UC Merced Magazine, Spring 2016

Page 1




UC Merced researchers explore different applications of how the brain functions to advance knowledge about human development and change, machine learning and artificial intelligence, learning and cognitive science. Researchers’ Holistic Views Take UC Merced to a Higher Realm: PAGE 14

Machines that Think Like Humans: PAGE 21

Reorganizing Neural Pathways Can Change Lives: PAGE 19

Consciousness: a Final Frontier: PAGE 25

Linguistics Research Shows How Language Affects Our Brains: PAGE 27

Developmental Psychology Researchers Learning to Communicate with Babies: PAGE 31


University Communications


eople have studied the brain, in one way or another, for as long as there has been recorded history — and probably longer than that. Views on the brain have changed dramatically. Ancient Egyptians believed the heart was the seat of intelligence and the brain was more of a “stuffing” for the skull. Aristotle believed the brain was a large cooling system for the blood — that was why humans were more rational than animals, he thought, because we have a larger capacity for chilling our hot-bloodedness. Mathematician and philosopher René Descartes believed the mind was separate from the body — a concept known as mindbody duality — and that these realms interact in the brain’s pineal gland, so he studied the brain’s physiology. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that scientists began to realize and accept that certain areas of the brain are responsible for certain functions. Now, researchers are working on such revolutionary ideas as the recent University of Rochester study that suggests our bodies’ ability to fight disease is actually guided by the brain, and the brain can be conditioned to fight specific ailments. Brain-machine interfaces allow people to control artificial limbs, and a new wireless interface allows monkeys to control the movements of robotic wheelchairs using their thoughts alone, which could mean a huge breakthrough for severely disabled humans. These days, neuroscience is an interdisciplinary endeavor involving chemistry, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics,

medicine, genetics, philosophy, physics and psychology. By studying the molecular, cellular, developmental, structural, functional, evolutionary, computational and medical aspects of the nervous system, researchers can do a lot, from studying individual nerve cells and sensory and motor tasks in the brain to retraining the brain to assist people with disabilities and implanting tiny sensors to block epileptic seizures. Recently, scientists in Australia announced the first minimally invasive brain-machine interface, described as a bionic spine. The size of a small paperclip, the implant will get its first human trial in 2017, and should, if it works as designed, allow paralyzed people to walk using their minds to control the spines. How far we have come in the past 150 years. UC Merced faculty members associated with the campus’s Cognitive and Information Sciences group — featured in this issue — take a comprehensive and holistic view of cognitive science that involves the brain, the environment and the body. It’s an approach that is not often taken, and puts our young campus at the forefront of modern research. From early childhood development and language processing to machine learning, artificial intelligence and transcranial magnetic stimulation — all of which you can read about in this issue — our researchers are using their noggins. Talking about the mysteries of the brain usually leads to discussion of — or debate about — consciousness. Consciousness is often described as “being awake and aware of what is happening

around you, and of having a sense of self.” But we are still quite a distance from understanding how it all works. As science writer George Dvorsky said, conscious awareness is the most astounding — and most perplexing — aspect of the human brain. It’s what makes us the unique, self-reflective creatures that we are, able to experience and react to our environments in an apparently self-directed way. What IS consciousness? Did you know that while doctors know how to make patients lose consciousness, they have no idea why it happens or where the mind goes when a person is unconscious? Does the brain generate consciousness? Or does it come from somewhere else? Some people support the idea that the mind is removed from the physical world. That leads to thinking about the soul (as Westerners term it) and whether the soul and the mind are the same thing, whether the soul even exists and if it does, whether it survives physical death. Most people have a belief about it, one way or the other, but there’s no scientific test for the soul. Yet. But just leave it to science. Someday, with enough resources and enough time, scientists will answer even the deepest mysteries of the universe and the mind. LORENA ANDERSON Editor in chief We welcome your feedback at UCMercedMagazine@ucmerced.edu. We hope to hear from you soon.



Lorena Anderson

Dorothy Leland

University Communications

VISIT us on the weB


UC Merced Chancellor

Thomas Peterson PUBLISHED BY

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor

University Communications

Kyle Hoffman Vice Chancellor, Development and Alumni Relations


Veronica Adrover Brandy Nikaido Elena Zhukova Jack Bland Emery Silberman Cori Lucero

Patti Waid Assistant Vice Chancellor, University Communications

Cori Lucero Executive Director, Governmental and Community Relations




Spring 2016


3 Curriculum | Community-engaged research is not just another way for the campus to connect with the region, it’s also a new minor.

4 Fast Facts | The student engagement survey, administered each fall to freshmen, gives us a glimpse into study habits, how students are accessing campus resources, what they hope to achieve and how they feel about their campus.

6 Donor Spotlight | University Friends Circle has made a vast difference in the lives of students.

8 Bobcats of Excellence | Laura Showalter’s got the ambition and drive it takes to achieve great things.

11 What’s New | The latest construction on campus, the Classroom and Office Building 2, means more room for students and researchers.

12 Having Coffee with | Professor Kirk Jensen applies his personal experience with illness to immunology research.



14 Brainstorm | From language development to artificial intelligence, UC Merced researchers are taking a holistic approach to the study of the human brain. In six stories, we explore cognitive science, machine learning, consciousness, linguistics and more.

35 In Case You Missed It | Catch up on the news, including cancer research, the Hypercats, record student applications and more.

38 Alumni Corner | Abraham Olivares is one of UC Merced’s original graduates, and took what he learned here into the community to educate other students.

40 The Playing Field | Soccer star Joseph Mayer finds balance in his athletic and academic lives.

42 Government and Community Relations | Outreach is one of the most important tools in growing the college-going culture of the San Joaquin Valley.


Community Impact


at the

Core of New Course

magine a class where the teacher holds the grade book in name but not in practice, and you have an inkling of what sets CRS 10: Introduction to Community Engaged Research apart from a traditional college course. “It’s not your average class,” instructor Paul Sivak said. “We all teach and learn from each other.” CRS 10 is the core class for the Community Research and Service (CRS) minor, an academic concentration meant to complement all majors by preparing students to conduct research that has positive effects on the community. Launched in fall 2015, the CRS minor is

the product of nearly a decade of work by the Resource Center for Community Engaged Scholarship (ReCCES), led by anthropology Professor Robin DeLugan and Stergios Roussos, executive director of the UC Merced branch of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. To qualify for the minor, each student is required to take CRS 10 and an upper-division course that includes community-based research experience. Two additional upper-division courses that align with the student’s major round out the minor. Community Research and Service aligns with the larger vision of why UC Merced was placed in the San Joaquin Valley, Roussos

“84 percent of community-engaged researchers surveyed across the University of California reported that community-engaged research is a top priority for graduate students.”

Partnership Driven One key lesson CRS students internalize is that being a scholar doesn’t make you more of an expert than the people participating in your research. “You can’t just walk in and assume you know the answers to people’s problems,” said Denise Vera Hernandez, a management major who took the class last semester. “People are experts in their own situations.” In setting up the framework for the class, Sivak decided it would be best to make it a model for effective community-engaged research. “It’s a partnership-driven collaboration,” he said. “Everyone gets to share their opinions, and no one opinion outweighs any other.” It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. Having an opinion that’s valued and respected brings the burden of responsibility. Sivak said that for some students, especially first-generation college students, it can be an uphill struggle to find their voices. Brenda Gutierrez said the experience was life-changing, altering how she approaches all aspects of life now.


University Communications

said: as a change agent to positively affect the prosperity of the area. Roussos, along with DeLugan, helped establish the minor and design the classes within it. “UC Merced is not just another campus trying this approach,” he said. “We’re in a unique position to illustrate how community-engaged research can shape the growth of a new research university to make its surrounding region better than it could be in its absence.” In January 2015, the campus was recognized for its institutional commitment to this type of work with the prestigious Carnegie Foundation Classification for Community Engagement.

— Roussos, S., and DeLugan, R. (2015). “Understanding the infrastructure for community engaged research in the University of California.”

Resource Center for Community Engaged Scholarship.

“It turned everything I thought I knew upside down,” the double major in anthropology and political science said. “I learned how to make myself heard while also hearing others. It opened my eyes to both biases and opportunities I didn’t see before.” True Collaboration Everyone in the class had equal input into how the class should run. There was no one expert, no boss. Invited speakers became cocollaborators for the time they were present. The class also required students to partner with organizations entrenched in community improvement so they could apply the knowledge they learned. “Things aren’t always what they seem,” Vera Hernandez said. “A group may say they want one thing because they think that’s what you want to hear. You need to spend time getting to know them and earning their trust to find out their true needs.” Students saw much of this in person when working with Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a community-based initiative of the California Endowment that prepares underserved populations to help themselves.

