Meet the class of 2019 valedictorians

2019 Valedictorians
From left: Blake Bordelon, Sirui Li, William Galik, Ayush Kumar and Liam Plambeck.
This May, the McKelvey School of Engineering will celebrate the achievements of the class of 2019 during its annual Engineering Student Recognition Ceremony. As part of that celebration, we highlight those students who have excelled beyond their peers by earning the class’s highest academic marks.

Meet the McKelvey Engineering Class of 2019 valedictorians and learn more about how their experience at Washington University in St. Louis has prepared them for their futures.

Blake Bordelon

Blake Bordelon will earn bachelor’s degrees in systems engineering and physics, as well as a minor in computer science. After Commencement, he plans to pursue a PhD in applied mathematics at Harvard.

Name a faculty or staff member who played an important role in your WashU experience.

Ralf Wessel (professor in physics in Arts & Sciences) was the research mentor on my first project in computational neuroscience and has helped me navigate conducting a research project from initial conception through the peer-review process. He has been very generous in his time and energy and has helped me grow as an aspiring scientist.

What drew you to study engineering?

While my personality draws me toward abstract reasoning and mathematics, the impact of technology on human welfare is immense. Engineering allows me the opportunity to employ these mathematical reasoning methods to solve problems that matter.

As you take the next steps in your education, what are you most excited about?

I am excited to specialize. So much of undergraduate education — especially in my case — is spent acquiring a wide base of general knowledge. While this is crucial to understanding the world and one's place in it, specialization generates greater economic efficiency and consumer benefits. Finding a niche in the economy could allow me to be more productive.

William Galik

William Galik will earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in materials science. He plans to go to graduate school to study structural engineering at the University of Washington.

What piece of advice do you wish you had known on your first day at WashU?

It took me nearly two years to realize that school is easier and less stressful when you make friends in class. There is something to be said about struggling through a course alone, but trying to succeed in six or seven courses without a study group can be frustrating. I made some of my best friends and learned the most once I began trusting my classmates. WashU is a place to meet smart people of any discipline and learn together.

What's your favorite memory from your time at WashU?

The time I spent hanging out with my roommates. Whether we were watching “Dumb and Dumber” on repeat or hanging out in the park, those guys always made me laugh.

Why did you decide to attend WashU?

WashU offered me great athletics and academics close to home. I loved the atmosphere of the basketball team when I came to camp as a high schooler, and I was sold on the education when I came to Engineering Day for prospective students. I remember deciding to come to WashU after talking to Professor Jessica Wagenseil about opportunities in wind energy in the mechanical engineering department.

Ayush Kumar

Ayush Kumar will earn a bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering and healthcare management. He will continue his studies and earn his MD and PhD at the University of Massachusetts.

What piece of advice do you wish you had known on your first day at WashU?

There's an endless amount of resources available on campus to help overcome the challenges of different courses. Whether it's the assistants to the instructor, teaching assistants, professors or problem-solving teams, each provides the necessary support you need to be successful.

Name a faculty or staff member who played an important role in your WashU experience.

Rohit Pappu is one of my favorite professors in the biomedical engineering department because he challenged us to be critical thinkers and find ways to apply our knowledge to real life problems. His enthusiasm and support for each student in his class were what made me excited to attend class and think outside the box. My major motivations to pursue a PhD stems from his support and advice over the years.

What will you miss most at WashU?

My professors and peers, and the supportive environment here made me proud to be a WashU student. Knowing I won't be on campus much longer to see them on a regular basis is heartbreaking, but I'm happy to have had them for the past four years. I am sure they will all be important parts of my life in my future endeavors.

Sirui Li

Sirui Li will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and mathematics. She plans to earn a PhD in social and engineering systems from MIT's Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

Name a faculty or staff member who played an important role in your WashU experience.

Sanmay Das. He is a fantastic instructor, research PI and mentor. I took his two courses, CSE 417: Intro to Machine Learning and CSE 516: Multi-agent Systems, in my sophomore year, and he was such an amazing instructor. I had a lot of fun taking the class and have been doing research with him since.

As a PI, he sincerely cares about my progress without being overly pushy. I get to have weekly meetings with him to update him on my progress where he gives me useful suggestions as to what the next steps are and encourages me when I’m stuck. I’m applying to grad school and he gave me tons of useful suggestions and information. Overall, he is just a fantastic person, and I learned so much from him.

What is your favorite place on campus?

Both Holmes Lounge and the Physics library in Crow Hall. I go to Holmes Lounge every time I want to socialize with my friends or work on a group project. The Physics library is a super quiet place, and I go there every time I want to get my work done.

What piece of advice do you wish you had known on your first day at WashU?

TA hours are helpful. I didn't go to any in my freshman year because my courses were manageable. However, during my sophomore year, one of the courses I took — which was an upper-level undergraduate course — was so hard that I struggled a lot. I realized there were TAs for this class who held TA hours. I went and they helped me with the homework problems I was stuck on and explained concepts taught in class that I didn't fully understand. After that, I went to more TA hours and found myself learning the concepts much better.

Liam Plambeck

Liam Plambeck will earn a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering with a minor in computer science. After Commencement, he will work as a business technology analyst with Deloitte in Chicago.

What was the most difficult course you completed for your degree? How did you overcome the challenge?

CSE 330: Rapid Prototype Development and Creative Programming. In this course, you essentially learn a new coding language every two weeks and code a difficult website with it. This was by far the biggest challenge for me in my four years here, and that sense of complete confusion is something I felt more in that class than ever before. I was able to get through it with the support of my partner and other classmates. The supportive, collaborative nature of WashU is something that is truly special that I have loved during my time here.

Why did you decide to attend WashU?

It just felt right. I remember I was visiting WashU for my final admitted student visit. Coming into it, I was convinced I was going elsewhere; but, once I stepped foot on campus, I immediately called my dad and told him that this was the place for me. In many ways, it just felt like a home away from home. The campus is absolutely beautiful, and I loved all the little archways and brick buildings. Everyone I had met on campus was so kind and genuine, and I knew that I would love to be here.

What piece of advice do you wish you had known on your first day at WashU?

Put yourself in uncomfortable and daunting positions — as long as you feel safe! While it may be scary at first to think about holding an executive position of an organization in your first couple of years on campus, WashU is a place where you can and should do that. I learned far more from being in uncomfortable and daunting positions in student groups than anywhere else during my four years here.