Long before she started designing robots and high-tech "smart jackets" at UC Santa Cruz, Vaishnavi Dornadula (College Nine '21, robotics engineering) loved crafting jewelry and shaping models out of clay.
“Growing up in Fremont, I was actually really interested in the arts and anything where I could work with my hands and build,” Dornadula said.
At first she wasn’t sure if all this crafting was a private hobby or the pathway to a future career.
But when she received her acceptance notification from UC Santa Cruz, she, her mother, and a friend decided to explore the Jack Baskin School of Engineering. That chance visit altered her life’s trajectory, taking her building and problem-solving expertise to a professional level.
That day, Dornadula and her travel companions wound up at Jack’s Lounge, a popular gathering place at Baskin, where the Hack-a-Bot robot engineering competition was taking place. The fast-paced contests and the high-spirited, friendly, and competitive atmosphere enthralled her.
Dornadula was already leaning toward going to UC Santa Cruz, but the passion, speed, and determination of the contestants cemented her decision to become a Slug, and inspired her to study robotics at Baskin. That memory later motivated Dornadula to attempt something she’d never tried before: build a complex, high-profile Baskin Engineering celebration from scratch.
After her exciting Hack-a-Bot experience, Dornadula had been looking for ways that she and her engineering cohorts could highlight the achievements of Baskin faculty and students in an inviting, hands-on format that would appeal to the widest possible audience.
The result of her brainstorming was the first-ever Baskin Day celebration, which launched in February 2020. Since then, it has turned into a popular campus tradition, with students from across the disciplines, as well as off-campus visitors. This year, during the pandemic, they held an all-virtual version of the event April 9–11.
Full, festive schedule
Baskin Day is an annual event with many moving parts. The celebration includes a career fair, a women in tech panel, a talent show, "shark tank" pitch session, professional Q & A panel, and keynote presentation. Dornadula knew that bringing all of these components together would be a serious undertaking.
“But this celebration is really important to me because I truly believe it fills a space that needs to be filled,” Dornadula said. “Baskin Day was meant to build a bridge between members of the Baskin School of Engineering, the community of UCSC, Santa Cruz community members, and the alumni. It was also to help students through workshops and networking opportunities throughout the event.”
Though Baskin Day is a group effort, it was Dornadula who put together the detailed proposal for a three-day event run entirely by students, and packed with activities, speakers, and workshops that highlight the engineering school’s achievements.
Lindy Boisvert, programs assistant for student excellence, engagement, and inclusion at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering, calls the Baskin Day celebrations a resounding success.
“The students did a great deal of work creating the event and really worked hard to create a virtual event this year,” Boisvert said. “Vaishnavi is tireless. I was surprised when they decided to do the online program this year because most students are adjusting to the online college experience and that is plenty to manage. But Vaishnavi worked hard to make the event engaging and meaningful for students and alumni.”
Vaishnavi’s Baskin Day collaborators were equally impressed.
"Given the unprecedented times we are facing, I think an event like Baskin Day is an excellent way for students, alumni, and faculty to get together as a community,” said Rohan Jhangiani (Stevenson '22, CS game design), who worked alongside Dornadula to help launch the Baskin celebration.“Working with Vaishnavi is wonderful. She's incredibly charismatic and a great team leader. Baskin Day would not have been possible without her working around the clock to ensure everything was in order and running smoothly.”
The origins of a Baskin Day dream
In the winter quarter of her first year at UC Santa Cruz, Dornadula became an officer of the UCSC branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). After talking with several administrators in the Baskin School of Engineering, and learning more about events geared to students, she was inspired to launch a Baskin Day event to provide a platform for the hard work of students and faculty.
Dornadula hoped this event would bring about a sense of community and pride to the school of engineering.
As soon as Baskin Day received an official go-ahead, Dornadula had seven weeks to put the event together—a very short timeline to launch a celebration from scratch.
To launch the planning process, Dornadula recruited a team of 10 students and jumped right in that winter quarter.
“Though it took us some time to get our groove and learn to communicate effectively with each other, it was amazing to see how this room of strangers came together,” she said.
Dornadula’s experience as a Baskin student had already given her a crash course in problem-solving on the fly, bringing to life bold new projects, and staring down deadlines.
In her time at Baskin, Dornadula has immersed herself in the field of “soft robotics,” which involves building robots out of yielding, pliant, flexible materials that are programmed to move like organic lifeforms. One of her first personal projects at UCSC was a literally “flashy” LED-enhanced skirt that she programmed to have variations on patterns.
She has also taken part in class labs and built a robot that does tasks such as beacon detection with sensors. This year, she is completing a team capstone project in which she and her cohorts hope to build a “fall injury mitigation smart jacket” that could lessen the injuries for older adults who stumble and lose their footing.
Doubts and challenges
But in spite of her high motivation, experience, and formidable work ethic, she had some moments of doubt before the first Baskin Day events.
“We struggled a lot that first year with figuring out everything ground up, and not having campus access due to the [graduate student] strikes,” Dornadula said.
“The strikes blocking campus caused us to think on our feet and have a smaller version of the event,” Dornadula said. “But we were still able to bring high school students from Santa Cruz County on campus and give them tours of our research labs, hold workshops taught by our esteemed professors, and many other activities. It’s been really amazing to see how this group of different years and majors has evolved over the past year and a half into a family.”
Pivoting to an all-virtual format brought forth other issues.
“One of our main challenges this year is trying to figure out how to best engage our audience and try to give them the most we can with this event,” Dornadula said.
The overall experience has helped Dornadula grow as a leader, teammate, and person. Before she jumped into this big project, “I would absolutely consider myself to be an introvert, but Baskin Day forced me out of that shell," she said. "It motivated me to focus on my goal and set aside my nervousness to get the job done.”