The Merced branch serves the areas of Southwest Merced, Planada, Le Grand and Beachwood/Franklin. Isai Palma, outreach coordinator for BHC, said the CRS 10 students augmented the organization’s efforts to give a voice to residents of these areas by participating in their civic engagement meetings. “Residents need additional support to create a clear message of what they want and what they need,” he said. “And the students didn’t just come to observe and document. They wanted to be actively involved with the residents, which changed the whole dynamic of our groups.” One surprise for residents, Palma said, was the number of UC Merced students of color in the class. “It wasn’t long before they’d comment: ‘These kids look like our kids. That means our kids could help us, and maybe our kids could even go to UC Merced.’” That mutual benefit is what the minor is all about, Roussos said. “Community-engaged research makes the university more accessible to the community, and it helps the university share ownership of concerns that affect the community.” SPRING 2016 | UC MERCED MAGAZINE




Student Survey Results


Females were 11 percent more likely to respond than males, and students

Each year, freshmen are given a new-student survey to complete during their first semester. The results show not just the demographics of a new

with majors in the School of Engineering were somewhat less likely to respond

class, they show how new students perceive the campus and their own

than students in the schools of Natural Sciences and Social Sciences,

chances for academic success, and how often they use the resources and

Humanities and Arts and undeclared students.

amenities available to them at UC Merced. Here are some of the highlights of the survey administered between Oct.


26 and Nov. 23, 2015. This is the most recent survey.

When you arrived at UC Merced, how welcoming did you find the campus

Of the 1,185 students invited to complete the survey, 896, or 76 percent,


provided partial or complete responses. Because students could skip




questions, response rates varied by question.

Very welcoming


79.53 percent

Somewhat welcoming


19.02 percent

Not welcoming


1.45 percent



Today, how connected to or disconnected from UC Merced do you feel?

What is the highest degree you intend to eventually obtain?





Very connected


15.08 percent

Bachelor’s degree


19.31 percent



66.70 percent

Master’s degree


28.57 percent



15.64 percent

Doctoral degree


35.49 percent

Very disconnected


2.57 percent



16.52 percent





0.11 percent



How likely are you to:








Participate in research activities with a faculty member at UC Merced







Participate in an internship at UC Merced







Transfer to another college before graduating







Leave UC Merced at the end of this semester







Leave UC Merced at the end of this academic year







How often have you connected with each of the following UC Merced campus resources this semester?




6-10 TIMES



Instructor or teaching assistant (office hour, appointment, etc.)







Workshops (study skills, time management, writing)







Free tutoring (courses, writing)







Degree Attainment for Returning and Transfer Students (DARTS)







Peer Advisors







Peer Success Mentors







Academic Advisors







Disability Services







Counseling and Psychological Services







Health and Wellness Services







Residence Life Staff/programs







Career Services/Professional Advancement







STEM Resource Center







Students First Center



















Library Services Recreational programs (e.g., outdoor trips, intramural sports) 4



Student engagement isn’t just a tagline at UC Merced. Survey data shows Bobcats feel connected.



Donor Spotlight


Community-Campus Connection

BY Donna Birch Trahan, University Communications


lass of ’14 alumna Merlyn Perez’s eyes light up when she talks about the circle of friends that helped her when she was an undergraduate student at UC Merced. Perez was the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend college. She chose UC Merced for the opportunity to do research, and the campus offered a good financial aid package that covered many of her expenses. However, money was still a concern. “My mom was working three or four jobs, and I just didn’t want her to work so hard to support me.” During Perez’s senior year, a friend and alumnus told her about University Friends Circle (UFC), a philanthropic group that supports UC Merced’s mission of teaching, research and service.

UFC offers a scholarship annually to a deserving student involved in community service in the greater Merced area. At the time, Perez volunteered for Merced County Project 10%, a program created to improve high school graduation rates by having college students speak with middleschool students about the importance of graduating from high school. Perez’s friend — a previous scholarship winner — encouraged her to apply. She did, and UFC selected her as its 2014 scholarship recipient. The scholarship funds made a huge difference in Perez’s college life. Perez remained in Merced after she earned her degree in psychology. She works as a counselor, and one of her future goals includes applying to law school in the next few years.

I can’t thank them enough for seeing the potential in me.” — Alumna Merlyn Perez —



EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS Providing scholarships and awards is just one part of UFC’s mission, though. Formed in 2008, UFC builds relationships between the university and the greater community through activities that promote social and intellectual interaction, programs of service and fundraising initiatives that support student scholarships and awards. Since 2009, UFC has awarded five scholarships and six community service awards to students and student organizations. In 2015, UFC launched a campaign to increase its original $100,000 endowment and one of 12 scholarship funds supported by Giving Tuesday fundraising efforts. On Giving Tuesday — the first week of December each year — a 3-to-1 match offered by Wells Fargo and Foster Poultry

Farms quadrupled designated gifts made during the 24-hour #GiveTueUCM campaign. That doubled UFC’s endowment, pushing it over the $200,000 mark. “It was perfect timing,” said fundraising co-chair Mindy Broadley. “Our campaign was simple and effective: We have kids in our own backyard who need our support.” UFC asked Perez if she would be willing to be part of the campaign and she agreed. Printed materials sent to UFC members included two images of Perez — one as a smiling young child and the other of her wearing her commencement cap and gown. She continues to promote the group and encourage people to join. “They are so open and gracious,” Perez said. “I can’t thank them enough for seeing the potential in me.” The enthusiasm UFC members demonstrated in donating to the fund exceeded everyone’s expectations, said fundraising co-chair and past President Judy Boyer. The university’s Foundation Board of Trustees, Chancellor Dorothy Leland and Vice Chancellor for Development and Alumni Relations Kyle Hoffman

recognized the UFC’s successful efforts in increasing their endowment during the trustees meeting in February. “Their efforts to raise scholarships for our students will make an immense impact for years to come,” Hoffman said. BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS UFC membership is open to anyone who shares its mission of strengthening the bond between UC Merced and surrounding communities. Members aren’t required to have college degrees, nor is the group exclusive to faculty and staff members’ spouses. Everyone can join. Annual membership costs $50 for community members and $10 for UC Merced alumni, faculty and staff members and students. In addition to providing scholarships and awards, UFC organizes and promotes activities and events designed to unite the campus and greater community, said Gaye Riggs, a past president who serves as a programming co-chair. UFC hosts a monthly book club, produces a newsletter, coordinates visits to the campus’s research institutions, solicits

volunteers for commencement and hosts a monthly luncheon at The Branding Iron in downtown Merced. Luncheon speakers are often UC Merced faculty members who talk about their research and areas of expertise. “We try to be as diverse as possible in our offerings, and we have never been turned down by anyone we’ve approached,” Riggs said. Speakers routinely bring students to the luncheon to serve as unofficial ambassadors of UC Merced. They sit in the audience, talk about their backgrounds with UFC members and share their experiences at UC Merced. UFC offers an honorary membership to luncheon speakers as a way to enhance the connection with the organization, President Ann Andersen said. When UFC polls its members regarding what topics they want to hear more about, the subjects are wideranging. “Their thirst is insatiable,” Andersen said. “Our members want to hear about research, and they want to hear directly from students. They want to hear about the student’s background, why they chose to attend UC Merced, their future plans and their dreams.”

In Memoriam

Alice & Clifford Spendlove


he UC Merced campus community wishes to pay tribute and say farewell to Alice and Clifford Spendlove of Merced, who passed away a month apart last fall. The Spendloves dedicated their lives to education and public service. More than that, they were friends to the campus and all who seek education and social justice. Their daughter, Sherrie Spendlove-Gallo, gave $500,000 in 2005 to create the Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance, a legacy that honors her parents. The award, given annually by UC Merced, recognizes scholars, authors, artists or

citizens who exemplify in their work the delivery of social justice, diplomacy and tolerance in the diverse local and global society. “We have drawn strength from our sense of responsibility that the injustices of society must be addressed and that our youth must develop an ethic of tolerance,” the Spendloves wrote in capturing the intent of the prize. “Social justice, diplomacy and tolerance are relevant concepts for citizens whatever their identity. We hope that the prize will honor those who promote and act on these beliefs.” Recipients include Charles Ogletree, a noted author and law professor who was

raised in Merced; Cruz Reynoso, a former California Supreme Court Justice and civil rights lawyer; Childhelp founders Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson for their lifelong commitment to helping children in need; Jonathan D. Jansen, vice chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State and South Africa’s first black dean; and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “We are honored by the generosity of the Spendlove family and their ongoing support of our university,” Vice Chancellor for Alumni and Donor Relations Kyle Hoffman said. “Although Alice and Clifford will be greatly missed, UC Merced will ensure that their legacy lives on in perpetuity.”








