Leaving their mark, inspiring others

The five recipients of this year’s Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni awards return to campus this Alumni Weekend to share career and life advice during the 2018 Graduate Student Alumni Career Paths Panel.

Rachel Nelson, curator and program manager, Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS), UC Santa Cruz
Naomi J. Andrews, associate professor of history at Santa Clara University
Thomas R. Webb, director of medicinal chemistry in the Center for Chemical Biology at SRI Biosciences
Diane Bridgeman, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Santa Cruz
Randal Chilton Burns, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University

UC Santa Cruz’s graduate student alumni are making their way in the world, curating exhibits, helming research labs, holding academic chairs, and pursuing private clinical practice. Outstanding scholars with advanced degrees from UC Santa Cruz’s academic divisions have found ways to leave their mark, making use of the rigorous training they received on campus.

During this month’s Alumni Weekend celebrations (April 27–29), the five recipients of this year’s Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award will be at UC Santa Cruz to inspire current and alumni graduate students. They will share career and life advice during the 2018 Graduate Student Alumni Career Paths Panel, which takes place Friday, April 27, at 10 a.m. in the Stevenson Fireside Lounge.

The Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award Luncheon follows the Career Paths Panel, at which the graduates will be honored by their respective academic divisions. The five graduate alumni honorees and the academic divisions they represent include the following:

Rachel Nelson, curator and program manager, Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS), UC Santa Cruz. Distinguished graduates travel the world for prestigious job offers, but some find their dream jobs right on campus. One prime example is Rachel Nelson, who earned her Ph.D. in 2016 in UC Santa Cruz’s Visual Studies program. Aside from her role at the IAS, Nelson teaches in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at UC Santa Cruz.

When Nelson came to UC Santa Cruz as a graduate student in 2010, she was part of the first cohort in the Visual Studies Ph.D. program, which was brand new at the time.

Nelson was excited to join the program because of its intellectual heft and interdisciplinary philosophy. “The department also encouraged me to take classes outside of the department and think about my work in context of the larger university and the larger world,” she said. “A diverse group of scholars pushed me to reckon with art’s relationships with geopolitics, which has had a lasting effect on my work.”

Nelson said that her training in the Visual Studies program launched her career at the IAS. “This has allowed me great opportunities to build the program and develop new exhibitions and arts programming that draws on my understanding and experience of the strengths of interdisciplinary research at UC Santa Cruz,” she said.

Nelson is planning a nationally touring exhibition about the prison-industrial complex for the fall of 2019. This project will draw on UC Santa Cruz’s scholarship and activism, including work done on prison abolition by UC Santa Cruz humanities professor emerita Angela Davis and the research on the psychological effects of incarceration and solitary confinement by UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney. “The exhibition will feature artists working nationally whose voices speak powerfully about the prison-industrial complex and its links to racism in our country,” Nelson said.

Naomi J. Andrews, associate professor of history at Santa Clara University, had a comprehensive educational experience at UC Santa Cruz, where she earned a B.A. in history in 1988, an M.A. in history in 1993, and a Ph.D. in history in 1998.

“I am so pleased to receive this honor from UC Santa Cruz,” Andrews said. “The history department was my intellectual training ground as both an undergraduate and eventually as a graduate student, beginning with an upper-division class on Russian intellectual history with Jonathan Beecher in the spring of my first year of college.”

Andrews trained to be a rigorous researcher. At the same time, her professors gave her a vivid sense of what excellent teaching looked like, creating a template for her future classrooms. “I received enthusiastic encouragement to pursue my own questions, wherever they led,” Andrews said. “My career at UC Santa Cruz traversed the change in the university from its early primary focus on undergraduate education to the expansion of graduate programs in the ’90s.”

When she was an undergraduate, almost all of her instruction was from faculty rather than graduate students. The classes were small, and many were run as seminars. “And we still had only narrative evaluations!” she added.

Even now, “Santa Cruz is still home in so many ways, and my career as a historian and professor at Santa Clara University has been fundamentally shaped by my experiences as a student at all levels in the History Department and the university as a whole,” Andrews said.   

Thomas R. Webb, director of medicinal chemistry in the Center for Chemical Biology at SRI Biosciences, leads small-molecule drug discovery for cancer and influenza. His accomplishments include development of an innovative anti-tumor drug, which will enter clinical trials in 2019.

Webb earned his chemistry Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz in 1980. He said receiving the Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award from UC Santa Cruz has inspired him to dedicate himself to scholarship and applications of medicinal chemistry with renewed energy and focus.

Looking back, Webb considers his experience as a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry as some of the best years of his life, though he did not realize this at the time. He credits professors John McMurry, Phil Crews, Todd Wipke, and Harry Noller for inspiring him with their broad expertise, scholarship, and research focus on synthetic chemistry, natural product chemistry, computational chemistry, and RNA molecular biology.

“I directly credit my training here at UC Santa Cruz with the establishment of the standards of scholastic excellence that I have relied on throughout my career,” Webb said. “My love for organic chemistry, a fascination with the chemical biology of RNA, applied computation chemistry, and an appreciation of the importance of natural products have led me to where I am now; all of this is built on the foundation of the training I was fortunate to receive while at UC Santa Cruz.”

He said that this prestigious honor has given him a renewed sense of purpose. “Any future success that I may have will be fueled by the encouragement that this award has given me.”

Before joining SRI, Webb worked on discovery of new cancer therapeutics in the Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he held a senior faculty position and directed the high-throughput chemistry center.

Diane Bridgeman, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Santa Cruz, holds a Ph.D. in psychology from UC Santa Cruz. She is honored to be recognized among the other Graduate Student Alumni honorees. “I deeply value my experiences at UC Santa Cruz, which helped to develop and strengthen my life philosophy of attempting to understand the mysteries and magic of mind and behavior, the questioning of why everyone isn’t a social justice advocate, and an appreciation for the haunting and inspiring effects of music.”

Bridgeman was also drawn to UC Santa Cruz because of her lifelong commitment to social equity. “From childhood puzzlement as to why children teased and bullied each other, to horror around the inexplicable Vietnam war, to the injustices of the civil rights atrocities, I honed a strong sense of social justice.”

Her lessons from UC Santa Cruz served her well. Bridgeman has maintained a clinical psychology practice for over 20 years. She also gives keynote addresses and workshops. Bridgeman has been honored with several awards from psychological associations and from the American Red Cross, where she is a volunteer manager. They recognized her with both the Professional Hero Award and Sisters in Service Award.

Bridgeman has held committee chairs with both the California Psychological Association and the American Psychological Association, and is a past president of the Monterey Bay Psychological Association. She currently chairs its Public Service/Education & Outreach Committee, and co-chairs its Disaster Mental Health Response Committee.

Randal Chilton Burns, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, earned his M.S. in 1997 and his Ph.D. in 2000 from the Department of Computer Science at UC Santa Cruz.

Looking back, Burns said that his time at UC Santa Cruz “placed me on a journey to build the data systems used to make discoveries in physics, fluids, and neuroscience. I have gotten to work at universities, in corporate research, and at national labs with the best scientists in the world. I am humbled by my peers and collaborators and humbled to be recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus.”

Burns completed his Ph.D. working with Professor Darrell Long researching delta compression and storage system performance. He earned his B.S. from the Department of Geophysics at Stanford University.

Burns’s research focuses on the management, performance, and security of large data sets for scientific applications. His current focus is to build scalable systems that support neuroscience imaging analysis and annotation with the goal of reverse engineering the neurophysiology of mammalian brains.

In the 1990s, when Burns was pursuing his graduate degrees, computer science at UC Santa Cruz was both deeply connected with, and yet in stark contrast to, the internet boom, he said.

“Curious souls with a desire to solve the hardest problems collected at the edge of the dot-coms.  My peers from that era have gone on to transform computational biology and computer systems and networks at top universities around the world.”