Vaishnavi Dornadula

College Nine '21, robotics engineering

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Vaishnavi Dornadula (College Nine '21, robotics engineering)

Long before she started designing robots and high-tech "smart jackets" at UC Santa Cruz, Vaishnavi Dornadula 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. The trio 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. 

The experience 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. 

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. 

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.”

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. 

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. 

The experience of creating Baskin Day 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.”