By Claire Galvin, UConn School of Engineering Manager of Communications and Digital Strategy
The University of Connecticut School of Engineering is pleased to be on the forefront of workplace trends and demands, this time with the unveiling of a new undergraduate major.
The Computer Science and Engineering department will launch the Data Science and Engineering Bachelor of Science in the fall 2023 semester.
The field of data science has evolved dramatically over the past decade. According to data available through the career website dice.com, Data Scientists and Data Engineers have experienced more than 40 percent year-over-year growth in the first 10 months of 2022. In addition, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40,500 new Data Scientist positions are anticipated between 2021 and 2031.
Computer Science and Engineering Professor Ion Mandoiu said organizations ranging from large technology companies to small nonprofits need assistance in managing and understanding their data.
“When companies evolve to make data-driven decisions, they start building toward a specific, clear goal based on all information they already have, but maybe weren’t using to potential in the past,” Mandoiu said.
Data science is a field that combines statistics, scientific computing, algorithms and other numerical systems to analyze or extrapolate insights from structured or unstructured data.
The UConn College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has recently developed two bachelor degrees in data science areas of study, and the School of Engineering has carefully designed this plan of study to complement the CLAS degrees, from the lens of computer science.
“Students in this program will have access to interdisciplinary curriculum and initiatives throughout the School of Engineering,” said Computer Science and Engineering Department Head Sanguthevar Rajasekaran. “We’re leveraging our professors to offer a holistic education in this rapidly advancing field.”
The Data Science and Engineering degree will apply theory, techniques and tools through the data science lifecycle and employ the resulting knowledge to satisfy stakeholders’ needs.
Required Data Science and Engineering courses will include “Introduction to Computing for Engineers,” “Data Structures and Object-Oriented Design,” “Introduction to Discrete Systems,” “Introduction to Data Science and Engineering,” “Contemporary Issues in Computer Science and Engineering,” “Cybersecurity Lab,” “Algorithms and Complexity,” “Big Data Analytics,” “Principles of Databases,” “Introduction to Machine Learning,” and “Senior Design I & II.”
These courses are supplemented by engineering and university electives to meet the minimum of 120 credits required for graduation.
The plan of study is designed for new college entrants, not upperclassmen looking to change majors.
For more information, especially for incoming freshmen, contact Educational Program Assistant Rebecca Cretella at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Megan Andrew, MSE Communications Assistant
MSE alumnus Adam Wentworth (2011) is a senior engineer at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he utilizes his master’s degree in materials science and engineering (mse) to create patient-specific anatomic models and surgical guides. His position requires him to constantly draw on his expertise in 3D printing, a skill that he has been honing since his advising days at UConn. From designing guides to resect pelvic tumors, to molds enabling silicone casting of a face, Wentworth uses 3D printing to create innovative and individualized medical solutions.
Wentworth utilizes his passion and expertise in mse to develop cutting-edge solutions in the healthcare industry. Mayo Clinic is at the forefront of developing 3D printing infrastructure to battle modern health concerns from many angles. Wentworth serves on a team that combines surgery, biomedical engineering, and radiology to optimize surgical outcomes for patients.
Despite not being fond of biology, Wentworth became interested in biomaterials and the healthcare industry after taking ‘Introduction to Biomaterials’ with Professors Lakshmi S. Nair, Sangamesh G. Kumbar, and Yusuf Khan. “I was actually really excited for learning how biotechnology has advanced and learning more about applying the knowledge of materials to a specific set of applications. The class is a core reason I ended up at MIT and Mayo Clinic.”
After getting both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in materials science and engineering at UConn, and ably directing the MSE undergraduate Laboratory as its Manager for seven years, Wentworth worked for Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT before he began his current position at Mayo Clinic.
Along the way, Wentworth also co-founded Teal Bio Inc., a company designed to develop personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers in a sustainable way. Teal Bio Inc. was founded following research Wentworth completed alongside several other scientists that uncovered exactly how wasteful PPE in the healthcare industry can be. These studies illustrated that switching from one disposable respirator per day to a reusable respirator with disposable filters could lower waste produced by the healthcare industry over a six-month span from 37.22M kg to 15.73M kg.
That conclusion, combined with research about the use of transparent masks for emotional communication, led to the development of the Teal Bio Reusable Respirator, a transparent, reusable respirator with partially biodegradable filters.
Wentworth fondly recalls his experiences volunteering for UConn’s Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center (EDOC), which has now grown into the Vergnano Institute for Inclusion. This included helping with UConn SPARK, a summer residential program igniting the next generation of women engineers and scientists by shrinking the gender gap in the STEM field. That is “definitely a reason why I have been able to work at some incredible places,” because it gave him experience in “taking a leadership role through an opportunity, and then becoming known for your work in that particular area.”
Department head Bryan Huey notes, “MSE has always been incredibly fortunate to have devoted lab directors like Adam working closely with our students. They are critical to our department’s outreach, and advise many of our hands-on materials-centered clubs too. The amazing labs and lab curriculum we have today is a testament to all of their contributions along the way.”
