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Undergraduate Spotlight: Sanaaya Lakdawala – Class of 2022

In her own words  interviewed Summer 2021

  • Hometown: Gilroy, CA
  • Year: Senior
  • Favorite ECE Course: Optical Fiber Communications (ECE 135)
  • Student Organizations: Engineers Without Borders - Panama Team, Society of Women Engineers
  • Last Book Read: Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • Interesting aside about you: I met the former manager of the Grateful Dead on a bus in Goleta

Sanaaya’s Favorite

  • Hobbies: Traveling, sketching portraits, painting, community service
  • Band / Performer: Pink Floyd
  • TV Show: Veep
  • Movie: Arrival
  • Book / Author: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • Activity: Reading, listening to music, watching old movies
  • Sport: Basketball
  • Geeky Possession: Arduino RC monster truck

Favorite things about

  • ECE Department: The environment is more collaborative than competitive. Students are willing to help each other out on difficult assignments and projects, and professors and Teaching Assistants (TAs) are available to consult. There is always cutting-edge research being done in most fields of electrical engineering, which gives students many opportunities to explore their interests and deepen their knowledge.
  • UCSB: The diversity of backgrounds, ideas, and interests. Campus culture makes it common to interact with other STEM students outside of the ECE department and with students in the arts and humanities.
  • Santa Barbara: I love being so close to the beach. The weather is also great, and downtown Santa Barbara has great places to eat and beautiful architecture.

Sanaaya and Electrical Engineering

Why EE as a major? When I was a kid, I was fascinated with space exploration technology. Studying math and physics showed me how pure science can be applied to make seemingly impossible things possible. In high school, I worked at a local radio show Planet Watch Radio producing environmental and technological news, which solidified my interest in pursuing a career in renewable energy development. Since then, my fields of interest have changed as I learn more about emerging research and technologies, but my commitment to renewable energy and the environment remains.

Why did you select UCSB's EE program? When I visited the school for Spring Insight, I heard about many research projects from faculty and students. I knew I wanted to do research of my own in undergrad and grad school, so I selected a program that encouraged original research and lab work instead of a program that only prepared students for industry. On top of being a large research institution, UCSB is highly ranked in engineering and has world-class faculty.

How did you hear about UCSB's EE program? I heard that UCSB’s physics department was top-tier, so I looked into its engineering program.

Prospective students and parents often ask, what can you do with an EE degree? Almost everything we use in our daily life requires electricity to produce, operate, or maintain. Having an EE degree opens up paths in many industries from medical technology to renewable energy to telecommunications. Engineers more interested in discrete math and computer science can work in signal processing, whereas others more interested in electrodynamics can work in optical fiber or photonic circuit design. In addition to the variety of fields of EE, a variety of career and academic paths are available to us. You can pursue a PhD to produce original cutting-edge research, or join a large company to provide new technology to consumers. Students that have an entrepreneurial spirit and big ideas can even build their own startups.

The Curriculum

What have you learned that has surprised you the most so far? The way that all of the fields of electrical engineering are interwoven and how our understanding builds in complexity. When we first learn how to analyze circuits (ECE 10A/B/C), we use circuit element abstractions and complex phasors to represent the behavior of circuits. In semiconductor devices (ECE 132) we learn about why these models for transistors and diodes are used, and in signal processing (ECE 130A/B), we learn how the Laplace transform allows us to analyze circuits in the complex domain. The physics of electromagnetic waves (ECE 134) and the fundamental devices we study in electronics (ECE137A/B) like op-amps and filters come together to help us build optical transmitters and receivers.

What has your experience been like taking the Math and Physics core classes? I really enjoyed classes like vector calculus (Math 6A/B) and electrodynamics (Phys 4) because I was lucky enough to have studied calculus and physics in high school and community college. This preparation made it possible for me to understand and appreciate the advanced concepts introduced in university-level classes without getting bogged down in the basics. The required math and physics classes can really be a struggle for students that prefer practical, hands-on learning because they pack a lot of theoretical concepts into a short time. UCSB's Campus Learning Assistance Services (CLAS), office hours, and fellow students are a great resource when you find yourself struggling with the material.

What has been your most challenging but rewarding course? Optical Fiber Communication (ECE 135) required a deep understanding of electromagnetic theory and solid state physics, which was daunting at first. Once I overcame my initial struggle with the physical concepts like wave transmission and reflection, the subject really came together. The class had a great balance of physics and engineering. Not only did we learn about the behavior of light through every step of optical transmission, but also used our knowledge to design lasers, waveguides, and receivers to specification.

Are there any specific classes that you are looking forward to? Since my first year, I’ve been looking forward to taking Quantum Description of Electronic Materials (ECE 162A) and Fundamentals of Solid State (ECE 162B) as they will provide a more in-depth understanding of semiconductor physics and materials. Introduction to solid-state devices (ECE 132) gave a preliminary understanding of the subject, and I look forward to expanding on it. I’m also hoping to take integrated circuit design and fabrication (ECE120A/B) since they will provide more hands-on learning in contrast with the theory-heavy classes I’ve spent most of my time on.

