Support for UCR’s graduate programs fuels diverse research around the globe
Climbing the Himalayas to study Sherpa culture. Descending deep into the earth to better understand the universe. Resurrecting a flooded New Orleans community and discovering the power of volunteerism.
The topics for graduate studies are vast and diverse at UC Riverside, but they all have one thing in common — the quest to create new knowledge, a mission that represents the beating heart of every great research university.
The creation of new knowledge has been a constant at UCR, from citrus research in the early 1900s to the establishment of the graduate division in 1960. But in the past decade, our graduate programs — acclaimed around the world — have expanded.
UCR offers programs rarely found anywhere else, such as the doctoral program in critical dance studies, or the Ph.D. in Native American history. The School of Medicine is the first public medical school in California to open in four decades. The School of Public Policy opened doors to graduate students this past fall. Since 2008, several new programs such as the Ph.D. in management, the Ph.D. in art history, the Flex MBA program, the online Master’s of Engineering, and the Master’s of Computer Engineering have been established.
“Graduate research makes our students doers, not just knowers,” says UCR Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Paul D’Anieri. “The journey we are on is about discovery. You take that journey side by side with your students, never knowing exactly what might be around the next corner.”
Today, UCR offers 41 doctoral areas of study and 47 master’s programs.
As the graduate programs grow, so does the graduate student population. UCR had about 2,000 graduate students in 2005; this year, they number more than 3,000. “About 65 percent of our graduate students are seeking the Ph.D. in various disciplines,” Graduate Division Dean Joseph Childers says.
By 2020, Chancellor Kim Wilcox hopes to double the number of graduate and professional students. Eventually, Provost D’Anieri says, he would like to see graduate students make up 20 percent of UCR’s enrollment. And the unique makeup of UCR’s population, along with the expansion of its graduate programs, will have a huge impact on scientific discovery around the world.
Superlative Research, Fantastic Mentors
Of course, it’s the faculty’s pioneering research that drives the expansion of UCR’s graduate programs, along with their impacts on the real world, and the emphasis on mentorship.
Alex Plong, in his first year as a Ph.D. student in plant genetics, says the cutting-edge research in plant biology drew him to Riverside. “I applied to other graduate schools for various reasons; one was close to the beach, and the other had a great football team,” he said. But he came to UCR specifically because of the work that his professor, Venugopala Gonehal of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, is conducting in gene networks and cell identity transition. “I didn’t realize how nice Riverside was until I interviewed with my professor; it was a big plus to the fact that UCR’s plant biology program is highly regarded around the world.”
UCR has also established various support systems for grad students. “Seeking an advanced degree can often be frustrating and lonely,” Graduate Dean Childers says. “A strong community can help.”
The Graduate Division has been actively — and successfully — building that community for UCR, helping create a vibrant, supportive graduate student community through the Graduate Success unit.
— Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Paul D’Anieri
The Graduate Success unit provides support in every aspect of a graduate student’s life. Academically, the unit offers programs, workshops and seminars via the Graduate Student Writing Center and the GradQuant center (which helps students gain more facility with quantitative analysis). Socially, the Graduate Resource Center helps students find activities at UCR that contribute to their personal well-being. Counselors give career advice, whether students want to find work as academics or in the private industry.
Childers cites as important a unique first-year mentoring program for incoming Ph.D. and M.F.A. students, which serves more than 100 students per year. “The success of that program, which started in 2009, has been especially notable,” Childers says. “About 90 percent of those who have been through it advance to their degree.” Nationally, the graduate student success rate is at about 50 percent. “This program has contributed to UCR bringing its overall graduate student success rate to nearly 60 percent.”
Increasing Financial Support
For most universities around the country, funding research and graduate programs is crucial. At UCR, fellowships and grants can help attract quality Ph.D. candidates to campus, because students can then focus on research instead of being distracted by other jobs to stay financially afloat. The challenge for increasing funding for graduate student programs was one that Childers faced in 2008. At the time, UCR was receiving fewer than one National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship a year.
It didn’t make sense to Childers, who at the time had just started his tenure as dean. UCR was developing amazing scientific research, had very good students and extraordinarily good faculty — so why didn’t the fellowships follow? It wasn’t the academic quality, Childers realized. “It was because we didn’t know how best to go about seeking those fellowships.”
To solve that problem, the Graduate Division developed a program to help graduate students write successful NSF applications, and established an incentive system to keep track of applicants. Since then, UCR has been receiving about 12 NSF fellowships a year, bringing more than $10 million to UCR in the past six years.
