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UW Engineering Dean’s Medalist and Allen School alum Isaiah Lemmon has a passion for programming and clean energy

Dean Nancy Allbritton, Isaiah Lemmon and Jim Pfaendtner pose smiling in front of a brightly lit window with foliage visible outside. Allbritton and Lemmon are jointly holding a framed certificate.
Isaiah Lemmon (center) accepting his Dean’s Medal certificate from Dean Nancy Allbritton (left) and chemical engineering professor Jim Pfaendtner (right). Greg DeBow

After graduating from the University of Washington in December with degrees in computer science and chemical engineering, Allen School alum Isaiah Lemmon (B.S., ‘21) took on a software engineering role at Amazon Web Services. There, he intends to put his education to work advancing energy efficient solutions for the datacenter, inspired in part by his experience as an undergraduate researcher during his time at UW. That experience, combined with his rigorous coursework and achievements inside and outside of the classroom, recently earned him a 2022 Dean’s Medal for Academic Excellence from the College of Engineering — affirming his decision to pursue research across multiple disciplines to prepare himself to make a positive difference in the world.

“I’m honored to have been chosen for this award, and I’m really excited about the opportunity the combination of these two degrees has opened to me,” Lemmon said. “The amount of applicable knowledge and skills that different engineering disciplines have to offer each other is incredible, and I’d strongly encourage other students to pursue interdisciplinary research for that exposure.”

From his early days as an undergraduate student, Lemmon displayed a talent and passion for research and discovery. He applied both to great effect working with professor Jim Pfaendtner, chair of the UW Department of Chemical Engineering, on projects that enabled him to explore his dual interests in molecular science and computation. One such project involved studying interactions between titanium dioxide and water at the solid/liquid interface via ab initio molecular dynamics, for which Lemmon performed programming and data analysis using the UW’s HYAK supercomputing cluster.

“Isaiah approached me when he was fresh out of high school, and I quickly realized that he was an incredibly rare student,” said Pfaendtner. “Before long, Isaiah was a regular in our research group and made impressive gains on several projects related to catalysis, interfacial phenomena and ab initio molecular dynamics. However, it was in his work as a de facto software engineer for my team, during his third year of study, that we really saw Isaiah shine.”

At that time, Pfaendtner was eager to keep Lemmon engaged with his lab by supporting him in his quest to combine his knowledge and skills from both majors. He decided to hire Lemmon to assist lab members with turning their prototype software into usable products that could be deployed in the real world. In one instance, Lemmon rewrote a complex piece of reaction engineering software in Python from scratch to make it more robust and useful for a broader range of projects in the lab. He subsequently collaborated with then-Ph.D. student Sarah Alamdari to make modifications to a community software package that enabled Pfaendtner’s group to make their algorithms more widely available within the research community. Lemmon’s mentor characterized this work as evidence that he had already achieved a level of ability and independence more akin to that of a fourth or fifth  year Ph.D. student than an undergraduate.

Lemmon also did not shy away from tackling advanced coursework, including material that would typically be the preserve of graduate students. For example, he excelled in Pfaendtner’s Mass Transfer and Separations course and Allen School professor Tom Anderson’s Distributed Systems course — two offerings considered by students to be among the most difficult and intellectually challenging within their respective majors. In his final quarter at the UW, Lemmon enrolled in a new and similarly challenging Datacenter Systems course that explores the technologies that go into the construction and operation of large-scale datacenters — described by Anderson as “among the most complex systems that people have ever built.” Even so, Lemmon was undaunted by the subject matter. For the open-ended class project, he and his partners built a system for mapping the wiring layout for a datacenter that surprised and delighted their professor.

“As part of their project, Isaiah and his partners built a truly impressive visualization tool that showed how the different layers of switches could be organized as the size of the datacenter scaled up,” Anderson recalled. “Even though Isaiah was still just an undergrad, I thought his work was among the most ambitious and most interesting in a class of 80 students.”

“For me, it was my passion for programming and clean energy that led to where I am — finding a meaningful way to overlap those fields has been my dream,” Lemmon said. “I’m still trying to find the exact niche I want to settle in and am not yet sure if that will be in industry or academia, but my hope is some combination of the two so I can continue to do impactful research.”

Lemmon is one of two students in the College of Engineering honored with a Dean’s Medal this year; the other is Taylor Juenke, a student in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering. Learn more about the 2022 Dean’s Medalists here.

Congratulations, Isaiah!