Laura Showalter’s Scholarships And Awards:  Outstanding Student in Chemistry for 2012-13, Merced College  The Jim & Lu Edmonson UC Merced Scholarship, 2012-13  Ken and Midge Riggs Endowed Scholarship, 2013-14  Grossman Scholar in Chemistry and Chemical Biology for 2014-15, UC Merced  #GivingTuesday scholarship, School of Natural Sciences Scholar, 2015-16

BY Lorena Anderson, University Communications


mbitious” isn’t a good enough word for Laura Showalter. “High-achiever” doesn’t exactly do her justice, either. Her motto seems to be “why achieve when you can overachieve?” Now 20, the Merced native completed third and fourth grades simultaneously, graduated early from high school and moved on to junior college at age 14 before transferring to UC Merced. She’ll graduate this spring with a double major — chemistry and management — and nearly a 4.0 grade-point average. She works in two different research labs on campus, holds down three part-time jobs, took 20 units this spring and is studying for the MCAT exam.



While Showalter would like a gap year after graduation, she’s already formulating her game plan for graduate school. Showalter is looking ahead to schools where she can simultaneously earn her Ph.D. and M.D. After that, she wants an MBA. “It’s taking me many years to become an overnight success,” she joked. Drive and Commitment “She is really driven to do whatever she sets her mind to at a very high level,” said economics Professor Alex Whalley, who runs one of the labs Showalter works in. “Her commitment to excellence is impressive.” Whalley said that commitment was clear

to him right away, and told him she was right for his lab. “She is very detail oriented, but, at the same time, gets the big picture,” he said. Perhaps the dedication and drive Showalter displays is in her genes. Her mother is a physician and her father a computer programmer. Both she and her brother graduated from high school early to move on to college. “I love everything I’m doing, and I have very high standards for myself,” Showalter said. “And I have a long-term vision. I want a career that is some intersection of business, medicine and research.” She enjoys helping others, has been a tutor

I love everything I’m doing, and I have very high standards for myself.” — LAURA SHOWALTER

for fellow chemistry students and is working as a reader for Professor Michael Colvin’s Chemical Thermodynamics and Kinetics class this spring. Being able to help people have a better quality of life is what draws her to a medical degree, she said. She volunteered in the surgical unit at Mercy Medical Center for a year, and she has been solely responsible for billing at her mother’s medical office for the past four years. Using the medical knowledge she has gained, and with the help of the UC Merced branch of the Blum Center, she is co-founding a startup company called ScribeMerced, training other pre-health students to be medical scribes.

“We want to help the local medical community because there is a shortage of medical personnel here, but it will also help the students become more competitive for pre-health graduate programs,” Showalter said. “We hope to inspire these future doctors and health professionals to serve medically underserved areas, like Merced County, after they finish their graduate programs.” So what’s the secret of her success? Dedication and focus, her professors said. “I don’t think I have ever known someone who can manage their time as well as Laura,” biology Professor Patricia LiWang said. “I was skeptical when I heard that she had a full

course load, still maintained an outside job, and also wanted to work in our lab. I figured no one could make any headway in the lab that way. But she did it! Then she added research in a different lab, and although I wasn’t sure how she would do it, I knew her well enough at that point to tell her to go ahead and accept the position if she thought she could manage it. “She continues to excel at all of it. She is a person who is driven to succeed, and also incredibly nice and easy to work with,” LiWang said. CONTINUED ON PAGE 10 >>



Showalter and Professor Alex Whalley work on management issues.

I don’t think I have ever known someone who can manage their time as well as Laura.” — Professor Patricia LiWang

Showalter teaches students how to be medical scribes and works in a chemistry lab — just two of her many commitments.

Following her Passions Showalter has worked on a variety of projects in LiWang’s lab, from helping produce HIV-inhibiting proteins that could be a game-changer in Africa to her current project making an anti-inflammatory protein that could treat traumatic brain injuries. In Whalley’s lab, she collects archival sources, interprets data and combs through historic volumes to find needed data, among other tasks. “She has been instrumental in my work examining how innovation powers local economies,” he said. Not that Showalter has a lot of free time, but when she isn’t working or studying, she likes to work out, read books about finance



and business and she draws. She is also drawn to some extreme experiences, like skydiving, bungee jumping, flying planes and doing the SkyJump at the Stratosphere casino in Las Vegas. What she doesn’t do much of is watch TV or play video games. “In 20 years, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to regret missing some TV shows,” she said. Though she originally wanted to go away to school, she stayed in Merced because her mother was ill for a time. Now, she said, she doesn’t regret staying, either. “This is a place with a lot of opportunity,” she said. “It has really helped me grow and learn how to think. Not just take in information, but think and problem-solve.”

Now, as she prepares to graduate, Showalter can look back and offer some advice to other students. “I see a lot of students who are afraid to talk to the professors, but UC Merced professors are really here for us,” Showalter said. “I’ve found a lot of mentors among the faculty, and being able to spend time with them and talk to them is one of the best resources the campus offers. It’s part of the experience of going to UC Merced.” She also encourages other young people to take a page from her book and follow their passions. “Whatever interests you, you can do it,” she said. “You can carve out your own path.”


The campus chose fixtures that make

he Classroom and

heating or cooling if a window is opened,

Office Building 2, which

and sensors that will turn off the lights in

the building 43 percent more water

opens this summer, is

unoccupied rooms.

efficient than state law requires, as well,

the latest sustainably

Those are just two features that make

including dual flush toilets and automated censored faucets.

built project at UC

the building 46 percent more energy

Merced, on track

efficient than required by California’s

for a platinum rating

Title 24 Energy Code. COB2 also features

made from or uses recycled materials,

through the U.S. Green Building Council’s

a highly reflective “cool” roof; heavily

and 99 percent of the construction waste

Leadership in Energy and Environmental

insulated exterior walls; and large areas of

was diverted from area landfills to be

Design (LEED) program.

glazing for daylighting, which helps reduce

reused or recycled.

It’s a sensitive building: COB2 features window sensors that shut off a room’s

Fifty-one percent of the building is

the size of and need for mechanical and lighting systems inside.



Having Coffee with

BY JAMES LEONARD, University Communications

Illness and Curiosity Drives Professor’s


rofessor Kirk Jensen might never have landed at UC Merced if not for two unhappy accidents. The first came while he was a high school student in Orange County with a scholarship offer to study physical therapy at Pepperdine University. He mailed his letter of intent the weekend before the deadline, but it didn’t get postmarked, and thus ended his career as a physical therapist. Two years later, just before transferring from a community college to UC San Diego, Jensen contracted malaria during a vacation to South America — despite having taken prophylactic medications that should have prevented it. “I was violently sick,” he said. “I had the most dangerous kind of malaria — the kind that attaches to the tissue separating

With recent developments in gene engineering, we can deactivate every gene in an immune cell and run 100,000 experiments in one fell swoop. Using this approach, we can see which genes are responsible for the shutdown of the immune cell during extreme infections.” — PROFESSOR KIRK JENSEN



Research into Immunology your blood from your brain. First it hangs out in your liver for two or three weeks before jumping to your blood, and that’s when you start having crazy symptoms — violent shaking, cramping, aching, sweating. I experienced a headache of epic proportion that I’ve never felt before or since. The parasite was causing severe inflammation in my brain. I couldn’t think. Breathing hurt.” “That’s the first wave. Then it kicks in again three days later, and these infectious waves continue on and off indefinitely. I could see how even at the most physically fit point in my life, I could lose it and not be able to kick this thing.” The experience left its mark. He began studying biology at UC San Diego and planned to become a community college teacher, but later that year he landed in an

immunology lab, and his curiosity got the better of him. “Contracting malaria prodded a lot of interesting questions I had about the immune system,” he said. “Why did the drugs not work? Why is there no vaccine? How does the immune system ultimately win a battle against a dangerous pathogen?” Immune System on a Tightrope Those questions have driven him ever since. The simple answer is that vaccines, which are so effective against diseases like polio, just can’t induce an immune response strong enough to combat malaria, HIV and many other dangerous infectious diseases. These diseases are caused by pathogens that are especially virulent, and the

Jensen’s Higher Education


Received his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD)


Obtained his master’s degree from UCSD’s La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology


Earned his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine


Began working as a postdoctoral fellow in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Hired as an assistant professor of immunology at UC Merced

immune system can only work so hard to kill them before it must shut down. “The immune system kills the cells and tissue where a pathogen hides, and this is an effective strategy to combat many infections,” Jensen said. “However, at some point during an extreme infection, the immune system won’t respond anymore, for it fears causing extensive tissue damage. “But if you reprogram the immune system correctly, you can get the response you need without the inflammatory damage. With immunotherapy, you can control when the immune cells turn on or off.”

