The 2024 SEAS Graduate Awards Ceremony Shines a Spotlight on GRASP Student Achievements

May 28th, 2024

Text by Jillian Mallon

At the end of each Spring semester, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) recognizes the achievements of Master’s and PhD students at the SEAS Graduate Awards Ceremony. GRASP is delighted to highlight the achievements of GRASP Lab students who were honored at the awards ceremony on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. 

Master’s students in the 2024 SEAS graduating class were eligible to be nominated for the 2024 Penn Engineering Master’s Student Awards in four categories: academic, research, teaching and service. This year’s awards were slightly more competitive than in the past, as this was the first year that nominees were evaluated by a formal panel of faculty members.

Winners of the 2024 Master’s Awards posing with Dean Vijay Kumar (far right) during the Graduate Awards Ceremony. Robotics Master’s graduate Yunshuang Li is pictured on the far left, and Robotics Master’s graduate Brian Lee is the third person from the left. Photo by Justin Nachea.

Brian Lee, a May 2024 Robotics (ROBO) Master’s graduate who collaborated with Prof. Nikolai Matni’s research group, was awarded an Outstanding Research Award. This award is presented to students who have made significant contributions to faculty-supervised research projects. Lee’s main research project with Prof. Matni’s group was in extending a type of uncertainty quantification called conformal prediction so that it can handle data generated by dynamical systems. “This is important because often times we want to quantify uncertainty over trajectories (for example, paths of robots or people), rather than single observations (for example, images),” explained Matni, “An example of how I would use this would be: suppose I have some fancy prediction model that observes a person walking around for 10 seconds, and then predicts where the person will be 1 second from now. Using Brian’s tools, we could turn that point prediction into a confidence interval (wrap error bars around it) that captures the uncertainty in our prediction, and possibly use that uncertainty to plan more conservative paths for a robot around the human.”

Two Master’s students in different departments who have collaborated with GRASP students and faculty were awarded as well. Joyendra Roy Biswas, an Electrical Engineering (EE) Master’s student who has collaborated with Prof. Eric Eaton’s Lifelong Machine Learning Group, received an Outstanding Academic Award. Ho Jin Choi, a Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) Master’s student who collaborated with Prof. Nadia Figueroa’s Figueroa Robotics Lab, was awarded an Outstanding Research Award.

Another May 2024 graduate of the ROBO Master’s program, Yunshuang Li, received an Outstanding Research Award. Li was recognized for her work as a member of Prof. Dinesh Jayaraman’s Perception, Action, & Learning (PAL) Group. In just two years of research at the GRASP Lab while also completing classes toward her ROBO degree, Li contributed to multiple research publications and projects.

The first of Li’s two main research projects at GRASP, im2contact, was a collaboration on a single-camera contact localization task between the PAL Group and Prof. Michael Posa’s DAIR Lab. The other main project that she worked on with the PAL Group was the Universal Visual Decomposer, which is a method for identifying smaller subtasks that exist in complex long-horizon manipulation tasks. The resulting publication has earned acclaim, including a best paper award at the Learning Effective Abstractions for Planning (LEAP) Workshop at the 2023 Conference on Robot Learning (CoRL). Most recently, the paper was a finalist for the 2024 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) Best Paper Award in Robot Vision.

Yunshuang Li delivering a presentation on the Universal Visual Decomposer (UVD) at the 2023 CoRL LEAP Workshop.

Li reflected on her time at GRASP as she prepares for the next stop in her academic journey as a computer science PhD student at the University of Southern California, stating, “During my time here, I’ve acquired a wealth of knowledge through the enriching courses, which have proven beneficial for both industry and academia. Moreover, I’ve forged lifelong friendships with like-minded individuals who share my passion for advancing the robotics industry and research.”

One such like-minded individual was Jason Ma, a Computer and Information Science (CIS) PhD student in Prof. Jayaraman’s PAL research group who worked with Li on the Universal Visual Decomposer and had done much of the preliminary research that Li built upon for that project. Ma was also recognized at the Graduate Awards Ceremony for his recent achievement of being named a 2024 recipient of the Apple Scholars in AIML PhD Fellowship. This fellowship was presented to 21 PhD students across the globe by Apple and acknowledged by SEAS at the ceremony as an excellent student achievement.

Along with the achievements that PhD students made outside of SEAS, PhD students were also presented with awards established by their respective departments. The Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE) department awards the Joseph, D’16, and Rosaline Wolf Award to the male ESE PhD student who presented the best dissertation of the year. The award was presented to recent GRASP alumnus Ian Miller who is now working as a senior robotics engineer at Burro.

Jake Welde (middle) accepting the John A. Goff Prize during the Graduate Awards Ceremony from his faculty advisor Dean Vijay Kumar (right) and the SEAS Associate Dean of Graduate Programs Boon Thau Loo (left). Photo by Justin Nachea.

The MEAM department annually awards the John A. Goff Prize to one or more PhD students who have displayed extraordinary scholarship, resourcefulness and leadership. One of the two students who were presented with the award this year was Jake Welde, a MEAM PhD student who had the privilege of accepting the award directly from his faculty advisor and nominator at the ceremony, Dean Vijay Kumar. “I felt grateful to my advisor and many other outstanding mentors,” Welde stated. “A number of GRASP alums that I admire have won this award in the past, so that means a lot to me too.”

PhD student Victoria Edwards was also presented with an award by the MEAM department, the Outstanding Teaching Award. Edwards accepted the Outstanding Teaching Award this year and last year, proving her consistent dedication to education throughout her time at Penn so far. “I am grateful to be recognized for my teaching and mentoring skills,” Edwards said. “I would not be the person I am today without the continued support and guidance of my faculty advisor, Dr. Ani Hsieh. She has always been an outstanding mentor and educator which I aspire to emulate.”

Daxo Industries co-founders Leighton Rice (left) and Tom Zhang (right) conducting field test in a Pennsylvania orchard.

While most of these awards were rooted in academia, one GRASP student was presented with a fellowship award that is geared toward student entrepreneurs who have already started to build a foundation for a career in industry by establishing start-up companies. The Miller Innovation Fellowship Award was presented to Tom (Jiahao) Zhang and his company Daxo Industries. “Daxo Industries aims to address labor shortages in the specialty crop industry through innovative tools enhanced by robotics and AI,” Zhang explained. “Embarking on this venture during my PhD has been an exhilarating journey, highlighting the distinct mindset required for entrepreneurship compared to academic research. Balancing these two demanding roles has its challenges, yet the skills I’ve acquired from each field have mutually enriched the other, fostering a co-evolutionary growth. It is with great pleasure that I accept the Miller Innovation Fellowship, which will help us realize our company’s vision.”

Congratulations to all 2024 graduate award recipients! Your hard work is inspirational and encouraging to all current and future GRASPees!