The School of Engineering and Applied Science celebrated its 2021 Class Day ceremony, with Dean Andrea Goldsmith commending the “accomplishments and resilience of the great Class of 2021,” noting the graduates’ perseverance through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Class of 2021 is the centennial class, marking the 100-year anniversary of the [engineering] school,” she said, addressing students, families and friends in an online ceremony May 24. “You join a very long list of distinguished scholars and engineers that have contributed to the technology that allows us to operate in the modern world, so I look forward to seeing the amazing things that all of you will do,” said Goldsmith, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

With 282 graduates receiving engineering degrees and 45 receiving bachelor of arts degrees in computer science, the class included 327 students, which represents 28% of the Princeton class.

Members of the Class of 2021 will pursue graduate education at universities including Harvard, MIT, Johns Hopkins and Stanford; others will start their own companies or begin careers at employers such as AstraZeneca, Merck, Boeing and Microsoft, said Goldsmith. Other graduates will enter medical or law school, become professional athletes, join the military, or work as service fellows with Princeton in Asia, Princeton in Africa, or Project 55.

“You will always carry a part of Princeton with you,” she said. “I hope that, as you embark on this next stage of your professional journey, you will be inspired by Princeton’s motto to serve the nation and all humanity in your professional and personal endeavors.”

Group of students conversing and laughing outdoors

Engineering school faculty and upperclassmen welcomed the Class of 2021 at an event in September 2017.

Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy

In addition to recognizing graduates, the engineering school honored Andrew Houck with its annual Distinguished Teacher Award. Houck, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, was cited for his “infectious enthusiasm” and “versatility … evident in the range of topics he teaches, which can be highly technical, such as quantum computing, to very hands-on projects such as Car Lab,” said Vice Dean Antoine Kahn.

Kahn also highlighted Houck’s leadership in developing and teaching a new series of courses for first-year engineering students, which have helped boost interest and success in engineering for a broad group of students.

“While someday I hope I can put a new device in your hand or add a paragraph the science textbooks, it’s the work that [my students will do] that will dwarf anything I could do on my own, and whatever small role I’ve had in helping you realize your potential will be the most important and impactful work of my career,” said Houck.

The winners of major awards at the 2021 Princeton Engineering Class Day, as presented by Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs Peter Bogucki, were:


Paige Bentley

An operations research and financial engineering major, Bentley completed a senior thesis exploring the fairness and equity of algorithmic-based carceral risk assessments for sentencing decisions. Her adviser, Professor Matias Cattaneo, said the thesis provides “empirical evidence supporting the need for reevaluating and improving standard carceral risk assessment algorithms.” Bentley also served as an assistant for the EGR 153 course for several years. Professor Jim Sturm said that she helped him immensely in shaping the course and had a positive impact on students in the lab and office hours. Bentley, of West Chester, Ohio, will move to Seattle to begin working at Amazon while serving in the Washington Army National Guard.

Jacob Walrath

A mechanical and aerospace engineering major with a certificate in applications of computing, Walrath, along with classmates Gargi Sadalgekar and Samarie Wilson, studied the problem of designing decision-making and control strategies for a team of autonomous robots to carry out tasks, such as picking up trash, in an unfamiliar or uncertain environment. Their adviser, Professor Naomi Leonard, praised Walrath’s work on the control, design and implementation of algorithms on a high-fidelity simulation of a multi-robot system. Walrath, of Fort Sam Houston, Texas, will serve in Army Aviation at Fort Rucker, Alabama.


Charles Zhao

A computer science major with certificates in engineering physics and statistics and machine learning, Zhao analyzed images of more than 400 galaxies with a component separation method that enforces physical constraints, in this case the presence of strong emission lines. He also developed an automated search procedure for these emission line components in large astronomical imaging surveys. His adviser, Assistant Professor Peter Melchior, said this method reveals the morphology of extended emission line regions in distant galaxies and will help clarify the mechanism by which they are powered. Zhao, of Fairfax Station, Virginia, will work as an autonomy software engineer at Nuro in Mountain View, California.

THE TAU BETA PI PRIZE             

Shalaka Madge

A mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) major with certificates in materials science and engineering and engineering and management systems, Madge was recognized for being extraordinarily generous with her time in service to the School of Engineering and Applied Science. From summer 2018 until early 2020, she was a fixture in the undergraduate affairs office, first giving tours and then becoming a specialist in training new tour guides. Madge also served on student panels, including for the Society of Women Engineers, and most recently as part of a delegation of students that met with the School of Engineering and Applied Science Leadership Council. She has been president of the MAE student council, in which capacity she met with the MAE advisory council and organized chat sessions for new students in the department. Of special note is her collaboration with classmate David Zamora on a video that answers frequently asked questions by students considering majoring in MAE.  Finally, she served as a grader for COS 126 and a course assistant for Math 201. Madge’s thesis involved numerical modeling of batteries; she identified a curious effect of shear stress that may arise due to differences in the Poisson ratio of the materials. Her adviser, Professor Craig Arnold, said that her findings could explain anomalous experimental results seen over the years. Madge, of Ledgewood, New Jersey, will join the Engineering Leadership Development Program at BAE Systems in Michigan.


