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Saura Naderi’s Award-Winning Week

It was shaping up to be just another typical week for the UC San Diego’s Saura Naderi: She’d prepped robotics kits for her engineering classes, given advice to an engineering undergraduate about what servos she should buy for her senior design project and met with members of the Junior National Society of Black Engineers chapter for San Diego to review the chapter’s bylaws.

But a text message she received Monday afternoon was the first hint Naderi’s week would be something extra special. The text, from Lovella Cacho, Naderi’s colleague at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, read: “You’re one of the top 10 up for UC San Diego Employee of the Year Award.”

Naderi said she was floored: “I didn’t understand. I didn’t really think it was true. There are way too many hardworking people at UCSD for them to single me out.”

But it was true: Cacho had nominated Naderi for the UC San Diego Exemplary Staff Employee of the Year Award, and she’d been selected as one of 10 nominees to be honored at an upcoming ceremony with Chancellor Pradeep Khosla.

And that was just the half of it. Two days later, Naderi found herself trembling onstage at the Manchester Grand Hyatt as she was handed the prestigious Athena Pinnacle Award for Education, beating out eight other high-caliber nominees from around the county at the 15th annual awards ceremony. Past recipients of the Pinnacle award from UC San Diego include Associate Dean for Education Gabriele Weinhausen, Associate VC for Undergraduate Education Barbara Sawrey, and Associate Dean of Engineering Jeanne Ferrante.

Naderi had been nominated for, among other things, her work as the founding director of the myLab Program, which combines engineering, art and technology to give hands-on experience to UC San Diego undergraduates and K-12 students in underserved areas of San Diego. Through the program, Naderi has worked with more than 400 K-12 students and their teachers from eight schools in the San Diego Unified School District, including Lincoln and Morse High Schools in southeast San Diego and the Town and Country Learning Center in central San Diego.

“Saura has infused energy and excitement into my classroom by providing a hands-on real-world project that I would not otherwise be able to do,” said Shirley Miranda, a computer science teacher at Morse High School. “Students are able to take what we've learned in the classroom and not only apply it, but experience what engineers do in the lab for both hardware and software development. Students are excited to see her and can't wait to continue work on their Arduino projects. She has made an invaluable impact on their lives and creating future engineers.”

Since graduating from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s in engineering in 2007, Naderi has made a name for herself as an emerging leader in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) education. Her annual Girls’ Hat Day Workshop pairs women engineers from ViaSat with girls ages 7 to 14, and, last year, culminated in a fashion show where the girls modeled the animatronic hats they had created. Naderi also helped found the Junior National Society of Black Engineers chapter for San Diego and works closely with the San Diego Science Alliance’s BeWISE, Qualcomm’s QWise (Women in Science and Engineering) and ViaSat’s VPartners.

Although Naderi now oversees the $100,000 myLab program, she can remember being ecstatic the first time she received $200 from the UC San Diego engineering department to conduct a guitar pedal workshop. Last year, she brought in an additional $25,000 in gift monies to the university from ViaSat and L3, plus the equivalent of $20,000 in pro bono patent prosecution services from the law firm Morrison & Foerster.

She’s also brought national attention to the university in the form of a television reality show, the SyFy network’s Robot Combat League. Naderi served as one of a dozen ‘robo techs’ on the show earlier this year, partnering with mixed martial arts fighter Amanda Lucas (daughter of director George Lucas) to control a super-sized robot and compete for a $100,000 prize.

Naderi said she feels fortunate to have the support of so many people within the university and the larger community, and noted, in particular, the influence of her mentor, Anne O'Donnell, director of the Corporate Affiliates Program for the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

“Anne nurtured and guided me from the beginning of my career,” added Naderi, “but all of the people who have touched my life, especially my parents, have been instrumental to the success of what I most love to do: helping others.”