When Justin C.M. Brown left a 15-year career in marketing, he was determined to pivot in a direction that would allow him to make more of a difference — even if he didn’t quite know what that would be. At Santa Monica College, he realized where his journey should begin when he enrolled in his first sociology course.

“Sociology is a huge umbrella that informs what goes on in a lot of other disciplines,” Brown said. “It's not only a subject, it's a way of understanding how all of the disciplines fit together.”

When he transferred to UCLA in the fall quarter of 2022, he found his footing and direction through the Research Revealed Undergraduate Research Preparation Program. A one-quarter program that helps give newer UCLA students a more thorough grounding in conducting research, it provided Brown with the tools he needed to succeed at UCLA and beyond.

“The program gave me academic agency and autonomy, and it changed my perspective of myself, in that I was not only a student — I was also a researcher,” Brown said.

Brown blends his passion for research with art. A multidimensional creative who uses painting, poetry and wax sculptures as expressive mediums, Brown got heavily involved in “Aleph,” UCLA’s journal dedicated to showcasing undergraduate research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

In addition to serving as one of the journal’s primary layout editors and then its editor-in-chief, Brown also was a featured interview subject for his creative project “Signs of Spring,” which won a 2023 UCLA Library Undergraduate Art Project Prize and is on display in Night Powell, a reading room and overnight study space. 

“Signs of Spring” is a series of augmented photographs that showcase some of the many flowers found on UCLA’s campus and is emblematic of Brown’s interdisciplinary approach, blending sociology with digital humanities and artistic expression. It was inspired by the flowers that bloomed in the spring quarter of 2023 after an especially cold and rainy Southern California winter.

“I created this series as a fun research project to help me learn the names of each kind of flower I saw. Now when I walk through campus, I greet them like friends,” he said. “As a researcher, I try to always remember to stop and smell the data once in a while!”

Underpinning Brown’s sociological research and creative projects is his belief that everyone possesses creative energy, and if more people could identify with the artist in themselves, they could find more opportunities for community.

“Artists possess a kind of solidarity that crosses all other identities,” Brown said. “And I believe if more people nourished their artistic identities, it could help dial down the individualism, the partisan rhetoric and the atomization we're experiencing right now.” 

He commits to this belief by using art to build connection and show gratitude in his daily life. For example, he donated some of the art from “Signs of Spring” to show his appreciation for the UCLA custodial staff and their tireless year-round work.

Ultimately, he sees his journey as a testament to the transformative power of education, moving from uncertainty to clarity and purpose. And as his time as a Bruin undergraduate culminates with graduation on June 14, he knows what’s next: potential graduate school, plus a lifelong commitment to furthering the focus he’s found here.  

"UCLA’s undergraduate sociology program was a fantastic beginning for me,” Brown said. “When I cross that stage, I will walk away with the ability to understand and improve the world through research — and recognize the creative potential of others — which are some of the greatest powers that human beings can possess.”