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UC graduate students take their research to the Capitol

To many people, graduate research is a little-known corridor in the halls of higher education. To some it is perceived as a mysterious side nook in the ivory tower, where esoteric research is conducted for obscure ends.

On March 14, a delegation of 20 UC graduate students and deans traveled to Sacramento to give lawmakers a very different perspective: that of graduate student research as central not only to the future of the University of California, but to that of the state and the nation as well.

“All of the research ever brought by UC was enabled by graduate students,” UCLA Dean of Graduate Education Robin Garrell said. “They bring the fresh perspective, the hard work, the new ideas. They have an incredible influence on shaping the direction of research.

“Just today,” Garrell related, “my department is filing a patent on a device for enabling reactions with very small particles that was the idea of one of my graduate students.”

In a series of face-to-face meetings, graduate students from each UC campus sat down with lawmakers to give them a better sense of the work they do — and why it is of vital importance to California and its residents.

They recounted their work on imaging that can detect very early stage cancer, designing smarter systems for managing infrastructure, maintaining the safety of prescription drugs in the era of Internet pharmacies and looking at how climate change affects animal and plant life in California. They shared research that could expand our understanding of how human languages are structured, how media shapes our worldview and the way we use reading and writing of literature to construct an understanding of ourselves.

Part of the goal of the day, UC organizers said, was to show legislators the direct economic benefit of graduate student research. Graduate students also are a key factor in attracting and retaining top-quality faculty at UC; and eventually will fill faculty ranks at both UC and CSU.

But, as UC Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Steven Beckwith noted, graduate education serves an even greater function in training individuals with the ability to think, uncover, question and problem-solve. These attributes are critical to today’s complex economy and society.

“There’s a misperception that all graduate students are being trained to be professors,” Beckwith said. In fact, the skills honed by graduate students have the broadest possible applications.

“The problems you will be charged with solving are not problems we are seeing now. They are not problems we know about. They are things we haven’t even seen before,” Beckwith directed to the students. “What you bring is the capacity to wade into brand new territory equipped with only your curiosity, your intelligence and your ability to solve problems. That is the talent the world will need. And it is talent that, thanks to the strength of our graduate students, UC will be well poised to provide.”

Spreading the ‘wow factor’

Giving lawmakers the chance to meet with graduate students gives them a whole new perspective on the importance of their role, said UC Legislative Advocate Kate Daby-Horpedahl.

“I greatly appreciate hearing directly from the students who are currently immersed in graduate work,” said state Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield), whose staffers met with the UC Merced delegation. “It is only through these firsthand accounts that legislators and their staffs can be reminded of the importance of these programs and what their continued investment means to the state.”

In a meeting with a delegation from UCLA, State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), chair of the Senate Health Committee, echoed Fuller’s admiration for the work the students were doing. But while affirming his support for UC, Hernandez conceded, “My hands are tied.” If ballot initiatives to raise tax revenue — intended to help fund public higher education — don’t pass, “I won’t like taking those votes [to cut funds], but we have to. The solvency of the state is paramount.”

Participants said the goal of the day was met in giving lawmakers a broader sense of graduate students and what they bring to the table.

“I’d like them to understand the really exceptional base that we have here in California in our UC graduate students,” said UCLA’s Dean Garrell. “They are already the knowledge producers, inventors and creators — and we expect even greater things to come.”

For the full story by UCOP Communications Coordinator for Academic Affairs Nicole Freeling, including a slideshow of graduate students in their work environments, go to the UC Research website.

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