What area do you want to specialize in? I am most interested in the fields of materials and photonics. I really enjoyed semiconductor physics (ECE 132), electromagnetic fields and waves (ECE 144), and optical fiber communications (ECE 135), and I’m hoping to work and do research in the fields of optoelectronics and quantum systems. My favorite parts of ECE coursework have been the intersection between electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and design.

Have you done an internship? For the past two years (including summers), I have worked as a student technician at the Life Sciences Computing Group, which provides desktop, networking, and web service support to UCSB’s chemistry, biology, geology, and psychology departments. This job has given me invaluable experience in hardware and network configuration as well as a good theoretical understanding of network structures and security protocols.

Have you had any on-campus research opportunities at UCSB? I am currently part of the OPUS Lab (Orchestrating Physics for Unconventional Systems) where I am doing research on solving optimization problems using dynamical systems with Professor Camsari. Other members of the lab have built stochastic Boltzmann machines that use random numbers to solve optimization problems (like max-cut, traveling salesman, etc.) probabilistically. My research is mainly concerned with eliminating the need for random number generation by taking advantage of chaotic dynamical systems that produce similar distributions. Thus far, I have been able to build a model that solves integer factorization and max-cut problems in Mathematica, and I’m now working on the hardware implementation of this model in HSpice. Although members of the lab work independently on their research most of the time, we meet frequently to discuss our findings and collaborate on new ideas.

Preparation from High School to College

What prepared you the most for studying engineering in college? Getting an associate’s degree prepared me for the teaching styles I encountered in large physics and engineering lectures at UCSB. The nature of the quarter system is that self-study is required, which is a huge deviation from the way we learn in high school. Getting an associate’s degree isn’t an option for every student, but there are many other ways you can prepare (AP classes, MIT OpenCourseWare, etc.). Most importantly, I really enjoyed math, physics, and electronics before college, which gave me the motivation to keep going when I hit roadblocks.

Are there any classes that you suggest ECE students take before entering UCSB? I would definitely recommend taking AP Calculus and Physics in high school or an equivalent community college class. Even though the required math and physics courses at UCSB will cover that material, the lectures are very fast-paced and it can be easy to fall behind. These subjects also take a long time to master, so building intuition in higher level math and physics can give you a head start.

Any additional experiences that you would like to share with students to help them prepare for college? Every student has to study subjects they struggle with or are uninterested in, so I would recommend coming into college with an open mind. When I started college, I wasn’t looking forward to taking writing-intensive general ed classes, but by the end of my first year, I had taken classes in architecture, philosophy, and history. Looking back, those experiences broadened my way of thinking, provided new perspectives, and improved my writing skills. For example, the class I took on the civil rights movement (BL ST 6) left a lasting impression on me and provided a historical context through which I can understand past and current events.

Student Life at UCSB

What is campus life like for ECE students? ECE students spend most of their time on the east side of campus: physics in Broida Hall, lectures in Engineering Sciences, circuits lab in Harold Frank Hall. When exams are coming up or labs are due, EE students study at the library or in the open spaces in Engineering II or Harold Frank Hall. We still have to take plenty of general education (GE) classes, which can be anywhere on campus (or even in the nearby community of Isla Vista aka “IV” sometimes).

What is the social scene like on campus, in Isla Vista and off-campus like for ECE students? The social scene for ECE students isn’t much different from other majors, especially if you make friends outside of the College of Engineering. For those who like nightlife, there are tons of parties, concerts, and restaurants in IV or Santa Barbara. For those that don’t, there are many events, clubs, and outdoor activities so there’s something for everyone. As long as you manage your time wisely, you’ll have some free time for fun every week.

Describe your housing experience frosh to present: In my first year, I lived in Manzanita Village, where I made several of my closest college friends. Although it was quieter than the freshman dorms, its proximity to restaurants and parties in IV made it easy to study and have fun off-campus. In my second year, I lived in an apartment in IV. I appreciated having a place to cook instead of having to go to the dining halls for meals, but it was a lot harder to study at home. In my third year, I lived back home where I studied and worked remotely due to Covid. I’m now back in IV for my final year. Dorms are a great choice for students who want to make friends in their first year, but I would recommend getting an IV apartment after that for the independence, cost, and quality of life.

After Graduation

What are your “big picture” plans/aspirations after graduation? Right now, I am preparing to apply to several graduate programs for a Master’s in electrical engineering. I hope to join an optics and photonics lab where I will be able to produce original research and work with experienced engineers and scientists in an academic setting. After getting my Master’s, I will likely go into industry where I hope to work in optical systems design or photonic integration. After some time in industry, I may consider getting my PhD. Outside of professional life, I would like to continue my involvement in community organizations, voter registration, and political action for renewable energy development.