Wentworth’s advice for current and incoming undergraduate students is to take advantage of those labs, and to get involved in extracurriculars they are passionate about. “After graduating, you will quickly value having spent your free time learning new skills,” he said. Whether it be 3D printing, or learning a new programming language, engaging with your passion early on is what gives you a leg-up after graduation, he said.
Wentworth was also involved in several other MSE-based organizations on campus. “UConn Materials Advantage (UCMA) allowed me to go to conferences and learn about research. I eventually became the advisor for the 3D Printing Club, which gave me a majority of the knowledge I have about 3D printing and provided many opportunities for professional development.”
Upon his enrollment at UConn, however, no one would have predicted Wentworth’s profuse success in the field of materials science and engineering. He actually entered school as a computer science major, realizing his passion for materials science and engineering after a seminar presented by then UConn MSE Professor Leon Shaw.
The message was that progress in materials science defines societal development. “It’s why we call it the bronze age, iron age, silicon age, etc. They encompass the world we live in, and understanding what they are and how we use them to benefit humanity provides a solid knowledge base for an understanding of many things,” he said.
So how did Wentworth get from first realizing his passion to becoming a highly accomplished engineer and scientist?
“Success happens by accumulated effort,” he said. His combined involvement in an assortment of productive extracurriculars gave him room to develop career-building skills in an interesting way.
Adam has one last piece of advice. Students should look up their dream job and learn what are the minimum and preferred qualifications. “Build your LinkedIn network, ask someone to review your resume, join a club. In an interview, show an example of your work. It will easily communicate your attention to detail, creativity, or some other skill that’s not easy to put into words. That’s how you can separate yourself from other applicants.” he said. Students should always ask themselves “what don’t you know?”
By Rick Domas, UConn School of Engineering Research Development Proposal Team
“My name is Ada Liz Gabancho-Soto. I am from a small town called Uchiza located in the Peruvian Amazon. At night the sky is so clear. It almost feels as if you can reach out with your hands and touch each star.”
So begins the remarkable first-person story of Ada Liz Gabancho-Soto, a 2014 UConn School of Engineering graduate with a B.S.E. Environmental Engineering degree, as presented in the summer 2022 issue of InFlow-Line magazine published by The Connecticut Section American Water Works Association (CTAWWA) and The Connecticut Water Works Association (CWWA).
Even at an early age Ada is enthralled with the environment around her. “The sounds of many different kinds of animals can be heard throughout the day and night. As a child, I remember playing in the orange groves at my parents’ farm. I can still smell the fresh oranges, and I remember the times when my sister and I were playing and jumping into massive piles of oranges. It was there that I planted my first tree: a Caoba tree. I felt very accomplished in my contribution to my environment.” A Caoba tree is the most commercially important mahogany tree and one of only three species that produces true mahogany.
But not all is as idyllic and peaceful in Peru as Ada’s orange groves. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the brutal Shining Path terrorist organization, masterminded by Abimael Guzmán, a onetime philosophy professor and longtime Communist Party member, nearly toppled the government of Peru. By 1990, the Shining Path controlled a substantial part of the Peruvian highlands and countryside, and nearly three-quarters of the country was under a state of emergency or virtual martial law. Guzmán was captured in September 1992 in an operation later found to have been supported by the CIA, and the Shining Path movement soon fell apart without him.
A truth and reconciliation commission in 2003 determined that almost 70,000 people had been killed in the 1980s and 1990s — about half by the Shining Path and half by government security forces.
Ada remembers this period well: “When violence invaded my town, my good memories start to disappear. I remember as a child waking up very early because I heard an explosive noise like fireworks. It was gunfire! I huddled under the bed with my sister and my mother. I was so scared. After the gunfire, we went outside, and I will never forget the sight of the dead bodies littered on the ground and holes in the walls from the bullets. Even the town’s church had a hole in the walls. I was in shock looking at the church that was destroyed and all the dead bodies. Uchiza had changed, and it was now too dangerous to stay.”
Ada and her family move to Lima, the cosmopolitan and rapidly-growing capitol of Peru, and very soon she becomes aware of a different environment — one of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, lack of potable water and other basic services. Ada recalls observing “how the people were living with a lack of basic water services, bad water quality, and bad treatment of residual water. I saw the reality of how people suffered. The poor had to pay more money for their water. They had to pay for the transportation to distribute the water to their houses which were far from everything. Trucks would be used to transport water.” Still, many lacked any form of water delivery, and collected and transported water in containers for later use. Unsanitary conditions led to frequent outbreaks of waterborne diseases, a huge health problem for these impoverished communities. “As a witness to all the problems with drinking water in Peru, I told myself that I would help to solve these problems.”
After emigrating to the U.S. and Connecticut with her sister, Ada enrolled in the UConn School of Engineering, with interests in environmental engineering and water quality and supply in particular. Today, she is employed by the Connecticut Water Company as a Service Delivery Performance Systems Administrator, where her varied duties range from maintaining/expanding the company’s data storage and information systems, developing SQL reports on various topics, responding to data requests from internal departments, and serving as a specialist on the water information data management system.
