These Excellent Graduates are from Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Engineering Systems & Environment.
Four graduating fourth-year students have earned the 2020 School of Engineering Outstanding Student Award. The award is given to a student or students who have demonstrated excellent academic performance, leadership and service. The award is one of UVA Engineering’s highest student honors.
Their stories are below.
Anna L. Cerf, Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and Minor in Urban and Environmental Planning
Cerf will graduate May 16 with highest distinction with a B.S. in civil engineering and minor in urban and environmental planning. A Jefferson Scholar, Rodman Scholar, Raven Honor Society Member and Lawn resident, she has maintained the highest academic standards throughout her time at UVA while holding various positions as a research assistant, teacher’s assistant and intern, including three years in the UVA Office of Sustainability where she was most recently the recycling team leader.
“Anna was quick to develop a solid understanding of the technical coursework and received top grades in each of the courses that’s she’s taken from me,” said Lindsay Ivey Burden, assistant professor in engineering systems and environment, who nominated Cerf. “Due to her success in the Geotechnical Engineering course, and because she is an extremely responsible student, I hired her to be a grader for the course. This is something I only do with my top students.”
She is passionate about environmental engineering, Burden said, and focuses that drive on sustainability issues.
Since 2018, Cerf has interned in UVA Engineering Dean and Janet and John Hamilton Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Craig H. Benson’s research group under sponsorship of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation. Her work on odor management related to municipal solid waste landfills has led to at least one journal article and recommendations that will be adopted in practice, Benson said.
Cerf is also known for her public service, prompting Benson to write in a letter supporting her nomination for the award, “I am amazed at how she gets so much done, and does it all so well. Anna is a truly exceptional student, leader and public steward.”
Cerf served on the Engineering Student Council, through which she co-founded and co-directed the Sustainability and Infrastructure Committee; was president and elementary and middle school outreach chair of the Society of Women Engineers UVA chapter; and was the membership coordinator on the executive board of the UVA American Society of Civil Engineers Student Chapter.
Emily Chen, Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and Minor in Urban and Environmental Planning
Chen will graduate with high distinction this year with a civil engineering degree and minor in urban and environmental planning. Chen chose the infrastructure systems track and has been heavily involved in undergraduate research. Since her second year, she has worked in assistant professor T. Donna Chen’s lab and as a research assistant at the Center for Transportation Studies at UVA, including playing a critical role in the successful completion of a Virginia Department of Transportation project examining policy and regulation barriers to implementing bicycle facilities. The results of this work were presented at the 2019 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting and is under review for publication.
Donna Chen, who nominated Emily for the award, also had her as a third-year student in her Transportation Infrastructure Design course. “Emily was as competent and inquisitive in the classroom as she is in the research lab,” Donna Chen said, noting that she gravitated toward team leadership.
“Emily brought added value to her project team with her diverse academic and work experiences — having now done research in three different research labs on two different university campuses and interned for two private consulting firms,” Donna Chen said.
Those experiences include a prestigious National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and working alongside graduate researchers in UVA Engineering’s Omni Cognition and Reality Lab, in which Donna Chen is a collaborator.
Emily Chen also has demonstrated leadership through service in student organizations. Her student activities include site leader for UVA’s Project SERVE community service event and membership on the Society of Women Engineers Committee, through which she conducted outreach to local middle and high school girls and women to encourage interest in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Additionally, Chen was active in UVA professional association student chapters, including serving as the first undergraduate president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers vice president and publicity chair. She also participated in UVA’s Blueprint Emerging Leaders Program and served as a University peer advisor to first-year engineering students.
Allison Horenberg, Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering and Double Major in Mathematics
Horenberg graduates May 16, 2020, with high distinction and a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering and a second major in mathematics. She is a Rodman Scholar, and served as an instructor for two student-taught classes, one for biomedical engineering in regenerative medicine and one entitled “Exploration of Cheese” for the Rodman Seminar. She served in various roles for the Engineering Student Council, including president, vice president and service director, and participated in the Rodman Council as wellness chair, service chair and first-year service liaison.
