Slugs lauded as Hometown Heroes

Chancellor, faculty, staff and alumni honored at Santa Cruz Works event

The UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab figures prominently in many of the 2020 Hometown Hero awards presented by Santa Cruz Works.

UC Santa Cruz is well represented at this year’s Santa Cruz Works Hometown Heroes awards ceremony, with Chancellor Cynthia Larive, a host of faculty and staff members, and numerous alumni slated to be honored.

The awards are presented by Santa Cruz Works, an umbrella organization of mostly tech-related companies with the mission of making Santa Cruz County a great place to start, sustain, and grow businesses. Fifteen organizations and individuals are being honored for their efforts “to help our community through the onslaught of 2020 challenges: pandemic, wildfires, social injustice, and economic downturn.” More than 50 nominations were submitted.

The chancellor is being lauded for leading campus through significant challenges in her first year: COVID-19 and the Santa Cruz Mountains wildfires that destroyed roughly 1,000 homes. “She has led with calm, care, and integrity — traits sorely needed in the midst of chaos and unrest,” event organizers stated when announcing her selection.

Isabel Bjork and the Genomics Institute are being honored for their contributions to the fight against COVID. The institute, which Bjork serves as executive director, posted the complete genome of the virus on the UCSC Genome Browser, an interactive web-based tool used by researchers worldwide to study genetic data. The institute was also an essential player in uprighting the UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab this past spring. The lab has been a valuable campus and community resource, offering COVID testing to students and employees, and to the area’s most vulnerable residents.

Jeremy Sanford, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology, is being singled out for his role in establishing the lab. In just a few months, he and the other organizers initiated the licensing process, received approval from federal and state agencies, and developed the capacity to test hundreds of samples per day in a lab built from scratch. Its launch was a significant accomplishment in light of the fact UCSC does not have a medical school and had no diagnostic testing in place. While many faculty members and staff members were involved in its creation, Sanford’s passion for the project stood out, the awards committee stated.

Also on tap to be honored are alumni Susan True, Nada Miljkovic, Jacob Martinez, and Ruby Vasquez.

True and her team at the Santa Cruz Community Foundation responded quickly to both the pandemic and the wildfires. Within days of both the lockdown and later the fires, she was raising funds and disseminating the money to the organizations on the front lines of those battles, ultimately helping hundreds of local residents get back on their feet. 

Miljkovic is one of the founders of Get Virtual, a nonprofit that gives UCSC students class credits for helping local businesses get websites and e-commerce sites up and running. The organization was founded in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, and since then has assisted hundreds of businesses. The program is now being offered at other colleges and universities around the nation.

Martinez is the founder of Watsonville-based Digital NEST, a technology workforce development hub that provides youth in rural communities with high-demand technology skills. After the pandemic lockdowns began this past spring, Martinez secured laptops for Digital NEST members to continue their educations remotely, developed NEST online classes, and still managed to open a new Salinas location. Plans are in the works to open a Gilroy office.

Martinez is also involved in another project being recognized by Santa Cruz Works. He, wife Joanne Sanchez, and South County educator Ruby Vasquez, also a UCSC graduate, noticed in the early days of the pandemic that farmworkers were being overlooked as an impacted community. The group wanted to create a way to educate the workers and to show the wider community’s appreciation for them, so the group launched Campesino Caravan. What began as twice-a-week caravans with community members thanking farmworkers with posters and signs morphed into a more expansive effort to provide the laborers with masks, groceries, lunches, and information on the pandemic. 

The awards will be presented virtually during a Zoom event the night of Dec. 2. Event information is available at