While the global pandemic has impacted Commencement ceremonies at Washington University in St. Louis, it hasn’t lessened the quality, pride or accomplishments of the class of 2020.
 
This year, the McKelvey School of Engineering honors 10 students who have excelled beyond their peers by earning the class’s highest academic marks.

Meet the McKelvey Engineering Class of 2020 valedictorians and learn more about their experiences at WashU and how they helped prepare them for their futures.

Alex Baker

Major in computer science with a second major in finance
Hometown: Springfield, Missouri

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One of Alex Baker’s most enriching learning experiences occurred while he was teaching.

The Department of Computer Science & Engineering offers undergraduate students the opportunity to help faculty instruct courses; Baker served as a TA for CSE 131: Introduction to Computer Science.

"The experience taught me how to communicate technical ideas, work with people and exposed me to several great learning opportunities,” he said.

Baker plans to continue his studies in computer science at WashU and earn a Master of Science degree. He said he’s drawn to the limitless possibilities of the field.

“Computers are neither smart nor dumb; they simply follow directions,” he said. “You can get a computer to do anything, as long as you can imagine it.”


Barathkumar Baskaran

Major in chemical engineering with minors in finance and environmental engineering science
Hometown: Gilberts, Illinois
 
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WashU was always Barathkumar Baskaran’s top pick of schools. He applied during the early decision admission period and, in his words, “never looked back.”
 
“I appreciated the strength of WashU's academics, but I also appreciated the spirit of collaboration rather than competition that was present across campus,” he said.
 
One such collaboration is that has made an impact on his development as a scholar and an engineer is his work with his research mentor Hani Zaher.
 
“A large part of research is repetitively dealing with an experimental failure and then being able to move on and troubleshoot,” Baskaran said. “I gained that resiliency through my experience in his lab, and his mentorship has been an invaluable component of my decision to pursue graduate school.”
 
Like many of Baskaran’s classmates, he’s disappointed by COVID-19’s impact on his senior year.
 
“I am sure I am not alone in the students who had a bucket list of things they wanted to do one last time, and I was most definitely looking forward to walking across the stage at Commencement,” he said.
 
Still, despite the change in plans, Baskaran is remaining optimistic about his experience. He’s looking forward to pursuing a doctoral degree in chemical engineering at MIT.
 
“I am grateful for the past three years that I've had at WashU,” he said. “Even with the absence of the final quarter of my senior year, I don't feel the friendships and memories of these past few years are diminished, but rather enhanced.”

Saima Choudhury
Major in chemical engineering
Hometown: Houston, Texas

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While Saima Choudhury excelled in the classroom, she’s also thrived outside of it. She served on the leadership of WashU’s Muslim Students Association, Strive for College, the WashU chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and Colour magazine.

Choudhury said she valued these opportunities to grow as a student, a leader and a person.

“Being at WashU has taught me to adapt to a new and uncomfortable environment, to confront ugly truths about the world, to be more vulnerable with myself and my friends, and to develop new ways of thinking,” she said.

She encourages other WashU students to break out of their bubble and explore, whether that’s getting out into the city or studying a new and unfamiliar subject.

“Being at WashU gives you unique access to resources some people can’t even dream of, so use them,” she said. “Start early; don’t give yourself the excuse that it can wait, because the year will be over before you know it.”


Yoon Ho ”Raphael” Chung

Major in biomedical engineering and a second major in applied science in electrical engineering
Hometown: Seoul, South Korea
 
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The current pandemic has caused major disruptions for members of the Class of 2020, but Raphael Chung said he hopes that his fellow graduates don’t let the changes discourage them.
 
“Even if a lot of things seem outside of your control, there is always something that can be done,” he said. “It might be taking a step back and reprioritizing things to prepare for the next step forward.”

Following graduation, Chung will take part in the ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator program, a role that — combined with his WashU education — will empower him to achieve his career aspirations.

“I’ve always wanted to help people be healthy and improve their quality of life,” Chung said. “I found biomedical engineering to be an interesting and exciting approach for working towards those goals.”

Tianci Hu
Major in computer science
Hometown: Nanjing, China

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Three things drew Tianci Hu to WashU: The prestige of the university, its small undergraduate student body and recommendations from close friends.
 
As expected, the rigorous education proved to be a challenge at times, but Hu was able to succeed thanks to “a lot of reading, practice and a bit of luck.”
 
