Celebrating Leadership and Service at the Viterbi Awards

| April 15, 2022

The 43rd annual event celebrated honorees Dr. Ayanna Howard, Steve Isakowitz, and Jim Baum

Dean and Awardees 2022

From left: Dean Yortsos, Dr. Ayanna Howard, Jim Baum, and Steve Isakowitz. Photo credit: Steve Cohn.

For the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Viterbi Awards returned to its home at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The 43rd annual ceremony was held on April 14, 2022, honoring members of the USC Viterbi family who made outstanding contributions to the school’s success and legacy.

In attendance at the “Academy Awards of Engineering” were notable alumni, star students, and corporate sponsors who celebrated the main awardees of the night: Dr. Ayanna Howard, Steve Isakowitz, and Dwight J. “Jim” Baum. Student groups Social Benefit and Watershield were also recognized for their entrepreneurship.

USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos kicked off the night by reviewing USC Viterbi’s performance since the beginning of the COVID era, and detailing the many opportunities it has for exponential growth in 2022. He has remarked before how the onset of the pandemic was like a “collapse of the wavefunction,” shifting us all into a new universe. This time, he expressed hope that the wavefunction collapses again, but that “we are joining a post-COVID world, full of promise, challenges but also of opportunity for endless innovation.”

At the podium, he highlighted the accomplishments of USC Viterbi faculty, staff, and students in recent years. Of note: Viterbi has maintained gender parity in its admissions for the third year in a row, the undergraduate Rocket Propulsion Lab team broke the world record by launching a student-made rocket 100 km in the air, and USC became the only West Coast university to join the US Space Force partnership. Additionally, five faculty were inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in the previous three years and 14 junior faculty were granted NSF Career Awards in the past two years.

Daniel J. Epstein Engineering Management Award

The Daniel J. Epstein Engineering Management Award was granted to Steve Isakowitz, President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation.

Over Isakowitz’s 30 years working in the aerospace industry, his work has led to renewed plans to send mankind to the moon, spurred government efforts to research climate change, furthered the pursuit of new clean energy technologies, and opened up commercial frontiers of space travel to the public.

Isakowitz received a Bachelors and Masters diploma in Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has spent years at various industry and government aerospace positions. Notably, he was Deputy CFO and Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA and Chief Financial Officer at the U.S. Department of Energy, overseeing wide-reaching scientific research and innovation at the federal level.

At the Aerospace Corporation, he led the implementation of new mentorship & fellowship programs, empowering young engineers from diverse backgrounds to realize their potential in the aerospace field.

The award was presented by USC Viterbi alumnus and member of the USC Board of Trustees, Daniel Epstein.

“As the namesake of this award, I can’t think of another person who embodies its spirit more than Steve Isakowitz,” said Epstein.

“It’s at moments like this that I can’t help but think about my parents,” remarked Isakowitz upon accepting the award.  They both immigrated from Eastern Europe, they were both Holocaust survivors. When they came to this country, they gave me the room to dream and know that I could literally reach for the stars, and I’m indebted to them.”

Mark A. Stevens Distinguished Alumni Award

The Mark A. Stevens Distinguished Alumni Award was presented to Dr. Ayanna Howard, Dean of Engineering at Ohio State University.

After receiving her Master’s (’94) and PhD (’99) from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Howard worked as a Senior Robotics Researcher at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She was the only female engineer on a team of sixty in the robotics division. In her time at NASA, she pioneered technology that facilitated the safe landing of spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

She co-founded and serves on the board of Zyrobotics, a company that designs AI-powered apps that enable young children with special needs to explore STEM. Howard also taught for 17 years at Georgia Institute of Technology and was named the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Chair in Bioengineering and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing.

She has been recognized as one of “The Most Powerful Women Engineers” by Business Insider and one of the “Top 50 U.S. Women in Tech” by Forbes.

“When I think about my experience at USC, the one thing it taught me was the importance of sponsorship,” said Howard. “We all have mentors, but sponsors are the ones in the rooms, behind the doors, that are actually advocating for you. I had so many sponsors at USC.”

Howard named Dr. Timothy Pinkston, Dr. Ken Goldberg, and Dr. George Bekey as USC professors who were integral in motivating her to become an academic.

“I am proud to be a USC alumna because it taught me so much about being a sponsor, about imagining what the future could be, and about the foundation of what engineering is really about,” said Howard.

Distinguished Service Award

The Distinguished Service Award was presented to Jim Baum, chairman of the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors.

Baum attended Cornell and Stanford for his education, leading to a long career as a pilot, engineer, adventurer, and teacher. It was only when his son began studying mechanical engineering at USC Viterbi that Baum became heavily involved in the university. He has always believed that students learn to become engineers through hands-on experience. Thus, when his son wanted to start a car racing team on campus, Baum helped found the USC Formula SAE Racing team.

2021 saw the grand opening of the Baum Family Maker Space, a generous gift by Baum and his family. This massive design space allows undergraduate students to use their creativity to tinker and create with tools such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, a machine shop, and welding stations. Student groups from 3D Printing 4 Everyone to Chem-E Car use the space to work on independent projects and prepare for nationwide competitions.

“Jim and his family have established a legacy that has directly helped USC Viterbi become a leader in engineering education and research,” said Dean Yortsos. “For decades he has provided the ultimate guidance and leadership to fellow board members, faculty, staff, alumni, and myself.”

Upon receiving the award from Yortsos, Baum was quick to thank everyone that helped his gifts have a meaningful, lasting impact.

“This service award reflects upon the entire Viterbi school,” he said. “Everything we’ve accomplished has been thanks to the enthusiasm of Dean Yortsos, his staff, and especially the students.”

Min Family Challenge (MFC)

Sponsored by Bryan, Julie, Brandon, and Brittany Min, the Min Family Challenge is an engineering competition that challenges students to tackle societal problems to benefit underprivileged communities on the local and national scale. Students bring in-development business models for their social enterprises to the contest, competing for the grand prize of a $50,000 grant.

In previous years, the visionary program has employed student entrepreneurship to help hurricane victims in Texas, refugees on the Greek Island of Lesbos, and underrepresented populations in the United States.

The 2021 winner, Social Benefit, is developing a digital platform that analyzes how recipients of welfare benefits at the local and federal levels are affected by the “benefits cliff”: the point at which minor career advancements cause families to lose low-income benefits. Social Benefit hopes to empower case managers, their clients, and even policymakers who want to reform the welfare system.

Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC)

The Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition aims to inspire USC Viterbi engineering innovators to develop technology-based solutions for some of the world’s biggest challenges. It trains and mentors entrepreneurial teams to become successful startups and develop a lifelong mindset for innovation.

Founded in 2010 with a $1 million endowment from entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh, the MEPC is not only a competition but an incubator. Co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, the program enables students to conduct customer outreach in order to refine their technology’s market niche. Winners of the challenge receive $50,000 in cash prizes and complimentary legal services from MEPC.

The winning team in 2021 was Watershield, a company that overs cancer patients a protective covering for their central catheter that enables them to shower comfortably without worrying about infection. Its bio-inspired water barrier technology adheres to the skin without using any chemical irritants.

Trojan marching band at Viterbi awards

The night concluded with a performance by the Trojan Marching Band.

Published on April 15th, 2022

Last updated on April 15th, 2022

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