By Andy Evangelista
Behind UC's robust research enterprise lie hundreds of passionate graduate students dedicated to problem-solving and innovation. Their efforts helped spawn the biotechnology industry and led new developments in a host of industries crucial to California's economy including electronics, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, nanotechnology and the special effects film industry.
"Graduate students are the engines that drive faculty research productivity," said Kim Barrett, dean of graduate studies at UC San Diego. "They are also often the glue that cements interdisciplinary interactions between faculty. It is at these interfaces that some of the most important and innovative discoveries are made."
But scientists, educators and industry leaders worry that budget cuts to higher education will reduce the spots available for graduate students, make it unaffordable for some, and drive away promising students and faculty when California can least afford a brain drain.
Graduate division deans and students from each of UC's 10 campuses will be in Sacramento on Wednesday (May 12) to remind legislators of their important and historic role in research and urge them to adequately fund UC graduate programs.
For the state to continue as a technological leader, it will need graduate education to thrive and produce a highly skilled work force. In the United States, the number of jobs that require a graduate degree will grow by 2.5 million by 2018, including an expected 17 percent increase in those requiring a doctorate and 18 percent in those needing a master's, according to a report released last week by the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States. The commission is made up of university and industry leaders.
"Whether it's studying ancient Greek writings or what makes a stem cell, many of our students conduct original research that pushes knowledge in their fields farther," said Patricia Calarco, dean of the graduate division at UCSF.
And over the years, UC's graduate students have made great impact in California and beyond.
Solving real problems
• UC Graduate Division websites
The 20 graduate students visiting Sacramento this week offer proof of a commitment by many to address some pressing state and global problems.
Katherine Sorber, a UCSF graduate student in molecular biology, studies the parasite that causes malaria, which kills 1 million people annually, mostly children, in underdeveloped countries (see video). Health experts worry that the current frontline treatment, artemisinin, could lose its effectiveness if the parasites become resistant to the drug. Sorber says only a university would conduct this type of research because pharmaceuticals would find little profit in doing so.
"In Sacramento, I think it's important for graduate students to show the Legislature and the public that the research we do is not so esoteric," she said. "It has applications to problems we face in the real world today."
Other students visiting Sacramento will include UC Berkeley's Holly Brown, a graduate student in Earth and planetary sciences. She is part of a team that is working on ways to warn us of impending earthquakes. And Ian Prowell, a structural engineering graduate student at UC San Diego, has spent many days at wind farms located near major earthquake faults to find out if wind turbines will hold up and produce electrical power after a major tremor.
Walter Heady, a UC Santa Cruz graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, has logged more than 400 hours on the Mokelumne River studying how river degradation affects endangered steelhead. He hopes that his research will offer new insights about climate change and help experts develop new practices for water management and recovery of the threatened California fish.
Lauren Shea, who is pursuing a doctorate in education at UC Irvine, develops programs to help schoolteachers instruct math and science to new English learners so that they can be up to par in those important subjects.
At UCLA, neurosciences student Marina Ziehn looks at the region of the brain that governs learning and memory. She hypothesizes that certain hormones may protect against multiple sclerosis, the leading neurological cause of debilitation in young people, particularly women.
Although some graduate students may focus on a specific problem, others conduct studies for the pure beauty of basic research. If there is an application for their research, they may never see it in their labs.
"Graduate students have creativity, and I think the worst thing to do is not let that creativity blossom," said UCSF's Elizabeth Blackburn at her press conference this fall after she won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. "And so the question is, 'How do you grow a graduate student?' You want them to nurture their own ideas and help them become independent."
Blackburn won the Nobel with Carol Greider, who was her graduate student when they both were at UC Berkeley in 1984.
Throughout UC, graduate students are "growing" and loving what they learn.
"I have always been interested in creating things, starting with Legos and various art projects as a child," said Gabriel Lopez, a bioengineering student. "I loved science and the idea of genetic engineering was fascinating, so I majored in biology as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. My current work is a happy hybrid of these interests."
Lopez entered the field of synthetic biology to study cells and perhaps tweak them into microbes that become new drugs, fuels or materials.
Graduate students spend long hours, often repeating the same experiment over and over in the hopes of perfecting a test or finding what no one else has discovered. Julie Phillips, a UC Merced student in computational biology, studies genetic mutations and how proteins are damaged in lint-sized worms that age and degenerate quickly. The research may someday offer clues about aging and how to stall the decline that comes with old age.
"Some days research makes you want to plunge yourself into a pit of fire, while other days you want to jump up and down and scream ‘I got it to work. I am awesome,'" states her Facebook page. "Today I am awesome :-)."
Studies of marine organisms and how they form their unique skeletons and hard minerals inspired UC Santa Barbara graduate student James Neilson to think about "biologically-inspired chemical tool boxes." The tool box utilizes simple water-based chemistry to create the right chemical and biological reactions. His is mostly basic research for now, but he hopes it will someday prove helpful in building solar and fuel cells or batteries.
"I love learning, and as a researcher, you have to love learning," he said "I love leaving hubris at the door and venturing off into unknown territory, whether it is unknown for myself or the larger scientific community. Sharing that new knowledge is even more exciting."
Neilson also shares his passion and knowledge with high school students as a mentor to those interested in doing research some day. Although he expects to spend many more years working in the laboratory, Neilson envisions a career in which he will develop strategies and programs for improving science education in the schools.
Growing new faculty
Passing on knowledge via teaching is indeed common for UC graduate students. A quarter of all UC and California State University faculty received their Ph.D. from a UC graduate program.
The students like those in Sacramento this week make UC a research and academic powerhouse. "The excellence of our students is what attracts and keeps our faculty," said UCSF graduate dean Calarco.
She worries that if graduate students and graduate programs continue to be pinched by budget cuts, students will leave — or never come — giving faculty a similar reason to shun UC. "If this happens, we will lose our edge," she said.