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February 10, 2021

In 2021, college honors nine faculty and staff for contributions

Written By: Renee Meiller


Over the course of 2020 each faculty or staff member of the UW-Madison College of Engineering has made sacrifices in service to our college community, displaying exceptional creativity and fortitude in the face of uncertainty and rapid change. Yet, we as a community have remained positive and supportive of each other, and of our students. And while we are recognizing nine faculty and staff in 2021, the college could honor the selfless contributions of many, many more.

The 2021 college award recipients are people who have shown they are not only outstanding citizens of our college and our campus, but whose impact radiates far beyond the boundaries of our university.

Byron Bird Award for Excellence in a Research Publication

Recipient: Sean Palecek, the Milton J. and A. Maude Shoemaker Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Palecek’s pioneering work in human pluripotent stem cell differentiation processes has established him as an international leader in the field of stem cell engineering and earned him numerous prestigious honors.

Because of his unique focus on the differentiation process, rather than one specific product, his research has impacted many biological systems, including cardiovascular, neural, circulatory, skin, kidney, vocal fold, and musculoskeletal tissues.

In particular, however, are his simple and robust methods to direct human pluripotent stem cells to several cardiac cell types. His protocols have drastically lowered the cost and increased the scalability of heart muscle cell production, now making these cells widely available to the community of scientists studying human heart development and disease. Perhaps most importantly, Palecek’s research has advanced the potential of these cells to treat human heart disease.

He holds 15 patents for stem cell culture and differentiation processes—almost all of which have been licensed by companies that have integrated his advances into their cell manufacturing processes.

Bollinger Academic Staff Distinguished Achievement Award for Research Excellence

Recipient: Donald Savage, an associate instrumentation innovator in the Wisconsin Centers for Nanoscale Technology.

For three decades, Savage’s contributions in research and in training hundreds of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars have made an impact on materials research here on campus and around the globe.

His work has generated more than 160 scientific publications and seven patents and enabled world-leading research at UW-Madison in areas that include quantum information, group four nanoelectronics, oxide electronic materials, and 2D materials.

For example, Savage has developed and published methods that allow researchers to better characterize the structure and morphology of surfaces and interfaces at the atomic scale. Leveraging his depth of knowledge in crystal growth, he contributed to developments in chemical vapor deposition methods in ultrahigh vacuum that revolutionized how thin-film semiconductor materials were grown. Those innovative methods since have paved the way for groundbreaking advances that have garnered UW-Madison researchers international recognition. Savage initiated semiconductor nanomembrane research on campus; his initial insight led the university’s effort to become one of three world leaders in developing the nanomembrane platform. And, among many other contributions, he is making key discoveries in the emerging area of complex oxide material synthesis.

University and Academic Staff Distinguished Achievement Award

Recipient: Jesse Decker, a senior administrative program specialist in the college, better known as the Director of Safety.

You might know Decker from his knock on your laboratory door or from the safety newsletter that lands regularly in your in-box.

Since joining the college nearly three years ago, Decker has worked tirelessly and passionately to make our college a safer place in which to work and learn. He is always willing and available to answer a question or explain a procedure to anyone who asks, and he seeks to ensure that everyone in the engineering community understands our unique safety requirements.

And since the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been a key contact for processes and plans for safe operations and has generously and cheerfully provided guidance. In the words of the person who nominated him: “Between the multiple emails, Teams messages, phone calls and texts, he was professional and always displayed a level of calmness. I am incredibly thankful for his guidance and leadership during this pandemic and believe he is one of the best things to happen to the College of Engineering since I started back in 1998.”

Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award for Excellence in Teaching

Recipient: Kassem Fawaz, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Fawaz is the kind of student-centered teacher who can break down a complex topic; support all of his students, even at a distance; structure a tough ethical discussion exercise so that students feel welcome and safe; and transform an outdated capstone course into an exceptional learning experience.

In particular, in his first year on the ECE faculty, Fawaz substantially and single-handedly reinvented ECE 454, one of three capstone courses undergraduates must take before they graduate. Major upgrades include leveraging the latest Google software and hardware, offering “mini-lab” assignments that together become an integrated fitness tracking app, weaving personal data privacy as a theme throughout, and a final project that encourages the students to think big.

In 2020, Fawaz included a module on pandemic digital contact tracing techniques and he and his students explored the societal, ethical and technical issues with the technology. He also adapted the course to ensure all students could experience a rich, hands-on, team-based design experience, even while learning remotely.

Students’ instructor ratings and comments reflect their appreciation and admiration for his teaching approach, not only at the undergrad level, but also in his graduate student courses. As one student said,” He’s so awesome.”

James G. Woodburn Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

Recipient: John Puccinelli, a faculty associate, but better known as the associate chair of the undergraduate program in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

A signature aspect of the BME undergraduate experience—and the envy of biomedical engineering programs at other institutions—is its six-semester design sequence, which pairs student teams with clients to solve real challenges.

Puccinelli is the person who makes it all happen—coordinating more than 20 faculty instructors, 300 students and 60 projects each semester. He has created an automated online program to match students and projects, a design program website, and grading templates to ensure consistent grading and transparency for the students. He has personally mentored more than 60 student teams and also regularly submits projects as a client.

In addition, he has been the primary instructor and developer of nine other BME classes. He has served as a formal or informal advisor to hundreds of BME undergraduates and maintains connections with many after they graduate—creating a pipeline for future employment opportunities for BME students and a regular stream of volunteer judges for the BME design poster session each year.

