Samuel Semahegn Uses Graduate Degree, Industry Experience to Engineer a Better Life

Samuel Semahegn headshot

Samuel Semahegn, graduate student, MS mechanical engineering

Graduate student Samuel Semahegn has leveraged the power of Silicon Valley and student research opportunities at SJSU to build a meaningful career in the mechanical engineering industry. In recent months, he has been active in packaging and design for NVIDIA: a prominent company that reinvents computer graphics.

The NVIDIA Scholars program, established by biomedical engineering professor Folarin Erogbogbo, enables students to work with industry professionals while completing their master’s projects, and Semahegn has integrated industry experience into his studies quite successfully. Prior to NVIDIA, Semahegn worked for a Pennsylvania-based company, where he assisted in mechanical design, publication, production and coding. 

“Before I went to Philadelphia, I worked in Oakland full-time at a 3D bioprinter corporation. That was my first internship. From July to September 2019, I was assisting with mechanical design for 2D and 3D parts, physical assembly of the bioprinters, electrical assembly, laser cutting, miscellaneous activities,” says Semahegn. 

Semahegn spent most of his time in academics and research before entering the industry. Notably, he spent the Spring 2019 semester working with mechanical engineering faculty under an appointment through the Tower Foundation at SJSU. 

“I was researching and manufacturing PDMS and other experimental chips that helped me do my project in the labs. I developed a microfluidic system for sensitivity and continuous bacteria detection from aqueous solutions,” Semahegn says. “In some parts of the world, they don’t have clean water, so we are doing research on how we [can] filter contaminated water by using this system. I’m from Ethiopia—that motivates me to do this research.

Not long ago, in 2018, Semahegn was finishing up his undergraduate career in mechanical engineering at UCLA. There, he co-founded an Eritrean and Ethiopian Student Association (EESA) with the goal of connecting UCLA students to the community while celebrating Eritrean and Ethiopian culture. Semahegn’s history of student support can be traced back to the four years he spent as a certified tutor for physics and upper-level applied mathematics at Fresno City College. 

“I love teaching because it provides me with an opportunity to develop communication abilities [to solve] complex physics and math problems,” Semahegn says, adding that tutoring has helped him cultivate greater patience with students. “Now, when I work as a researcher, I can explain why we are doing practical activities in the labs.” 

Samuel Semahegn and his research team hold a robot

Semahegn (second from the left) and his UCLA team hold a prototype of their robot

Practicality is a common thread running throughout Semahegn’s research, including the undergraduate senior project he completed at UCLA.

We designed and manufactured a robot that could navigate around obstacles and arrive at a specific location,” Semahegn says. Using a sensor, the robot could detect and collect household items—such as shoes or children’s toys scattered across a room—then organize and transport them to their proper locations. It could even retrieve clean dishes from a dishwasher and put them away. “If the robot sensed any object [in its way], it would stop,” says Semahegn.

Upon graduating from UCLA, Semahegn entered the mechanical engineering graduate program at SJSU. He describes his favorite course, ME 230 – Advanced Mechanical Engineering Analysis with Professor Younes Shabany, as “the hardest class at SJSU.” Yet, he thrived, receiving an A+ grade: a testament to Semahegn’s drive and Professor Shabany’s teaching skill. “I was comfortable with him,” Semahegn says. “The way he teaches, I love it.”

Semahegn is projected to graduate from SJSU in May 2021 with a 3.9 GPA. In March, he’ll begin a new full-time role as an associate test engineer with KLA Corporation until this fall, when he will embark on a new journey as a mechanical engineering PhD student at the University of Arizona at Phoenix. In the meantime, Semahegn plans to enjoy the remainder of his time in California. Here, [in Silicon Valley], you can see people from different cultures. It’s diversified. That’s why I like it,” Semahegn says.

“I think San José State is the key for anyone who wants to work in industry. Right after my first semester [at SJSU], I got my very first internship in Oakland.” Semahegn urges other students to take advantage of the Career Center, whose resources helped him to land valuable opportunities. 

“Handshake is the best resource to get a job. It’s even better than LinkedIn or Indeed because according to my experience, most companies trust you when you apply from the school’s website. SJSU is famous and [companies] like to take San José State students,” says Semahegn, noting that Silicon Valley opportunities are plentiful not just in engineering, but in other realms such as human resources or psychology. 

“If anyone wants to work in the industry, San José State is the right place [to be].” 

Samuel Semahegn was nominated for a Student Spotlight by bioengineering faculty member Folarin Erogbogbo. Professor Erogbogbo is a strong advocate for students looking to incorporate industry experience into their academic studies.

