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News and people of note

Astronomy find supports explanation of origins of elements

For the first time, astronomers have found pristine clouds of the primordial gas that formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang.

The composition of the gas matches theoretical predictions, providing direct evidence in support of the modern cosmological explanation for the origins of elements in the universe.

Only the lightest elements, mostly hydrogen and helium, were created in the Big Bang. Then a few hundred million years passed before clumps of this primordial gas condensed to form the first stars, where heavier elements were forged. Until now, astronomers have always detected “metals” (their term for all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium) wherever they have looked in the universe.

“As hard as we’ve tried to find pristine material in the universe, we have failed until now. This is the first time we’ve observed pristine gas uncontaminated by heavier elements from stars,” said J. Xavier Prochaska, UCSC professor of astronomy and astrophysics.

Deserving alum honored for spirit, service

Deutron Kebebew (Kresge ‘03, electrical engineering), former foster child and tireless advocate for teens and children, was this year’s winner of the fourth annual Tony Hill Memorial Award.

Kebebew received the award as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on February 2—which happened to be Kebebew’s 35th birthday.

This special honor recognizes individuals whose lives and actions exemplify the late Tony Hill’s work and legacy. Hill, a longtime advocate for social and economic justice in Santa Cruz County, was known for his skills as a community bridge-builder and mediator. He died in 2007 at age 62.

Award recipients receive $500 to donate to the charity of their choice.

“I am really honored and humbled that I am being recognized, but I have a long way to go toward really earning it,” Kebebew said. “I will continue to do what I do until there are no foster youth in the system.”

Astronomy prof awarded Franklin Medal

Jerry Nelson, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, has been awarded the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering.

Nelson is internationally renowned as a developer of innovative designs for advanced telescopes. The Franklin Institute is honoring him “for his pioneering contributions to the development of segmented-mirror telescopes.”

The Franklin Institute awards are among the oldest and most prestigious comprehensive science awards in the world. Since 1824, the institute has honored excellence and achievement in science, engineering, and technology. The Franklin Medal was set to be awarded at a ceremony in Philadelphia in April.

Foundation Forum highlights future of cancer treatments

The UC Santa Cruz Foundation Forum, “At the Dawn of Personalized Medicine,” presented a rare, front-lines look at the future of personalized cancer diagnosis and treatment. More than 200 guests listened to the discussion at the UCSC Music Recital Hall in October with J. Michael Bishop, university professor and chancellor emeritus at UCSF; Arthur D. Levinson, chairman and former CEO of Genentech; David Haussler, distinguished professor of biomolecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz; and moderator Moira Gunn of Tech Nation.

Cancer genomics will be used for early detection, personalized therapy, and diagnostics, Bishop said. In 1989, Bishop and Harold Varmus won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their research on cancer genes.

The next presenter, Levinson, who worked with Bishop and Varmus at UCSF as a postdoctoral researcher before joining Genentech in 1980, elaborated on some of the more “targeted approaches to cancer treatment.”

Haussler is involved in efforts to catalog genetic abnormalities found in different types of cancers and find links between specific genetic changes and the ways that patients respond to different treatments.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz announces 2012 season

Running July 24 through August 26, the 2012 Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC) season will kick off with one of Shakespeare’s most popular and beloved comedies, Twelfth Night, in the indoor Mainstage Theater.

Opening in the Festival Glen will be the world premiere of The Man In the Iron Mask, a new play written by SSC associate artist Scott Wentworth, based on the works of Alexandre Dumas.

Playing in repertory in the Festival Glen will be the SSC debut of Henry IV, Part Two, directed by Scott Wentworth.

At the close of the summer season, SSC will transfer its production of Twelfth Night to Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, where it will play September 8 through 16 in the 1,200-seat, outdoor Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre.

A free public season preview event is set for Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, June 5, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

For more information, visit

Video game gives good vibrations to visually impaired

UC Santa Cruz graduate Rupa Dhillon hopes to change the face of gaming with Rock Vibe—a Rock Band–style electronic musical video game for people who are both blind and sighted.

Designed to be accessible to people with severe visual impairments, it replaces all necessary visual cues with auditory and tactile ones. Instead of using a screen to deliver information, it uses vibrations.