She is also very active in various professional organizations, and presently serves as chair of the CTAWWA Philanthropic Committee, which, under Ada’s guidance, is strongly supportive of two charitable organizations: Water for People and the American Water Works Association Water Equation Foundation. Not surprising, both organizations support grassroots efforts to secure access to clean drinking water. Water for People is a global nonprofit working to address the global water crisis and equip communities with lasting access to clean water and sanitation services. The nonprofit Water Equation Foundation provides funding for workforce advancement, academic scholarships, student and young professional programs, and the Community Engineering Corps.
Ada’s most positive experiences at UConn? “The amount of knowledge and expertise that all the professors shared with me and the positive learning environment.” She mentions her difficulties with English as a second language, noting that “homework that took most of my classmates one hour to do took me sometimes two hours to complete.” Ada made extensive use of the tutorial hours offered by her professors, and cites all, particularly Dr. Alexander Agrios, P.E., Associate Professor and Al Geib Professor of Environmental Engineering Research and Education, as being helpful and supportive. Her most negative experience? Two final exams on one day, something that all past and present UConn students can relate to!
Ada maintains close contact with her family, and though widely dispersed, sees her parents and one or more of her seven siblings as least once a year. And she has “see the world” options to do so: her parents and one brother remain in Peru, another sibling resides in Argentina, four siblings live in France, and a sister, an industrial engineer, remains nearby in Connecticut. “I’m fairly fluent in French given trips to France to visit my siblings there,” she notes.
Through her family and a small Peruvian community in Connecticut, Ada remains in touch with her heritage and culture. A favorite activity is attending the festivities around Las Fiestas Patrias, the two-day celebration that commemorates the liberation of Peru from Spain (July 28) and the establishment of the Republic of Peru (July 29). Ada travels to Norwich, Connecticut for these celebrations.
From her youthful experiences in Peru to a practicing water professional in Connecticut, Ada continues to value what many take for granted: clean and available drinking water. Wise beyond her years, Ada has some parting words: “We must consider where our water comes from and value our water. One day all the people around the world should have drinking water available. Please do not waste it when it is not necessary. We must take care of our water.”
This article adapted from the original in InFlow-Line Magazine, Volume 17, Number 2, Summer 2022. © 2022 CTAWWA and CWWA. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Ada Liz Gabancho-Soto, The Connecticut Section American Water Works Association and The Connecticut Water Works Association.
By Claire Galvin, UConn School of Engineering Manager of Communications and Digital Strategy
The UConn School of Engineering family were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of alum, philanthropist and industry advisor Samuel Altschuler.
Altschuler died at the age of 95 on Feb. 5 at his home in Lexington, Mass. Altschuler received his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Connecticut in 1950. He went on to give generously to the institution and, specifically, the School of Engineering. Dean Kazem Kazerounian spoke highly of Altschuler and his brother, Stephen.
“For more than 30 years, Sam and Steve have supported our school with time, energy, funding and expertise,” Kazerounian said. “Sam was a pioneer in the electrical engineering field, and his strong legacy will continue throughout the years within and beyond UConn.”
Over 30 years ago the Altschuler brothers established the Altschuler Family Scholarship. The endowed fund has helped four students a year complete their education in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department.
“The Altschuler Family Scholarship is one of our longest-running endowments,” Kazerounian said. “Sam has lifted up young people, allowing the students of today to solve the problems of tomorrow.”
More recently, the brothers partnered with School of Engineering faculty to launch the Altschuler Cybersecurity Laboratory. The curriculum is offered to undergraduate and graduate students and gives pupils the skills to thwart cyber threats against businesses and industries.
According to Altschuler’s Boston Globe obituary provided by the family, he began his career as a manufacturing engineer with the Western Electric Company, an arm of AT&T. He then went on to work for Honeywell and Adage before starting his company Altron. Altschuler served as president of the Institute For Printed Circuits.
After serving the industry for nearly 50 years, Altschuler retired in 1998.
In addition to UConn, the Altschuler family gave to Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Lahey Hospital and Medical Center, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Sam leaves behind his wife Nancy, five children and their spouses and 11 grandchildren.
By Kyra Arena, MSE Written Communications Assistant
Graduate student Andres Godoy recently won the prestigious Chateaubriand Fellowship to study at the Université Grenoble Alpes in France. The fellowship is a merit-based grant offered by the Embassy of France in the United States that supports Ph.D. students from American universities who wish to conduct research in France. He first learned about the fellowship from Assistant Director of Enrichment Programs for Research and Fellowship Programs, Rowena Grainger. “This opportunity has been a very fruitful and rewarding experience, at the personal and professional level,” describes Godoy.