For his Ph.D. dissertation, Jensen studied an obscure set of immune cells and provided a basic framework in which to understand them. That important work helped advance scientific knowledge of the immune system and inflammation, and it remains one of his most significant accomplishments. More recently, Jensen has studied the Toxoplasma parasite, which he found can be more virulent than previously thought. As each study provides more insight into how the immune system works, scientists get closer to figuring out how to prevent the immune system from shutting down its response to these parasites without putting the infected host in danger. The use of immunotherapy in fighting cancer is already being thoroughly explored. Jensen hopes that approach will extend to pathogens as well, and the rapid advancement of gene engineering should only accelerate the research that will lead to such breakthroughs. “With recent developments in gene engineering, we can deactivate every gene in an immune cell and run 100,000 experiments in one fell swoop,” he said. “Using this approach, we can see which genes are responsible for the shutdown of the immune cell during extreme infections.”

Long, Hard Journey Pays Off Jensen took a scenic but prestigious route from San Diego to Merced, earning his Ph.D. at Stanford before spending six years as a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All told, it was a full 15 years from his bachelor’s degree to his first job as a professor. He joined the School of Natural Sciences in 2014. In addition to his research, Jensen has worked hard to build up his lab, which now includes two graduate students, three undergraduates and a technician. That means a lot of training and supervision, in addition to teaching classes, and he also handles admissions for UC Merced’s Quantitative and Systems Biology graduate group. Outside of school, Jensen and his wife live in Merced with their three sons, ages 9, 5 and 2, and on most days he gets to spend some time with them before rushing to campus. There might not be much time in Jensen’s day for extracurricular activities, but he takes great pride in the growth of his family, his lab and his new campus. “If you like institution building, there’s a lot of work to be done at all levels here,” he said. “That was part of the draw — we might actually do something really interesting in addition to our science. We’re building a university of UC caliber.”

“…If you reprogram the immune system correctly, you can get the response you need without the inflammatory damage. With immunotherapy, you can control when the immune cells turn on or off.” — PROFESSOR KIRK JENSEN



Faculty members’ holistic views on thinking, learning and neuroscience research propel UC Merced to the forefront of cognitive science studies


he very idea of a purple zebra is odd — outside reality as we know it. But it is not beyond the capability of our minds to imagine and picture such a mythical creature. The human brain can take two disparate concepts in our memories and connect and combine them in milliseconds. The speed and smoothness are so remarkable that even a supercomputer — if it had emotions — would be jealous. The interaction of brain biology and lifelong personal experience has compelling scientific as well as social implications. That mixture fascinates researchers in UC Merced’s Cognitive and Information Sciences (CIS) program.



In fact, it forms the basis of much of their work. And as a result of their varied interests and projects, the campus has emerged as a nationally well-regarded center of research about the brain and cognition. Merced scholars are investigating how the mind operates in the world and how we should approach — excuse the pun — the heady task of thinking about thinking. So how does a purple zebra work? Neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex signal circuits further back in the brain, tap the knowledge stored there and combine chunks of information efficiently, said Professor David Noelle, who studies such brain functions and constructs computer simulations of them. The brain “very flexibly recombines parts of old ideas to create new ideas,” Noelle

explained. His research focuses in part on how neurons within stripes of tissues in the prefrontal cortex “mutually excite each other” and “talk to each other.” Information about “purpleness” and “zebraness” appear throughout the brain but signals from the prefrontal cortex “bind” them together so we can entertain a novel idea. But the ability to do that, Noelle emphasized, depends on reusing and combining parts of past learning and experiences. So a stunted childhood without an enriching learning environment could cause problems later on; it might be difficult for such an adult to be creative, to comprehend new situations and to adjust behavior to match changing circumstances, he said.


About the author: Larry Gordon covered higher education around California and the nation for the Los Angeles Times. He has won the top prize for education coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Gordon recently began working as an editor and reporter for EdSource, a website devoted to California education. He has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in Los Angeles.

New Approach to the Brain Noelle and a dozen of his colleagues are part of a tradition that dates back to ancient philosophers theorizing about the soul. However, today’s faculty researchers work in a 21st-century scientific universe of brain scans, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Without a medical school and hospital to provide an immediate entrée to clinical research, UC Merced decided from its founding not to compete with such neuroscience powerhouses as UC San Diego; instead, university pioneers opted for a more computational emphasis in brain research and an interdisciplinary format, with a lot of connections to computer science and engineering. And the program is anchored in the

somewhat contrarian ethos that the mind arises from more than just the physical organ of the brain — it also critically depends on the rest of the body, the outer world and possibly even other people. Free of the traditional departmental constraints at older schools, the UC system’s newest campus has brought together philosophers, linguistics experts, artificial intelligence engineers, psychologists, neuroscientists and others under a big and porous tent. Another dozen or so faculty outside the CIS program also participate in the work. Their overall collaboration and communication promise to create some new ideas, not unlike a purple zebra. Teenie Matlock, a cognitive science professor who was hired in 2004 to found

the program, said its interdisciplinary nature sets Merced’s brain and mind research apart from that at other campuses. It allows faculty members to tackle “realworld problems without losing the elegance of the theory. For us, applied work is not a dirty word,” said Matlock. Her own research looks at language and reasoning, especially how subtle shifts in wording can dramatically affect people’s attitudes toward political candidates, climate change and other issues, said Matlock, who holds the McClatchy Chair in Communications at UC Merced. “We already know that language influences thinking and behavior,” she explained. “The deeper and more interesting questions — and where we need to learn much more — relate to how language CONTINUED ON PAGE 16 >>



influences us across different situations and over different time scales.” Matlock also noted the importance of examining those linguistic effects “across different cultures and age groups.” Along that line, professors Anne Warlaumont and Stephanie Shih study speech processing at different ages and in different languages. The philosophy of the brain Some of the brain research and writing at UC Merced has a distinctly philosophical rather than medical flavor. Professors and students debate thorny questions of consciousness — what constitutes volition and real thinking and what just is the result of the electrical impulses among the brain’s 100 billion neurons? Yet even those projects could have

implications for such varied and pressing issues as autism, computer design, the language of political engagement, criminal behavior, voice activation on cell phones and how to keep the elderly intellectually sharp. For example, Professor Jeffrey Yoshimi’s research about “neurophenomenology” probes the relationship between conscious experience and the brain’s functions. Yoshimi has developed a computer program, with strong visual and video components, that simulates and manipulates such brain functions as object recognition. Snip connections in a faux neural pathway and a robot — or person — may no longer be able to tell a fish from a hunk of cheese. Research in this area could eventually deepen understanding of many aspects of the mind, including human brain injuries and schizophrenia, Yoshimi said. “When my undergrad advisors in

philosophy told me that computers can’t think, my response was, ‘Maybe not, but we can certainly use computers to study the brain, and the brain thinks,’” he said. Fellow researcher Noelle said he hopes his research might lead to the development of mental exercises that help maintain the brain’s ability to make connections and be creative in old age. While “brain games” like those offered by Lumosity have recently been critiqued as lacking scientific support, other possibilities have yet to be explored for maintaining and improving flexibility of thought, he said. At another point of life, new mental exercises might help teens compensate for the fact that their frontal brain systems are not fully developed and help them “improve their general ability to stay focused on what they should be doing right now,” Noelle added.

