When Neelesh Bagrodia, ’20 biomedical engineering, traveled to Guatemala in May 2019 with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders to improve clean water access in a remote village, he felt he was living the best time of his life. Using his engineering skills to solve wicked problems was exactly what drew him to the profession.
Two years and bigger challenges later, Bagrodia, who is now in his first year of medical school at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and was USC Viterbi’s 2020 valedictorian, realized that the work in Guatemala was only the beginning.
Addressing the graduating class one year later, Bagrodia recalled taking one last stroll through campus before putting on his cap and gown last May. He stopped along the places to cement them in his memory: Kaprielian Hall, where calculus discussions would stretch into the night; Professor Pin Wang’s Center for ImmunoEngineering in Ronald Tutor Hall where he killed cancer cells with chimeric antigen receptors; Birnkrant Residential College, with its 24-hour Starbucks and random free food in the lobby to keep neurons firing past 4:00 AM studying for the chem test.
“As I walked down Trousdale, I made sure to take enough mental photos of Doheny to last me a lifetime,” Bagrodia said. “I used to think that once we don these graduation robes, we have all the answers. Yet I feel I have more questions about the world now than ever before.”
He was joined on his walk down memory lane by 2021 valedictorian, Jacob Toney, who graduates with both a bachelor’s and a master’s in chemical engineering.
At the USC Viterbi online, graduation celebrations on May 13, Toney shared in Bagrodia’s humble view of the world and his place in it.
“I’m not older or wiser or more anything than anyone here,” he told the engineering class of 2021 attending the online ceremony. “I certainly don’t deserve to be telling anyone how to live their life or find happiness.”
But Toney didn’t want to dwell on unanswered questions and the sorrow of things left behind.
“We study engineering because we’re not content to simply accept things the way they are,” he said. “Because when we see something broken, we think not of what’s wrong, but of how we can make it better.”
As president of USC’s American Institute of Chemical Engineers and USC’s Latino Alumni Association Scholar Committee, Toney expanded outreach efforts and launched programs like the Freshman Engineering Design Challenge, an alumni mentorship program, and a K-12 STEM outreach program.
Post-graduation, he will join SpaceX as an operations engineer before he becomes a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Engineering + Character + Hope
“We’ve had some truly amazing classes over the years,” said Dean Yannis Yortsos. “But perhaps none as resilient, adaptive and creative as the Class of 2021.”
“Future USC Viterbi leaders will speak glowingly about the contributions of this class, whose members come from countries around the globe,” added Kelly Goulis, senior associate dean for admission and student engagement. Together, Yortsos and Goulis co-hosted the USC Viterbi undergraduate and graduate celebrations.
“We study engineering because we’re not content to accept things the way they are, because when we see something broken, we think not of what’s wrong but of how to make it better.”
’21 B.S. & M.S. Chemical Engineering
USC Viterbi Valedictorian
Andrew Viterbi, Ph.D. ’62, the engineer for whom the USC Viterbi School was named, applauded the determination of the students to “soldier through a year and half of a global pandemic.”
The creator of the Viterbi Algorithm, Andrew Viterbi’s work revolutionized digital communications, making things like Zoom possible. A member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, Viterbi has literally brought the world together by eliminating distances and boundaries and keeping the world connected, no matter what challenges come.
“As you revel in this monumental achievement, and pivot toward the unique opportunities that await you, be proud to be a USC alum and especially be proud to be an engineer,” Viterbi said.
The graduates of 2021 have witnessed tectonic shifts that have changed the way we live, study and work in only a year’s time. Toney’s reply on behalf of the Class of 2021: “100 years after the lost generation, we have found ourselves. We are ready to accept our duty!”
“We focus on the world of today because we know we can improve it,” he said. “And when you improve the present, you improve the future. We are the generation we’ve been waiting for!”
Eric Hobbs, B.S. ’00, C.E.O. of Berkeley Lights, a leading digital cell biology company, encouraged the graduates to dream bigger:
“It’s one of the most exciting times ever to be graduating as an engineer,” said Hobbs who holds over 50 U.S. and international patents and is a sought-after lecturer on engineering design and invention. “Engineering has gained the attention of the global citizen. There’s a revolution going on, and we need you to have a big vision and a big mission for yourself.”
The Engineer Of Tomorrow, Today
Graduates like Ghena Alhanaee, Ph.D. ’21 civil and environmental engineering, embody these big visions. Alhanaee is developing a coordinated disaster mitigation system between water-starved countries in the Persian Gulf. Last year MIT Technology Review recognized Alhanaee as one of the world’s leading innovators under 35.
Then, there are students like Lisa Meng, ’21, M.S. healthcare data science, who worked on developing a machine-learning algorithm to help diagnose breast cancer tissues; Shobhita Rajashekar, ’21 M.S. astronautical engineering, who played a leading role on the NASA RASC-AL team selected to present novel deep space mission concepts to NASA and aerospace industry leaders; and Maria Herrera Leos, ’21 M.S. civil and environmental engineering, a Fulbright scholar whose work is making buildings more resilient in earthquakes in her home country, Mexico.
“The pandemic, in many ways, brought two things to the fore,” said Rajashekar who also served as an astronautical engineering senator. “One – that humans are designed to adapt to new situations, however painful that process is, and two – that humans also come together to help each other in times of need.”
The 2021 master’s graduating class is the most representative in Viterbi’s history, with 32 percent of graduates being women, and students hailing from 44 countries around the world.
Ashley Crowder, ‘08, B.S., M.S. ’09, spoke about her own engineering journey and how she has had to reinvent herself from working as an engineer on an oil refinery plant to the CEO and co-founder of VNTANA, an industry-leading augmented reality platform.
“Your degree isn’t just about the specific things that you studied,” she said. “Viterbi taught you how to learn, how to think and solve problems that can be applied to every industry. I can’t wait to see what you all do in this new world we’re living in.”
Undergraduate and Graduate Event Recordings from May 13, 2021