Excellence in Action: Celebrating UCSC’s 2023 Distinguished Graduate Alumni Award Recipients

Announcing the 2023 Distinguished Graduate Alumni Award cohort

From left to right: Cora Randall, James E. Young, Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa, Jake Kendall, Jennifer Bevan

UC Santa Cruz’s graduate alumni are at the forefront of change on a local, national, and international stage. From groundbreaking film research, to spearheading technological advances, preserving nations’ history, combating climate change, and shifting economic landscapes, UCSC alumni are making a tremendous impact worldwide. 

Five graduate alumni representing each academic division—Benjamín Schultz Figueroa (Arts), Jennifer Bevan (Baskin Engineering), James E. Young (Humanities), Cora Randall (Physical and Biological Sciences), and Jake Kendall (Social Sciences)—have been named UCSC’s 2023 Distinguished Graduate Alumni. 

This prestigious award honors the extraordinary accomplishments of division graduates in diverse fields. Graduate Studies Division Professional Development Coordinator and Event Organizer Sonya Newlyn is excited to announce this year’s cohort. 

“Now in its seventh year, the Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award shines a spotlight on exceptional graduate alumni,” Newlyn says. “The 2023 honorees have pursued a range of academic to alternative-academic careers and serve as prominent examples of the power of graduate education.” 

“Cora Randall, Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa, and James E. Young took the academic path, but their spheres of influence extend far beyond their institutions—quite literally, in Randall’s case, into Earth’s atmosphere and outer space! Schultz-Figueroa and Young, in their respective areas of research, help us remember the past, preserve its lessons, and remind us that the past rightly plays an important role in shaping how we construct our present and future world.” 

“Jennifer Bevan and Jake Kendall took non-academic paths that have had a global impact and directly improved the human experience. UC Santa Cruz, the Graduate Division, the five academic divisions, and the programs that bestowed their graduate degrees—film and digital media, computer science, literature, chemistry, and economics—take this moment to thank and honor Drs. Bevan, Kendall, Randall, Schultz-Figueroa, and Young for their contributions to education, research and discovery, preservation, and invention, and for their drive to make a better world for all.”

Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa (Ph.D. ’18, film and digital media)

Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa is at the cutting edge of groundbreaking research in film history, science studies, and animal studies. His interdisciplinary approach to animal representation in film gives Schultz-Figueroa a fresh perspective on a decades-old topic. 

Schultz-Figueroa is a professor of film studies at Seattle University and has most recently taught courses in the history of film, animals and film, science and the cinema, science fiction film, and film theory. He is also currently co-editing multiple pieces, including a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Media, an in-focus issue of the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and an issue of feminist media histories on gender and non theatrical film. In addition, Schultz-Figueroa is working on his second book project, Beastly Futures

Beastly Futures looks at the non-theatrical and theatrical representation of animals in the 21st century,” Schultz-Figueroa said. “It particularly looks at this new genre of animal representations called multi-species documentary and gives some political and historical context for understanding those films.” 

Schultz-Figueroa says Shelley Stamp, UCSC Professor of Film & Digital Media and Affiliated Faculty for Feminist Studies, Visual Studies, had a tremendous impact on him and his work while at UCSC, and he is grateful for his fellow Ph.D. cohort. 

“Shelley Stamp has been such a tireless advocate for me and my work,” he said. “My Ph.D. cohort of students also taught me so much. I’m so thankful that I could be with all of them during my time at UCSC.”

While at UCSC his dissertation was awarded the graduate student writing award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the discipline’s highest honor for graduate students. Schultz-Figueroa’s groundbreaking dissertation was published earlier this year as The Celluloid Specimen and is free to the public. 

Jennifer Bevan (Ph.D. ’06, computer science)

Jennifer Bevan was recruited to Google before finishing her Ph.D. at UCSC and has been with the company since 2006. She was instrumental in developing testing infrastructure and tools to improve products and the end-user experience. 

“I’m very proud of those efforts because they were really reliable,” Bevan said. “I’ve built foundations for technology that has grown and adapted but not fundamentally changed. It’s been very stable.”

Before attending UCSC, Bevan had worked in automating radio science analyses at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where she became fascinated with how code evolves over time and the desire to improve it. Pursuing her Ph.D. at UCSC led her to gain an appreciation for software engineering, especially testing, so Bevan decided to take up Google's offer.

Bevan has spent 17 years at Google and played a part in developing several Google products, such as Google Photos and Google+, Google’s social networking platform that ran from 2011 to 2019. In addition, she led multiple projects geared towards increasing accessibility on Google platforms—particularly Google Photos. 

