree in sociology and then pursue graduate studies in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin – a top program in her field. As part of an undergraduate seminar on gender inequality, Young chose to conduct research on how college students navigated pandemic life, with a particular focus on the social and sexual lives of those who still live in student communities during quarantine.
“What Carly’s research has documented in detail is how COVID has altered social life and interaction,” wrote her nominator, Associate Professor Tristan Bridges, noting the sophistication and depth of her “sociological study unique”.
Bridges added that Young is “one of the most driven undergraduate students I have ever worked with. Her work is organized, she is open to critical comment, and she is a brilliant writer with a knack for finding new ways of thinking about established findings in existing research.
Young was among those who named award winner Hannah Wohl, director of the sociology honors program, calling her an “incredible mentor.” She complimented Wohl’s expertise in teaching “with an insightful, interdisciplinary lens that challenged me and my classmates to think critically as sociologists.”
In her letter of appointment, Verta Taylor, Chair of the Department of Sociology, wrote, “Wohl’s extraordinary mentorship and support of undergraduate student research through her work with our honors program has set a new standard of teaching excellence in our department.
In addition to serving as Principal Investigator on all student projects, of which there were 14 in the current academic year, Wohl “has always far exceeded the usual expectations of a faculty member in this position.” , Taylor noted. She helped students apply for on-campus research funds, resources, grants, and other awards, coaching them through the application process, providing feedback, writing nomination letters, and recommendations and encouraging them to present at sociology conferences.
“Professor Wohl supports undergraduate students in a myriad of truly exceptional ways,” Taylor said. “She provides undergraduate students with the kind of research training and close mentorship that can transform student lives.”
The library’s increasingly competitive award for undergraduate scholars recognizes students who produce scientific or creative work that makes expert and sophisticated use of UCSB library collections, resources, and services. First and second place winners in each of the three major categories receive $750 (1st place) and $500 (2nd place).
Among the six recipients for 2022 is history graduate Sabrina Hall, who won first place in the humanities and fine arts category for her graduation project and thesis, “Welfare Reform, It’s What’s for Lunch: How the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program Changed School Lunch Across America Second place for HFA went to Emily Searson, also a history graduate, for her project and senior thesis, “The Computer Got it Wrong: The Cold War Roots of the Racial Biases in Artificial Intelligence”.
In the field of social sciences, first place went to Taylor Roe, an environmental studies graduate, for her project and dissertation, “Sea Level Rise Risk Perceptions: Assessing Students at the University of California, Santa Barbara “. Second place went to Ania Ohanesian, an economics major, for her project “Political Ideology and Early Restaurant Avoidance During COVID-19.”
Brina Aceves, a senior in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, won first place in the science and engineering category for the project “Deposition of uric acid crystals leads to increased inflammation that stimulates cyst growth.” Second place in this category was awarded to Chenjia Liu, an environmental studies major, for her graduation thesis, “Spatial Analysis of Suitability of Rooftop Photovoltaic Systems and Campus Solar Potential UCSB and Isla Vista”.