UC Santa Cruz announces recipients of Chancellor’s Innovation Impact Awards

The awards recognize transformational work across UC Santa Cruz – in the arts, engineering, humanities, physical and biological sciences, and social sciences.

Group shot of attendees at awards ceremony

Recipients of the 2022 Chancellor’s Innovation Impact Awards were honored for their outstanding contributions in research, creative scholarship and innovation. From left to right: VC for University Relations Mark Delos Reyes Davis, Chancellor Cindy Larive, Ryan Sharp, Rachel Nelson, Gina Dent, Mark Akeson, VC for Research John MacMillan, CP/EVC Lori Kletzer, Russell Corbett-Detig, David Deamer, Doug Erickson and Malina Long.

Tracking COVID-19, DNA sequencing, and prison abolition were among the groundbreaking research and creative scholarship projects recognized by the inaugural Chancellor’s Innovation Impact Award Program, presented May 30 in an event at the University Center on the UC Santa Cruz campus. This new program celebrates the university’s talented faculty, researchers, staff, students, and community partners for their outstanding contributions to innovation and creativity.

“Our university has a track record of research excellence, trail-blazing scholarship, exciting innovation and expansive creativity,” said Chancellor Cynthia Larive. “These awards give us the opportunity to recognize the transformational work taking place across UC Santa Cruz that is impacting society for the better.”

Managed by the Innovation & Business Engagement Hub, the awards recognize transformational work across UC Santa Cruz – in the arts, engineering, humanities, physical and biological sciences, and social sciences.

“Our faculty colleagues lead ground-breaking research, creative scholarship, artistic production and innovation,” said Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer. “Through these endeavors, many of them multidisciplinary, we better understand our changing world and create knowledge, technologies and modes of expression that empower individuals and communities.”

The award categories include Innovator of the Year, Lifetime Achievement in Innovation, and Community Changemaker. This year’s recipients are world leaders in tracking and mapping the COVID-19 virus and its variants in real time, creators of technology that is transforming how we understand our own human DNA, abolitionists working to change the narrative and understanding of society’s reliance on prisons and policing, and community partners supporting innovators and students, helping them connect with the local ecosystem and develop as entrepreneurs.

Innovator of the Year

This award recognizes faculty and associated project teams that may include staff and students for innovative or creative work that, during the past 12 months, has resulted in societal impact or has reached a milestone that positions the innovations and creativity for near-term societal impact. Recipients receive $10,000 to further advance their efforts.

Russ Corbett-Detig - Associate Professor of Biomolecular Engineering

Russell Corbett-Detig and his team (Angie Hinrichs - Bioinformatics Programmer, Genome Browser Team, UCSC; Yatish Turakhia - UC San Diego assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and former Genomics Institute postdoctoral scholar; and Bryan Thornlow - former student working with Corbett-Detig) developed a tool called Ultrafast Sample Placement on Existing tRees, commonly known as UShER, that quickly became fundamental in battling COVID-19.

The computational tool enables real-time SARS-CoV-2 tracking and helps researchers identify new lineages of the virus. The easy-to-use tool and online server creates an evolutionary tree that helps scientists understand genomic mutations by creating new branches on the tree, showing the relationships between virus samples and the order in which mutations happened along various lineages as the virus evolves. The result today is a phylogenetic tree of more than 14 million genomes and growing.

“We think UShER is going to be applied to tracking almost every major human pathogen,” Corbett-Detig said. “What we’re calling this new paradigm of phylogenetics is online phylogenetics. The idea is that you’re never stopping, you’re just always growing. It’s always online. You’re just growing it forever.”

UShER, a free tool, is now used worldwide by the majority of public health organizations to identify COVID-19 and its variants, as it is the default software behind Pangolin, the ubiquitously used tool for assigning COVID-19 sequences to their most likely lineage. Corbett-Detig and his team are also expanding the software to enable analyses of other pathogens, including the recent spread of monkeypox and drug-resistant tuberculosis. UShER is fully-integrated into the UC Santa Cruz Genome Browser.


Gina Dent - Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Humanities Division and Associate Professor of Feminist Studies

Rachel Nelson - Director and Chief Curator of the Institute of Arts and Sciences and teaches in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department

Visualizing Abolition is the nation’s most ambitious and sustained art and prison abolition initiative. The project examines the ways people see and understand issues of mass incarceration, detention, and policing in the United States and abroad, challenging the prevailing social, economic, and political worldviews that prisons promote.

The initiative was developed by Dr. Gina Dent and Dr. Rachel Nelson, with support from the Mellon Foundation.

In collaboration with artists, scholars, poets, lawyers and activists, and through public exhibitions and educational genres, the initiative breaks through entrenched societal views of prisons and policing and challenges people to think about how we can take a reimagined approach to community safety and justice. Collaborators create a new collective story of a future free of prisons through art, music and culture.

“We need people from every discipline, from every walk of life to be a part of this thinking and we also have to be thinking about what the prison promises to do, that it’s failing to do and what we need to build instead,” said Dent. “It’s exciting to see that after many, many years, it’s possible to talk about these issues in the public in ways that make me think that we may make some real change.”

Exhibitions such as Barring Freedom at the San José Museum of Art provide space for civic engagement with issues directly touching people’s lives and have found eager audiences. Despite taking place during the height of the pandemic, the attendance included an impressive number of first-time visitors to the museum. The related online Visualizing Abolition events were also attended in record numbers, with over 30,000 viewers in just the first two months of the series.

The initiative also supports public events, postdoctoral fellowships, a faculty working group, and curriculum development that reaches across prison borders.

Lifetime Achievement in Innovation

The Lifetime Achievement in Innovation award recognizes a faculty member whose career accomplishments include innovations or creativity that have led to significant, long-term societal impact and who is an inspiration and positive influence for students and colleagues. The recipient receives an award of $5,000 to direct to a division, department, or lab of their choosing to support innovative research activities.

David Deamer and Mark Akeson, Research Professors Emeriti of Biomolecular Engineering, are the co-inventors of nanopore sequencing, a revolutionary method of reading DNA and RNA. The nanopore technology they pioneered together is transformational to how we understand our own human DNA.

David Deamer came to UC Santa Cruz in 1994 from UC Davis where his research focused on creating artificial cells. In this, he was pondering questions of how to pull molecules through membranes, which are nearly impermeable. One day, while on a drive, thinking through these questions led him to come up with an amazing idea.

He realized that when pulling a string of DNA through a tiny hole with an electric current running, each of the bases would have a slightly different effect on the current, which could be distinguished and translated to read out the bases. The result was a revolutionary method of reading DNA and RNA. The name nanopore references the size of the pore, which would end up being just two nanometers across.

Mark Akeson was a graduate student at UC Davis studying soil microbiology when he met Deamer. Akeson joined the nanopore work group at UCSC, led by Deamer, after spending several years as a research scientist at the NIH. His work focused on the molecular biology processes that would enable the technology, and he was tasked to set up the original nanopore device in their Baskin School of Engineering lab.

In a paper published in 1999, the group proved that segments of bases could be distinguished from each other as they impeded the ionic current through the nanometer-sized pore, providing evidence that Deamer’s conceptual idea was achievable.

Akeson discovered the first enzyme, a polymerase, that could latch on to the DNA strand and regulate its processive movement through the nanopore, a crucial step in making the new technology a usable product.

Deamer’s and Akeson’s ideas were licensed to Oxford Nanopore Technologies in 2009 as patents, eventually leading to the company’s revolutionary MinION. This small, portable device uses nanopores to read DNA and RNA at a fraction of the cost of the state-of-the-art competitors, making sequencing accessible for scientists worldwide. Since the original release in 2014, continual improvements implemented by Oxford Nanopore have increased the MinION’s accuracy from about 74 percent to 99+ percent, and new models have the power of 500 MinIONs. These licenses have become the most lucrative invention out of UCSC.

“Congratulations to Professors Dave Deamer and Mark Akeson for this well-deserved lifetime achievement award,” Gordon Sanghera, CEO of Oxford Nanopore Technologies said. "Their foundational ideas and tireless scientific drive paved the way for an entirely novel way to sequence DNA and RNA. They made it possible for Oxford Nanopore to disrupt the sequencing world with the most accessible technology that is delivering comprehensive biological insights to the scientific community. Nanopore sequencing has had a profound impact on scientific research worldwide, and we are just at the start of the genomics era, which stands to open up huge research potential in human health and disease, conservation and many other areas facing our planet "

Nanopore technology has enabled some of the most significant advances in genomics, including the sequencing of many COVID-19 genomes worldwide. It was vital to completing the first-ever gapless sequence of a human genome, a project led by UCSC’s Karen Miga and the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) consortium. It allowed them to do long reads, decoding the millions of repeated bases in the human genome, which is impossible with other sequencing techniques.

Today, Deamer is using nanopore sequencing in his ongoing research into how life began on Earth four billion years ago. Traveling to volcanoes around the world, he is studying how wet/dry cycles around the hot springs might have created the conditions in which nucleic acids originally came to exist. And, the technology is being used beyond Earth. A MiniON was taken to the international Space Station to sequence organisms that may threaten astronaut’s health.

In collaboration with scientists in UCSC’s world-renowned Center for the Biology of RNA, Akeson is using nanopore sequencing to explore ‘RNA Dark Matter’.

Community Changemaker

The Community Changemaker award recognizes a leader or organization in the Santa Cruz region that has contributed significantly to driving regional economic prosperity through innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, or support for growing the innovation ecosystem in close collaboration with the university.

Doug Erickson, executive director of Santa Cruz Works (SCW), is a valued ally and community partner with UC Santa Cruz. Erickson is personally and professionally committed to increasing the awareness of campus research and innovation and the impact it has locally, across the state and around the world.

During the height of the pandemic, Erickson expanded Santa Cruz Work’s digital presence, hosting several public, free webinars about UCSC researchers working on COVID testing, genomics contact-tracing and sequencing, as well as public education series on COVID, viruses, and the mRNA vaccine from UCSC virologists. He also connected companies making PPE with the university, and many of them donated thousands of dollars in PPE for our employees working on campus.

Erickson is dedicated to supporting innovators and students, helping them develop as entrepreneurs by identifying resources and funding opportunities, and facilitating employment possibilities. He was instrumental in establishing CruzHacks, the largest hackathon in Santa Cruz where students develop solutions to real-work problems.

Erickson also supported campus startups through Santa Cruz Work’s accelerator. More than half of the first cohort were UCSC startups. Now in its fifth cohort, the program has supported more than 50 companies in starting their businesses in Santa Cruz, many from UC Santa Cruz.

He played a leading role in bringing Launchpad '22 to campus and the SCW was a key organizer and convenor of Blue Innovation '22 aimed at supporting and broadening the local and global networks for research, businesses, and other community stakeholders focused on water management and ocean climate solutions.

Selection Process

Awardees are selected by the chancellor, campus provost and executive vice chancellor, and vice chancellor for research, informed by recommendations provided by the Innovation Impact Awards Selection Committee. The committee was chaired by the assistant vice chancellor for Innovation & Business Engagement and also included one representative identified by each of the following: dean of the Division of the Arts, dean of the Division of Humanities, dean of the Division of Physical & Biological Sciences, dean of the Division of Social Sciences, dean of the Baskin School of Engineering and vice chancellor for the Office of Research.

Learn more about the awardees and the impact of their work:

Gina Dent and Rachel Nelson

Russell Corbett-Detig

David Deamer and Mark Akeson

Doug Erickson, Santa Cruz Works