“At the end of the day, Google Photos did not change its launch schedule, and it was accessible on all platforms at launch,” Bevan said. “That was one of the biggest things I’m proud of.”

Bevan says she is grateful for her time at UC Santa Cruz and for the mentorship of Jim Whitehead. 

“Santa Cruz in general, and Jim Whitehead in particular, gave me that balance of autonomy and structure to where I could take the ideas I had and run with them.” 

James E. Young (Stevenson ’73, literature and psychology) (Ph.D. ’83, literature)

James E. Young is at the forefront of memorializing historical tragedies internationally. From advising on memorials in Germany and Norway to helping design the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, Young has had a hand in preserving the memory of thousands of lives lost to global tragedies. 

Young is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of English and Judaic & Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he has taught since 1988, and Founding Director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at UMass Amherst. 

Young is the author of multiple publications including Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, The Texture of Memory—which was awarded the National Jewish Book Award in 1994—At Memory’s Edge: After-images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, and The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between—awarded the National Council for Public History Book Award for 2017.

In addition, Young has written widely for national and international publications including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and more. His writings have also appeared in over a dozen scholarly journals. 

Now retired, Young has kept himself busy with meaningful projects worldwide. He has lent his expertise to architectural teams working on memorials for the Tree of Life Synagogue and the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, both tragic events that claimed the lives of many innocent people.

“These jobs are not things that I look for, but they find you,” Young says. “And I’m glad to help. My role in these projects is not to tell anybody what to do but to have a dialogue and get to the best and most effective commemoration possible. We hope commemoration that leads to action or arches toward justice in some way.”

Young grew up in Santa Cruz and attended UCSC for his undergraduate and graduate education. He says multiple faculty members inspired and helped him along the way.

Cora Randall (MS ’83, chemistry) (Ph.D. ’85, chemistry)

Cora Randall has played a vital role in our understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly in polar regions, and has been instrumental in developing tools dedicated to better understanding the universe. She has worked with NASA for over three decades on the Hubble Space Telescope and later on satellite missions devoted to examining the Earth’s atmosphere. She primarily investigates processes related to stratospheric ozone depletion, polar mesospheric clouds, and atmospheric coupling through solar and magnetospheric energetic particle precipitation.

Currently, Randall’s work includes a focus on the atmospheric impacts of rocket launches using data from the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite.

“We’re considering proposing a new instrument as a follow-on to the AIM Satellite that would be launched in the next five years or so, and could continue making these kinds of measurements,” Randall said. “The fundamental goal here is to better quantify how natural and anthropogenic—or man-made—forces impact the atmosphere because that will enable us to better predict both weather and climate change.” 

A science path was not always in the cards for Randall. Early in her college career, she contemplated going into music studies, but a run-in with UCSC alum Atom Yee at the State University of New York at Purchase led her to UCSC. At UCSC, Randall pursued a Ph.D. in chemistry under David Kliger—a friend of Atom Yee.  

“It was just fantastic,” Randall said. “It felt like home being in grad school at UCSC. And, of course, Dave—a world-renowned expert in his field—imparted so much knowledge to me. He was patient, generous with his time, and unendingly encouraging.” 

Randall is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a senior scientist at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

She has won several awards for her scientific contributions and service and is an elected fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Jake Kendall (Ph.D. ’08, economics)

Jake Kendall is at the forefront of investing in African digital commerce startups. He is a co-founder and partner at DFS Lab, a team of people who empower communities through mentorship and strategic advice to early-stage startups. 

“Our mission is that we see a big opportunity to invest in Africa, especially technology spaces around digitizing the economy,” Kendall said. “It’s an economy that’s very informal, very cash-based, and not much technology is applied. We invest in entrepreneurs across Africa solving this need and building solutions for the local context.” 

Kendall has been investing in African digital platforms since the launch of M-Pesa, a revolutionary digital money-sharing application that transformed the economy of many African countries. Previously, Kendall has worked for both the World Bank as an economist with the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and the Gates Foundation. 

Jake is a published researcher and author with a Ph.D. in economics from UCSC and a B.S. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After MIT, he spent two years in Zambia as a fisheries extension agent with the US Peace Corps. He says UCSC’s international focus on economics drew him to the university. 

“The skill set I learned at UC Santa Cruz—which is having a careful process around creating data, understanding data and analysis, and rigorous thinking—I apply some of that thinking to business models, to investment decisions, and to understanding some of the products that we’re helping launch,” Kendall said. “I use them all across the board.”

The 2023 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Awardees will be honored on May 19.