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Graduate student research: The backbone of UC innovation

Graduate researcher Dave Wernick

UCLA doctoral student Dave Wernick has figured out how to genetically re-engineer a rare bacterium to eat waste of all kinds, producing an alternative fuel that could go straight into gas tanks.

Sitting in the office of California Gov. Jerry Brown, UC Los Angeles Ph.D. student Dave Wernick explained how bacteria, manipulated at the molecular level, could lead to a renewable energy future.

Wernick, who works with a species of bacterium found only in one remote corner of the world, has figured out how to genetically re-engineer it to eat waste of all kinds, producing an alternative fuel that could go straight into gas tanks.

As sci-fi as that sounds, Wernick and colleagues in his lab already have a patent on such a breakthrough, and three more patents are pending. Mitsubishi Chemicals and the U.S. Department of Energy have begun working with him to reproduce this new energy source on an industrial scale.

The technology’s potential to create jobs and generate revenue while solving a major societal problem is typical of the kinds of high-impact work that many UC graduate students take on.

And it was just the kind of work on display in Sacramento on Wednesday (March 12) when a delegation of UC graduate students, joined by UC President Janet Napolitano and UC Berkeley cell biology professor Randy Schekman, UC’s most recent Nobel laureate, met with lawmakers.

The aim of their visit: to show legislators the value of graduate research first-hand by sharing examples of the vital work they do.

As California’s only public research university, UC’s graduate programs stand apart both in California and in the nation. UC’s 10 campuses educates 26,0000 doctoral students annually — more than any other university system in the country — and it bestows 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 a wellspring for new ideas and perform much of the legwork that any research breakthrough relies 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.”

See Communications Coordinator Nicole Freeling’s complete story, with related links.

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