From scholarship to achievement, five grads make their mark

UC Santa Cruz will recognize five graduate school alumni who are making outsize contributions to the world in increasingly multifaceted ways.

The five recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award exemplify the diverse ways in which the former graduate students have translated their scholarship into an appreciable impact in various fields.

UC Santa Cruz graduate student alumni are providing insights into the future of renewable energy, advancing the territory of linguistic theory, producing incisive and important journalism, crafting significant and provocative artistic productions, developing technology to cure cancer, and much more.

The five recipients are set to be honored as part of Alumni Weekend, April 26–28. Awards will be conferred during a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 27, at the Stevenson Event Center to be followed immediately by the Career Paths Panel, where honorees are slated to discuss how their studies at UC Santa Cruz informed their flourishing careers.

The five graduate alumni honorees and the graduate divisions they represent include the following:

Steve BenzSteve Benz, president, Genomics division of NantOmics

Most of the awardees recognized this year took the knowledge and skills accrued during their graduate studies and translated them into successful careers. For Steve Benz, it was a bit different as he began his career while still enrolled at UC Santa Cruz.

Benz graduated with a M.S. in biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics in 2010 before earning a Ph.D. in the same discipline in 2012. It was during those years he and two of his fellow students in the program (Zack Sanborn, Ph.D. 2012, and Charlie Vaske, Ph.D. 2009) developed the ideas and technology that became the foundation of Five3 Genomics—a company on the bleeding edge of cancer diagnosis.

“We were talking with our advisor about our projects and he said, ‘Hey look, what you have here is pretty good,’” Benz said. “Our ideas were so unique at the time our advisor thought they were worthy of getting patents.”

The technology in question involved extracting normal and cancer cells from a cancer patient and comparing the results to determine what was driving the patient’s tumor.

“It was the first ever tumor versus normal sequence comparison,” Benz said. Along with that technology, Benz and his partners developed a pathway algorithm capable of mapping the interaction of genes within tumors. They created a company and sought funding to help bring their technology to market.

While still being refined, the product is already helping oncologists personalize treatments for cancer patients by identifying which specific genes are affected by a given cancer thereby determining which drugs are best aligned to help attack the disease.

Three years after graduating, Benz and the team sold Five3 Genomics to NantOmics where he continues to serve as president of the genomics division.

“None of this would have happened without the guidance and advice of Professor David Haussler and the rest of the team at UCSC,” Benz said. “They’re the ones who gave us the right direction, kicked us out of the nest and said, ‘You have the technology that can change the world, so go change the world.’”

Elaine GanElaine Gan, artist and professor at New York University

Elaine Gan’s artistic projects have been shown in prominent international venues the world over, while her scholarly work has appeared in a bevy of notable journals as she continues to teach at New York University.

“I’m fortunate that I don’t have to choose whether I am an artist or a scholar,” Gan said. “My research and writing would not be where they are without my artistic practice and at the same my art practice draws directly from my scholarship. They are really entangled at this point.”

Gan credits her ability to balance seemingly distinct aspects of her professional life with the interdisciplinary approach fostered by her studies in the graduate arts division at UC Santa Cruz, where she earned a M.F.A. in digital arts and new media in 2011 and a Ph.D. in film and digital media with emphasis in Anthropology in 2016.

“My studies were intense, particularly because they were so interdisciplinary,” Gan says. “I studied alongside artists, filmmakers, theorists, anthropologists, historians, physicists, plant ecologists, marine biologists, and researchers from many disciplines.”

Gan was attracted to UC Santa Cruz because the graduate program facilitated interaction and cross-pollination between many forms and practices of human knowledge.

For her Ph.D., Gan focused on articulating the temporalities and coordinations involved in rice ecologies and industrialized agriculture—or how humans, nonhumans, and machines have co-evolved around rice grains over the last 12,000 years.

“I am really interested in expressing the kinds of arrangements and agencies that arise when different species start living together in different times and different landscapes,” Gan said. “My work with various kinds of rice has brought me to the Mekong river, a wildlife reserve in northern California, genetic labs and rice terraces in the Philippines, a seed vault in Norway, an experimental breeding station in Puerto Rico.”

Gan has since shown work both related and unrelated to her work at UCSC at various exhibitions around the world. She is co-editor of an anthology titled Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (Minnesota 2017) with mentors at UCSC. She is busy training the next generation of students at NYU and is also preparing her manuscript for publication in the next year or so.

“Bringing together people and ideas from different departments at UCSC proved vital to my work,” she said. “I’ll always be grateful to some truly magical people here.”