Godoy received his bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from Universidad del Valle-Cali (Colombia) in 2011. He decided to join the field of MSE because he was interested in the idea of working in an interdisciplinary field of science that brings together physics, chemistry and engineering with the goal of designing or discovering new materials. After working at the University of Texas as a research assistant from 2011 to 2017 he joined the MSE Department at UConn as a graduate student.
At UConn, Godoy is a part of Assistant Professor Jasna Jankovic’s research group. “At the time, Professor Jankovic was a new professor in the department, but she had a lot of experience in fuel cells and was eager to build something great,” claims Godoy. “I wanted to be part of that process, and so far we have grown significantly together; I am very proud of that and our team. Professor Jankovic always keeps pushing us to go beyond our limits, but also encourages us to get some time for ourselves to have a balanced life.”
“I am very proud of Andres” says Professor Jankovic. “He has advanced so much during his Ph.D., and gained invaluable expertise in microscopy and fuel cells. His energy and passion are indispensable, and his desire to learn more is admirable. Congratulations to Andres for receiving the Chateaubriand Fellowship! I am sure you will represent our team and UConn in the best light. Also, make sure to wave to us from the top of the Eifel Tower!”
Currently, Godoy is interested in clean energies. “I am especially interested in using fuel cells as a practical solution to tackle the existential climate and environmental crises triggered by the use of fossil fuel-based energy generators,” he says. His goal is to create a new and efficient catalyst materials for proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC) which use clean fuels instead. This solution would give zero-emissions, be highly efficient, have low maintenance costs, and contain a high energy density.
Godoy built on this area of interest to conduct research while in France. By using advanced electron microscopy techniques, he proposed an investigation into the structure and properties of state-of-the-art and novel catalyst materials used for fuel cells. This will help to fundamentally understand the dominant degradation mechanisms at a nanometric level which these catalyst systems can experience under certain operating conditions.
Post-graduation, Godoy hopes to be a Fullbright Scholar to teach in France, Germany, England or Japan. Then he plans to continue his research in academia and wishes to be a professor.
For undergraduate students considering graduate school in materials science and engineering, Godoy suggests talking to professors and completing an internship. “If you talk to a professor doing research on topics you are interested in or passionate about, most of them are very responsive and willing to help,” he says. “If possible, do an internship and build up a strong resume tailored to the area you feel strongly about. But in general, get out of your comfort zone and do the things that may intimidate you.”
By Claire Galvin, UConn School of Engineering Manager of Communications and Digital Strategy
A new UConn School of Engineering program launched this semester offers students a direct route into one of the most profitable fields in the job market.
CyberLEAP is an innovative path for non-computer scientists to break into the Computer Science industry. The online program is a partnership between the UConn School of Engineering Professional Education Program and the Computer Science and Engineering Department.
Computer Science and Engineering Department Head Sanguthevar Rajasekaran said the CyberLEAP program is a crash course in computer science requirements.
“CyberLEAP offers budding and working professionals the opportunity to gain key skills in high-demand fields,” Rajasekaran said. “Our faculty have carefully selected curriculum that offers the greatest advantage to enter the expansive field of computer science.”
CyberLEAP is designed to help meet the base admission requirements of the MENG in CSE and MENG in Data Science. Full admission requirements for the MENG in CSE program and the MENG in Data Science program can be reviewed online.
CyberLEAP also attracts individuals looking to gain skills outside of a credit program.
“The modules can also be taken independently for career enhancement and knowledge acquisition,” said Professional Education Program Director Nora Sutton. “We hope students take advantage of these programs, hit the ground running, and make the leap into the booming computer science industry.”
According to payscale.com, the average base salary of a MS in Computer Science graduate is $101,000.
Current CyberLEAP student Salvatore J. is a biology undergraduate alum, but was looking to learn skills in Computer Science before considering a master’s degree in that field.
“The fact that this special program was available to be taken asynchronously but still have a direct line of contact to professors and other students made it feel like a great way to continue learning something I felt so interested in while balancing the responsibilities of work and family,” Salvatore said. “So far it’s been a wonderful experience filled with learning about something I love and I’m excited to continue on my journey through UConn’s CyberLEAP.”
The school’s Computer Science and Engineering Department is growing significantly, with the undergraduate population increasing more than 30 percent over the last two years.
Two more modules are planned for the 2023 calendar year. Students can choose any or all of the modules.
The next module titled “Introduction to Discrete Systems” begins on May 1 and applications are due by April 24.
After completing the module, students will be able to: determine whether an argument is logically sound and write clear, thorough, and precise mathematical proofs; analyze discrete mathematical functions, sets, graphs, and recurrence relations; apply principles of set theory and the element method of proof to formally demonstrate equality of sets and subset relationships; apply counting principles to determine the order of magnitude of a computing problem or other related domain and; apply elementary probability concepts.
The cost of each module is $2,000.
More information about CyberLEAP is available here.
By Claire Galvin, UConn School of Engineering Manager of Communications and Digital Strategy
The UConn School of Engineering is currently working to determine the full effects of the state’s recently proposed budget. If approved, the budget would leave the university with a shortfall of $159.6 million next year and $197.1 million the following year, under the budget requests originally made by UConn and UConn Health.
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont shared his proposed two-year state budget to the General Assembly on Feb. 8. The university relies on the state for approximately 25 percent of its operating funding annually.
“Unfortunately, the appropriations proposed for UConn and UConn Health fall far short of what is necessary to adequately fund the university, carry out our critical public health mission most effectively, and fully cover the sizable costs the state seeks to pass along to us,” UConn President Radenka Maric wrote to the university community earlier in February.
UConn School of Engineering Dean Kazem Kazerounian echoed the president’s frustrations.
“A budget cut of this magnitude would be devastating for our School and our state’s economic future,” Kazerounian said. “We provide 51 percent of the state’s engineering graduates. Sixty-five percent of UConn Engineering graduates are employed in Connecticut.”
Kazerounian explained that the school is significantly contributing to the state and the country, like by topping $72 million in research expenditures in fiscal year 2022.
“If approved, this budget will bring our School’s recent progress to an abrupt halt,” Kazerounian said.
Kazerounian said within the School of Engineering, the budget cut equates to around an 8 percent decrease in operating expenditures for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Maric explained that the governor’s proposed budget does not cover the total amount of salary increases approved under the collective bargaining agreements between the state and the state employee unions. The proposal does cover more of what is known as historical unfunded “legacy” costs related to employee fringe benefits that the state assigns to UConn and UConn Health. However, it simultaneously reduces the university’s block grant, cancelling out any fiscal benefit for the university.
“We are strongly aligned with and fully support the governor’s focus on economic growth and inclusive opportunity over the next two years and beyond; investing in UConn and ensuring that our students have access to a world-class education is one of the best investments Connecticut can make to bolster that economic future and create those new opportunities,” Maric wrote.
Review Maric’s full comments on the governor’s proposed budget here.
By Anna Zarra Aldrich ’20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research
This year’s round of Third Bridge Grant awardees has developed innovative technologies focused on patenting, mobility, online education, and tick safety.
The Third Bridge Grant program awards grants for engineering students to take their technologies to the next level. Award amounts range from $5000 to $50,000. The program began in 2013.
PatentPlus AI, one of this year’s recipients, is an AI-driven patent search engine. This technology helps research and development-focused companies, research universities, and law firms determine quickly and easily if an invention is patentable. PatentPlus AI founders Massyl Mallem and Jake Winter trained their AI technology on millions of patent documents to predict what patents are most relevant to a disclosed invention.
Winter says the Third Bridge Grant will allow them to scale the platform to include international patents and improve the web application.
“Receiving the Third Bridge Grant has given us both the funding for important product development that brings our platform closer to launch as well as mentorship from the experienced Third Bridge Grant [mentors],” Winter says.
SedMed is a mobility products company whose products improve the safety and independence of those who struggle with everyday activities like getting out of bed or using the bathroom. Jeremy Bronen and Timothy Krupski founded SedMed after Krupski sponsored Bronen’s senior design project. The project was a device that helps people with mobility issues use the bathroom independently.
“We’re looking to innovate and build and sell mobility products for people who struggle with everyday activities other people take for granted,” Bronen says.
The Third Bridge Grant helped SedMed launch their product for a pilot in various healthcare facilities.
Webquity creates digital accessibility tools to promote equitable access to online education. Their first product is a set of “Digital Glasses,” a web-plug-in for college students with visual dyslexia and minor visual impairments.
“Webquity was founded on the basis that inclusion is not optional and technology being leveraged for equity,” Webquity founder Kianjai Huggan says.
UConn student Xin Dong and professor of allied health sciences Lawrence Silbart invented Tick Me Off, an on-hand, rapid Lyme disease prevention kit. The kit includes a test strip which detects the presence of the Lyme disease agent (Borrelia burgdorferi) in ticks removed from people or animals and a therapeutic bandage that can prevent the onset of disease.
Leila Daneshmandi, the principal investigator for the program, highlights the importance of the program and the critical stage at which it provides support to the teams.
“The Third Bridge Grant Program comes in at a critical stage where these technology startups are in the early stages of research, design, development, and validation,” Daneshmandi says. “We’re providing funding, mentorship, and support for the teams to de-risk their technologies and emerge from the ‘valley of death’ in their path toward building high-growth companies.”
Students working on technology-based innovations and who are interested in participating in the Third Bridge Grant program can apply during the next cycle. Engineering students currently or previously enrolled in the 3-credit Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship I and II courses are encouraged to apply. Applications from other UConn students will also be considered.
UConn’s first integrative studies student bridges passion for art, engineering in research and life
By Kimberly Phillips
Arpita Kurdekar’s story doesn’t start at the point she came to the United States, or when she got her dream job as an engineer, or when she pivoted to graduate studies at UConn. It doesn’t even begin when, as a young woman just starting out, a tree limb fell on her, rendering Kurdekar paralyzed from the chest down.