“It’s been enormously helpful,” Childers said.
This year, UCR’s work in stepping up its grant-writing efforts has really paid off. Fundraising for research, much of which goes toward supporting graduate students, has climbed in other areas as well. Last year, UCR faculty brought in grants or royalties of $97 million in 2014-2015, about $19 million more than the previous year.
Most recently, UCR was awarded more than $4.4 million by the U.S. Department of Education to support graduate student fellowships.
Creating a Diverse Pipeline
Grants also help UCR achieve other goals, such as maintaining a diverse student population while recruiting top-notch graduate students to the campus. In 2008, only 16 percent of UCR’s domestic graduate student population was from underrepresented categories. Today that number is approaching 30 percent.
Having a diverse graduate student population, Childers says, means UCR is meeting the mission of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education to educate its citizens: “I am most proud of the gains we have made in recruiting and growing a more diverse graduate student population. Coupled with the tremendous growth in our graduate numbers in the last eight years, we are moving toward reflecting the same sort of diversity enjoyed by our undergraduate population.”
— Interviews by Vickie Chang
How UCR Won Five Highly Competitive GAANN Grants
The Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) is a Department of Education funding program designed to financially support graduate students who are seeking a Ph.D. in an area of national need.
This year, UCR is receiving one of the largest awards in the country: $4.4 million funding five grant proposals that will help support up to 120 graduate students over the next three years.
Out of 18 submissions from UCR, five were chosen. GAANN grants were awarded to programs in evolution, ecology and organismal biology, plant biology, computer science engineering, mechanical engineering and, for the first time, in a humanities area: Native American studies.
“All of our applications scored tremendously well, and the five that were successful were funded at the maximum level possible,” Dean Childers says. “We think this is quite exceptional.”
What’s truly great about fellowships like GAANN, Childers points out, is that they’re wholly need-based.
“They identify the students who might be coming from socioeconomically disadvantaged or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who may otherwise not have the wherewithal or even the thought of going to grad school,” he says. “Being able to reach out to these extraordinarily talented students is a huge gain for our campus.”
Death was an everyday possibility for UCR anthropology doctoral student and mountaineer Young Hoon Oh, 37.
But so was joy.
A climber since his undergraduate days at Seoul National University, Oh confronted death many times in the Himalayas when he lived with Sherpa families to research the impacts of mountaineering on their culture.
“Mountaineering involves very serious and significant things, such as death — not just of mountaineers, but of my friends, too,” Oh said. “I dealt with my own death as well. If I didn’t do that, I couldn’t climb at all.”
It’s difficult for mountain climbers to explain their passion, Oh said. For him? “It makes me feel alive. It pushes me to think more about my life — and others’ lives.”
From 2012 through 2014, Oh shared his life with Sherpas — an ethnic group from the most mountainous regions of Nepal.
In those two years of fieldwork, he joined nine separate climbing expeditions, and finally summited Mount Everest in spring 2012.
On one of his Everest expeditions, Oh became friends with his 24-year-old Sherpa guide. The guide invited Oh to stay with his family in a small, isolated village of 400 Sherpa people.
“It took three days to get to his village: one day by airplane, one day by jeep, one day by foot. It was a very remote area with no electricity and very poor telephone connection,” he said.
me feel alive.”
“It was very fun,” Oh said. “All the households in the village were connected through kinship. I was talking with them, living with them, working with them, taking care of sheep, cattle. … The first few months were very tough, but I came to realize how Sherpas understand mountaineers — or modernity — through their eyes. That was my key question.”
Oh said he’s grateful to his UCR advisor, Professor Sally Ness, whose patience and support made him more confident, and for a $15,000 scholarship from UCR’s Graduate Division that helped him pay for his tuition while he was doing his research.
Now back in Riverside finishing his dissertation, Oh hopes to land an academic job after his graduation in March. He also wants to be a member of the first group to successfully summit Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat — the world’s ninth-highest mountain — during the winter season.
“About 26 expeditions have attempted to climb Nanga Parbat during the winter, but all of them failed because of the severe weather conditions, so we’ll try next year,” Oh said. “We are getting closer and closer to the crest between life and death, but now we know the border between the two.”
Particle physicist Elizabeth Kennedy spends her days a tenth of a mile underground, with researchers from around the world, trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe.