Les GuliasiLes Guliasi, President of the Power Association of Northern California

Les Guliasi enjoyed an insider view as a vast network of politicians, corporate executives, technicians, and engaged citizens worked to shape California’s energy policy over the past quarter century.

Guliasi parlayed his activism and knowledge of the industry into a dissertation about the history of energy policy in California, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from UC Santa Cruz in 2018.

Guliasi was no stranger to UCSC, having earned an M.A. in sociology in 1977.

“What stuck with me most was the sense of community at UCSC,” Guliasi said. “The sense of community and the small size and philosophy of campus all the way from its original conception had a lot to do with fostering a sense of community and commitment. The relationship between faculty and students is certainly different than most places.”

Guliasi’s graduate work, which is currently under consideration for publication by the University of California Press, posits that the seeds of California’s current renewable energy stance—including efforts to render its electricity grid carbon free by 2045—were planted in the aftermath of the California Energy Crisis of 2000–2001.

Guliasi said his approach to this complex issue was guided by tools he developed while studying at UCSC.

“Because the faculty came from a variety of different backgrounds, it presented an opportunity to weave together different disciplines,” Guliasi said. “A lot of other universities focus on specialization within the field of sociology, but at UCSC, we were encouraged to study international development, sociology, psychology and political economy.”

Guliasi said this cross-disciplinary approach was not only critical to his recent work, but helped forge success in his career, including stints in the private sector at large energy companies, consulting and in academia.

“My time at UCSC gave me the basic skill set and analytical framework to apply my skills in a variety of settings,” he said.

Laura HelmuthLaura Helmuth, editor at The Washington Post

Laura Helmuth graduated from the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program in 1998 and has since gone on to become a prolific editor, working at Slate, Science, Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines.

She currently serves as the Health, Science & Environment Editor at The Washington Post.

“Being an editor is very satisfying and very challenging,” Helmuth said. “Journalists as a general rule tend to have their own ideas about things and while they are creative it can be a challenge to keep them focused.”

But Helmuth has done just that helping to churn out award-winning and highly respected articles covering the full gamut of issues relating to scientific matters.

Helmuth gives huge credit to her time at the UCSC science writing program.

“It was a fantastic program and it still is,” she said. “It has trained a huge number of the most prominent science writers in this country and around the world.”

Part of what makes the program so successful is its no-frills concentration on the craft of journalism, Helmuth said. The program trains students with an academic background in science how to simplify scientific concepts and jargon, communicating ideas with concision and clarity.

But such practical guidance wasn’t the only benefit.

“The other valuable thing about the program is the social support and social network,” Helmuth said. “A lot of journalists who had been through the program would come back to mentor, edit our stories and tell us about career opportunities. It is a generous community.”

Helmuth said reporting on scientific developments coming out of UC Santa Cruz helped train her for her career while the program’s focus on securing internships for students was pragmatic and important.

“The setting was great,” she said. “It was like going to school in a state park.”

Jason MerchantJason Merchant, Vice Provost and Lorna Puttkammer Straus Professor in Linguistics

Jason Merchant is not only one of the foremost researchers in the field of formal syntax, but he also serves as vice provost at the University of Chicago, where he oversees academic appointments along with establishing and implementing policies for Ph.D. students and postdocs.

Merchant earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Santa Cruz in 1999 and has spent his career studying the concept of ellipsis, which is when words are omitted from speech or writing and meaning depends instead on contextual clues.

“It is the job of the theorist to understand under what condition ellipsis occurs and what kinds of meanings arise,” Merchant said. The linguistics professor has also worked with a legal historian to understand if the phrase “right to keep and bear arms” in the Second Amendment referred to an individual right or the right of collective bodies like militias.

The source of such rich scholarship can be traced back to the graduate linguistics program at Santa Cruz, Merchant said.

“UC Santa Cruz was and is one of the top linguistics programs in the country,” Merchant said. “Everyone in the field knows about Santa Cruz.”

It wasn’t simply the rigorous scholarship that Merchant encountered while pursuing his advanced degree in the late 90s but the camaraderie and the setting.

“I first arrived on campus in 1993 and it was my first time visiting California,” he said. “I was very eager to arrive after having lived on the East Coast and I was grateful to attend a great linguistics program but also to spend five years in paradise.”

Merchant fondly recalls working in a room with his fellow students laboring next to a window that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. The professor said the acumen of his professors was only matched by the striving of his fellow students, all of which combined to furnish an ideal environment for academic pursuit.

“It was as stimulating a program as I could imagine,” he said.