Wells Award recipients balance cutting-edge science with humanities

October 27, 2020

Sofia GuarnieriYujin NakamotoJiayin Zhang

This year’s recipients of the Hajim School Wells Award have capitalized on the University of Rochester’s status as a first-tier research institution. The three seniors have gained hands-on lab experience at the cutting edge of technology and science.

Sofia Guarnieri, for example, has been working since last year in the lab of associate professor Amy Lerner, using MeVisLab to accurately segment the bone, cartilage and meniscus in the knee joint.

Jiayin Zhang, has been working with assistant professor Ranga Dias, whose lab recently achieved a major milestone: creation of superconducting material at room temperature.

And Yujin Nakamoto has been able to tap into the University’s Blue Hive computing cluster to study energy-efficient inference in convolutional and deep neural networks in the Computer Systems Architecture Lab.

However, all three students have also been able pursue their passions in the humanities—and excel at them—which is what the Wells Award is all about.  It is given to seniors who are not only majoring in an engineering discipline, but also pursuing majors or minors in the humanities. Winners are chosen based on those with the highest GPAs at the end of their junior year.

Both the University and the Hajim School stress the importance of the humanities as part of a well-rounded education. That is especially true for engineering students, says Lisa Norwood, assistant dean of the Hajim School. “Although engineers are problem solvers, as problems become larger and more complex, it’s important that our students are skilled at communicating with each other, their customers, and with other stakeholders in order to effectively solve these problems,” she says.

“Studying the humanities provides our students with the skills to clearly communicate their ideas with diverse audiences, facilitating multidisciplinary collaborations and generating creative ideas. This helps make our graduates well-rounded and socially conscious individuals.”

The University’s open curriculum, with its unique cluster system, gives engineering students greater flexibility to pursue an interest in humanities than they would have otherwise.

Final exam on a mountain top

Guarnieri, for example, is majoring in biomedical engineering, but also earning a minor in Spanish. 

“I was in a dual language program in elementary school, taking Spanish since I was five. I wanted to make sure I didn't lose that once I got to college,” says Guarnieri, who is from Sleepy Hollow, NY. She spent a month living with a host family in Ecuador through a Spanish language immersion program offered through the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures. This gave her an opportunity to “use my Spanish on a daily basis,” Guarnieri says. “I actually knew a lot more Spanish than I thought I did, because I was able to get through dinner conversations just fine, which I didn’t think I was going to be able to do.”

Guarnieri, a member of the varsity swim team, also spent a semester studying abroad in Christchurch, New Zealand. In addition to taking a course that counted towards her biomedical engineering major, she also completed “Land Journeys and Ethics.” The final exam consisted of a three-day hike through scenic mountains. “We had to deliver our presentation on top of a mountain. It was amazing,” she says.

As part of her work in the Lerner lab, she collaborates with engineers and radiologists at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. One focus of the research is to better understand the impact when part of the meniscus is removed, in terms of affecting the contact mechanics of the knee and the risk of developing osteoarthritis.

“I have really been enjoying it,” she says. 

And the research ties in nicely with her future goals. After she graduates, Guarnieri would like to earn a master’s degree in medical device design (the CMTI master’s program at Rochester is on her list of places to apply to) and then go into industry.

‘I would like to stay’

“I think only knowing engineering would be kind of boring,” Zhang says. “I would end up being a stereotypically boring person. And I don’t want to be that.” 

So, in addition to a major in mechanical engineering and a minor in physics, Zhang is also pursuing a minor in art history. This semester, for example, he is treating himself to course on Impressionism – “probably my favorite genre”—and post-Impressionism, says Zhang, who is from Shanghai. 

He has also participated on the Baja SAE student team, which designs and builds an off-road vehicle to enter in competitions against teams from other colleges from around the world. He’s played table tennis with a student club. And he was selected for a prestigious DAAD-Rise fellowship in German this summer, which was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zhang would have spent at Hamburg University of Technology, researching Modeling and Simulation of Flexible Multibody Systems. However, he was able to spend the summer after his first year at Rochester working as a structural engineer for Raypai Photonic Crystals back home in Shanghai, working on structural design of AR glasses.

A thermodynamics class taught by assistant professor Ranga Dias was a turning point, says Zhang.  Dias was discussing his research with superconducting materials, and Zhang thought “’Wow, this looks great; really cutting edge.’ I talked to him and got into his lab.” Eventually Zhang helped produce micro coil systems to detect superconductivity in the materials the lab was experimenting with.

And that’s where he’d like to stay. “I’m planning to complete a PhD in materials science,” Zhang says. “I have a list of schools, but I would like to stay and work with Professor Dias. 

“I am really interested in his work.”

Multiple degrees, multiple interests

When he is not working on majors in electrical and computer engineering and math, Nakamoto is also pursuing a BA in classical Greek. This has resulted in diverse opportunities for research and global experience.

For example, Nakamoto found “common ground” for his interests in computer architecture and stochastic processes by researching neural network accelerators this past summer under Darya Mikhailenko and Engin Ipek in the Computer Systems Architecture Laboratory. This work, enabled by access to the Center for Integrated Research Computing (CIRC)’s BlueHive computing cluster, culminated in the acceptance of a paper by IEEE Computer Architecture Letters.

During spring break of 2019, he visited Athens under Professors Emily Jusino and Cameron Hawkins of the Department of Religion and Classics. “This was an incredible reification of so many things I had learned and read about the Greeks,” Nakamoto says. “The past winter, I'd conducted some research into the Athenian historian Thucydides and the mechanics of Greek policide---the strategic destruction and enslavement of entire city-states.” This resulted in another paper, published in the University’s Journal of Undergraduate Research.

And during the summer of 2019 Nakamoto interned at Radiolocation Limited and Allied Power Ltd. in Hong Kong, helping deploy metrological systems for municipal and industrial waterworks. In summers before that, he served as a technical writer and copy editor for various water bureaus throughout Asia, translating Japanese industrial standards into English. 

In addition to serving as editor in chief of LOGOS, the University’s undergraduate literary arts journal, he has participated in the running club and the student chapter of IEEE. 

A graduate of the selective Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH, Nakamoto came to Rochester planning to study classical Greek. However, “having rubbed shoulders with so many math and science types at Exeter, I'd developed sort of a chip on mine,” Nakamoto says. “Come Rochester, I wanted to beat them at their own game, while maintaining suspicious relations with the humanities. Three years later, I've learned that engineering and mathematics are useful in their own right: they are one of the few principled frameworks we really possess. Without numbers and instruments, we are dead in the water.”

And after he graduates? Nakamoto says he’s still “on the fence” about whether to apply to various master’s programs (in electrical engineering) or go into industry. In any event, Nakamoto credits the University’s open curriculum for allowing him to pursue multiple degrees, multiple interests. “I’ve taken combinations of courses that would probably have been hard to sell to an advisor in another school,” he says.

About the Wells Award

The Robert L. Wells Prize is named after the 1939 graduate in mechanical engineering who became a top executive at Westinghouse, was elected to the University’s Athletic Hall of Fame for his prowess as a varsity high jumper, and later served as a life trustee. He felt strongly that an engineer needed the balance of the humanities to be a competent engineer.