By Cathy Cockrell, NewsCenter | March 14, 2014

Graduate students from across the UC system shared their personal stories and research interests with Sacramento lawmakers at the University of California’s fifth annual Graduate Research and Education Advocacy Day, March 12.

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More than 20 students, accompanied by their graduate deans, put a human face on UC graduate education — reminding legislators, as the 2014-15 state budget is debated and finalized, of UC’s role as an engine of innovation, knowledge creation and economic growth.

This year, for the first time, a UC president, Janet Napolitano, and a Nobel laureate, Berkeley cell biologist Randy Schekman, also joined student researchers for the day.

Legislators appreciate meeting “someone like you who can talk with passion about possible applications of their work,” Napolitano told students as they prepared to begin their advocacy blitz in the capitol’s legislative offices upstairs.

“It gets our attention that something is important enough for you to travel to Sacramento,” echoed state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Santa Cruz).

‘Honored’ to participate

A Berkeley Ph.D. student in environmental health science, Paul Yousefi, was among the students who pitched in to the effort. In a morning meeting with Emlyn Struthers, a legislative aide to state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), he shared the reasons he chose to pursue his doctorate at Berkeley: inspirational faculty, impressive research resources and an institution committed to community improvement.

Yousefi studies how prenatal or early-childhood exposure to consumer-product chemicals may affect kids’ health risks as they mature. For this work he’s able to analyze biosamples and other data from a 15-year School of Public Health study conducted in the Salinas area.

“I got to come in and stand on the shoulders of other researchers,” he told Debbie Look, aide to Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo). “Ultimately this work aims to reduce health disparities…. It’s a gratifying study to be part of.”

Making the rounds with Yousefi was Margaret Rhee, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in ethnic studies, whose academic interests span technology, digital learning, race, feminist science and more.

Rhee said she considered it an honor to participate, even though — as with most of the grad students — introducing herself many times in one intense day was a bit outside her comfort zone. The California native co-leads an HIV/AIDS digital storytelling workshop at the San Francisco jail, teaching incarcerated women how to create AIDS-education materials that can speak powerfully to their peers.

“We want to bridge the gap between the academy and the community,” Rhee told DeSaulnier’s aide.

Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri added that while the state does not fund graduate education directly, it does so indirectly by paying faculty salaries. And when Berkeley is able to hire stellar faculty, he said, the best grad students elect to study with them, which in turn attracts stellar faculty. “It’s a synergy.”

Meanwhile, in meetings with legislative leaders, Schekman, Napolitano and Steve Juarez, UC’s director of state government relations, argued for increased state funding to support UC and the important work of its 26,000 graduate researchers and 6,400 postdoc fellows.

As part of those sessions, photo ops with Schekman, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, were in demand.

‘Pitched battle’

Speaking at lunchtime, Schekman told students that, because of state disinvestment in public higher ed — gradually over the past half-century and dramatically over the past decade — Berkeley is now in a “pitched battle” with well-endowed private institutions for the best and brightest emerging scholars.

The midday break also offered an opportunity for students to become acquainted. Sitting across from one another, UC Santa Cruz history student David Palter and ethnic-studies student Christina Jogoleff of UC Riverside, struck up a conversation. Palter studies how IQ testing has been used to advance theories about race, while Jogoleff is investigating the early 20th-century eugenics movement in California.

“One of the coolest parts of the day is meeting other grad student researchers,” Palter said. “It’s better than a conference.”

“I’m excited to communicate the importance of basic science,” said another UC advocate, UCSF student Laura Simpson.

“This is just the start of a long process for legislators,” Larry Salinas, UC associate director for institutional relations and advocacy, told grad students and graduate deans. “You being here helps us make our case.”

Fast facts on UC’s role as economic and innovation engine

  • UC investigators received $4.4 billion in research funding in FY 2011–12.
  • For every $1 in research funding provided by the state of California, UC secures $7 more in federal and private dollars.
  • UC researchers created 1,776 new inventions in 2012, an average of nearly five a day.
  • UC develops more patents than any other university in the nation. Many of UC’s 4,118 active patents have led to the creation of today’s leading industries.
  • More than 640 startup companies have been formed with UC inventions — 61 in 2012 alone.
  • With 7 percent of the U.S. Ph.D. population, UC grad students hold 20 to 30 percent of the most prestigious fellowships in science, arts and the humanities.

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