Class Act: Meet six extraordinary 2023 grads

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On May 7, 2023, approximately 1,700 new alumni were welcomed into the Buckeye engineering family. Below, a few members of the Class of 2023, beginning with Chemical Engineering graduate Sophie Leanza, reflect on their time at Ohio State and how their education included transformative experiences in and out of the classroom.

Sophie Leanza

Sophia Leanza stands outside Scott Laboratory, where she has dedicated much of her time to conducting research.
Sophia Leanza stands outside Scott Laboratory, where she has dedicated much of her time to conducting research.

Participating in the College of Engineering’s Undergraduate Summer Research Program enabled Sophie Leanza to discover a passion for research that changed her career path.

“I ended up falling in love with research and it has totally shaped what I'll be doing,” the chemical engineering major said. “The research opportunities at Ohio State have been very good.”

Working under the guidance of former Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Assistant Professor Renee Zhao since summer 2021, Leanza studies how origami concepts can transform equipment like curved N95 respirator masks into flat shapes for shipping and to create foldable electronics. She has also collaborated with researchers from Stanford, Harvard and Georgia Tech to develop smart origami for soft robotic, biomedical and space applications. She will be graduating with an honors research distinction in mechanical engineering for her undergraduate thesis project. 

Since joining Zhao’s lab, Leanza went from being intimidated by research to co-authoring 10 published papers and earning awards at multiple national research forums.

Last summer Leanza completed a National Science Foundation Research (NSF) Experience for Undergraduates at Stanford University, where Zhao now works. She was also the only undergraduate to give an oral presentation at the U.S. National Congress on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, where she also presented a poster and served as a session co-chair for the Mechanics of Soft Matter symposium.

When she first arrived at the university, Leanza joined the Students Understanding Sustainability and Taking Action to Improve Nature and Society (SUSTAINS) Learning Community, which focuses on sustainability topics and human interaction with environmental problems. Being part of SUSTAINS also taught her about the many opportunities Ohio State offers.

“SUSTAINS was a driving factor for why I attended Ohio State,” Leanza said. “I really appreciate all of the different types of organizations and the many different broad areas of interest that you can go into here.”

The scholarships she received, combined with the quality of the engineering program, also influenced Leanza’s decision to become a Buckeye, “The scholarships have been a very strong motivating factor for me. They inspire me.”

After graduation Leanza will pursue a PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, where she received a three-year Stanford Graduate Fellowship. She was also awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship following a national competition.

Although unsure whether she will ultimately pursue a career in research or academia, Leanza feels well-prepared for whatever comes next.

“I love all of the opportunities that I was given as an undergrad. My experiences here have provided me with tools that can help me achieve what I want in the future,” Leanza said. “Ohio State offered the greatest value of education that I could have gotten.”

Moustapha Bal

First-generation college student Moustapha Bal has taken advantage of all the opportunities Ohio State offers, from athletics to motorsports. 

“I'm always doing something, and it's allowed me to build relationships with a lot of different people,” Bal said. “It's made the experience more pleasurable in general, because I don't feel like I'm wasting the opportunity of being at a university that offers so many different areas to get involved in.”

The honors mechanical engineering major is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers chapter and the Ohio State Wrestling Club—winners of the Club National Championship for the first time ever this season.

And after discovering Ohio State didn’t compete in the American Solar Challenge, he teamed up with some classmates to start the university’s newest motorsports team—Buckeye Solar Racing. Launched in spring 2021 with just a handful of students, the team has grown to more than 50 students from a variety of majors and just unveiled its vehicle, Farasi II. Bal and the team are finishing preparations for their first competition this summer—the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Topeka, Kansas.

For Bal, the opportunity to mentor fellow students has been the most rewarding part of leading the team.

“It's been amazing to watch it grow from nothing into something that younger students are able to benefit from,” he said. “For example, we have some people who learned how to weld and have been able to fabricate a roll cage. That's something that I wouldn't have even thought I'd be able to do as a freshman.”

Completing internships at Caterpillar and Apple helped Bal decide which career path was the right fit and provided valuable hands-on learning experience.

“I designed the battery pack for our solar car and a lot of the experience that I gained at Apple, in terms of computer-aided design, helped me with that,” Bal explained.

Receiving the university’s Morrill Scholarship and other financial aid was instrumental in enabling Bal, who is the son of Mauritanian immigrants, to achieve his dream of being a Buckeye.

“It's been very critical in terms of financially allowing me to attend a college of this caliber,” he said. “I've been very grateful for receiving that support and also financial support from smaller scholarships. I'm a first-generation college student, so at times it can be rough, but it's definitely helped me.”

