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The firepower that fuels UC research

When it comes to economic growth and educational excellence, California has a secret weapon: its 56,000 University of California graduate students.

They are the workhorses behind UC’s prowess in education and research — helping teach undergraduates, conducting original research and making discoveries that result in a new startup every two weeks.

The whole state would benefit, in fact, if Sacramento lawmakers helped UC expand its graduate student enrollment, university officials say.

Last Wednesday, March 21, 26 Ph.D. and master’s students took a break from their books and beakers to visit with state lawmakers and give them first-hand insight into their work and why it merits more state investment.

“We’re seeing such a strong backlash right now against intellectualism and science- and knowledge-based decision-making. We do such a lot of hard work as researchers to build the basis for educated decision-making. It’s important to come and show how that makes a difference — especially in health outcomes,” said Sophia Levan, a UCSF grad student who is studying the relationship of newborns’ gut microbes to their likelihood of developing childhood asthma.

“It’s important for people to be able to put a face on research. To know: this is what graduate students look like. This is how we act and how we think. We can make jokes. We’re not just in a lab. We are regular people.”

The contributions from graduate students are often overshadowed by undergraduate peers in the classroom and UC’s renowned faculty, but UC’s master’s and doctoral students are critical to advancing academics, research and scholarship.

“People who have never been part of a graduate program are often not aware of the vital role our master’s and Ph.D. students play within the university — or the enormous wellspring of talent they bring to the state,” said Pamela Jennings, UC executive director of graduate studies.

In the classroom, grad students lead the seminars, labs and small group discussion sections that allow students, even in large lecture classes, to have individualized attention from an instructor.

They also make it possible for UC to vigorously pursue its research agenda. They develop and drive original avenues of inquiry, while also handling much of the day-to-day grind for faculty research.

Their outsized contributions are hardly limited to the university, however.

Collectively, UC graduate students are an enormous brain trust for the state, spinning out knowledge and innovation in critical areas from education to energy.

They also contribute to a highly skilled workforce, and hatch the new technologies and companies that create jobs for all Californians — not only those with graduate degrees.

And, unlike tenured faculty with secure careers in academia, they are more likely to take the risk, time and effort to launch startups from the fruits of their research.

By giving lawmakers a taste of their efforts — in vital areas such as improving retention in STEM education, creating cheaper solar cells and combatting childhood asthma — graduate students hope to demonstrate that they are an investment well worth making.

To read about a few of UC’s graduate research ambassadors and their work, see the full story.

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