Top senior graduate, a tech genius and a gifted musician


Leyla Kabuli, a graduate in music and electrical engineering and computer science, is the recipient of the 2021 University Medal. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

If gifted musician and tech genius Leyla Kabuli sets the bar for winning UC Berkeley’s highest honor for a senior graduate, the university’s future medal contenders could find themselves aiming for the top. Moon.

Leyla Kabuli plays the piano in Morrison Hall on campus.

10-year-old Kabuli plays the piano at Morrison Hall on campus (Photo courtesy of Leyla Kabuli)

At age 7, Kabuli began to master the piano. At age 10, she was accepted into the pre-college division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a scholarship, where she studied piano, violin, bassoon, and chamber music.

In college, she played violin with the UC Davis Symphony. In high school, she played piano, harpsichord, celestial, and organ with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

And that’s before she came to UC Berkeley with a prestigious Regents and Chancellor’s Scholarship and focused on Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

In her senior year, she was responding to full scholarship offers from Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT. She stayed with Berkeley for her graduate studies.

“I might be biased, but Berkeley has the best electrical engineering program in the country,” says Kabuli, who was born in Berkeley and raised in Davis, California.

She also credits the culture, diversity and courage of the campus with her decision to accept the Berkeley Scholarship for Graduate Studies, which provides financial support for five years.

As a senior graduate, Kabuli, 21, a simultaneous EECS and music student, with a perfect 4.0 GPA, will address thousands of her peers this Saturday, May 15, in caps and gowns, at a start campus-wide virtual. ceremony.

The 150-year-old University Medal recognizes a graduate student’s outstanding research, public service and strength of character, and comes with a cash award.

UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Jeremy Snowden.

Kabuli’s research interests lie in diagnostic imaging, vision and perception. Among other things, she is experimenting with super-resolution microscopy and magnetic particle imaging to help people in the medical profession see better inside the human body.

On a lighter note, it uses the various tools of engineering and computing to enhance the 3D visual entertainment experience.

“Simply put, I want to contribute technology that will improve the quality of people’s lives,” she says.

‘Too good to be true’

Kabuli learned that she had won the medal on a recent Friday when she met her research group on Zoom.

Typically, college medalists have vowed to keep it a secret until their identities were revealed in a press release in the days leading up to the start, so she had to keep the news a secret.

“I’m not the type to jump and go down,” she says. “But I was really happy for the rest of the day.”

The professors of the EECS who wrote his glowing letters of recommendation will also be happy.

“Leyla has perfect A rights, beating out 450 of the strongest undergraduate electrical engineering students in the world,” wrote Steven Conolly, Mr. Cook’s president of bioengineering and EECS, in his letter recommending Kabuli for the medal.

“Yes, Leyla’s resume is already too good to be true!” He continued. “Leyla had to overcome cultural, family and gender barriers to be successful.”

Kabuli seated at a desk in a laboratory in the Hearst Memorial Mining Building.

In an engineering lab in the Hearst Memorial Mining Building. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Kabuli prefers not to dwell on these obstacles, but rather to focus on the problems that can be resolved, she said.

It’s a lesson she learned from her mother, who came to Berkeley from Turkey as a student, graduated from EECS in the 1980s, and then joined the engineering faculty of the ‘UC Davis, where she still teaches today.

“When my mother was a student at Berkeley, there were no female professors on the electrical engineering side of EECS,” says Kabuli. “She taught me that when you focus on whatever it is you want to do, you can achieve it. So, I never felt there were barriers for me.

Hence his well-rounded resume, which lists a grant from the Jacobs Institute Innovation Catalysts Ignite, an Outstanding Award for Graduate Students, a Samuel Silver Memorial Scholarship Award, an Edward Frank Kraft Award for Freshmen and a California Seal of biliteracy in French and Turkish. distinctions.

Kabuli to Morrison in front of the poster promoting his recital.  The poster bears his name.

In front of a poster promoting her 2019 Hertz Hall recital (Photo courtesy of Leyla Kabuli)

His classical music credits include solo and ensemble performances at the historic Hertz Hall on campus and in concert halls in California, New York, Washington, DC, Massachusetts, Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Minnesota and Texas.