Kennedy, 26, is a graduate student at UCR, but she’s doing her research a continent away, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland, which houses the powerful particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
CERN plays host to thousands of researchers, scientists and engineers representing more than 600 universities and research facilities, including UCR’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Kennedy and other UCR graduate students have focused their research on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, a large particle-capturing detector at the Large Hadron Collider that doubles as the fastest and highest resolution camera ever constructed.
The LHC is a huge, colorful and slightly ominous- looking machine located 100 meters underground. The machine allows scientists to collide protons into each other at almost the speed of light to better understand how the universe works. The existence of the Higgs boson — the so-called “God particle” that made headlines in 2012 — was discovered during experiments at CERN.
Kennedy is studying experimental high-energy particle physics.
Her personal focus is on studying a rare decay of the Higgs boson, “which is important to help pin down the exact nature of the particle that was discovered in 2012,” she said. “Is it exactly the Standard Model Higgs, or something more exotic?”
Most days at CERN are pretty un-exotic, however. “Our time is spent analyzing and integrating the data that we record with our detector,” Kennedy said.
But she’s also learned something about using a wrench, as part of CERN’s requirement that all visiting researchers help with hands-on maintenance of their experiment and its many components. In fall 2013, she and another UCR graduate student, Jesse Heilman, began to help build and install new ME4/2 cathode strip chambers as part of a necessary upgrade on the CMS.
That might sound like a punishment, but Kennedy really enjoyed the hands-on work.
“I learned an incredible amount about electronics and detector technology during the production phase,” she said. “Even better was getting to work in the experimental cavern, putting the chamber — that I personally helped to build — onto a part of the biggest science experiment in the world. I love grad school!”
She plans to return to UCR in December to write her thesis, under the supervision of her advisor, Professor Robert Clare. In the meantime, it’s back to crunching data with her fellow researchers.
“Getting to interact with these amazing people from all over the world is my favorite thing; there are just so many people from so many places,” she said. “It may sound cliché, but it’s a really great way to grow as a person.”
Ian Breckenridge-Jackson grew up doing volunteer work, from Camp Fire activities to service clubs during his undergraduate years at Occidental College. But it wasn’t until he went to New Orleans in 2006 to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina that volunteerism changed his life.
“That was the first time I was really hit in the face with the reality of social inequality,” said Breckenridge-Jackson, 30, a Los Angeles native. “I couldn’t really look away. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It was a catalyst that drove me to grad school, to study different forms of social inequality and how they intersect with one another.”
What sparked his passion was a chance conversation with a Katrina survivor who was trying to rebuild his home in the Lower 9th Ward, one of New Orleans’ hardest hit areas. Prior to Katrina, the neighborhood had one of the highest rates of home ownership by African-Americans in the country, with families that went back generations. But the muddy floodwaters destroyed many of the homes, schools, stores and infrastructure that neighborhoods need to survive. Fewer than one in four residents returned, and those who did struggled to rebuild.
“The trauma of [the Katrina survivor’s] experience was very palpable in his eyes and in his voice,” Breckenridge-Jackson said. “I had to understand why someone like myself and my multiple forms of privilege hadn’t experienced something like that, and why someone in a very different position socially had to go through so much.”
Volunteer Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, helped Breckenridge-Jackson take some action. As they worked to clean up the devastation left by Katrina, the two kept hearing that the Lower 9th Ward’s rich history was getting buried and forgotten.
“There was nowhere people could go to just hear those stories, so we came up with the idea of creating a museum and an oral history project that told the story of the Lower 9th Ward — through the voices of its people.”
Five years later, in 2011, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum opened its doors. Admission is free, and the museum has compiled more than 50 oral histories from residents, which are available online. The museum is also a community hub, hosting neighborhood events, tutoring, a poetry club, an arts and crafts club and a homework club six days a week.
Breckenridge-Jackson says his grants (such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship) and his faculty and staff mentors at UCR helped him accomplish his work. He also credits the strong sense of community among his peers.
“It’s a collaborative effort and a funnel for the voices of the residents,” he said. “We’ve had over 4,000 visitors from 42 states and 22 countries and six continents. Seeing this idea turn into something bigger than we could’ve possibly imagined really has been amazing.”
It was all an accident.
In 2014, bioengineering Ph.D. student Shirin Mesbah Oskui was working in Professor William Grover’s lab. Grover’s lab develops precision tools for measuring micron-scale objects such as cells. While using a 3D printer, the 27-year-old Mesbah noticed that zebrafish embryos that came into contact with her printed pieces died just a few days following exposure.
