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UC Delegation Highlights Grad Studies

March 19, 2014

The University of California last week sent a delegation to Sacramento to show legislators the value of graduate research first-hand by sharing examples of the vital work graduate students do.

The group included two students from each campus, UC President Janet Napolitano and UC Berkeley cell biology professor Randy Schekman, UC’s most recent Nobel laureate.

Acting Dean of the Graduate Division Chris Kello, Roberto Corona, in health psychology, and Chelsea Arnold, in environmental soil physics, represented UC Merced.

“We have to get out there and talk about the great things we’re doing so they know and understand that UC Merced stands for more than a university,” Corona said after the day was over. “It’s made up of specific work done by faculty and students.”

Corona studies quality of life with cancer survivors. One project looked at the emotional and physical issues faced by men with prostate cancer. Another project is looking at cultural factors putting Latinos at risk for developing lung cancer from smoking.

As California’s only public research university, UC’s graduate programs stand apart in California and in the nation. UC’s 10 campuses educate 26,000 doctoral students annually — more than any other university system in the country — and bestow 8 percent of the nation’s Ph.Ds.

The students generate billions of dollars in research funding though federal grants and other sources. They are also wellsprings of new ideas, and perform much of the legwork that research breakthroughs rely upon.

One of the hallmarks of UC graduate research is the wide degree of autonomy and ownership that students have over their work. The result: Graduate students are responsible for an unusually large number of start-ups and inventions, and their names appear frequently on published research.

“UC graduate students get jobs. But more importantly, they create jobs,” President Napolitano said. “They are a huge multiplier for the state.”

Work Critical to California

Arnold's was particularly timely: She focuses on long-term consequences from drought.

Arnold studies a water resource that is often overlooked: 19,000-foot-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada. These wetlands serve as natural reservoirs, soaking up snowmelt and releasing it slowly into rivers and streams.

But that natural system is under threat: Unusually wet or dry years — such as the one we’re in now — permanently shrink the soil, an effect Arnold likened to turning a grape to a raisin.

“You can add water back in, but all you’re going to get is a soggy raisin,” Arnold said.

A Resource Under Threat

Private industry, the public sector, California schools — all have all reaped the benefits of research carried out by graduate students, UC officials told lawmakers.

But UC graduate programs are under increasing pressure.

Uncertain federal funding has made it harder for graduate students to secure money that's critical to setting up their labs and conducting research. At the same time, faculty members have less time for mentoring graduate students because of increased teaching loads. Budget tightening has also made it more difficult for UC to offer competitive stipends to graduate students.

UC is in danger of losing talented graduate students to institutions with big endowments that can afford to help them establish their labs. It’s not just UC that loses out when talented students chose institutions like Harvard and Yale over the University of California: It’s the state as a whole, Napolitano said.

“I worry in California that we take the UC and its excellence for granted,“ she said. Graduate students are the drivers “of the quality of research excellence that distinguishes UC among its peers and makes California the economic success and intellectual powerhouse that it is.”