"Allison really shines in her ability to perform cutting-edge research, and her level of talent in this area sets her apart from other researchers at the undergraduate level," said Shannon Barker, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and the department's undergraduate program director, in a nomination letter for Horenberg on behalf of the department's Undergraduate Program Committee.
Working in the laboratory of Thomas Barker, professor of biomedical engineering and leader of UVA's Fibrosis Initiative, Horenberg developed a novel approach to understanding how the cell communication system, also called cell signaling pathways, respond to mechanical forces in the cells’ environment, both in normal and fibrotic tissue. She looked for key protein players in these interactions. Finding these players is integral to understanding the root causes of pulmonary fibrosis, a disease in which scar tissue builds up in the lungs. Her work resulted in a poster presentation at the national Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting.
She held two summer research internships at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, working on reliable cell viability measurement techniques in tissue engineered scaffolds. Under the mentorship of Dr. Carl Simon, Horenberg's work led to three manuscripts prepared for peer-reviewed publication, and four poster presentations, one at the national Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting.
"In his letter, Dr. Simon wrote about being impressed with Allison’s ability to trouble-shoot problems and pose creative and insightful solutions, solutions others in his laboratory had missed. He also noted her team-player attitude and willingness to help others when needed," Shannon Barker wrote in Horenberg's nomination letter. "He, as well as many others I’ve spoken to in this nomination process, were really struck by Allison’s maturity and work ethic."
Barker added in Horenberg's nomination: "Allison is truly representative of the ideal UVA student: one who is well-rounded and excels across a spectrum of abilities. She is an impressive academic and a burgeoning researcher with the potential to lead her field. But she is also humble and cares about those around her. These are the kinds of individuals we want to lead us in the future, and I for one am looking forward to what Allison will no doubt accomplish."
Jonathan Zheng, Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and Minor in Materials Science and Engineering
Zheng arrived at UVA in his first year with research experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Naval Research Lab. Almost immediately, he joined the catalysis lab of William Mynn Thornton Professor Robert J. Davis, and from there embarked on an extraordinary undergraduate journey.
Zheng’s achievements at UVA include the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship and an Astronaut Scholarship. He is a Tau Beta Pi, Robert Thomson and Rodman scholar; a member of the Raven Society and Lawn resident; and the recipient of UVA chemical engineering’s 2019 Excellence in Research Award and 2020 Excellence in Leadership Award, a Double Hoo award for mentored research and a nanoSTAR Undergraduate Research grant.
In addition to his research in Davis’ experimental lab — and more recently in assistant professor Chris Paolucci’s computational modeling group — Zheng’s resume includes a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates internship at the University of Texas at Austin and interning at ExxonMobil and a local biomedical venture company. His research has been published in the American Chemical Society’s publication ACS Catalysis, a high-impact journal in the discipline.
“Jonathan essentially participated in my lab activities as if he were a graduate student,” Davis said. “He attended all of our weekly group meetings and worked independently in the laboratory. I encouraged him to seek other research and work experiences throughout his undergraduate career so he can make well-informed decisions about his future. He interned at both ExxonMobil and Contraline to see first-hand the differences between a large multi-national company and a small start-up company.”
Shane Larsen, Zheng’s supervisor at ExxonMobil used words such as excellent communicator, resourceful, caring and adaptable to describe him. “Jonathan exceeded our expectations during his internship and added value equal to that of our experienced full-time research employees,” Larsen said.
Zheng has achieved all this while also serving in a dizzying array of leadership positions at UVA — including a year as editor-in-chief of The Spectra, UVA Engineering’s research journal, a big task by any measure. He also served as vice-president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student chapter, treasurer of Omega Chi Epsilon Chemical Engineering Honor Society, president of the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society, president of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers at UVA, committee officer of the UVA Undergraduate Research Network and a committee member of the UVA Engineering Student Council.