Zebrafish embryos are commonly used in research because of developmental and genetic similarities to humans. With that discovery, Mesbah suddenly found herself with a new research topic: the toxicity of 3D printing materials.
The researchers decided to focus on the two main commercial types of 3D printers in their department; one that melts plastic onto a platform to build a part (“a glorified glue gun,” as Mesbah describes it) and another that uses light to transform a liquid into a solid part.
The result? Parts from both kinds of printers were measurably toxic to zebrafish embryos, with the parts from the liquid-based printer proving to be more toxic.
Mesbah’s findings come with the rapidly growing popularity — and accessibility — of 3D printers. The value of the 3D printing market grew from $288 million in 2012 to an astounding $2.5 billion in 2013, according to a report by Canalys.
“It’s definitely a growing industry. One of the 3D printers [our department] uses is only $3,000. I’m saying ‘only’ because a couple of years ago, that same type of technology was $30,000,” Mesbah says. “These 3D printers are becoming very cheap; as a result, people are going to find more uses for them in different fields.”
Many at-home hobbyists are picking up their own 3D printers, she said, and many elementary and secondary schools are using the printers as learning tools.
Her research raises several alarming questions: How are people throwing away their 3D printers and 3D-printed parts? And how should 3D-printed parts and waste materials be disposed of?
While the answers remain hazy, one thing is certain: As the industry grows, regulations and guidelines need to be created and disseminated to address potential safety and health concerns, Mesbah said.
“Because they’re considered trade secrets, materials used in the 3D printing materials are not shared with the user. The user wouldn’t necessarily know or be trained to handle this material,” she said. “So the environmental aspect of it is very important — disposal should be a concern.”
Mesbah plans to graduate at the end of 2016. Her next step will include a more in-depth study of what’s causing 3D printer toxicity, and how to make the printers safer.
Until then, Mesbah has found that exposing 3D-printed parts to ultraviolet light for an hour significantly reduces the toxicity to zebrafish embryos. The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed a provisional patent for this work.
Kimberly Guerrero wasn’t satisfied with just having an active IMDb profile. After an impressive career as a director, screenwriter and actor, Guerrero, 48, decided to add one more item to her resume: an M.F.A. in creative writing from UCR.
The native Oklahoman has starred in countless film and television titles, from “Seinfeld,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Longmire” to her most current role as Chief Elaine White Cloude in the ABC series “Blood & Oil.”
From an early age, Guerrero wanted to come to Los Angeles and be an actress. “I was 8 years old and I got an atlas out. I saw UCLA and said, ‘Oh, I’ll go to school there because it’s right by Hollywood,’” Guerrero explained with a laugh.
While an undergrad at UCLA, Guerrero wanted to do a little bit of everything in show business. It was the mid-’80s, however; Guerrero had a few obstacles thrown her way.
“I was told — especially as a woman — you can’t be a writer and an actor. You can’t be a director and an actor. You have to choose one side of the camera or the other.”
So Guerrero — who is Native American — chose to face the camera at first. But after years of acting professionally, she felt compelled to fine-tune her writing skills.
“It was hard seeing my friends who were fantastic Native actors not working. And when they did work, they were often playing very stereotypical roles,” she said. “It’s just like what (Emmy Award-winning “How to Get Away With Murder” actress) Viola Davis said: ‘There are a lot of talented African-American actors out there, but they need somebody to write for them.’”
So she applied for, and was accepted into, UCR’s graduate-level creative writing program, whose cross-genre approach really fit her needs. The camaraderie among students and faculty has been key to her success. For instance, in Professor Stu Krieger’s Writing for Television course, “We’re working under a master craftsman in Professor Krieger, and each student is bringing in such incredible work!” she said. “You’ve got one person writing a family drama — with vampires. You’ve got another writing a gritty noir piece. [There’s] all this amazing diversity in the room. If you can find a consensus among people who have wildly different tastes, you know you’ve got a solid TV show.” Guerrero’s script from that class was chosen as a finalist for the 41st annual Humanitas Prize, Drama Fellowship, which carries a $10,000 cash award and a contract to write an episode for a FOX TV series.
While grateful for the recognition, Guerrero’s ultimate goal is to get her stories in front of the world. “Even though my projects feature Native American characters, I create stories that seek to nourish the human spirit. And these days, we can all use a little of that.”
Watch actor and screenwriter Kimberly Guerrero’s demo reel: