Five Students Recognized for Academic Performance, Leadership and Service

Five graduating fourth-year students have earned the 2023 School of Engineering Outstanding Student Award, one of UVA Engineering’s highest student honors. The awards recognize demonstrated excellence in academic performance, leadership and service.

From their stories below — including what faculty mentors and peers had to say in letters of recommendation for the award — it’s clear what makes these students stand out.

Hudson Burke, Bachelor of Science in computer engineering

Portrait of Hudson Burke

Burke is a Rodman Scholar and 2022 Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fellow known for his passion and talent for combining engineering skill sets — mechanical design, electrical circuitry and computer software engineering — to bring inventions to life.

Burke, who has attained a 3.99 grade point average, was involved in numerous robotics projects during his time at UVA, including a complete overhaul of a driving simulator in Tomonari Furukawa’s lab. He started out to fix a shaky base structure that caused vibrations during operation. He ended up redesigning and rebuilding the base, and installing software and components to enable driving simulation with a motion simulator and a 3D virtual environment.

“He not only [fixed the problem], but also made something that I did not even envision,” said Furukawa, professor and Zinn Faculty Scholar in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“I see significant research potential in him as he has already acquired a wide range of knowledge and experience,” Furuakawa said.

MAE associate professor Gavin Garner allowed Burke to take his mechatronics class as a non-major and was so impressed that he invited Burke to take the advanced mechatronics course — a project-based class normally reserved for mechanical or aerospace majors.

Garner repeatedly observed Burke’s ingenuity, his breadth of skills, as well as leadership and teamwork. In Garner’s special topics course, The Art of Timekeeping, Burke’s team rebuilt an elaborate mechatronic clock. With time winding down, Garner discovered Burke working alone in his lab at midnight to have the clock ready for a demonstration the next day.

“Hudson is serious and tenacious — excellent traits in an exemplary engineer,” Garner said. “With his unique combination of expertise in computer engineering and talent for programming and circuit design, coupled with his interest in mechanical engineering and robotics, he embodies exactly the sort of engineer that the world needs right now.”

Since January 2022, Burke has worked as an undergraduate robotics research assistant in Virginia Cooperative Autonomous Robots lab in addition to completing an X-Force Fellowship in 2021, a remote summer program in which interns work to solve real-world national security problems in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense. At home in California during the pandemic in fall 2020, he ran his own robotics program for local high school students. He has also worked as a math and physics tutor.

Burke was a UVA Climbing Center supervisor and member of the UVA Rock Climbing Team. He also served a college ministry internship in California, and at UVA, is in the Center for Christian Study Elzinga Residential Scholars Program.

Burke’s immediate plans include working as a graduate research assistant with UVA’s Center for Applied Biomechanics while working on a Master of Science in mechanical engineering.

Anupama Jayaraman, Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering with a computer science minor

Portrait of Anupama Jayaraman

Jayaraman is a Rodman Scholar, a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, the Omega Chi Epsilon chemical engineering honor society and the Raven Society at UVA.

Jayaraman has attained a 3.99 grade point average while working as an undergraduate student researcher in assistant professor Chris Paolucci’s computational catalysis lab since her first year. She is on track to submit a paper for publication as first author this spring, a rarity for undergraduates.

“Anupama is already operating at the level of a [second- or third-year] Ph.D. student,” Paolucci said. “She has been very productive in research and has become highly proficient in both Matlab and Python and performing quantum mechanical simulations on the Rivanna supercomputing cluster at UVA.”

In fall 2022, Jayaraman joined professor Matthew Lazzara’s cell signaling lab, combining her interests in computational and biomedical research. She has since been accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and plans to study biological systems through computational modeling as a chemical engineering Ph.D. student.

Jayaraman has won numerous awards for research, academic excellence, leadership and service from UVA, the School of Engineering, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, including the institute’s Donald F. Othmer Sophomore Academic Excellence Award.

During her UVA career, Jayaraman completed internships at the National Cancer Institute and Merck & Co. Inc., and worked as a grader for the UVA Engineering applied math program.

Jayaraman also has served on the Alumni and Corporate Relations Committee of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers UVA student chapter since June 2020, including terms as assistant director and director. On the committee, she led teams to organize numerous events from Fall Networking Nights to plant tours at regional employers.

“Anupama represents the best of [UVA Engineering] and the future of our engineering profession,” professor of practice Michael L. King said.

King noted her many accomplishments but called out her AIChE contributions in particular.

“I have been advisor to the AIChE student chapter for over a decade and her leadership of the [Alumni and Corporate Relations Committee] this last year was the strongest I have observed.”

During her time at UVA, Jayaraman found time to give to the Charlottsville community, as a volunteer at The Haven, a homeless day shelter and as a clinical engineering volunteer for UVA Health.

Assistant professor Rachel Letteri, who taught Jayaraman in her Material and Energy Balances course, followed Jayaraman’s entire career at UVA Engineering.

“Anupama is an absolutely stellar student, researcher, leader and person,” Letteri said. “Making her achievements even more commendable is Anupama’s generosity in helping her classmates and others around her. I had the pleasure of teaching her as a first-year student, and then watching her absolutely excel.”

Courtney Kennedy, Bachelor of Science in systems engineering with minors in data science and applied mathematics

Courtney Kennedy headshot

Kennedy, a member of Tau Beta Pi and the Raven Society, shined in the classroom — and we’re not just talking about her 3.97 GPA. She was a teaching assistant for three courses, Data and Information Engineering, Human Machine Interface and System Evaluation, duties that she expanded to include developing course material and lecturing in addition to in-class assistance.

“This is the first and only time I’ve had an undergraduate take on such a role,” said systems engineering professor Gregory J. Gerling. “In this capacity, she was confident, competent and engaging. Furthermore, she has been a leader on teams in all of my classes, each of which involve group project work. In so doing, she is adeptly able to get others to buy into ideas and move the projects forward, while getting heavily engaged in the technical details.”

Assistant professor Afsaneh Doryab also noted her leadership and teaching skills as a TA.

“Courtney’s ability to explain complex concepts clearly and concisely has greatly benefitted her fellow students, and her dedication to ensuring that every student understands the material is truly remarkable,” Doryab said.

In addition to her TA responsibilities and completing several internships — including one in data science and another from February to December 2021 helping to develop a 10-week undergraduate course in data visualization — Kennedy was active in the Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, at UVA. She served as the UVA chapter’s vice president of outreach, and as president.

“Through active engagement in SWE, Courtney has demonstrated a true passion for promoting diversity and inclusion at UVA,” Doryab said. “She is an excellent example of the kind of individual who represents the values of UVA Engineering. She has a strong sense of social responsibility and a deep commitment to making the world a better place.”

Her activities with SWE included mentoring eight high school girls on how to run their own outreach program, helping them organize a Science and Engineering Exploration Day event for local Girl Scouts.

According to classmate Eliza Goggins, it’s not just Kennedy’s academic ability that contributes to her success. It’s her kindness and empathy.

“From having classes together, I knew Courtney was smart and driven,” Goggins said. “But I have seen her have this effect on countless members of the UVA Engineering community, whether it’s a classmate, a student she TAs for or an underclassman she has welcomed into the Society of Women Engineers. She has a natural ability to make whoever she interacts with feel heard and appreciated.”

Prachi Sadekar, Bachelor of Science in systems engineering

Prachi Sadekar headshot

Sadekar is a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society and the Raven Society at UVA, one of the University’s oldest and most prestigious honor societies — neither of which is surprising given her stellar academic record.

“Prachi has a near-perfect GPA,” said Robert J. Riggs, an assistant professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering. “In every course Prachi has taken with me, she has scored an A, but she was always at the top of that group of very gifted and intelligent students. Additionally, she works as a teaching assistant in multiple courses due to her mastery of course content.”

It was Sadekar’s willingness to challenge herself that garnered Thomas Lidbetter’s attention. Lidbetter, an assistant professor of systems engineering, taught Sadekar in two especially high-level graduate courses, Game Theoretic Methods for Strategic Decision Making and Network and Combinatorial Optimization.

“Prachi was one of two undergraduates who took Game Theoretic Methods for Strategic Decision Making in fall 2022, and was one of only two students to whom I awarded a grade of A-plus,” Lidbetter said. “She obtained near to 100% for all of the assignments and tests and the final exam. This would be impressive for any student, but particularly for an undergraduate.”

Sadekar’s performance in Network and Combinatorial Optimization was equally impressive, he said, noting her exceptional engagement despite once again being only one of two undergraduates in the class.

“Prachi is always well-prepared, asks insightful questions and contributes positively to the overall learning environment. In group exercises, she takes a leadership role, ensuring that the other students in the class benefit from her insight and understanding,” Lidbetter said.

Her leadership extends beyond the classroom to service in various organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers, where she is the vice president of finance. She also volunteers for SWE, recently helping to present an event to teach more than 170 high school girls about different engineering disciplines at UVA.

Additionally, Sadekar found time to co-found the Cavalier Cuisine Club, which involved planning monthly events such as local chef demonstrations and hosting a three-course meal for 125 people. She also led the establishment of a partnership with Morven Farm, home of UVA’s Sustainability Lab.

Third-year architecture student Phillip Edmonston was on the club’s executive board with Sadekar, who is planning to stay at UVA for a master’s in systems engineering after graduation.

“As I spent more time with her across numerous Cuisine Club events and executive meetings, it became clear what an exemplary person Prachi is,” Edmonston said. “Her personable demeanor and powerful communication skills make her not only an effective leader, but also a beacon of kindness, knowledge and capability.”

Zachary Yahn, Bachelor of Science in computer engineering and computer science

Zachary Yahn photo

Yahn, a Jefferson Scholarship recipient at UVA, earned a George J. Mitchell Scholarship to pursue his master’s in computer science at University College Dublin.

He has attained a 4.00 GPA while holding multiple research positions and internships at UVA, including research assistant, teaching assistant and student instructor for a self-designed course. He also completed a deep learning research internship at the University of Michigan, and an NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates fellowship at Duke University.

Yahn also was a machine learning intern at NASA, where his application of artificial intelligence to planetary science was recognized by the agency’s chief scientist. He has presented at conferences such as IEEE-Aerospace and the International Conference on Learning Representations in Rwanda.

Yahn’s achievements include winning the top prize in the iDISPLA University Adversarial Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning Challenge. He and another student proposed combatting deepfake videos using machine learning and blockchain methods to authenticate media uploaded to the internet — an outside-the-box solution combining different computer science subfields, said Mircea Stan, Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor of Engineering and director of computer engineering.

“With this solution Zach proved his technical skills but also intense focus, great teamwork and rapid prototyping abilities,” Stan said.

Others supporting his nomination praised those qualities and more.

“Zach has the technical skills to directly enter industry, but I am delighted he intends not to,” said John Santerre, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who works with Yahn at NASA.

“Zach has the potential for far greater impact. His ability to collaborate, his proclivity for hard work and his deep technical skills combined with his desire for scientific inquiry would make him an excellent Ph.D. candidate. Additionally, he has the written and public speaking skills to share his technical knowledge with non-technical audiences.”

Yahn, who was active in the UVA chapter of Eta Kappa Nu, the Engineering Student Council, HackCVille, University Guide Service, and as captain of UVA Club Water Polo, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in trustworthy AI at Georgia Tech after his year in Ireland.

“He has set his sights on researching trustworthy and explainable AI,” said Todd DeLong, an assistant professor in UVA’s Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“It is hardly surprising to me that Zach would use his engineering skills and research acumen to approach this important problem, and I am confident that he will succeed wherever his path may take him.”