After graduation Bal is excited to move full speed ahead as a mechanical design engineer for Tesla in Palo Alto, California.

Stephen Chou

New Jersey native Stephen Chou was drawn to Ohio State because of the quality of its engineering program as well as its fencing team. Receiving the National Buckeye Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding academic achievement, was another important factor.

“Fencing being a really great program at Ohio State was definitely a huge attraction,” Chou said. “But my main priority was academics and seeing the engineering program here is well renowned really attracted me to the school. Because, ultimately, when I'm done with college, my career will be the most important to me.”

A four-year member of the Ohio State Fencing team, Chou is a three-time Ohio State Scholar-Athlete honoree, a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and a USFCA All-Academic Team pick for his outstanding achievements as a student-athlete. He was also captain of the sabre squad for the past two seasons, an accomplishment that’s even more remarkable since he considered leaving the sport following a challenging sophomore season.

“I was not fencing that great and I wanted to give up at that point. I felt like I was plateauing and didn't have anywhere else to go,” Chou said. “But thankfully, I had a coach, Dmitris Lapkes, that really believed in me and helped try and instill that belief into me as well.

“My junior year was one of the best years I fenced. Being able to instill belief in yourself is something that's really important in my opinion that obviously doesn't only apply to fencing.”

The computer science and engineering major also became passionate about learning for the first time at Ohio State, he said, thanks in large part to having great professors.

“Once I started learning and going in-depth, especially with my computer science classes, that's when I truly developed a passion for academics and what I was studying,” explained Chou. “That was an eye-opening experience, because all my life I was just studying for a grade and not to actually grow and nurture myself.”

Being an undergraduate teaching assistant in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering further enhanced Chou’s understanding of the discipline.

“It helped build very tangible skills with programming. Having to convey different topics to people in a way that's understandable was a good learning skill to develop,” he said. “Also being able to read other people’s code and actually understand what's going on was a valuable skill to learn.”

Completing internships at Crown Equipment Corporation and Capital One further prepared Chou to succeed in the workforce. After graduation, he’ll be a software engineer at Bloomberg in New York City.

“I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity that Ohio State has given me, both athletically and academically, to be as successful as possible,” he said. “Whether it's with fencing, and those lessons it provided, or being prepared to enter the workforce. Those things are incredibly valuable.”

Yessica Jimenez

When it comes to taking on challenges, Yessica Jimenez dives right in. After immigrating to the United States six years ago, Jimenez wanted to continue the engineering and mold design career she started in Colombia, but first she had to learn English.

While learning the language and adapting to a new culture, she enrolled in Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland and became the first woman there to earn an associate degree in operations engineering technology.

After that milestone, Jimenez decided to further her engineering studies at a large university where she could explore all her interests. Receiving numerous scholarships enabled Jimenez to study materials science and engineering at her top choice—The Ohio State University. She was also named a Hispanic Scholarship Fund Scholar in 2021, which provides funding, plus career services, mentorship and leadership development support.

Immersing herself in research, Jimenez interned as a student research assistant at the Nanotech West Lab on West Campus, where she was trained in photolithography, and ensured lab stations were equipped and ready for users.

Last summer she spent three months conducting research on composite materials at Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil, thanks to the support of Nuclear Engineering Assistant Professor Richard Vasques and funding from the Ohio State Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP).

“For me, this experience signified a lot as a professional, but especially as a person,” Jimenez said. “It taught me how to be more independent, and believe in my talent and knowledge.”

While being a non-traditional student and working throughout her time at Ohio State was challenging, Jimenez’s perseverance has paid off. She was inducted into the university’s Mortar Board National College Senior Honorary Society, which recognizes seniors for exemplary scholarship, leadership and service. She also received the Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s Advisor Award, which honors undergraduates who best exemplify involvement and service.

After graduation Jimenez will work for Honda as a quality engineer and feels well-prepared to excel.

“The pride that Ohio State makes you feel as a student here, it's powerful. It makes you try harder to be better,” Jimenez said. “Ohio State is a big, gigantic university, but the inner communities are very small. In materials science and engineering, we all come together. We help each other and that support means so much for me and everyone I know. Anything that you want to do in this university is possible.”

Jimenez plans to celebrate earning her bachelor’s degree by diving into another challenge.

“I'm taking a sky diving class and jumping,” she said. “This journey has been so hard that I want to just jump from the sky and yell, ‘I did it!’”

Tyler Korenyi-Both

Tyler Korenyi-Both came to Ohio State to earn a master’s in aerospace engineering and study hypersonics—a field critical to his career as an officer in the United States Air Force.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a military officer,” said Korenyi-Both, who joined the Air Force ROTC as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University. “The story goes that in every generation of my family back to the 1600s, there's been at least one military officer. I can certainly say that's true at least back to my great-great-grandfather.”

Korenyi-Both has been stationed overseas for much of his career, including serving as a military intelligence officer in Okinawa, Japan, for three years. He was also deployed to the Middle East.

A unique military program provided funding for him to go to graduate school full time, while still earning his salary and benefits. As someone with a young family—Korenyi-Both and his wife are expecting their second child this summer—that support was critical.

“I've really gotten to do a lot of things that I'm very passionate about and I've been enabled by the Air Force to do it,” he explained. “Going back to school to get a graduate degree in aerospace engineering, what a great opportunity!”

Korenyi-Both credits his advisor, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Jack McNamara, with helping him navigate the requirements of earning a master’s with a research option on the tight timeline required by the Air Force.

“Professor McNamara is a tremendous advisor,” Korenyi-Both said. “His group is doing some really awesome work and it was great to be a part of that while I was there.”

His thesis compares a commonly used surrogate modeling technique, called kriging, with modern machine learning methods. Surrogate modeling involves constructing a mathematical model to approximate the behavior of a more complex system or process, enabling complex simulations to run more quickly and cheaply than traditional methods.

“It's a really useful engineering tool when you need to make assessments about different flight conditions that weren't included in your original simulations,” Korenyi-Both explained.

After graduation Korenyi-Both will be stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, where he’ll apply the engineering research he conducted at Ohio State to key Air Force priorities.

“I didn't expect to be as ready for the workforce as I am,” said Korenyi-Both. “I cannot recommend Ohio State highly enough to any prospective graduate students, particularly in the aerospace industry. It's a great place to do work and I hope I can come back to earn a PhD!”

The views expressed above are those of the interviewee and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Nina Tang

Nina Tang was so inspired by the research experience she completed at Ohio State while earning a biomedical engineering (BME) degree that she decided to pursue a PhD to continue that work.

“What ultimately solidified the decision to pursue my PhD was actually Dr. Purmessur,” Tang explained. “I did a research assistantship in her lab and it really inspired me—her passion for research, her resiliency to study difficult problems and the unwavering mentorship she provided to her students.” 

Since then Tang has continued her research under the guidance of BME Assistant Professor Devina Purmessur, focusing on developing minimally invasive therapies for patients suffering from chronic low back pain. Tang’s work uses engineering nanocarriers (extracellular vesicles) to deliver critical developmental transcription factors into diseased human intervertebral disc cells and revert/reprogram them to a healthy state. 

Her efforts have contributed to two successful federal research awards from the National Institutes of Health and she is principal investigator of an Orthoregeneration Network Foundation grant. Tang’s numerous recognitions include the university’s prestigious Presidential Fellowship, top honors at Ohio State’s 2022 Hayes Graduate Research Forum, a Graduate Associate Performance Award, and national and international research conference awards.

As an instructor, Tang has been inspired by BME Professor of Practice Mark Ruegsegger and Clinical Associate Professor Tanya Nocera, who she describes as, “the kind of professors I aspire to be one day. They deliver knowledge in the best way possible and truly care about their students.”

Already a role model and dedicated mentor to less-experienced students, Tang received the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s Graduate Teaching Associate Award in 2020. She’s also president of the Graduate Society of Women Engineers at Ohio State, which aims to build an inclusive environment for female graduate engineering students.  

“Being able to mentor other students in the lab is incredible,” Tang said. “They come in with minimal research experience, but go out being experts in what they do. It’s very fulfilling, being able to pass on that knowledge.” 

What makes Tang’s accomplishments even more remarkable is that she has also supported her family as a caregiver throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies.

 “I come from a really socioeconomically challenging background and without the support of Ohio State, all the professors and the BME department, I wouldn't be here today,” she said. “I ended up becoming the first in my family to finish middle school, graduate high school, graduate undergrad and get PhD, which is an accomplishment that I never thought someone like myself could achieve.” 

After graduation, Tang will continue her academic journey as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in St. Louis. Ultimately, she hopes to join the faculty at an R1 research institution to study pathological mechanisms and engineer therapeutics for orthopedic diseases and mentor the next generation of future engineers.

“I want to be a support system for the students who were once told they couldn’t achieve something, like my support system at Ohio State has been for me,” Tang said.

The students featured in this article were nominated by college leaders and advisors.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu