Honoring UC Santa Cruz’s 2021 Distinguished Graduate School Alumni

Five honorees distinguish themselves in the humanities and sciences

The Division of Graduate Studies, Arts Division, Baskin School of Engineering, Humanities Division, Physical and Biological Sciences Division, and Social Sciences Division are honoring the 2021 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni. From left to right: Adrian Centeno, M.A., Theater Arts, 2016, Arts Division; Rachel Karchin, Ph.D., Computer Engineering, 2003, M.S,. Computer Science, 2000, B.S., Computer Science, 1998, Baskin School of Engineering; bell hooks, Ph.D., Literature, 1983 (as Gloria Jean Watkins) Humanities Division; Ian Walton, Ph.D., Mathematics, 1977, Physical and Biological Sciences Division; and Macarena Gómez-Barris, Ph.D., Sociology, 2004, Social Sciences Division. 

UC Santa Cruz’s graduate student alumni are helping to shape 21st century feminist thought, fostering inclusion and creativity in the theater arts, conducting pioneering cancer research, and much more. 

As part of this month’s all-virtual Alumni Week celebrations, the five recipients of this year’s Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award will be honored for their achievements during a Zoom-based webinar award ceremony on Saturday, April 24. The event will celebrate the 2020 and 2021 honorees. 

Graduate Studies Division Professional Development Coordinator and Event Organizer Sonya Newlyn had high praise for this year’s honorees. 

“Their achievements range widely, reflecting the diversity of the divisions and programs they represent, but the theme of working for the common good, for a better world, runs through each of their stories and their work,” Newlyn said. “Each of them educates, and their life work has continued the mission of UC Santa Cruz since they left this campus with their advanced degrees.”

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

Adrian Scott Centeno (M.A. ’16, theater arts) rose to national prominence as a new play dramaturg, theater history and criticism lecturer, and arts education programmer after graduating from UC Santa Cruz. 

Even before beginning his graduate studies at UC Santa Cruz, Centeno distinguished himself as a drama teacher, which informed his experience as a manager of Barnstorm, a student-run production company that was established in 2004. 

Centeno described the way the UC Santa Cruz community embraced him and made him comfortable during a crucial phase of his artistic career and personal development. 

“I arrived as an outsider but was greeted as a friend by so many,” Centeno said. “That generosity of spirit was essential to the programming, management, and administration of the Barn Theatre.”

Barnstorm helped Centeno thrive with its strong emphasis on inclusivity. He also dove deeply into strong scholarship. His thesis, focusing on the collaborative administration of the Barn space, remains an essential text for Barn managers to this day, giving them a blueprint to expand inclusivity, conflict resolution, and mediation. 

“UC Santa Cruz taught me a lot about the importance of community,” Centeno said. “I try to carry that generosity, that solidarity, that DIY attitude with me in the field. We can do so much with so little when we work together. I love that about theater, and I love that about UCSC.”

Writer, author, and academic Macarena Gómez-Barris (Ph.D. ’04, sociology) praised the strength of cultural studies, environmental studies, Latina/o/x and Latin American studies, and feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz. 

“Anti-racist and interdisciplinary-minded pedagogies across UC Santa Cruz allowed me to pursue my research and to take risks in my approach to the social sciences and humanities,” said Gómez-Barris, professor and chairperson of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. 

Gómez-Barris is the founding director of the Global South Center (GSC), a research center that works at the intersection of social ecologies, art/politics, and decolonial methodologies at the Pratt Institute. Her instructional focus is on Latinx and Latin American studies, memory and the afterlives of violence, decolonial theory, the art of social protest, and queer femme epistemes. 

“It was an honor to be at UC Santa Cruz in the Ph.D. program of the Department of Sociology at the time I was there [1998-2004],” Gómez-Barris said. “The focus in the department on the overlapping structures and intimacies of colonialism, race and identity, and structural inequality has continued to influence my work since I graduated 17 years ago.”

Even the physical location left a lasting mark. UC Santa Cruz’s beautiful coastal setting helped inspire At the Sea’s Edge, Gómez-Barris’s upcoming book that reworks and builds on Rachel Carson’s environmental and marine legacy.

The UC Santa Cruz Graduate Division has reason to be proud of its longstanding association with bell hooks (Ph.D. ’83, literature), a brilliant writer, political theorist, and professor whose works are part of the intellectual canon. 

“For nearly four decades, hooks has written and published with clarity, novel insight, and extraordinary precision about art, media, race, gender, and class,” wrote the acclaimed and bestselling author Min Jin Lee in a detailed appreciation published in the New York Times

Hooks is a celebrated feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist, and writer. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks adopted the pen name of her maternal great-grandmother, and decided not to capitalize her new name to place focus on her work and not her identity.

She has written over three dozen books and has published works that span several genres, including cultural criticism, personal memoirs, poetry collections, and children’s books. Her writings cover topics of gender, race, class, spirituality, teaching, and the significance of media in contemporary culture. 

In 1981, hooks released the book Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women in Feminism. Many view this as bell hooks’ first major work and one of the key works of feminist thought in the postmodern milieu. 

In the fall of 2007, hooks drew a big crowd at the College Nine/Ten Multipurpose Room when she gave a lecture called “What’s Love Got to Do With It? Ending Domination.” During the lecture, she mentioned the influence and impact of UC Santa Cruz: 

It was here as a graduate that I dared to dream beyond the fate that was designated for me as a Black woman,” hooks said. 

When Rachel Karchin (Ph.D. ’03, computer engineering), now a pioneering cancer researcher and professor of biomedical engineering, oncology, and computer science at Johns Hopkins University, was studying bioinformatics and computational biology at UC Santa Cruz, she was venturing into rarely explored terrain. 

“This was something that most people at the time had never heard of,” Karchin said. 

Karchin is grateful that UC Santa Cruz was a pioneer in her fields of interest. 

“The high energy and passion of the faculty and trainees working in computational biology convinced me that academia was the most exciting place to pursue a life in science,” Karchin said.

Her experience at UC Santa Cruz has enriched and informed her career as a computational biologist who is part of the high-tech front in the war against cancer. Her group develops algorithms and software to analyze genomic variation data, tumor evolution, and the adaptive immune system. 

There was no bioinformatics degree program when Karchin was at UC Santa Cruz, so she majored in computer science. Karchin worked with Distinguished Professor of Biomolecular Engineering David Haussler, now director of the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at UC Santa Cruz.

Karchin and Haussler worked together on machine learning classification of protein families. She worked with Biomolecular Engineering Professor Kevin Karplus on protein structure modeling. 

"This was an exciting time to be on campus. After the UCSC team completed the assembly of the first human reference genome in 2000, the sense of potential of human genomics was off the charts,” Karchin said. “It was clear we were at the beginning of something of historical importance.”

Inspired by the sequencing project, Karchin wanted to learn how human DNA variants related to disease, especially cancer, and thought that protein structure modeling could provide useful evidence for whether a mutation was disease related.

At Johns Hopkins, Karchin’s lab has incorporated protein structure information into several machine learning methods that predict the impact of DNA variation, including methods that are specific for cancer-related variants. 

“UCSC also had an impact on my teaching philosophy—a de-emphasis on grades and the importance of project-based classes in engineering, plus the value of getting undergraduates started on research early in their careers,” Karchin said. 

Ian Walton (Ph.D. ’77, mathematics), an independent educator, consultant, and former president of the statewide Academic Senate for the California community colleges system, came to UC Santa Cruz in 1973 as a Fulbright Scholarship graduate student in mathematics, after graduating from St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Walton said that his time in the graduate program gave him “the best possible preparation” for serving in the Academic Senate. While on campus, he served as graduate student resident preceptor at Crown College, “leading an independent, articulate group of peers,” he recalled. 

He also credits his years at UC Santa Cruz with providing “the perfect mix of introductions for” his later career: research and teaching in his graduate program with the Math Board that included technology and under-served students, and peer leadership as a resident preceptor at Crown College. He also received “a glimpse of the intricacies of academic politics” while serving on the Regent’s Chancellor Selection Committee for UCSC.

In 1978 he began a 33-year career as a faculty member at Mission College (then Silicon Valley’s newest public community college) that focused on helping California’s most under-served students to overcome barriers to their dreams that were posed by mathematics requirements. 

His educational leadership experience led to five years as president of his local Academic Senate, followed by 12 years elected to the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC), representing California’s 115 accredited community colleges, 60,000 faculty, and 2.1 million students on academic and professional matters.

During his two-year presidency of ASCCC, the organization helped to bring about the statewide adoption of enhanced English and mathematics graduation competencies and the creation of the system Basic Skills Initiative.

After retirement in 2011, he continued his educational leadership and was elected as a public member of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)—the body that accredits all two-year colleges in California, Hawaii, and the U.S. Pacific. Walton has just completed a two-year term as chair of the commission.

Register here to attend the 2021 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award ceremony via Zoom on April 24. Read about the 2020 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni here