Six Students Honored This Year for Excellence

Six graduating fourth-year students have earned the 2021 School of Engineering Outstanding Student Award, among the School's highest student honors. The awards are bestowed upon students who have demonstrated excellent academic performance, leadership and service.

Their stories are below.

Rita Anane-Wae, Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering

UVA Biomedical Engineering Student Rita Anane-Wae

Biomedical engineering graduate Rita Anane-Wae, a UVA Engineering Class of 2021 Outstanding Student awardee

Anane-Wae graduates May 21 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering. She is an undergraduate researcher in UVA's Center for Public Health Genomics and in the lab of Mete Civelek, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. In 2019, she earned a Harrison Award for undergraduate research to develop experimental methods for human aortic smooth muscle cells, an area of study important for treatment of coronary artery disease.

"Rita Anane-Wae has as much potential, determination, generosity, and passion as any student I have taught," Timothy Allen, associate professor of biomedical engineering, wrote in a nomination letter. "In all of my personal interactions with her, she has exhibited a high level of professionalism and personal maturity."

She is a co-author on a high-impact paper in Circulation Research and another paper being submitted to the American Journal of Human Genetics. During her first summer as a UVA student, she traveled to Uganda as part of the UVA Minority Health International Research Training Program to conduct community-based research at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology. There, she went from home to home to gather data for a study focused on risk factors for heart failure.

"She learned how to interact and educate the patients in a culturally sensitive manner and formed collegial relationships with the doctors and researchers," Civelek wrote in a nomination letter. When she presented her findings at the Minority Health International Research Training Program's symposium, he wrote, "I realized that she was bitten by the research bug. She was so passionate when she explained her project, detailing the methodology, her findings, and what they meant for the population she engaged with."

She also has been active in student leadership. She is co-founder of UVA's Genomics Society and has served in UVA Engineering's chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.

Jason S. Jones, former leader of the UVA Engineering Center for Diversity in Engineering, wrote in a nomination letter, "Whenever opportunities arose, she would immediately show interest and encourage others to take advantage – such as attending the Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) held annually in D.C. It is that aspect of her that distinguishes her from many of her peers – ever working to bring more people to the proverbial table, always advocating for inclusion."

Rebecca Della Croce, Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering

UVA Biomedical Engineering Student Rebecca Della Croce

Biomedical engineering graduate Rebecca Della Croce, a UVA Engineering Class of 2021 Outstanding Student awardee

Della Croce graduates May 21 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering and a minor in applied mathematics. She is a Rodman Scholar and a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.

In a letter nominating Della Croce for the Outstanding Student Award, Shannon Barker, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, wrote, "She is one of our very best students, and in my opinion ranks among the top 1% of students whom I have observed over my 12 years of teaching undergraduates both at UVA and Georgia Tech."

Barker got to know Della Croce during the Department of Biomedical Engineering's capstone course. "BME’s two-semester capstone design series tasks students with selecting, formulating and solving a biomedical design problem in independent teams. This format allowed me a first-hand look at Rebecca’s finely tuned problem-solving skills, her capacity for creativity, her outstanding ability to communicate complex ideas to a variety of audiences, and her ability to lead a project."

Della Croce has served as a volunteer undergraduate tutor in courses such as physics, calculus and differential equations, and is the academic chair for the Rodman Council, organizing the student-taught Rodman Seminars. She is active in the Society of Women Engineers.

As an undergraduate researcher, Della Croce has served in the labs of Richard Price, biomedical engineering professor and research director of UVA's Focused Ultrasound Center, and former UVA biomedical engineering faculty member Jenny Munson. Della Croce's recent work has focused in the area of research for stroke.

"Rebecca truly is the absolute best," Price wrote in a nomination letter. "Her strengths in academics, research and teaching are unparalleled, and she is a willing and effective leader."

Brian Helmke, associate professor of biomedical engineering, expressed similar sentiments in a nomination letter: "Overall, Rebecca is a complete student. She focuses on content and metacognitive strategies, details and big picture, technical and human aspects of BME and clinical medicine, and teamwork and leadership. Rebecca shows empathy towards peers, faculty and patients. Rebecca is thoughtful and kind, and she firmly stands by her ethical and moral standards."

Josh Eiland, Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering, Second Major in Statistics

UVA Engineering Student Josh Eiland

Josh Eiland, a double major in systems engineering and statistics and UVA Engineering Class of 2021 Outstanding Student awardee

Eiland graduates on May 21 with a Bachlor of Science degree in systems engineering, a double major in statistics, and minors in computer science and business.

He is a Jefferson Scholar, a Rodman Scholar, a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society and a Lawn resident. He is a volunteer firefighter and EMT at the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department, and co-founder of 180 Degrees Consulting at UVA, which works with nonprofits to help them become more effective at meeting their missions for societal impact.

"Volunteering as a firefighter is not a typical extracurricular for college students," Edward Moan, captain of the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department, wrote in a nomination letter. "We require a variety of training at our station, from almost a year of classroom work to rigorous evaluations of physical skills. On average, Josh spends 90 hours a month on duty at the station. He progressed quickly to the rank of firefighter, and also dedicated time to becoming an EMT. Most shifts at the station are at night, between 6 PM and 6 AM, which is what makes being a firefighter and a student such a challenge. Calls for service can keep us awake all night, which is extremely taxing on a student's academic schedule. I have been impressed with Josh's ability to keep on track with his academics, even amongst the busy nights and weekends we have at the station."