Her story begins long before all of that, when she was a young girl in India, and first picked up a paintbrush. It was a childhood hobby stoked by two artist parents and encouraged by accolades and a few awards for her work.
Growing up, Kurdekar was caught between an affinity for art and a passion for math and science, the latter winning out educationally and professionally when she pushed painting aside and sought to design bridges as masterful as her favorite, the Brooklyn Bridge.
Never did she think the bridge that would become her greatest accomplishment to date would be the one that marries engineering and art, bringing travelers to a place that merges the two – if only virtually.
‘My life changed in just a moment’
Kurdekar earned a master’s degree in engineering from the University at Buffalo in 2015 after completing her undergraduate degree in India and working a few years at a structural engineering firm there. She came to the U.S. for the opportunity of advanced education and the hope for a professional license not long thereafter.
While at Buffalo, an internship at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation provided a conduit to a full-time position in the Granite State at GM2 Associates, where she focused on structural design calculations for projects in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
She says she enjoyed the work, suiting up in a safety vest and headlamp out in the field, ascending into the underbelly of structures for visual inspections, and sometimes walking through construction sites as workers laid the steel girders that help give a bridge its strength.
“One day, about seven months after I started at GM2, I went home after work and planned to go to the gym. As I walked down the driveway, a neighbor’s tree fell on me and immediately I was paralyzed with a spinal cord injury,” she says. “My life changed in just a moment.”
Kurdekar says she lay on the ground calling for help for an hour because she was in a location that neighbors couldn’t readily see. Eventually her roommate came home, and Kurdekar says she remembers being found. She then lost consciousness.
Girish and Vandana Kurdekar traveled from India as quickly as possible to sit by their daughter’s bedside, and today provide her around-the-clock care. Her first memory after the accident was waking to them in the hospital.
“It was a very difficult time,” Kurdekar says of those early days of recovery. “I was on a ventilator, so it has been a long recovery journey. I had to learn to breathe on my own again, how to talk, how to eat, and how to move what parts of my body I could. It has been a very, very long and difficult six years.”
Those early days of rehab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Boston were centered on regaining the most basic of life skills. Once Kurdekar moved to Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire, a therapist suggested she tap not just into the muscle memory of the art from her youth but also the peace it gave her.
At first, Kurdekar says the only movement she had was shrugging her shoulders. Then, with the aid of a splint, she learned to hold a paintbrush. Eventually, she wrote her name, and later she painted flowers.
“I remember those sunflowers,” she says with a giggle. “They didn’t look like sunflowers – only my therapist and I knew they were sunflowers. Still, art has been an outlet of joy for me to fight depression and feel happy again. It gives me a lot of rest and peace.”
As she awakened to the value of art in her life, Kurdekar returned to work at GM2 for a few months before assessing her professional future and recognizing academia was the place she wanted to be.
GM2 President and CEO Manish K. Gupta ’98 MS, ’01 Ph.D. had become a mentor to Kurdekar and spoke fondly of his time at UConn. At his urging, she applied.
Teaching with VR Technology
Accepted into the School of Engineering Ph.D. program in 2018 and poised to study civil engineering, Kurdekar realized the passion she’d had for engineering had waned, though it wasn’t extinguished. She thought there might be a way to bring art and engineering together to complement each other.
Kurdekar says she shared with faculty in the schools of Education, Engineering, and Fine Arts her idea to create virtual reality technology to help students learn engineering principles that can be difficult to understand via a two-dimensional description in a textbook or on a screen – think thermodynamics, angular momentum, and gyroscopes.
It’s technology that visual artists, too, could use to practice their skills or plan for a piece that might be too large or cost prohibitive to build as a prototype.
“I’m aiming to teach concepts related to rigid body dynamics and specific art movements and art-making techniques through the overarching theme of kinetic sculptures,” she says. “I wish to present the learning experience in a more interesting and playful manner, in which the students can engage in creative thinking and problem solving by applying learning from both fields. That’s the kind of education we need to give students to prepare them to become innovative thinkers.”
She assembled a team of advisors from each of the three schools and became UConn’s first Integrative Studies Ph.D. candidate. It’s a program that allows students to combine several disciplines into one study track that doesn’t fit neatly into an existing department. Kurdekar hopes to finish her degree in 2024.
She has a fellowship from the Krenicki Arts and Engineering Institute, for which she’s been a teaching assistant in courses such as Entrepreneurship & Innovation in Industrial Design, Packaging Design, and Human Factors in Design. Kurdekar also has received support from the Dr. Radenka Maric Fellowship Fund for Engineering.
“There are a lot of parallels between my research and the art-making process,” she says. “In both, I focus my energy on solving creative challenges, whether on canvas or in a 3D virtual space. I want the viewer to be moved by the visuals and feel the same sense of engagement and enjoyment as I had during the making of it.”
In the beginning, though, Kurdekar was not a computer programmer. She says she’d picked up only bits of coding experience during school and needed to lay that foundation before building up.
Advisor Kenneth Thompson, an assistant professor in-residence in UConn’s Digital Media & Design department, taught Kurdekar’s first class, Introduction to Game Scripting.
“It takes grit to go from nothing to where Arpita is now,” Thompson says. “Since she came at it with a background in engineering, she already had the foundational logic and thought process that allowed her to excel in class. She knew where she wanted to go, and that made it easy to point her toward the material she needed to learn.”
Kurdekar found supplemental instruction on YouTube, and, coupled with DMD classes, gained proficiency in the language C#, or C Sharp.
Making Her Mark in a Burgeoning Field
“Game development is a ubiquitous thing that we see everywhere,” Thompson says. “Your mailer that you get from the grocery store asks you to go on a quest for a 75-cent-per-pound ham to get experience points on your badge when you scan your card. Gaming is applied in different ways. Arpita really made the case that what she’s doing with VR is valuable from an educational research perspective and adds to the numerous projects being done across campus and disciplines.”
Thompson says that while people might associate VR mostly with gaming or entertainment, the technology merely helps users understand something at scale: “It’s like the first time you step out of a car or an airport in a big city and you have that feeling of looking up. It’s kind of overwhelming to feel that sense of height. VR provides that kind of experience and makes it possible to communicate or teach it.”
He says that a giant swinging pendulum, for instance, might be too dangerous, too difficult, or too expensive to create or too limited to have more than one per class. Kurdekar’s VR technology will allow students to learn concepts related to that pendulum because it will be right in front of each of them.
“People who are working on VR technology now, like Arpita, they’re the ones who are going to make marks and be the forebearers of how we have new experiences and interact with things,” he says.
School of Engineering Associate Dean Daniel Burkey, another of Kurdekar’s advisors, says some UConn faculty members already have begun to use VR technology for straightforward purposes, like looking at landscapes, viewing topographical maps, or manipulating objects.
Kurdekar’s work differs in that it’s more immersive.
Burkey says what’s being used now is in addition to classroom lessons, whereas Kurdekar’s technology will bring the educational space into the virtual world.
“That’s the defining feature and that’s something that will be really impactful moving forward,” he says. “The other interesting thing about Arpita’s work is that it is applicable to a lot of different engineering fields. Engineering has a strong psychometric component; it’s very hands on. Sometimes it’s difficult to give students an authentic hands-on experience. Virtual reality allows you to do that in a much more authentic way than simply interacting with something on a screen, or reading a case study, or doing it in pen and paper.”
Thompson adds that the pandemic accelerated the mainstream’s adoption of VR technology, especially since the cost of the requisite hardware is decreasing.
Burkey says, “Previous generations of the hardware have been large. They’ve been bulky. They’ve been attached to a computer with a lot of wires. There’s lag time that can be disorienting for people. The increases in computing power, the shrinking of technology, the reductions in cost are all making it a lot more accessible.”
Accessibility for those with limited mobility also has been central to Kurdekar’s research, especially since she’s just beginning to move her fingers at the first knuckle thanks to surgeries in 2021 and 2022.
“For five years I couldn’t move a finger, and now I can,” she says. “This is very new research, and Dr. Justin Brown, my doctor, at the Paralysis Center at Spaulding, is one of only a few doing it. Who knew this could happen for me, but it did. People are doing research and breakthroughs are happening every day. These unbelievable changes in my life have made me look at the future in a very positive way.”
Immersed in Art, Memorizing Nature
At home, Kurdekar paints as often as possible, trying to fill most of her free time with it and having done hundreds of pieces, many of which she has posted on Instagram and her website. Lately, she’s tried painting on wood and even using clay to create pottery.
“I started off with representational style paintings, trying to make things look real, very life-like,” she explains. “But slowly, I realized my inner voice was missing in the art I was creating. So, I started laying fragments of my memories and experiences with people, places, and things on my canvases. My work started becoming more abstract and meaningful as I traced those memories with the use of expressive brushstrokes and vibrant colors.”
Using the beauty of New England as a muse, she adds, “It’s hard not to have imprints of the sunsets, the sky mixing with the water, or even the energetic shifting movements of the birds foraging the farms and the feeders in your mind and heart.”
In 2019, Kurdekar’s work went on display for the first time at the Mansfield Community Center. Since then, she’s exhibited there and at various galleries, including Arts Center East in Vernon, and has won a few awards in area juried art shows.
She continues to find inspiration in nature. Last summer, she and her parents visited Maine and ascended Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park via wheelchair ramps that stretched to the top. She saw views of the ocean and islands below, memorizing the shapes and colors of the scenery.
“I was a totally different person before the accident,” she says. “I was active. I would dance, I would hike, I would drive to different places. I lost a lot. But this journey has made me a different person. It’s opened my eyes to see what’s important in life. I realized who my true friends are and what really matters. I would never have gone on for my Ph.D. and do the research I’m doing if this hadn’t happened. It gave me a new direction and I totally enjoy what I do now.”