She has also performed for TEDxBerkeley and NPR’s “From the Top” podcast, which celebrates the lives and talents of young, classically trained musicians.

As a mentor, she organized labs and presentations for middle and high school students in underserved schools. Her favorite thing is to arouse their curiosity.

“At first they’re apprehensive or trying to sound cool,” she says. “Then as they get familiar with the lab and I work with them one-on-one, you can see their eyes light up.”

In addition to the Berkeley Scholarship for Graduate Studies, she is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Scholarship for Outstanding Graduate Students in STEM fields.

So, is there something Kabuli isn’t good at?

“Please don’t give me a final exam with an essay.” It’s not going to go well, ”she said. “I think I’ve always been a more analytical person. I am a practical person. I like the facts. I like science. I like the data. “

What about when she plays music? “The only time I go out of my area is if someone wrinkles a candy wrapper,” she says. “This one touches me every time.”

Weaned on EECS

As a toddler, Kabuli built Lego structures in his mother’s office: “I practically grew up in the electrical and computer engineering department at UC Davis,” she recalls.

Leyla Kabuli, 10, in front of Morrison Hall.  She is wearing a pink jacket.

At age 10, in front of Morrison Hall, home to UC Berkeley’s music department. (Photo courtesy of Leyla Kabuli)

She first caught the music bug when she was 6 and watched Itzhak Perlman play the violin at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis. She desperately wanted to go on stage with him and accompany him on the piano.

“It took me a year to pester my mother to buy me a piano. She finally gave me a Casio electronic keyboard, ”she says. As his skill level improved, so did his keyboards. His mother gave him a used grand piano, then a used grand piano.

“The kids at school thought of me as the ‘piano kid’ who always had rehearsals or a contest,” she says.

In college, she played basketball, but didn’t try for the team because, her violin teacher warned, broken fingers would cut her music career.

In high school, she took AP courses in math and science, as well as concurrent enrollment courses at community colleges, earning nothing less than A’s.

When it came time to choose a four-year college, the decision fell to Berkeley, UCLA, Harvard, and Stanford. Berkeley won hands down.

“It was one of the best places where I could both make music and take a high-level engineering program,” she says.

Not that juggling the two has always been easy. During her freshman and sophomore years, she zigzagged between Cory Hall, Morrison Hall, Dwinelle Hall, the Hearst Memorial Mining Building and Hertz Hall for classes, teaching assistant duties, practice of the music and recitals. In between, she was heading to San Francisco for rehearsals and performances.

During the summer before her freshman year, she landed an internship as a hardware engineering intern in Apple’s exploratory design group, and worked in optics and computational imaging.

Experience taught her that the corporate world was not for her and that she could have a greater impact in academia as a teacher.

In his element

When COVID-19 hit campus in the spring of its freshman year, she and other tech-savvy teaching assistants found themselves on the front lines of students’ transition to distance learning.

Kabuli hikes in the hills above the Berkeley campus at sunset.

Hike the Berkeley Hills Scenic Trail in 2020 (Photo courtesy of Leyla Kabuli)

As the senior lab assistant for an EECS course with 1,000 students enrolled, she had a week to figure out what to do.

“We had no way of taking thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and shipping it to a thousand people, did we?” she says. “So the first thing I had to do was archive and recreate as much data as possible to try to give the students continuity and keep them learning.”

Since then, his life has calmed down considerably. Her classes, research, and teaching duties always keep her busy, but she also hikes, socializes on Zoom, and watches TV a lot.

A solo piano recital at Hertz Hall stands out, as she reflects on her undergraduate years at Berkeley.

It was the first time her friends and music and engineering teachers had come to watch her play on campus. Some engineers didn’t even know she was playing the piano at a virtuoso level.

Leyla Kabuli is playing piano at Hertz Hall this month.

At the Steinway earlier this month at Hertz Hall. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Perched on the Steinway concert grand piano, she performed compositions by Schubert, Stravinsky, Medtner, Chopin and Bach.

“They all spent an hour and a half of classical music,” she recalls. “They were silent during the songs. No one was snoring. No one was coughing. And at the end, they were applauding.

It won’t be the last time Kabuli will receive a standing ovation.

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