As an undergraduate researcher, Eiland investigated potential uses of CRISPR technologies for treatment of pancreatic cancers in the lab of Mazhar Adli, associate professor of molecular biology and genetic, biochemistry and molecular genetics at the UVA School of Medicine. Eiland also worked with Rider Foley, UVA Engineering associate professor of science, technology and society, to research the nanotechnology market in Atlanta, mapping various stakeholders and co-hosting an industry conference.

"He is the best student I've encountered in 36 years of teaching," William Scherer, professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, wrote in a nomination letter. "Josh has been part of one of my capstone teams (a year-long project for seniors working with a real client). We are working with the Children’s Inn at the National Institute of Health, where we are using predictive analytics to help the Inn in its fundraising activities. Josh, in a team of four top University of Virginia students, is the team leader, and not by designation but by leading. I’ve been tremendously impressed by his ability to work with the client in a very unstructured problem that is in many ways a classic consulting experience – challenging, frustrating, interesting, etc."

Rob Schwartz, Bachelor of Science Degree in Systems Engineering, Second Major in Latin American Studies

UVA Engineering Student Rob Schwartz

Rob Schwartz, a double major in systems engineering and Latin American studies and UVA Engineering Class of 2021 Outstanding Student awardee

Schwartz graduates May 21 with a Bachelor of Science degree in systems engineering and a second major in Latin American studies. He holds a minor in science and technology policy.

Schwartz is a Jefferson Scholar and a Rodman Scholar. He has been a student lecturer, teaching a course on the interaction between technology, policy and deafness. He served as a senior editor and reviewer for The Oculus, UVA's undergraduate research journal.

"I have been amazed by the level of dedication Rob has manifested not just as a student and researcher, but even more as an individual inside and outside of school," Panagiotis Apostolellis, assistant professor of in UVA Engineering's Department of Computer Science, wrote in a nomination letter.

Schwartz's experiences while a student at UVA varied greatly and included social work in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic; conducting data analysis for human rights organizations; interning at the Library of Congress; working full time for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; volunteering for a homeless shelter during the pandemic outbreak; and leading the UVA Student COVID Coalition since summer 2020.

He earned a Harrison Research Award in 2020 to study digital self control tools with Apostolellis and two researchers in Italy, and the work resulted in a paper accepted to the prestigious Conference on Human-Computer Interaction 2021.

"Considering my experience working with Rob, I find he is an extremely driven student with an extraordinary focus on learning, which I rarely witnessed throughout my career so far," Apostolellis wrote.

Emma Stephens, Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering

UVA Engineering Student Emma Stephens

Civil engineering graduate Emma Stephens, a UVA Engineering Class of 2021 Outstanding Student awardee

Stephens graduates May 21 with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering, focused on environmental engineering, and a minor in materials science and engineering.

She has served on the Engineering Student Council, Engineers Going Global and the UVA chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

This year, she helped lead a high-performing team of undergraduate students in a capstone project to develop a green infrastructure plan for stormwater management in the Meadow Creek watershed, incorporating technical and social goals, especially social equity.

"Ms. Stephens has clearly taken a leadership role, arranging meetings between team members and other constituents between our weekly meetings," Teresa Culver, associate professor and director of the civil engineering undergraduate program in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, wrote in a nomination letter. "She is enthusiastic, fearless and conscientious, and overall driven to meet the highest expectations that she has set for herself and the team."

She served as an undergraduate research assistant in the lab of Andres Clarens, professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, working at the intersection of civil engineering and materials science. Clarens' lab is focused on developing low-carbon, high-performance cements, because conventional cement production is responsible for a large amount of global carbon emissions.

"She did a remarkable job, even though she had very little prior lab experience, and so she quickly started accruing more responsibility," Clarens wrote in a nomination letter. "She approached her work in the lab like a seasoned graduate student."

"She has such a bright future in her chosen path of environmental engineering," Jose Gomez, lecturer in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, wrote in a nomination letter. 'She will distinguish herself and make a difference to those fortunate to be around her, as she moves forward, just as she has while here as an undergraduate. She will make us all proud!"

Karl Westendorff, Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering

UVA Engineering Student Karl Westendorff

Chemical engineering graduate Karl Westendorff, a UVA Engineering Class of 2021 Outstanding Student awardee

Westendorff graduates May 21 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering. He is a Rodman Scholar, a 2018 recipient of a Harrison Research Award, and an MIT Presidential Graduate Fellow for 2021.

Gaurav Giri, assistant professor of chemical engineering, recalled in a nomination letter meeting Westendorff when he was still in high school and attended UVA Engineering's Open House event.

"Karl took the time to find me during the event and I had the chance to talk to him," Giri wrote. "As I was describing, at a very simple level, the research performed in my group, Karl told me that he already had previous research background on metal-organic frameworks. Further seeing his background, it was clear that Karl has already been very successful in research, including winning the Regeneron Scholar, a national award, and was a Google Science Fair Finalist, an international competition. His inquisitiveness and curiosity, as well as his ability to create scientific hypotheses, was clear even during our short meeting."

When he became a UVA Engineering student, Westendorff joined Giri's lab working on metal-organic frameworks for highly selective filters and sensors, and became a first author on a paper about novel shapes of metal-organic frameworks.

"Karl is one of the few students I have known who I could give a book to read and he could come back in a few weeks, knowing the material enough to start doing the experiments," Giri said. "At this stage of his career, I treat him like a 4th-year graduate student."

Westendorff began taking graduate-level courses as a second-year undergraduate student.

"Karl’s personality, drive to learn new material, and ability to formulate and execute cogent hypotheses make him well-suited for the career in academia he is pursuing, and his ultimate goal of being a professor in chemical engineering," Christopher Paolucci, assistant professor of chemical engineering, wrote in a nomination letter.