The biggest obstacle at this juncture is her and parents’ immigration status. None of them have U.S. citizenship, keeping Kurdekar from obtaining certain home-care services and her parents’ the ability to apply for driver’s licenses, work here, and get medical insurance.
U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H., introduced legislation in 2021 to relieve some of that strain and grant the family of three lawful permanent resident status. That bill, HR680, passed the House in June, the Senate on Dec. 21, and received President Joe Biden’s signature on Jan. 5.
“My parents had tourist visas and every six months they had to renew them in order to stay here legally to care for me. There was always uncertainty they wouldn’t get approved and that was a very big worry for me,” Kurdekar, who now will have a green card, says.
Going back to India isn’t an option. The infrastructure is not handicapped friendly, which means she wouldn’t have job opportunities let alone be able to obtain medical care that, she says, would be inferior to what she’s receiving here.
“I don’t know if I’d even be able to survive there,” Kurdekar says. “All the skills, all the hard-earned skills I have wouldn’t be utilized. In the U.S., every individual has equal opportunities in spite of their physical abilities. I can do a lot here. I can use my knowledge and skills to contribute to society.”
Despite all of this, she’s carried on.
An engineer friend designed and built an adaptable easel that, with the push of a joystick, can rotate a canvas, lift it, push it left or right, or tilt it to give Kurdekar easier reach. The palate of paint rests on the tray of her motorized wheelchair as she gets lost in the small brushstrokes that give her paintings their texture and movement.
“Life is much better than what it was five years back,” she says. “I want to tell people who are struggling not to be afraid. Take one day at a time. Have small goals and try to achieve them. If you really work hard, there’s always a way out. You can always find a way. If you keep looking, you’ll eventually find an answer.”
By Claire Galvin, UConn School of Engineering Manager of Communications and Digital Strategy
The UConn McNair Scholars Program identified its next cohort of scholars last month, identifying eight engineering students that are leading the way in STEM fields.
The program prepares first-generation, low-income and historically underrepresented students for M.S. and Ph.D. studies in STEM disciplines. Of the 22 selected scholars for 2022-2023 academic year, eight have ties to engineering. Those students are:
Jose Cevallos Jr: Physics/Mechanical Engineering
Thuany De Carvalho Lachos: Biomedical Engineering
Malachi Denton: Environmental Engineering; Scholars House
Malik Francis: Computer Engineering; LSAMP, Scholars House
Jason Pulla: Chemical Engineering; Upward Bound (pre-college)
Justin Ridley: Biomedical Engineering
Cesar Rodriguez: Mechanical Engineering
Manav Surti: Biomedical Engineering
The McNair Scholars Program is an intensive research and graduate school preparation program for upper-division STEM students actively pursuing careers in academia.
“On behalf of the School of Engineering, I congratulate these scholars for this well-deserved and prestigious recognition,” Dean Kazem Kazerounian said. “They make us all very proud.”
UConn School of Engineering Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Diversity Daniel Burkey serves as an advisor to the McNair Scholars Program.
“We look forward to supporting their development as students and scholars,” Burkey said of the engineering students. “These students will go on to become academically well-rounded and competitive candidates for graduate studies.”
Ronald McNair was a NASA astronaut and physics Ph.D.
By Claire Galvin, UConn School of Engineering Manager of Communications and Digital Strategy
Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Professor Yaakov Bar-Shalom has been selected for the 2022 IEEE AESS Pioneer Award. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society recognizes individuals that have made significant contributions to the field of aerospace and electronic systems engineering. Bar-Shalom has won this award with Henk Blom of the Delft University of Technology, and their award stems from the development of the Interacting Multiple Model (IMM) approach to multi-model estimation and maneuvering target tracking.
“I am glad I can contribute to the increasingly high reputation of our ECE department and our school,” Bar-Shalom said. “It has been a great pleasure to serve UConn and continue cutting-edge research in electrical engineering.”
Bar-Shalom received a B.S. and M.S. from the Technicon in 1963 and 1967 before he received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1970, all in electrical engineering. He is a UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor and M.E. Klewin Professor. He is an IEEE Fellow, served as Associate Editor of the IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control and Automatica, General Chairman of 1985 ACC and FUSION 2000, and served as ISIF President (2000, 2002) and VP Publications (2004-13).
He has published over 650 papers and book chapters on his research. Current interests include estimation theory, target tracking and data fusion.
Bar-Shalom has graduated 42 Ph.D.s at UConn.
Other awards include: a corecipient of the M. Barry Carlton Award for the best paper in the IEEE TAES in 1995 and 2000, the IEEE Dennis J. Picard Medal for Radar Technologies in 2008, and the Connecticut Medal of Technology in 2012. He also received the ISIF Award for a Lifetime of Excellence in Information Fusion in 2015, which was then renamed in 2016 to the “ISIF Yaakov Bar-Shalom Award for Lifetime of Excellence in Information Fusion.”
The IEEE AESS has invited Yaakov to be recognized at the 2023 International Information Fusion Conference in Charleston, SC in June 2023.