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: Francesca Fanucchi

Francesca Fanucchi headshot

Francesca Fanucchi, Graduate Student, Justice Studies Program

Justice studies graduate student Francesca Fanucchi never envisioned attending university. 

“As a child I struggled in school, often being labelled as lazy and unmotivated. I felt inferior, inadequate, undisciplined, and hopelessly disorganized,” says Fanucchi. A diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sensory processing disorder soon granted her the clarity she needed to move forward.

“I was able to understand and address these struggles,” Fanucchi says. “I learned that these disorders limited my ability to process and comprehend information, compared to my peers. It took me years of practice before I was able to learn how to succeed in school.”

Fanucchi completed high school in Brighton, England. This was a turning point for her. “For the first time in my life I was excelling in school and was presented with opportunities I never thought achievable. I continued my education in England, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology at the University of Sussex.” 

Now, Fanucchi is in her last year of her master’s program at SJSU. She has already published an article on the problematic nature of lethal injections in the United States and the People’s Republic of China and is finishing a second paper on botched lethal injections. 

“My professors have helped transform the view I have held of myself through their encouragement and mentorship, including receiving the Paula Stone Memorial Scholarship. This has validated my hard work over the past decade and reinforces that students with learning disabilities are capable of excelling in higher education,” says Fanucchi. “I am excited to explore revenge pornography in my thesis and pursue my ultimate goal of a career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I hope my experience encourages other students with learning disabilities to achieve their goals in higher education and reach their full potential.”

Student Spotlight: Eileen Hsu

After earning her MFA in graphic design from the California Institute of the Arts, Eileen Hsu found herself hungry for a new avenue to apply her artistic skills.

“I am a process-oriented person, so I just try to take solid and big steps in life with faith that such an approach will take me to an interesting destination,” Hsu says. That destination turned out to be SJSU’s MS in transportation management (MSTM) program through the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI).

Eileen Hsu's educational background“As a Graphic Designer at LA Metro and as a huge proponent of shared mobility and mass transit, I decided to pursue the MTI transportation management master’s degree out of sheer fascination and the urge to be a more integral contributor at work,” Hsu says. “At first, I wondered if I may be out-of-place coming from the arts, but in time, tremendous applicability between the two disciplines of art and transportation emerged.”

Eileen Hsu headshot

Eileen Hsu.
Image credit: ©2020 Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA)

Hsu views artists as “conceptual synthesizers” who draw connections between the different domains that comprise our interdisciplinary world. She has thoroughly embraced the intersections between her arts background and her current immersion in the realm of transit. These intersections emerged while she was developing content, illustration, and publication design for the Metro’s 10-year strategic plan; conducting user-experience mapping and qualitative research on rider experiences to identify service needs; and boosting civic engagement via creative public outreach programs. Hsu notes that transportation is “the nexus of many social issues, government partnerships, and professional practices.” Public art overlaps well with these domains.

“I have expanded beyond painting canvases to painting murals in alleys to increase pedestrian throughput. A flowing thoroughfare naturally improves public safety,” Hsu says. She aptly describes public art as “a launchpad for commencing dialogue” among community members who, upon encountering these installations, are moved to ask questions about the complex policies and social issues that affect them. Simply stated, art is a powerful catalyst for civic engagement. This truth underlies Hsu’s work and study.

Eileen Hsu poses in front of a mural

Hsu believes in the power of public art, including murals, to spark civic engagement and discourse.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the basics of daily life, Hsu found herself “designing in the abstract” without her usual engagement with public transit. “Under-appreciated until now, my daily commute between home and the office on Metro was a regular ethnographic study, which I miss and value. The ridership demographic and experience is always fluctuating. Observations reveal new user needs…I miss the daily connection with the pulse of onboard culture. At the same time, I don’t undervalue the communication design work that I must currently deliver for Metro: transit faces unprecedented challenges today, which require the cooperation of both staff and the public, to ensure a healthful and safe trip.”

Hsu expects to graduate from the MSTM program in December 2021. “The program continuously astounds me with its rewards of learning and knowledge, professors who are experienced and passionate about their disciplines, and classmates who are a self-selecting team of ambitious transportation professionals, many of whose employers expressly recommend the MTI MS program,” she says, citing Dr. Asha Weinstein Agrawal and Dr. Michelle Waldron as key supporters in the department. A working professional, Hsu finds that her MSTM coursework nicely compounds the learning she engages in at work.

“Prior to Metro, I practiced graphic design for the LA County Museum of Art and various design firms, often focusing on public works and arts projects,” says Hsu. “For each course project that I undertake, I consult relevant experts at Metro, who are supportive of this academic pursuit. The [MSTM] coursework enables me to be a better communications partner to any internal department, informs my design with greater richness and intelligence, and helps me better advance mobility programs for Los Angeles County.”