Student Spotlight: Gunnar Jaffarian and Kristen Darnell

Gunnar Jaffarian and Kristen Darnell, both physics graduate students and leaders in the physics club at SJSU, have found their stride in research and community-building despite the pandemic.

Gunnar Jaffarian headshot

Gunnar Jaffarian, graduate student, physics program

“The community at SJSU betters everyone around them,” says Jaffarian. “I made it a point to join the physics club on day one because I wanted to join that community. During the first semester, they helped me feel like others knew my struggles and led me to resources that could help.

“Because I wanted to give back, I was elected to a leadership position in January – right before the pandemic started. The clubroom became empty because of the virus, so the other two leaders, a friend, our faculty advisor, and I put together a virtual clubroom [using Discord] so we could maintain the community and help people who needed it.”

Darnell, who worked with Jaffarian to establish this virtual space, says the Discord server allowed members of the Physics Club to continue their collaboration online. The department even made it official. According to Jaffarian, the virtual clubroom is used daily for a variety of purposes, from organizing study sessions to posting memes. “The faculty in the department are incredibly supportive and many have joined the server with us,” he says.

Both Darnell and Jaffarian credit their departmental faculty for offering sustained support of their academic endeavors.

Kristen Darnell headshot

Kristen Darnell, graduate student, physics program

“My experience at SJSU has been great for so many reasons,” says Darnell. “I came into the physics master’s program with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and only a vague idea that I wanted to do interdisciplinary research. Within my first month here, the dean of science, Dr. Kaufman, took the time to chat with me about his research. Because of that conversation, I was nominated for a research fellowship in Poland with one of Dr. Kaufman’s collaborators. There, I was so excited to learn about the world of Astrochemistry and attend a seminar series with other grad students in the field.”

“Since then, the department has found funding for me to attend another seminar series in Europe. I’ve been able to listen to Dr. Kress speak at Astronomy on Tap. When the Physics department needs to hire new faculty, they request the opinions of the graduate students and listen to them,” says Darnell. 

Jaffarian says his professors helped him with his resume and public speaking skills earlier this year. “Then, I scored a summer internship at a laser production company,” he says. “It ended up becoming a virtual internship, but the company offered me a full-time position when it was over because of what I learned. This is a difficult time for everybody, but the people at SJSU really pushed me to be the best I could be. Between the faculty and the student organizations, there was always somebody who could give guidance or resources.”

Darnell’s thesis advisor, Dr. Madura, is a great example. Dr. Madura encouraged Darnell to connect with a faculty member at Benedictine College who has since become her collaborator. 

“I’m helping to create the reaction network for water inside dust grains in the interstellar medium,” Darnell says. “At SJSU, I have grown so much, not just in my academic knowledge, but also in my relationships with other scientists.”

Student Spotlight: Annie Ronning

Annie Ronning headshot

Annie Ronning, graduate student in MA Kinesiology – Sport Management program

This month, kinesiology graduate student Annie Ronning took first place in the Lightning Talk Competition at the inaugural Institute for the Study of Sport, Society, and Social Change (ISSSC) virtual conference: “Dream with Your Eyes Open: (Re)Imagining Sport in the Age of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter.” The event was designed “to continue the legacy of equity and social justice by addressing the issues and challenges in sport,” according to the program’s webpage.

Ronning, who interns at the ISSSC, says the event was a great success. She enjoyed presenting her research at the Lightning Talk Competition, which represented an important intersection of activism and athletics.

“I chose to focus on cultural competency in athletic training education,” Ronning says. “Being an athletic trainer and a recent graduate from an athletic training program, I felt very close to this topic as it is meaningful to me and my colleagues. The profession of athletic training has room for improvement, much like many other facets of sport, and the momentum of positive change begins with conversation and awareness. The goal of my literature review presentation was to do just that in an educational format.”

With an expected graduation date of Spring 2021, Ronning hopes to infuse this passion into her final kinesiology independent study project from a sport management perspective. “My goal with this research is to make it applicable as something that can be utilized to create change within the athletic training profession. Athletic trainers are a significant element of sport and I want to do what I can to improve this field in a progressive way…I am thankful that the ISSSSC has given me that opportunity and I am excited to continue.”

Annie Ronning holds an athlete's kneeRonning began her SJSU career as a graduate assistant athletic trainer. Later, she was contracted to work with the athletics program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco until COVID-19 put a pause on sports. “Since then, I shifted my focus and created my Lightning Presentation with the ISSSSC in efforts to better my profession while promoting social change,” says Ronning.

“My internship at the institute paired with my graduate coursework has allowed me to grow personally and professionally while providing me an incredible support system along the way. I am lucky to work with such great advisors at San José State and want to thank Dr. Akilah Carter-Francique, Dr. Amy August, and Dr. Cole Armstrong for their help throughout my academic journey. I look forward to continued work at the institute and with my KIN 298 final project. I feel grateful to have these enriching opportunities at SJSU.”

Student-Mentor Spotlight: Dahyeon Jung and Dr. Kim Tsai

Dahyeon Jung Photo

Dahyeon Jung, Graduate Student, Child and Adolescent Development

Dahyeon Jung has been an MA student in the Child and Adolescent Development (ChAD) program at SJSU since Fall 2018. Having also earned her bachelor’s degree from SJSU in 2017, Jung recalls numerous highlights of her time as a ChAD student.

“I [have] met amazing cohorts,” Jung says. “We’ve been through pain and gain altogether. My cohorts always encouraged me to keep ahead whenever I struggled. Once I was homesick for Korea, my cohorts became my sweet home here. They always checked in if I needed anything.”

Jung describes her professors in the Child and Adolescent Development department as kind and knowledgeable. “ChAD professors in the graduate program always encourage students to take different perspectives and teach students how to elaborate [on] their views and insights. I’ve learned so much from not only professors, but also classmates, because professors encourage students to express their thoughts during our coursework.”

Jung’s thesis advisor, ChAD Assistant Professor Dr. Kim Tsai, has only positive comments about her.

Faculty member Kim Tsai

Dr. Kim Tsai, Assistant Professor, Child and Adolescent Development

“One of my favorite aspects of being a ChAD faculty member is mentoring students on their research projects,” says Dr. Tsai. “This year, I worked with Dahyeon Jung on her Master’s thesis to examine how parenting practices affect adolescents’ social media use. As a mentor, I want my students to be able to reflect back on their work and feel proud and accomplished in knowing that they gave their best efforts. Thus, it was truly rewarding to observe Dahyeon’s drive and persistence as she embraced new challenges as opportunities to learn and hone in on her research skills.”

Jung says Dr. Tsai’s guidance allowed her to develop her research paper and finish it without losing confidence. “I believe our professors at SJSU support as much as possible students who want to explore the research field,” says Jung, “just like Dr. Tsai has always been willing to give me valuable advice and guidance.”

Notably, Jung says that one of the most important skills she gained from her graduate program is the ability to interpret and convert research into an audience-appropriate format. “Reading is a big part of my graduate program. I gained knowledge from reading, but I wasn’t ready to share what I’ve learned from articles with others (especially for parents who need that information.) [The] ChAD MA program taught me how to share the information from academic sources with people who don’t have an academic background in the Child and Adolescent development field. This was very helpful when I worked as a director in Agape Christian Preschool. I could interact with parents and teachers with what research says.”

These heightened research communication skills led Jung to actualize her professional interests and become closer to her goals. “I want to work in the research field,” Jung says, “and the graduate program provided me with the first step for my research journey.”

Jung appreciates the opportunities that SJSU and the College of Education afford to graduate students such as the Lurie College Student Research award, which Jung received herself. “I am not an exceptional student, and I had never done research before my thesis,” says Jung. “I like that SJSU provides opportunities to students who have passion, and supports students to achieve their goal.”

Outside of graduate study, Jung loves escape room games. “Finding clues and solving puzzles with friends is fascinating! I am so sad that I could not do them anymore due to COVID19. I hope I can play the escape room soon with my friends,” she says.

Learn More About Dahyeon’s MA Thesis:

“It is hard to think of the world without media,” Jung says. “Adolescents are one of the biggest consumers of media; therefore, it’s not surprising that parents are concerned about how media may affect their child’s development. This upward trend in media use sparked my curiosity about how parents can help their adolescents become critical media consumers. With the encouragement and support from professors in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development, I conducted a research study to investigate how parenting practices influence adolescents’ risky media usage. I surveyed 315 adolescents in the U.S. My findings indicated that adolescents with parents who are too strict or withdrawn are more likely to engage in risky online behavior and develop internet addiction. However, adolescents with high self-esteem were less likely to engage in risky media usage regardless of their parents’ practices. These findings highlight that high-quality parent-child relationships, such as parental warmth and support, and high self-esteem, protect adolescents from risky media usage.”