The Mentor:

Andrea Armani, Ray Irani Chair in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science

In addition to her work as a world class researcher in optics and medical diagnostics, Armani, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and PECASE recipient from President Obama, is no stranger to mentorship: her lab has been home to over 60 undergraduate researchers. She received the 2010 USC Mellon Mentoring Award for Undergraduate Mentoring and the 2016 Hanna Reisler Award for Mentoring.

“You should always apply for things — awards, grad school, etc. The worst that can happen is a rejection. If you don’t apply, you are rejecting yourself, which is even worse.”

A Valentine to Light:
Gallegos caught Armani’s attention two and a half years ago, after penning a short essay “that can best be described as a love letter to the field of optics,” Armani’s area of expertise. “I was truly shocked. Most undergrads (and many grad students) have never heard of optics, let alone demonstrate passion for working in the field.”


The Mentee:

Arynn Gallegos, senior, electrical engineering

Gallegos, the president of the USC chapter of Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), recently won first place in the SHPE National Convention Engineering Science Symposium. She has also been awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which is given to seniors as well as first and second-year PhD students. Initially, though she was loving research, she was struggling with imposter syndrome, but with the guidance of Armani, things changed.

“(Armani) gave me the confidence – she helped me through that mental block through that ‘I can’t do research, can’t get a Ph.D.’”

“She’s helped me develop how I talk about my strengths and how I communicate what I have learned and what I can contribute. I will carry her lessons with me as I start graduate school and as I go through my career!”

At The Intersection of Four Disciplines:
Said Armani: “Many students, especially undergraduates, like to stay within their main technical field — for Arynn, this is electrical engineering. However, her project required her to learn some chemistry and chemical engineering as well as some material science. While she was nervous initially, she quickly embraced the idea of using research as a stepping stone to learn new fields that she wouldn’t have the chance to learn as part of her degree program. This is truly a personality trait that can’t be taught or learned, and it demonstrates her fundamental excitement for pushing boundaries in research and discovery.”


The “Next Gen” Mentee:

Mailani Gelles, junior, computer engineering and computer science

Having initially met through USC’s Women in Engineering (WIE) mentorship program, Gelles, a USC Viterbi transfer student, has found a mentor and friend in Gallegos. Though Gelles is more focused on industry than research, Gallegos has helped her prepare for the interview process.

The Job Search:
“This summer I got a job as a Bluetooth engineer intern at Apple’s headquarters and could not have done it without Arynn. I was struggling for months to find an internship even with good grades, projects and two associates. She recommended I go to a conference, what to wear to it, looked at my resume and told me to do mock interviews. I studied and practiced for the interview and ended up getting the job!”


The Mentor:

Stacey Finley, Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair, associate professor of biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and materials science and biological sciences

Finley, who leads the Center for Computational Modeling of Cancer, also received the 2017 WiSE Hanna Reisler Mentorship Award, given to individuals at USC who have advanced the careers of women in science and engineering. One of her research areas is focused in angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels, and specifically how to thwart this in tumors, robbing them of the blood and nutrients they crave.

“Tell a story – in your writing and oral presentations, engage the reader or audience and tell a clear story about your research.”

On fitness:
It’s perhaps fitting, given their research in angiogenesis, that both have bonded over a shared love of fitness. Finley herself works out daily and notes that Wu has participated and done well in weightlifting competitions. Said Finley, “When we attended the annual meeting for the Biomedical Engineering Society in 2017, there was a weightlifting competition at the convention center at the same time. Jess mentioned to me that one of the attendees of the competition asked if she was competing. That was the ultimate compliment! I am amazed at how she sets her mind to something and truly sticks to it.”


The Mentee:

Qianhui “Jess” Wu, Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering

Wu is both a talented researcher, and, as her award for USC Viterbi’s 2018 Ph.D. Outstanding Mentor would suggest, a model mentor in her own right. Even Finley, her mentor, has learned a lot from her: “The most striking example of this is the latest model she is working on, one that shows how blocking angiogenesis can lead to hypertension. This is a very complex model that Jess has carefully put together. I knew only about the basic backbone of the reaction network. Jess has taught me the specific details of it.”

On their relationship:
“As Stacey’s first full Ph.D. student at USC (she has co-advised another student before), I feel like the oldest child in the family, and I want to meet all her expectations and also help her by taking responsibilities sometimes. On the other hand, Stacey is forever my biggest inspiration and role model as a strong, intelligent, deeply caring, and passionate woman in science.”