“Games for the blind right now are largely audio games, and they tend to get boring really quickly,” said Dhillon (MFA, digital arts and new media ‘09). “They also have very little appeal to sighted people.”

Rock Vibe, she said, “creates a new mode of gaming because the players respond to vibrations. And combining that with popular music makes the game much more exciting.”

Dhillon plans to release the game next year.

Five students win Fulbright scholarships

Five UC Santa Cruz students in four disciplines won Fulbright scholarships for a year of research and study abroad. 

Two of the Fulbright scholars are environmental studies graduate students; the others are in history and literature, and another just received her Ph.D. in biology. They are traveling in China, Germany, Italy, and Mexico during the current academic year and are among more than 1,600 U.S. citizens who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. student program.

They are:

Joanna Ory, an environmental studies graduate student who will travel to Italy to research the effects of policies that limit herbicide use and promote sustainable pest management on corn farms in the Veneto region in the north.

Carolina Reyes, who graduated in 2011 with a Ph.D. in microbiology and environmental toxicology. Reyes will be working in Germany, focusing on microbial iron reduction (a process that reduces the oxidation state of the iron) in marine sediments in the Kattegat and Skagerrak region of the Baltic Sea.

Devon Sampson, an environmental studies graduate student who is studying how Mayan farmers use biodiversity of crops to make a living and contend with pests, drought, and natural disasters.

Jeremy Tai, an East Asian history graduate student who will trace the “making, unmaking, and remaking” of Xi’an, one of China’s oldest cities, over the past 100 years.

Evan Calder Williams, a literature graduate student who will research Italian film and political writing, with particular emphasis on the 1970s.

Soc Doc alumna behind camera at Tahrir Square

UCSC alumna Bridgette Auger was following women activists in Egypt’s Tahrir Square when they came under fire during a clash between protesters and police last November.

Auger—who received her master’s degree in social documentation from UCSC last year—shot video footage of the incident, which was posted on the Daily Beast website.

Auger has lived in the Middle East for several years—working for the UN Refugee Agency in Damascus, Syria, and also as a freelance writer and videographer in the Middle East and Asia.

Her work has been published by CNN, Syria Today, and various UN publications, as well as in Out of Iraq by Sybella Wilkes, and The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East by Joseph Sassoon.

Faculty stands up for experiential education programs

Environmental Studies faculty members have stepped up to pool their resources and launch a fundraiser to protect the future of the department’s experiential education courses.

The department places more than 500 students in internships every year, offers labs and field trips in courses ranging from restoration ecology to environmental policy, and teaches popular field courses such as environmental interpretation and natural history field quarter.

Environmental Studies professor Brent Haddad helped start the campaign last year when he announced he would donate $1,000 toward preserving the department’s experiential education programs.

Over the past four years, state support to the campus has been cut by 22 percent, resulting in losses of teaching assistant and lecturer positions. Meanwhile, retiring faculty are not being replaced. At the same time, enrollments in Environmental Studies have grown by 50 percent.

So far the campaign has raised $70,000 in donations and pledges from more than 70 faculty members, alumni, and family of faculty and alumni, plus a $100,000 matching gift from an alumnus’s family foundation. For information, visit the Experiential Learning Endowment page at

‘Open source’ robotic surgery systems head to research labs

Robotics experts at UC Santa Cruz and the University of Washington (UW) have completed the development, fabrication and integration of seven advanced robotic surgery systems for use by major medical research laboratories throughout the United States.

Five of the systems have been shipped to medical robotics researchers at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Nebraska, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, while the other two systems will remain at UC Santa Cruz and UW.

“We decided to follow an open-source model, because if all of these labs have a common research platform for doing robotic surgery, the whole field will be able to advance more quickly,” said Jacob Rosen, associate professor of computer engineering in the Baskin School of Engineering at UCSC and principal investigator on the project.

Eventually, all seven systems will be networked together over the Internet for collaborative experiments.

Robotic surgery has the potential to enable new, less-invasive surgical procedures as well as telesurgery, in which the surgeon operates a robotic system from a remote location.