Elaine Wright

An electrical engineering major with a certificate in linguistics, Wright has been an advocate of the deaf and hearing-impaired community on campus, raising awareness of American Sign Language (ASL) and deaf culture. She served as an officer in the ASL Club and was behind a successful student referendum asking that ASL be given the same status as spoken languages with respect to course offerings and the language requirement. Wright’s thesis addressed a longstanding sign language-spoken language barrier, since ASL encodes information differently from a spoken language. She mapped video clips showing deaf users demonstrating ASL signs to words in the Princeton WordNet to develop a lexical database called ASLNet, compatible with the Princeton WordNet and dozens of wordnets in other languages. Her adviser, Professor Christiane Fellbaum, called Wright’s thesis “an outstanding example of how an engineer can make significant contributions to global communication.” Wright, of Tucson, Arizona, will work as a software engineer at Microsoft.

Dora Zhao

A computer science major with certificates in Asian American studies and statistics and machine learning, Zhao studied the important question of racial biases in the computer vision task of image captioning — that is, automatically generating a text description for an image. She identified three key components of the problem: labeling a large-scale computer vision dataset with thousands of images with gender and race demographics, thoroughly analyzing the behavior of existing image captioning systems on images with different demographics, and adjusting image captioning systems to mitigate the racial or gender bias revealed in the previous steps. Such mitigation is timely, since Dora’s analysis of current models of automated image captioning suggests that bias is increasing, not decreasing. Her adviser, Assistant Professor Olga Russakovsky, said that Zhao displayed “incredible clarity of scientific thought” in her methodical approach to advance her research. Zhao, of Newtown, Pennsylvania, will remain at Princeton to pursue a master’s degree in computer science.


Joseph Sartini

An operations research and financial engineering major with a certificate in applications of computing, Sartini was a middle-distance runner on the track and field team throughout his time at Princeton. He helped Princeton score in several Ivy League championship events, both individually and as a member of the 4x800-meter relay team. His coach, Jason Vigilante, said that Sartini “aims for excellence in every facet of his life” and that he “holds himself to a very high standard.” In his senior thesis work on an alternative to traditional object detection and tracking in autonomous vehicles, Sartini developed a perturbation-based approach to inherently capture knowledge gained from one image or epoch to “warm start” the solution for the next image or epoch, as well as use image flow from video as fundamental data instead of individual image data. His adviser, Professor Alain Kornhauser, said the work will form the basis of substantial additional research and real-time implementation. Sartini, of Conway, Arkansas, will pursue a Ph.D. in biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University.

MaryKate Neff

A chemical and biological engineering major, Neff has been a star on the field hockey team, playing in one NCAA quarterfinal, one NCAA Final Four, and one NCAA championship game. Neff was named 2nd Team All-Ivy and 2nd Team All Mid-Atlantic Region two times. Additionally, she has been a member of the U.S. Under-21 team since 2017. Her coach, Carla Tagliente, said that in addition to being an outstanding player, Neff set an example for younger players through her leadership and confidence. Her thesis focused on the design and characterization of hydrogel drying. By directly visualizing the drying of hydrogel disks on substrates with different water affinity, Neff discovered different modes in which hydrogels deform, depending on their geometry, mechanical properties and interactions with surrounding boundaries. Her adviser, Assistant Professor Sujit Datta, said she achieved impressive results that will be written up for publication. Neff, of Villanova, Pennsylvania, will begin studies in the Master of Management Studies: Foundations of Business program at Duke University.


Henry Birge-Lee

A computer science major, Birge-Lee designed, deployed and evaluated a defense against cyberattacks on internet certificate authorities. He worked with Let’s Encrypt, the world’s largest certificate authority, to deploy his proposed defenses. His evaluation of the defenses, through measurements of the Let’s Encrypt deployment and through simulation experiments, showed that his solution works quickly and effectively. Not only is Let’s Encrypt now using Birge-Lee’s defense to protect the issuance of more than half a billion certificates, but his work has also led to several papers at major security conferences. “Henry is an exceptional researcher who has made unusually deep contributions to internet security,” said Professor Jennifer Rexford, who co-advised his thesis work with Associate Professor Prateek Mittal. Birge-Lee, of High Bridge, New Jersey, will be a research software engineer at Princeton, continuing his collaboration with Mittal, Rexford and Let’s Encrypt.

Trisha Madhavan

An electrical engineering major with a certificate in materials science and engineering, Madhavan developed methods for improving and understanding the limitations of superconducting qubit coherence. She did exhaustive materials characterization to test hypotheses for qubit losses and devised methods to control and decrease tantalum oxide thickness, which may enable a path toward world-record qubit lifetime. Her adviser, Assistant Professor Nathalie de Leon, said the work “will have immediate impact on numerous efforts around the world in academia and industry” and “will continue to serve as a reference document … for years to come.” Madhavan’s work was the culmination of several years of research on quantum sensing, quantum computing and materials science, not only at Princeton but also in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and the IBM Thomas J. Watson Center. Madhavan, of Katy, Texas, will pursue a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Rei Zhang

A civil and environmental engineering major with certificates in environmental studies and technology and society, Zhang conducted thesis research on nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant primarily from vehicle emissions. She comprehensively examined spatiotemporal patterns and trends of air pollution and mobility across the United States through syntheses of data from ground-based sensor networks, satellites, meteorological observations, and cell-phone mobility, comparing 2020 data with the same measurements from 2019. Her work showed that urban areas took COVID shutdowns more seriously than other areas, and that COVID fatigue resulted in progressively smaller effects on air pollution after the initial spring 2020 lockdown. Her adviser, Associate Professor Mark Zondlo, said Zhang’s thesis “sets the bar for … COVID/air quality studies,” and Professor Denise Mauzerall called her work “incredibly relevant and innovative” in linking human behavior with atmospheric observations. Zhang, of Auburn, Alabama, will be an environmental consultant for Ramboll US Corporation.


Bianca Gabrielle Acot

A civil and environmental engineering major with a certificate in materials science and engineering, Acot began her research with a project on structural health monitoring with Associate Professor Branko Glisic in the fall of 2019, before heading to Ireland to spend her spring term at University College Dublin. There, she studied impact biomechanics of the human body and neurotrauma, and learned techniques to find the X, Y and Z velocities and accelerations of head impacts in rugby matches. Returning to Princeton, she developed a method that identifies velocities and accelerations experienced by the head due to impacts, calculates the resulting mechanical stress and strain induced in the brain, and correlates them with diffusion tensor imaging and actual medical concussion diagnosis in college football players. With approval from Princeton’s Institutional Review Board, Acot obtained video from varsity football games for her analysis. Her thesis advisers were Glisic, Annegret Dettwiler-Danspeckgruber of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and Professor Michael Gilchrist from UCD. Acot, of Maywood, New Jersey, will conduct medical research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Wenyuan Hou

A mechanical and aerospace engineering major with a certificate in materials science and engineering, Hou has compiled an extensive research and design biography during the last several years. Beginning in the summer of 2018, he fatigue-tested piezoelectric energy-harvesting underwater acoustic transmitters at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, followed by leading a Rocketry Club team to design and build a composite airframe for Princeton’s 30,000-foot Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition rocket, and designed a test fixture for proofing and leak-checking a fluid joint in the oxidizer transfer line at Firefly Aerospace in Texas. Last summer, Hou began working remotely with Professor Craig Arnold’s group, studying the behavior of molten powder as multiple laser beams passed across it and developing a finite element model to describe the fluid mechanics in molten material. For his thesis, Hou designed and built a lightweight table-top laser powder-bed fusion-additive manufacturing system. Inspired by agricultural grain handling systems, he devised an integrated screw feed system that allows a user to simply place a sealed cartridge in the printer; the system will then automatically distribute layers of powder for printing. “This thesis is fantastic … and the [system] he built will likely continue to be used in my lab for years to come,” said Arnold. Hou, of Colonie, New York, will begin graduate study at MIT.

Graduate giving commencement address

Taishi Nakase, the Class of 2021 valedictorian and an operations research and financial engineering major from Melbourne, Australia, delivers his remarks at Princeton's May 16 Commencement Ceremony. He is wearing two stoles — gold for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) affinity group and green for the first-generation/lower-income (FLi) affinity group.

Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications


Taishi Nakase

An operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) major with a certificate in applications of computing, Nakase was the valedictorian for the Class of 2021. He has also been recognized with the Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Award, the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence, as well as induction into Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi as a junior. His senior thesis addressed the modern challenges of measles control in Vietnam, modeling to optimize vaccination campaigns under conditions of limited health care resources. His adviser, Associate Professor Mykhaylo Shkolnikov, said, “the computational challenges Taishi had to overcome were quite substantial, given that he was simulating a multitude of entire epidemic trajectories … He managed to overcome these challenges by designing clever algorithms and appropriate coarse graining of the data … In the context of the current pandemic, any government would have been fortunate to be able to base its vaccination policies on a detailed, insightful analysis akin to Taishi’s thesis.” Professor Bryan Grenfell, of the School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who also advised Nakase, said, “I’d have been delighted with this work from a particularly adept and experienced postdoc … from an undergraduate, it’s astonishing.” Outside the classroom, Nakase was a teaching assistant for courses in ORFE, computer science and chemistry, and a peer mentor to incoming engineering students. He was also a volunteer counselor for Contact of Mercer County, an emotional support and crisis hotline. Nakase, of Melbourne, Australia, will pursue a Master of Science in modeling for global health at Oxford University before attending medical school.