Students recognize his impact on their education. Not only have they selected him for numerous teaching honors, but, according to the person who nominated Puccinelli for this award, students also are quick to note that “Dr. P” is among the mentors who most influenced their undergraduate career.

Harvey Spangler Award for Innovative Teaching and Learning Practices

Recipient: Steven Loheide, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic forced educational institutions to deliver classes remotely, Loheide was working on ways to leverage virtual education to transcend university boundaries and to provide graduate students access to some of the most specialized topics in the hydrologic sciences in the nation.

He partnered with a National Science Foundation-sponsored consortium of universities to develop, pilot test and formally establish a virtual program for graduate students in hydrology that leverages the expertise of faculty from a dozen leading universities. It consists of several modules in highly specialized areas; graduate students choose three modules and gain credit at their home institution.

This transformative model for collaborative graduate education in hydrology already is broadening course offerings, facilitating research collaboration across the country, and improving the rate at which graduate students learn about and apply advances in the field.

Most importantly, it is deepening the expertise of an ever-growing rank of young leaders in hydrology. Says a distinguished colleague at the University of Texas at Austin: “His work to develop the virtual university … is incredible and is rapidly expanding. … Such programs will provide access to students in smaller universities to leaders in different specializations. … Steve is very forward-thinking about how to develop the next generation of ecohydrologists to address critical sustainability challenges of the future.”

Ragnar E. Onstad Service to Society Award

Recipient: Oguzhan Alagoz, the Proctor and Gamble-Bascom Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

In his research, Alagoz is an acknowledged expert in modeling infectious diseases. And when COVID-19 began to emerge in the United States, he quickly responded to calls for data to help key stakeholders and prepare for the crisis.

He developed a novel agent-based simulation model tailored to our area and weekly shared the model’s projections with leaders at UW Health who are managing its pandemic response. He also helped the organization’s leaders understand COVID-19’s future trajectory, impact of weather on transmission, and how to interpret various data.

Similarly, he worked with epidemiologists from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, advising them on modeling tools and adapting his own model to Wisconsin to inform important DHS decisions that affected the entire state.

He also provided information to Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, the Madison mayor, the Illinois Department of Health, and others on topics including mobile phone privacy and how data is used in COVID-19 projections.

And in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, he spent countless fruitful hours in outreach efforts—mainly through interviews with members of local, state and national media outlets—to educate the public on topics ranging from the importance of physical distancing and mask use to how engineering approaches can predict future COVID-19 burden on the community. As an example of the reach of just one of these interviews: In just a week’s time, a November news story on had more than four million views.

Equity and Diversity Award

Staff recipient: Tracy Puccinelli, an associate faculty associate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Since joining the college in 2011, Puccinelli has been a leader in promoting equity and diversity not only through outreach efforts across the state of Wisconsin, but also throughout the College of Engineering.

For the past decade, she has been a member of the biomedical engineering Diversity and Inclusion Committee and now serves as its chair. In developing and teaching engineering courses and in her outreach programs, she collaborates closely with colleagues in the college Diversity Affairs Office and on the Equity and Diversity Committee.

She has developed a comprehensive outreach program that emphasizes targeting underrepresented minority students in kindergarten through grade 12. One aspect of that program now requires biomedical engineering seniors to conduct an outreach activity anywhere in Wisconsin, and Puccinelli trains and prepares each student team to prepare and present its activity effectively. She also coordinates outreach events with other community organizations.

As an educator, she recognizes the importance of hands-on projects in engaging students in engineering and helping to retain them, and she also weaves outreach and community engagement opportunities into the courses she teaches. Additionally, she has explicitly infused inclusiveness, diversity and team-building activities into the freshmen InterEgr 170 design course to promote understanding of the benefits of diversity.

As her nominator writes: “She has demonstrated excellent initiative and creativity in developing curriculum and programs that weave STEM outreach and community engagement into her courses, providing a powerful learning experience for UW-Madison students. Her job performance embodies the Wisconsin Idea.”

Equity and Diversity Award

Faculty recipient: Susan Hagness, the Philip Dunham Reed Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Throughout her highly successful faculty career, Hagness has generously and effectively championed initiatives to increase equity and diversity within the electrical and computer engineering department, our college, the UW-Madison campus, and the national and global communities of electrical and computer engineers.

For people in groups that include students at all levels, prospective and current faculty, and peers across academia, she is a role model and mentor. She is a driver of progressive, forward-thinking, inclusive policy, and of a welcoming, supportive and diverse academic environment. She seeks to build community and a sense of belonging.

And while her individual activities in these areas are far too numerous to mention in full, I will tell you that her efforts have made a difference. For example, she has advised 10 women engineering students in undergraduate research—seven of whom have gone on to earn master’s or PhD degrees. The cohort of PhD students she has graduated includes nine students from underrepresented groups. She led a college-wide initiative to develop a parental leave policy for our graduate students. She has mentored several current and emeritus faculty in engineering and elsewhere at UW-Madison, and she has been instrumental in recruiting women faculty to her department and creating programs to support and retain them. Currently, in fact, more than 20 percent of ECE faculty are women—a proportion that even exceeds the national average for all engineering disciplines. Similarly, under her leadership, the department’s freshman enrollments have risen to 15 percent women and 14 percent targeted domestic minorities. As she begins her role as president of the ECE department heads association this year, she will continue to lead initiatives to mentor women and people from other underrepresented groups in ECE.

Says the person who nominated her: “Susan’s record of championing diversity, equity and inclusivity in our ECE department, in the UW College of Engineering, on the UW campus, and in national and international ECE professional organizations is as profound and comprehensive as is her phenomenal accomplishments in research, teaching, service and administration.”