On overcoming problems:
“There were a few times when I had difficulty debugging my code for a computational model. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I reported it to Stacey, feeling that I’d failed to be a ‘smart and capable’ student, fearing that I might disappoint her. To my surprise, Stacey showed no sign of blame at all, and instead she went through the problem with me right away during our meeting and also offered to check on my code in her spare time.

She said, ‘sometimes you just need a fresh set of eyes’ to see the problem. A couple days later, she sent me an email with the fixed code, explaining to me in detail how she found the problem and her solution. Throughout my training, whenever I come across a difficult problem in my research, Stacey has always offered tremendous support and patience – with which I am able to learn and eventually become more efficient at problem-solving.”


The Mentor:

Andrea Hodge, Arthur B. Freeman Professorship in Engineering

Hodge wears many hats. She is the co-director of the Core Center of Excellence in Nano Imaging (CNI), which images things as tiny as an atom, connecting  researchers from all USC schools. She is the USC vice provost for undergraduate programs, the leader of the Hodge Materials Nanotechnology Research Group and the 2018 WiSE Hanna Reisler Mentorship Award recipient.

“You can be your own best friend or your own worst enemy, be kind to yourself and don’t be so critical of who you are or what you do.”


The Mentee:

Alina Garcia Taormina, Ph.D. candidate, materials science

The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) recently awarded her the 2019 Graduate Student Role Model Award for Southern California and Arizona. The STAR award, the highest honor given to a graduate student, recognizes Garcia Taormina’s outstanding outreach and contributions to SHPE’s USC chapter and the Hispanic community. As Hodge notes, her heart makes her special: “She wants to help everybody and make everything better. I have to sometimes stop and tell her, ‘Stop. Think of yourself.’”

The Visual Arts
Before her current life, engineering strong, complex materials for use in aerospace and other industries, Garcia Taormina was originally a film production major at LMU. “Alina loves photography,” said Hodge, “and she’s quite good at it. She takes beautiful pictures.” Her pictures these days range from street photography at Venice Skatepark to scanning electron images of nano-architected structures.

On Confidence:
“I was coming from a chemistry background, and not engineering, so I felt really unqualified. I remember I expressed that sentiment to (Prof. Hodge) during the Viterbi Ph.D. Preview Day event, and she emailed me, saying, ‘Please do not question your admission or qualifications. You were selected from over 300 students. I think you will be a great addition to our group at USC!’ And from there, I decided to commit to USC.”


The “Next Gen” Mentee:

Leilani Arvizu, junior, materials engineering, UC Riverside

Arvizu first met Garcia Taormina during her senior year at Santa Monica High School, where the latter had created a scholarship fund for students who participated in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program. Later, at UC Riverside, Arvizu worried that she was getting involved in research too late, but Garcia Taormina’s story helped dispel those fears.

Said Arvizu, “One thing I’ve learned from Alina is to never be shy about asking for help. I have always been timid and asking for help from people would scare me. Talking to Alina has really helped get out of my shell because she’s given me a lot of advice and insight about grad school, as well as industry.”


The Mentor:

Teagan Ampe, junior, computer science

Ampe, a leader in USC’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) community outreach committee, has known Perry since 2018. Since being formally paired as part of USC SWE’s mentorship program, the two have met either weekly or monthly, bonding over a shared love of musical theatre, particularly “Hamilton,” and staying up late coding in Salvatore Hall — the two are both course producers for USC’s introductory computer science classes.

Evenly Balanced:
“Our mentor-mentee relationship is pretty casual, since we were friends for a while before we were matched by the Society of Women Engineers. We both tend to have a lot of work and extracurricular commitments, but we balance that with fun things. One time, we played ping pong in the middle of Lily’s residence building hallway, and afterwards went to a study lounge and worked on homework. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.”


The Mentee:

Lily Perry, sophomore, computer science

 Perry has already been a rising star in CS — during the 2019 AthenaHacks, USC’s all female hackathon, she led the creation of WeMove, an iOS app to group users walking from similar locations to similar destinations so women would not have to walk home alone at night. In addition, she mentors juniors and seniors at Foshay Learning Center near USC.

On overcoming problems:
“Last semester, I struggled in CSCI 201: Principles to Software Development because the lectures were often hard to follow since the professor had never taught the course before. Fortunately, Teagan had already taken the class and loved the material, so she was an invaluable resource to me when I didn’t understand a lecture.”

Good Advice:
“Last year, Teagan noticed that whenever she offered to hang out, I would usually respond along the lines of ‘Sorry, I have seven club meetings this week…not sure if I have the time.‘ She often advised me to drop some of my extracurriculars and focus a lot of energy on a few clubs instead. This year, I’ve been trying to follow her advice. I went from having low involvement in 10 different clubs to focusing on being the vice president of Hawaii Club and the public relations manager for MEGA (the Makers of Entertaining Games Association).”