When my undergrad advisors in philosophy told me that computers can’t think, my response was ‘maybe not but we can certainly use computers to study the brain, and the brain thinks.” — Professor Jeffrey Yoshimi

Human and other intelligences Some professors work more directly with human subjects. Professor Ramesh Balasubramaniam is investigating aspects of balance, the perception of rhythm and beat and how the nervous system works to move several body parts at the same time. With technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation, he induces temporary changes in human brain functions, exciting or slowing neurons for brief periods. Professor Rick Dale and his collaborators study interpersonal communication and body language as people try to understand each other, lie to each other and make decisions. His “Cognaction” Laboratory has

started to use Google Glass as a tool to study interaction and has participated in massive surveys about the use of Twitter. Professor Michael Spivey tracks eye movements of volunteers in response to changing visual and auditory information on a computer. He tests how the duration and sequence of data can affect human choices, including such large moral questions as whether homicide can ever be justified. Spivey’s work also has implications for building robots to better recognize and react to objects in the physical world. Spivey and many other UC Merced cognitive science faculty members share a perspective called “embodied cognition.” Under that framework, the mind

encompasses more than just the brain and includes “the relationship between the brain and the body and how that body interacts with the environment,” Spivey said. The mind can expand to a shared consciousness that includes two or more people working together closely on the same task, romantic partners in a loving conversation and even interacting with pets. And yes, A.I. geeks, it could include a working relationship with an intelligent robot. Professor Christopher Kello is working on building future computer technologies so that they are “more like people in how they are smart and less like traditional computers.” CONTINUED ON PAGE 18 >>



The brain “very flexibly recombines parts of old ideas to create new ideas.” — Professor David Noelle



Computers are now better than most humans — except for some savants — at “storing vast amounts of bits and bytes and accessing those very quickly.” — Professor Chris Kello

The cognitive mechanics lab he runs on campus investigates reading, speech and search functions; he and his graduate students are creating simulations of brain functions that could lead to the design of more powerful, efficient and brain-like computer chips. Computers are now better than most humans — except for some savants — at “storing vast amounts of bits and bytes and accessing those very quickly,” he said. But brains are much more efficient overall in terms of size and energy consumption, Kello explained. Plus, he said, brains are so much better at multi-tasking, understanding simultaneously “what my feet are feeling, what my skin is feeling, what I am hearing, what I am seeing.” One of Kello’s current projects, with a grant from Google, is to improve the capabilities of computerized speech, such as the speech interpretation and recognition interface used in smartphones. The goal is a better Siri, in effect. “It would be really wonderful if Siri had a voice that could be naturally manipulated to be young or old, have a British or a New York accent. That would be kind of cool,” Kello said. But first, we need “a better and deeper



Cognitive science classes at UC Merced still discuss those “mind-body” questions and traditions. But they frequently go one step further. Professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings, who teaches philosophy and cognitive science in the CIS program, said the extra step is describing how the mind works “dynamically” with the world. For example, when a person plays a piano, the neurons and the nervous system are part of the experience, but so are the muscles, the entire body and the piano itself, along with the history of the kind of piano the musician learned to play on, she explained. Bigger than the brain In this perspective, “the mind is partially Philosophers and theologians talk about made up of the things you are engaging a spirit or soul that might have existed even with,” Jennings said. before the body it currently inhabits, and So while the long-range impact of humans which lives on separately after that body dies. becoming so connected to their iPhones and Some modern scientists instead place the laptops is not fully known, there surely will biological brain on an exalted level, ascribing be some effect. all human thought and behavior to neural “If most of your life is spent behind a and chemical surges without any spirituality screen, you will have a different mind than if attached. you did not spend all that time behind your Others of a more religious bent, however, screen,” Jennings said. speculate that the soul is something The bottom line, she said, is that the mind independent of the brain and is essentially “is not just the brain. It is bigger.” beyond the reach of such modern tools as scans and neurosurgery. understanding” about how to replicate voices on a computer, Kello said. Another path of his research involves how the brain self-regulates its activities, how its neurons send signals to each other. A healthy human brain follows the socalled Goldilocks approach to porridge heat: producing just the right amount of signals, not too many and not too few. That self-regulation leads to better thinking, better memory, better perceptions and better abilities to perform tasks. Too much activity or too little is linked to such impairments as epilepsy.

The Plastic, Elastic Brain

Neuroscientist studies how stimulating areas of the brain can reorganize neural pathways and change lives BY LORENA ANDERSON, University Communications


rofessor Ramesh Balasubramaniam wants to mess with your mind. Just a little. In return, he can make you superhuman or simulate a stroke — for 20 minutes. “We’re manipulating brain activity,” he said, “but it’s not as scary as it sounds.” In a lab that is unique at UC Merced, the cognitive neuroscientist stimulates areas of the brain and studies the changes. He is looking at how sound and motor activity are linked, and how furthering that knowledge could help people.

Like his Cognitive and Information Sciences colleagues at UC Merced, Balasubramaniam takes a holistic approach to cognitive science because “a huge part of the brain is engaged in interacting with the world,” he said. “Connecting your brain to the world is one of the main functions of consciousness. When you study the brain, you get the body and the environment for free.” While mega-mysteries about the human brain remain, one aspect researchers have been focusing on is neuroplasticity, or

the brain’s ability to reorganize its neural pathways and retrain itself. For example, there are persisting functional changes in neural connections when we learn new things or memorize new information. And there is evidence that we can exact these changes through “artificial” means. One way is through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive method of stimulating or inhibiting areas of the brain. CONTINUED ON PAGE 20 >>



During a TMS session, a magnetic field generator connected to a pulse generator is placed on or near the head of the person receiving the treatment, and the generator produces small electric currents in that region of the brain. TMS can measure the connection between the brain and a muscle to evaluate damage from a stroke, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, movement disorders, motor neuron disease and injuries and other disorders affecting the facial and other cranial nerves and the spinal cord. TMS is becoming a common treatment for a variety of disorders, such as intractable depression and addiction, too. But it can also teach researchers a lot about what goes on inside our heads.

Music and Movement Balasubramaniam uses TMS and electroencephalography, or EEG, on volunteer subjects to stimulate or inhibit small areas and measure the resulting brain changes. They stimulate the brain to enhance cognitive function — and “what you learn in that time, you keep,” the professor said — or inhibit it to mimic the effects of a stroke. He said he has no trouble getting volunteers, and people often want to come back because they are curious about the work and the results. For a long time, researchers have believed there were two independent kinds of learning: declarative, when you hear or read a fact and remember it; and procedural, learning by practice.

For example, playing a musical instrument is actually a natural human skill, but it requires specific and unique types of control over motor systems and perception, according to an article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. The player must hear and learn the music, but must also have the motor skills to play the instrument. It turns out, the body’s motor and vestibular systems are both quite engaged when a person is listening to music, even when the person is sitting still. The methods of learning are not actually independent. “As we are listening, our body and brain are trying to figure out what kind of movement goes with the sound, and trying to process and understand the intent of the

When someone is listening to music, we believe the brain is actually simulating the actions of the performer playing the music.” — Professor Ramesh Balasubramaniam

sound we’re hearing,” Balasubramaniam said. “When someone is listening to music, we believe the brain is actually simulating the actions of the performer playing the music.” But does inhibiting the motor system change the way people hear music? Scientists say yes. Knowing this might help researchers not only enhance people’s abilities, it could help them figure out how sound can help people. “For example, giving people with balance problems some white noise stabilizes them,” Balasubramaniam said. “It’s actually very simple, but it could reduce the risk of falling by 50 percent.”



Fascinated by the Extraordinary Balasubramaniam and the students in his popular lab don’t just look at the changes in brains, they perform computational analyses that will help them understand the underlying mechanisms of the changes. They are branching their studies to include how to help Parkinson’s patients, people with mental health issues and people who appear to have extraordinary capabilities. “I’ve always been interested in how the brain changes over time, and how the brain of someone who excels at something is different from those of people who don’t,” the professor said. “I think we are very close to answering some of these fundamental questions.”

Balasubramaniam was particularly inspired by French physician, surgeon, anatomist and anthropologist Pierre Paul Broca, whose work was the first anatomical proof of the localization of brain function, although the field has moved beyond localization theories. Now researchers understand the brain is a collection of networks. Broca died in 1880 and left his brain to science, as did the famous amnesic patient HM. Balasubramaniam remembers spending hours watching the dissection of HM’s brain. He said he will donate his brain for science when he dies, too. “Why not donate the most important organ?” he said.

“Neither the robot nor the human would be able to do this alone, but together you have something that is more efficient.” — Professor Stefano Carpin

Machines That Think Like Humans Are Not Science Fiction, Just


BY Cyndee Fontana-Ott

About the author: Cyndee Fontana-Ott is a freelance writer who has been writing about UC Merced for more than a decade. She regularly contributes to the university’s website and magazine with stories about students, faculty members and staff members.

n laboratories around the UC Merced campus, researchers are channeling the wonders of brain function into the bodies of robots and machines. Applying what they know about how the brain works, they are raising some interesting possibilities: What if machines had cognitive abilities like learning, memory and understanding? Could they help us search for victims of disasters, recognize activities like swimming in a video or work together to solve a problem? Those intriguing ideas have some researchers taking inspiration from the brain itself, while others rely on mathematical and computational techniques to reach the same goal.

The practical applications for this work are limitless. Just ask Miguel CarreiraPerpiñán, a professor who creates algorithms — a set of mathematical instructions that explain how to complete tasks — that train machines to learn from experience, and to cooperate to process information more quickly and efficiently. Carreira-Perpiñán, a faculty member in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) group, relies on mathematical models rather than neuroscience to drive his research in machine learning and optimization. But he points out that the brain is living proof that certain jobs can be accomplished. “The brain can do a lot of things that are very sophisticated and that we don’t know

how to solve in an explicit way,” he said. For example, a person can recognize a familiar face or object and pair it with a name almost instantly. It’s difficult to achieve the same result from a machine. In part, Carreira-Perpiñán works to train computers to perform machinelearning tasks using parallel processing like the human brain does. His algorithms coordinate multiple machines to communicate and work together to solve complex tasks, leveraging the speed and power of today’s computers without exceeding the physical limits of any individual unit.




How a Computer Sees Also in EECS, Professor Ming-Hsuan Yang is immersed in the field of computer vision. He works to direct computers and machines to see and process information the way humans do, and specifically on ways of detecting, recognizing and tracking objects in images and videos. A machine that can recognize the sky, roads and buildings might provide a valuable image-based search function or improve designs for driverless cars. Yang also works on algorithms to sharpen images that could have applications for cameras, for example. One of the many challenges is the sheer

volume of data and diversity of images. Think of cars or shoes. If you ask a computer to search for those images, would it recognize each model or style? “How do you describe what a human looks like?” Yang said. “There are just so many variations.” But those are the tasks that human brains can process with ease — a skill that continues to develop throughout our lives. Comprehending how humans draw upon or learn those and other skills is part of the work undertaken by Professor David Noelle, a member of the Cognitive and Information Sciences group.

Noelle focuses much of his research on computational cognitive neuroscience, or trying to understand the functions and relationships between the brain and nervous system and human thought, feelings, behavior and more. He uses computer simulations to explore how the brain — or parts of the brain — function in certain situations. One area of his research looks at the frontal lobes and working memory — for example, how someone remembers a telephone number long enough to dial it, or recalls an item on a shopping list long enough to grab it off the shelf.

The brain can do a lot of things that are very sophisticated and that we don’t know how to solve in an explicit way.” — Professor Miguel Carreira-Perpiñán

Noelle is interested in how that knowledge develops and how humans determine what to retain or discard from working memory. “There is a learning and development component to the human nervous system,” he said. “If we can understand how the nervous system is able to learn from experience in such a formal way, and we can write down equations and conduct simulations, that offers the tantalizing possibility of translating those models into methods that allow computers to learn different things.”

Swarming Animals and Robots Ajay Gopinathan, a physics professor in the School of Natural Sciences, deals with a different kind of behavior. He investigates swarms — schools of fish, flocks of birds or swarms of locusts that move with purpose and direction without a defined leader. They rely only on those around them. “Without any external influence, without any master plan, they can still collectively come up with these kinds of behaviors,” he said. Gopinathan is particularly interested in disorder — how swarms or flocks respond to

challenges like obstacles, sickness or injury. That’s important for machines and robots, because most systems aren’t perfect. Gopinathan experiments with dozens of small robots, or kilobots, to see if he can accurately predict responses to certain directions and malfunctions. Algorithms and robotics are the research territory of Stefano Carpin, an engineering professor who established and leads the UC Merced Robotics Laboratory. There, Carpin focuses on creating the software — or brain — that controls the body of a robot. CONTINUED ON PAGE 24 >>



Professor Ajay Gopinathan, TOP left, investigates swarming in animals in hopes of being able to program robots like the kilobots below to act autonomously in concert. Professor Shawn Newsam, right, works on helping computers recognize visual patterNs.



Search is perhaps one of the most fundamental intelligent functions of the brain. If you want to understand how brains are smart, this is a natural, fundamental function to look at.” — Professor Chris Kello

In part, Carpin specializes in using multiple robots to perform shared tasks — a search-and-rescue application, for example. Applying multiple robots to the same problem could protect against failure in the case of a single malfunction. “You can send a robot where you don’t want people to go because it may be dangerous,” he said. “They will collect the information, prepare it and pass it back to humans to make decisions.” Carpin also is exploring the idea of pairing robots and humans. Imagine a system where a robot lifts and moves heavy loads in service to a person who handles a complementary task that requires fine motor skills and dexterity. “Neither the robot nor the human would be able to do this alone, but together you have something that is more efficient,” he said. It’s Happening in the Brain Carpin is also involved in a research project with Chris Kello, a cognitive science professor in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. Kello investigates how humans search their memories and visual scenes, and designs video games for people to play that simulate how animals forage for food, which is similar to how humans might search their memories for vocabulary words and names. “Search is perhaps one of the most fundamental intelligent functions of the brain,” Kello said. “If you want to understand how brains are smart, this is a natural, fundamental function to look at.” Researchers who understand how animals forage, and how humans search with their eyes and through memory, might be able to develop computer programs that mimic that



skill. Those advances would have obvious applications for search and rescue — leading to a natural collaboration between Kello and Carpin. Kello works with human subjects and existing data on animal behavior. In part, he studies how people search with their eyes when presented with the task of finding a specific object in a richly detailed photograph. It’s the equivalent of a foraging problem. “All that information tells us something — it gives us a window into the underlying process that we didn’t directly observe because it’s happening in the brain,” Kello said. The research of Shawn Newsam, a professor in EECS, also has a visual focus. His work involves image understanding, computer vision and pattern recognition. “I’m interested in large-scale image analysis,” Newsam said. “The idea is that it is too time-consuming for people to do this manually.”

For example, machines could be used to analyze satellite images or recognize activities like swimming in a video. Such programs could aid large-scale monitoring systems or allow image-based searches of videos. Those advances would allow people to take better advantage of the mounds of data — like photographs — that already exist. All of these forms of research are a boon for students who work on the projects at UC Merced. Carpin, who heads the robotics lab, talked about the growth of computers and technology that is radically changing everyday human experiences. Consider how personal computers and information technology have reshaped our lives over the past few decades, for example. Students working in those evolving areas can be part of that progression of research and growth. “It gives an opportunity for our students to be at the forefront of this sea change that is coming,” he said.

“How did consciousness come about and what exactly is it? These are things we don’t have answers to … These are really deep human questions.” — Professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings



n the worlds of brain research and philosophy, the question of what constitutes consciousness is a persistent and difficult topic. Is human consciousness simply the result of electrical brain impulses? Or does a person’s mind exist only in relation to his or her body, the outside world and other people? Does spirituality fit in anywhere? Carolyn Dicey Jennings and Jeffrey Yoshimi, professors in UC Merced’s Cognitive and Information Sciences program, grapple with those issues is this joint interview.

Why is it important to study consciousness? Is it a central question of human life?  Yoshimi:

The reason it’s important is the same reason questions in physics or sociology or any scientific field are important. We look out on the universe and we want to understand what’s in it. Consciousness is one of the things we find. In various ways, it is mysterious compared to other things. As to whether it is central, I do think it is, because in a certain sense, anything we know about our world, we know through consciousness. It’s our mode of access to the world. So in that sense it’s fundamental.  Jennings:

It’s definitely one of the final frontiers in science and one of the great unsolved puzzles. How did consciousness come about and what exactly is it? These are things we don’t have answers to. ... These are really deep human questions. Can you define it and say what consciousness is?  Yoshimi:

It is notoriously difficult to define rigorously. You can sort of gesture at it as what happens between when you wake up in the morning and fall asleep at night, and when you dream. As for what it is? That may be essentially intractable. Is consciousness non-physical or is it nothing more than firing neurons? People have argued that trying to understand how consciousness relates to physical processes is like mice trying to understand trigonometry.  Jennings:

I would probably say that consciousness is the experience of a subject and how it is connected to the body and the world. And I explore that through the topic of attention, the process of prioritizing one thing over another to serve the interests of the subject. Maybe right now you are prioritizing the sound of our voices over the sound of the birds outside. Your attention would be lending more weight to one sound and so your experience is different. CONTINUED ON PAGE 26 >>



And what do you mean by subject?  Jennings:

The subject is what we take to be the source of experience, thought and complex behavior. … So it basically means something like the self. One question is whether consciousness is neurally realized or maybe it’s not in the brain. Maybe it’s the subject’s relations with a brain, a body and the world. Do you think a computer or some form of artificial intelligence can have a consciousness?  Jennings:

I think it is possible to have artificial consciousness, but I don’t really know how that would work yet. … My intuition is that it would be very difficult, but I am open to it. I can imagine a world in which it could happen.  Yoshimi:

If we cloned a brain, then we could, in a sense, have artificial consciousness. Perhaps we could synthesize something like brain tissue and generate artificial consciousness in that way. But I don’t think that it is possible to take a standard computer, give it a lot of memory and program it to act intelligently and get consciousness. Computers are built out of silicon transistors. I don’t think that kind of thing can be conscious. But I am in a minority with that view, and I no longer feel as sure about it as I used to.

“Carolyn and I are both open to the possibility of some kind of consciousness after death. It is not precluded by any of the evidence we have.” — Professor Jeffrey Yoshimi

Is the ability to think about thinking, that self-awareness, the mark of consciousness?  Jennings:

I don’t think you have to have self-awareness. I think I have had experiences that don’t have this higher level of reflection. Like if you are playing a sport or playing a musical instrument — those are different forms of consciousness that don’t necessarily need a higher level of reflection.  Yoshimi:

Similarly for animals that don’t have the capacity to think about thinking, I think there is pretty good evidence that they are conscious as well. But the fundamental difficulty with animal consciousness is that we can’t talk to them. We can’t ask a bat what it’s like to be a bat. What about questions of religion? Doesn’t your work touch on beliefs in a human soul that ancient philosophers and theologians often discussed?  Jennings:

It potentially touches on those issues. But if consciousness is physically realized, anything like an afterlife or reincarnation would have to be very different from the form of consciousness we experience. … Let’s say it turns out that consciousness was located in a small part of the brain, the pineal gland. We know whatever survives death is not going to be a normal human experience because the pineal gland is no longer functioning after death. But it doesn’t mean there is nothing that can survive death.  Yoshimi:

I think this is another intractable question. But I would say Carolyn and I are both open to the possibility of some kind of consciousness after death. It is not precluded by any of the evidence we have. The standard scientific position is that consciousness is some kind of organized activity in our brains; so that when the brain decays, consciousness goes, and that’s it. Our view is a little more agnostic.



Professor Teenie Matlock, center right, and her students research how words influence the way people reason.

Research Shows It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It


eople often refer to the human brain as a computer — a large system capable of billions of calculations in a day. But that might be too simplistic, thanks to neurons and the non-conscious mind. “It’s a dynamical system, like a cascading waterfall,” cognitive science Professor Michael Spivey said. “The brain moves from thought to thought much more smoothly than a computer.” One of the ways researchers know this is through the study of linguistics in cognitive science, through which they look at how mental processes drive understanding and use of language, including speech, gesture and writing. For example, Professor Teenie Matlock,

BY LORENA ANDERSON, University Communications

the founding faculty member of the Cognitive and Information Sciences program at UC Merced, studies how the meaning of words influence the way people reason about situations, past, present and future. Some of her work, published in outlets such as Political Psychology and American Scientist, shows that even tiny shifts in meaning can lead to strikingly different attitudes about important societal matters, including attitudes toward poll results and politicians running for office. “Much of our everyday language use draws on our ability to rapidly make sense of meaning. What’s amazing is how this happens without much effort or deliberate thinking most of the time,” Matlock said.

What’s in a Name? Computational linguistics Professor Stephanie Shih uses big-data analysis to study how people process language. “I look at how the sounds of words affect people,” she said. Take product names. “If I asked you what you call a disposable instrument to clean your floors that doesn’t involve mopping, what would you think of?” she asked. Swiffer comes to mind right away. “Right. And the word ‘Swiffer’ evokes mental images, like ease,” she said. “It’s the ‘f ’ sound — it’s almost like a breath of air. It doesn’t even take much effort to say the word ‘Swiffer.’ But it’s not even a real word. We make a lot of association with sounds and we aren’t even aware of them.” CONTINUED ON PAGE 28 >>



But companies that market products are. Shih said some have hired linguists to come up with product names that are catchy, evocative or provocative. One of her recent projects involves analyzing the millions of names used on Facebook, looking at the sound patterns that are most common and those that are the rarest. “People intuitively have a good idea of what sounds go well together,” she said. “You see that in the names people choose for their children or even for themselves.” For example, you’re more likely to hear the name John Smith than Jonas Smith, because people tend to avoid the double S too close together because it’s harder to say and it’s less pleasing to hear. People tend to avoid rhyming names. There are even commonalities in how men are named versus how women are named. “The patterns that emerge through the data suggest there are patterns to how the mind is structured and/or patterns to how language is structured in the mind,” Shih said.



There are more than 7,000 languages around the world, but they are all similar in a few ways, one of which being most have words for the things our brains intuitively understand, like color and motion. Language has existed for about 200,000 years, but we’ve only been scientifically analyzing what happens as we listen and speak for a little more than a century. Scientists had believed that sounds were processed by the auditory cortex, then went to a different part of the brain to be understood, then had to travel through other areas to the motor cortex, resulting in speech. It is only in the past 40 years or so that researchers have realized the brain is not compartmentalized, with one autonomous area for language, one autonomous area for movement and so on. “The brain is this massive, cross-wired thing,” Matlock said. Eyes, Mouth, Ears, Neurons Some of the work Matlock and Spivey have conducted shows language engages

motor neurons that cause eye movements test subjects are unaware of. In one eye-tracking experiment, people are asked to look at a blank computer screen as they listen to the description of a 40-story building. The description tells them there’s a janitor on the first floor, someone wearing blue on the 10th floor, a couple having a discussion on the 22nd floor, and so on. As they listen, their eyes move up the screen, as if they are visualizing the building as it is described. “We were pretty excited at those results,” Spivey said. “Neurons do a lot of things. They send electrical signals to each other. They change the blood flow to areas of the brain that are activated. And they drive motor output.” One of the benefits of eye tracking is that researchers get pretty honest, immediate responses without needing direct input, such as having people fill out surveys. Researchers are getting more and more data through eye tracking. “Eye movement is one of the first reactions the brain has to language input,”

Spivey said. It takes about 200 milliseconds for the motor system to engage after the brain has signaled that something needs visual attention. Another of Spivey’s experiments points this out. In front of a subject, there’s a candle and a bowl of candy. The researcher asks the subject to take the candy. But in the time it takes to hear the word “candy,” the brain has often already partly anticipated the word “candle” because both words start out sounding the same. The test subject’s eyes will often glance quickly at the candle and move immediately to the candy once the researcher has finished the word. The test subjects aren’t aware of having looked at the candle, either. That’s because most of the things people do, all day long, are done by the nonconscious mind. “Maybe 80 percent,” Spivey said. “Most of our mental activity is non-conscious.”

SAY WHAT? Cognitive scientists interested in how language works want to know what’s happening in the brain when someone generates or interprets sounds, words and sentences. They also want to know how language affects how people think in general, which has led Matlock to some interesting research avenues. Matlock’s work on “framing” investigates how subtle differences in grammar in political messages, such as using “was accepting hush money” versus “accepted hush money” can magnify negative attitudes toward politicians seeking office. Some of her latest work looks at how useful metaphor is in framing information about extreme weather and climate disruption, for instance, the use of phrases such as “monster wildfire” in the popular media. Matlock and Spivey have investigated framing effects together using eye-tracking experiments.

Test subjects in one of their studies looked at a blank screen while listening to stories about everyday actions and while wearing an eye-tracker, a device that measures eye movements in real time. In some studies, test subjects heard information like “a driver sped” and “a car skidded” (simple past tense) or “a driver was speeding” and “a car was skidding” (past progressive). The eye movement patterns that emerged in the study showed that small linguistic differences lead to noticeable differences in how people imagine actions. Such research on how people make sense of language and how it influences reasoning brings us to a better understanding of how language works, and its power to change attitudes and actions. “Language theorists like to argue a lot about how the brain does or doesn’t process language, and the extent to which we are hard-wired for language at birth,” Matlock said. “One undeniable fact is that we need language to create change and get what we need to survive.”

