With 50,000 master’s and Ph.D. students, UC graduate researchers are a major source of the solutions, startups and big ideas that keep California strong. These emerging scientists and scholars, among the most accomplished in their fields, amount to a brain trust matched by few other institutions in the world.
On April 28, 22 UC graduate students, including four from UCLA who are doing cutting-edge work in fields ranging from engineering to nutrition, will join UC President Janet Napolitano at the Capitol to highlight the value graduate research brings to the state.
An annual event, Graduate Research Advocacy Day brings delegates from each campus to the Capitol for a day of informal chats with lawmakers. Past visits have established valuable relationships between graduate students and elected officials, who have often invited researchers back to Sacramento to tap their expertise on critical issues.
“I want state legislators to know that research is exhilarating and continuously inspires young minds to do work that makes the world a better place,” said UCLA chemistry graduate student Crystal Valdez, who will be representing the university at these meetings. “With the ever-expanding amount of information on the Internet, learning basic concepts is something anyone can now do at home. But research is knowledge being discovered now. No textbook can ever keep up-to-date with the speed of research.”
Working in the lab of UCLA professor Anastassia Alexandrova, Valdez is helping to engineer naturally occurring enzymes to improve drug manufacturing by making it cheaper and less toxic. Through the design and use of computer modeling, she aims to give scientists a recipe to help them modify particular enzymes to spur the chemical reactions they need. Those enzymes provide an alternative to harsh chemicals and can cut cost, energy use and toxic byproducts associated with current drug production.
"Metalloenzymes are extremely efficient and specific when is comes to catalyzing different reactions, making them superb targets for producing drugs and other materials," Valdez explained.
Valdez was drawn to chemistry when she was 12 and discovered that “we are composed of tiny microscopic cells. “The ability to understand and draw information from the atomistic level — from matter that cannot be seen by the naked eye — to explain things that affect our everyday lives continues to fascinate me.”
Joining her in Sacramento will be Yang Yang, a materials science and engineering graduate student at UCLA, who’s been working on ways to coax solar cells made of polymers to produce more power.
Also part of the UCLA delegation will be C. Aujean Lee from the Department of Urban Planning and Joe Viana from public health. Lee has been focusing on ways to help urban planners better tap into California’s diverse Asian American population to craft programs and policies that enable neighborhoods to thrive. Viana, a public health graduate student, is developing methods for collecting and evaluating data to help school officials test the effectiveness of various health programs.
“By meeting with students and learning firsthand about their research, policymakers get a glimpse into the enormous reservoir of talent we have within our Ph.D. and master's programs,” said Pamela Jennings, director of graduate studies at UC Office of the President.
“These are individuals who are starting companies, creating inventions and breaking new ground in arts and humanities. They also bring an ability to understand complex issues and identify creative approaches and solutions that is increasingly needed in today’s world.”