Are You an Alum Who Wants to Mentor?
It only takes a few minutes to sign up on, and you can mentor on your own schedule, in your preferred format: phone, email or in-person.

The Mentors:

Jasmine Naseri, B.S. EE ’16; communications systems engineer, Northrop Grumman; president, Los Angeles section of SWE.

Shajeeah Mumtaz, B.S. ASTE ’16; systems engineer, Northrop Grumman; social media ambassador, Los Angeles section of SWE. 

Although Naseri mentors Atun and Mumtaz mentors Helmy, the four often go on mentoring “double dates,” including Smorgasburg L.A., getting dessert at SomiSomi, shopping at Citadel Outlets and spending time at the 2019 SWE national conference. All four have evolved from mentors-mentees to trusted, mutual friends.


Naseri: “It’s easy to get overwhelmed with school work, extracurriculars, job hunts, and so on, but you have to remember to enjoy your special years in college and to prioritize your health and happiness above all.”

Mumtaz: “Step outside of your major and comfort zone and take that fun class you’ve always been interested in. Stay healthy and get enough sleep. College goes by in the blink of an eye; take time to hang out with your friends and make life-long memories. Remember to have fun.”


The Mentees:

Sara Atun, senior, mechanical engineering

Atun, a USC dance minor and co-director of the USC Chamber Ballet Company, is also a member of the planning committee of the Trojan Dance Marathon, a fundraiser for Children’s’ Hospital of Los Angeles — justlike Naseri before her.

Haya Helmy, senior, aerospace engineering

Helmy does research on the question: “Why do our planes not look like birds…yet?” She leans heavily on Mumtaz’s experience in the aerospace industry, noting: “Shajeeah has really instilled in me confidence in my abilities as an engineer, which is what I needed going into recruiting season.”


On Overcoming Problems:
Atun: “One problem that I had was struggling with my internship search last year. Receiving rejections and not feeling at home in networking situations was making it difficult to continue. However, Jasmine showed me the importance of confidence and being personable. She reassured me that I had skills to offer a company, and she prepared me for interviews, reviewed my resume, and gave me pep talks when I needed them.”

Galactic Inspiration:
Helmy: “(Shajeeah and I) met at the beginning of my junior year, the hardest year of my engineering degree. She had emailed me to meet up, and I remember she included a YouTube video link of the James Webb Space Telescope, which she works on! I was so excited to meet her and ask her more about her work!” Helmy’s 2019 internship: redesign of battery cell bypass switches used on the Webb Space Telescope.


The Mentor:

Gisele Ragusa, Professor of Engineering Education Practice

Ragusa, the chair of the USC STEM Consortium, recently was awarded the nation’s highest honor for mentorship by the White House — the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. One of only 15 recipients nationwide in 2019, and only the third in USC’s history, Ragusa was cited for her “work with underrepresented groups to develop fully the nation’s human resources in STEM.”

“Have an open mind, be flexible in diverse, changing contexts. Don’t be afraid to share your experiences and personal history as you are comfortable with it, recognizing that your own history informs your decision-making and may be different from those with whom you interact.”


The Mentees:

Mitali Mehta, M.S. candidate, computer science

Ishita Bedi, M.S. candidate, computer science

Both graduate students have been transformed by Ragusa’s example of “contagious” mentorship. As student mentors for USC’s Robotics and Coding Academy (RCA), they teach 4th and 5th graders to build Wallaby robots, coding them in C. But the tone is set by Ragusa, who Mehta calls a “a very sensitive mentor,” and Bedi notes is “extremely warm and welcoming… one of the best experiences I’ve had at USC.”

On Inspiration:
“I have seen Dr. Ragusa working long days all week long, sometimes even weeks together,” said Bedi, “but she is always energetic when it comes to her work. Watching her work on her projects is extremely inspirational, and I have understood that the more you do of what you love, the less tired you feel.”

On Sharing:
Said Mehta: “Dr. Ragusa always asks her mentors to share a part of their culture with their group of mentees. Since most of us are international students, we come from different places, and have different cultural experiences that such young children haven’t yet heard of. She always asks us to share a bit of our world with them, broaden their scope of the world!”

Paying It Forward:
“Mentoring,” said Mehta, “makes me feel like I’m giving some of my knowledge back to the community. It is a very gratifying feeling when I explain a concept to a child and they understand and implement it correctly! My most memorable experience about mentoring was when my group of mentees had taken part in the Robotics Summit Challenge that we keep among all the schools. Seeing them so confident with their robot, that too, at such a young age was quite amazing.”