College Recognizes Graduate Student Excellence Awardees

From going above and beyond in campus safety to advancing the campus' understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion, the 2024 College of Engineering Graduate Student Excellence Awards recipients have made outstanding contributions to research, service, safety and DEI. 

This year, the four doctoral students honored are Jeff Lai, Alex San Pablo, Abdolhossein "Hossein" Edalati and Sophie Orr.  


Zhengfeng (Jeff) Lai

Excellence in Graduate Student Research

Zhengfeng (Jeff) Lai, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Lai is an outstanding researcher who stands to advance the possibilities of computer vision and machine learning. Throughout his graduate program, he published 14 articles (11 first-authored), which have already received over 200 citations. Notably, Lai won a Best Paper Award at the 2022 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition for pioneering research on a semi-supervised learning framework that does not make assumptions about unlabeled data. While pursuing his doctorate, he also filed a patent application for a project where he successfully applied machine learning to detect congenital heart disease in newborns. Lai graduated in December 2023 and currently works as a machine learning research scientist at Apple, where he has revolutionized the company's use of large-scale pre-training and multimodal modeling. 


Alex San Pablo

Excellence in Graduate Student Service & Leadership

Alex San Pablo, Civil and Environmental Engineering 

Since joining the College of Engineering, San Pablo has mentored undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in her geotechnical engineering group, fostering a community of excellence, collaboration and inclusion. She frequently contributes to workshops and events hosted by the Geotechnical Graduate Student Society that serve to advance the careers of its students and participates in outreach programs to uplift local communities and programs like STEM for Girls. Many of San Pablo's undergraduate mentees have gone on to graduate school because of her leadership, with several doctoral and master's students attributing their current success at UC Davis to her support. Moreover, it is telling that professors, staff members and students alike applaud San Pablo's leadership abilities, all noting her impressive work ethic and ability to lead with compassion and understanding.  


Abdolhossein "Hossein" Edalati

Excellence in Graduate Student Safety

Abdolhossein "Hossein" Edalati, Biological Systems Engineering

Edalati has made significant contributions to the safety of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. Within the lab of his advisor, Professor Ruihong Zhang, his diligence has led him to not only serve as a lab manager, safety contact and point person for training all new lab members but also as the lead for the lab's annual safety training since 2018. For the department, he has served as the interim BAE Chem Lab Manager, where he was instrumental in arranging the safe transport of hundreds of unnecessary chemicals to hazardous waste. While he no longer holds the interim position, Edalati continues to assist where needed and fills in when other members of the BAE Safety Team are unavailable.  


Sophie Orr

Excellence in Graduate Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Sophie Orr, Biomedical Engineering

Orr consistently inspires and advances the conversation around DEI for the college and UC Davis. As a fourth-year Ph.D. student, Orr provides DEI training to the campus community and pursues research in addition to her dissertation on musculoskeletal tissues to best address equitable access to orthopedic care and education. She challenges her colleagues to think critically about producing science that is grounded in equity. Orr has developed a first-year seminar with Professor Blaine Christiansen, her advisor and chair of the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Group, that explores the origins of anti-fat messaging in today's society and has presented on topics such as weight bias in orthopedics at national symposia. She is currently the co-chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering's Health, Equity and Wellness, or HEW, committee and is chair of the HEW Department Climate subcommittee. 

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