And because of that dedication, he’s more than prepared for his future role with Citadel LLC, a hedge fund and financial services company.
 
“I’m excited to explore the financial market and see how my math and computer science background will contribute to the investment process,” he said.
 
 

Jessie Korovin
Major in systems engineering with a second major in financial engineering and a minor in computer science
Hometown: Livingston, New Jersey

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Jessie Korovin has one piece of advice for his fellow classmates: Spend as much time as possible with the people you care about.

As a student of both engineering and finance, Korovin faced many challenges in his academic career that he would not have been able to overcome without the support of his friends, teachers and classmates.

“Collaboration in general has been important for my success at WashU,” he said.

One of his biggest challenges was a mathematical finance course he took as part of his second major.

“It was a graduate-level course with quite a few PhD students,” he said. “The material was incredibly difficult, but I was able to persevere with the help of a friend.”

And as he moves forward to his career as an analyst for PGIM Inc., those relationships are what he’ll miss most at WashU.

“My WashU experience was highlighted by the lifelong friendships I've made,” he said.


Nick Matteucci

Major in chemical engineering with a minor in energy engineering
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri

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The child of a WashU professor, Nick Matteucci was hoping to get as far away as he could for college.

He eventually came around — mentally and physically.

"After touring the beautiful campus and meeting with professors, students and Coach [Jeff] Stiles, I knew there was no other school I wanted to go to," he said

It's the community that drew Matteucci to the university, and it's also what he'll miss the most.

"There are so many brilliant, humble and driven people that create the exciting and fun atmosphere I've come to love here."

As he moves on to earn a doctoral degree in chemical engineering, he has a few words of encouragement for his fellow seniors.

"I feel blessed and grateful for all the time we got at WashU to be a community, despite being heartbroken that our second semester was uprooted the way it was," he said. "Hopefully, we can use this unusual time to remember to pursue what we love and not take time for granted, as everything can change in an instant."


Patrick Naughton

Major in electrical engineering with a second major in computer science
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
 
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What drew Patrick Naughton to WashU was the opportunity to take part in research and hands-on experiences as an undergraduate.
 
“The ubiquity of electronics and computers makes me interested to learn as much as I can about how they work and ways to improve them,” he said.
 
In the classroom, Naughton found inspiration from faculty who challenged and motivated him to excel.
 
“Professor [William] Richard helped me develop an interest in hardware design and supported my academic progress,” he said. “His sequence of courses pushed me to think about computer science and engineering in new ways.”
 
After he graduates, Naughton plans to pursue a doctoral degree in computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
 
“I am most excited to begin working on more independent research and developing my skills to contribute to scientific knowledge production,” he said.

Lucca Paletta
Major in mechanical engineering
Hometown: Lake Odessa, Michigan
 
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Lucca Paletta has been fascinated by physics since high school. Even when his course work stymied him, he met the challenge with determination.

“The most difficult course for me was probably my second semester of physics,” he said. “Many of the electricity and magnetism concepts didn’t make intuitive sense to me, so I spent tons of time in office hours, asked the professor questions every day after class and got a private tutor.”

The hard work paid off. Thanks to assistance he received from Engineering Student Services and course professor Martin Israel, Paletta not only passed the course, he went on to receive the Varney Prize for Introductory Physics.

His next challenge? A five-year term with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, the Naval Reactors, in Washington D.C.

“I’ll get the chance to work on nuclear reactors and ensure the safety of many U.S. Navy sailors,” Paletta said. “I am excited for the opportunity to contribute to the clean energy industry and hopefully improve the lives of generations after me.”

Finn Voichick
Major in computer science with a second major in mathematics and a minor in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin

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For Finn Voichick, the most fascinating aspect of computer science is how it combines theory with practice. A member of Studio TESLA, Volchick has shared his love of engineering — both its theories and practice — with those in need.

Volchick served as a member of the club’s Enrichment team, which created design challenges meant to inspire a love of STEM and innovation in underserved middle-school students.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “Some of my favorite projects were blimp racing with helium balloons, building a small house to withstand extreme weather conditions and building a circuit to send Morse code messages.”

Voichick will continue to study the intersection of theory and practice at the University of Maryland while pursuing a doctoral degree.

“I'll miss the students and professors who have supported me and helped shape and deepen my interests and experiences at WashU,” Volchick said. “As a senior, our sudden campus departure has been challenging, and I regret not being able to say an in-person goodbye to my WashU community.”

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