People intuitively have a good idea of what sounds go well together. You see that in the names people choose for their children or even for themselves.” — PROFESSOR STEPHANIE SHIH



There has been a lot of research on brain development, but not a lot on how bilingualism and growing up in different cultures contributes to this process. There’s really an open playing field for doing that kind of research.” — Professor Jeffrey Gilger



Researchers Unlocking the Mysteries of

BY JAMES LEONARD, University Communications



It takes a lot of computational power, but you can then start measuring brain activation and estimating changes in blood flow in difficult-to-test subjects.” —Professor Heather Bortfeld


ommunicating with an infant is as much art as it is science. Even the most observant and attentive parents can struggle to figure out what their babies are thinking and what they’re trying to say. Child development researchers face similar challenges, but the growing and innovative developmental psychology faculty team at UC Merced can handle it. Take Professor Heather Bortfeld, who is developing a solution to the daunting task of understanding deaf infants. Mapping an infant’s brain activity could provide significant insight, but babies don’t lie still enough for MRIs, and it’s unsafe for kids with cochlear implants to get so close to such powerful magnets. Frustrated by the limitations of behavioral research on deaf infants, Bortfeld is turning to technology initially designed for identifying breast tumors, and building a new device for the campus at the same time. The device uses low-amplitude laser technology to measure blood flow like a pulse oximeter. With sensors placed around an infant’s



head, Bortfeld said, the device works like a poor man’s functional MRI (fMRI) — and a safe one, at that. “Once you get a whole-head probe built up, with all these lasers coupled together, the resulting scan looks like an fMRI heat map,” she said. “It takes a lot of computational power, but you can then start measuring brain activation and estimating changes in blood flow in difficult-to-test subjects.” By applying stimulus and watching the areas of the brain that activate, researchers can begin to understand what the deaf child is responding to. Bortfeld is a psychologist, not a neurosurgeon. But developmental psychology lends itself to multidisciplinary research, and she was intrigued by the possibility of adding physiological data to her behavioral observations. That inventive spirit made Bortfeld a perfect fit for UC Merced, which has sought to blur — and sometimes erase — the lines between disciplines. She also fits right in with the rest of the developmental psychology faculty members with whom she is already collaborating on projects, and with others on campus who are interested in cognition, language and brain development.

Professor Jeffrey Gilger, left, and Professor Rose Scott, center, investigate infant and child development.

“Each of them has an interesting way of getting to the answers they’re looking for,” Bortfeld said. “I think I add a dimension to all those projects that could be tapped into, beyond my own research.” Faculty Group Finds Its Footing The addition of Bortfeld — and all her serendipitous collaborations across campus — was no accident. Rather, she is the most recent among a series of strategic hires in developmental psychology, and she adds yet another dimension to what is fast becoming a robust group. Rose Scott was the first, hired in 2010. When her two colleagues in the program left shortly after her arrival, she found herself with the chance to build it almost from the ground up. “I knew it might be a really hard job because it was a new university, but on the flip side, it was really exciting,” Scott said. “The opportunity to build a new thing from scratch is not something an assistant professor can do anywhere, and I knew this opportunity would probably never come about again in my lifetime.” Scott has since had a hand in hiring each of her fellow professors. Scott’s research focuses on cognitive development in very young

children, with an emphasis on how typical children develop the skills needed to interact with others, and how they use and interpret language. Professor Jeffrey Gilger incorporates neuroscience to study the development of atypical children — those with disabilities and those who are “gifted” — and how kids deviate from normal paths of development. Gilger, hired in 2011 and later appointed the Carlston Cunningham Chair in Cognitive Development, brought decades of experience as a professor but also in university administration. As coordinator of the developmental psychology group, he has provided leadership and guidance as the program continues to grow. Subsequent hires provided further depth and breadth to the program’s research. Professor Eric Walle focuses his research on social and emotional development in early infancy, which dovetails with Scott’s research on infant cognitive development, while Professor Alexandra Main researches adolescents, with a particular focus on the entire family and how interactions shape a child’s development. CONTINUED ON PAGE 34 >>



Professor Rose Scott works with children and their families to understand how children learn language and how they learn to make sense of other people’s actions and emotions.

Research and Resources for the Region The professors have embraced each other’s research in creative ways, and they have also embraced the region. The lack of research that has been performed in the San Joaquin Valley gives them a blank canvas of sorts, Gilger said, and there are intriguing areas to explore. “There has been a lot of research on brain development, but not a lot on how bilingualism and growing up in different cultures contributes to this process,” he said. “There’s really an open playing field for doing that kind of research.” And while the region provides benefits to the faculty by way of research opportunities, the researchers are giving back to the region, as well. For the past three years, they have organized the Symposium on the Child and Family in collaboration with UC Merced’s Early Childhood Education Center, bringing hundreds of parents, educators and others to learn about the latest research in the field. The group’s community engagement took another major step in



the spring, with the opening of the UC Merced Alliance for Child and Family Health and Development in downtown Merced. The center serves several purposes, from facilitating community involvement in research projects to providing guidance for concerned parents who aren’t sure where to turn. A key part of the Alliance effort is Help 4 My Child, which provides online resources and outreach activities for parents, physicians and teachers who want to learn about disorders and find services in and around the region. “Fresno and Modesto have resources like this, but there really is nothing in between,” Gilger said. “We have a lot of children in this region who are at high risk of health problems and developmental problems, and their parents aren’t sure where to turn. “We want to serve the community through our research, but also by providing a place where local parents, physicians and educators can gain a better understanding of the issues their children face.”

In Case You Missed It Each year, UC Merced grows not only in student population, but in prestige and reach. With more grants, awards and honors for faculty members and students, the campus is able to take part in collaborations that carry the UC Merced name around the state and around the globe. Take a look at some of the stories you might have missed from the past semester:

Professor Wins Major Award for ‘Time Machine’ Project Professor Miriam Barlow was honored with a major award for her role in developing a method to restore the efficacy of antibiotics and help doctors deal with resistant bacteria. Barlow, a biologist, worked with American University mathematician Kristina Crona on the “Time Machine” software to rewind the evolution of bacteria. Barlow accepted the award at the World Technology Awards Gala in New York City, part of the World Technology Summit, featuring some of the most innovative people and organizations in science and technology from around the world.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedAward Humans Have Disrupted Ecosystems for 6,000 Years, Research Shows The basic structure of Earth’s ecosystems lasted for 300 million years but changed about 6,000 years ago, and humans are the most likely reason. A team of about 25 researchers from around the globe, including UC Merced Professor Jessica Blois, outline that discovery in a paper published in the journal Nature. There was a lot going on at that time, she said, including an increase in human populations around the world and the beginnings of agriculture.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedDisrupt Student Team Makes the Cut in Global ‘Hyperloop’ Competition A small team of undergraduate students gained major exposure in a global competition to design portions of what could be the next big innovation in transportation. The UC Merced Hypercats team was one of 1,200 entries from more than 160 universities and private companies, and the team’s design for an emergency-brake system for a proposed Hyperloop transit system was one of 300 selected from that original pool. The Hypercats’ design took the team to the third stage of competition, and the students have since partnered with another team to keep working on the project.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedHyperloop A Record 22,632 Students Seek Admission to UC Merced Demand for a UC Merced education remains high, with 22,632 applicants competing for admission for 2,100 undergraduate seats in Fall 2016, an increase of 13.5 percent over last year’s total. The rate of growth is the highest among all campuses in the University of California system for the second consecutive year and more than double the systemwide growth rate of 6.4 percent.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedAdmissions



In Case You Missed It Student Engineering Team Rewarded in International Competition The federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recognized this year’s team of UC Merced engineering students for its design of a device that cools high-powered electronics aboard military aircraft. In the yearlong Field-Reversible Thermal Conductor (RevCon) Challenge, hosted by DARPA and the Office of Naval Research, the team of juniors and seniors took second place overall and won first-place honors for having the most comprehensive analysis.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedRevCon Biomedical Researcher Earns Respected Keck Award Professor Victor Muñoz’s novel approach to advancing biomedical research has earned him the campus’s first prestigious Keck Award, including $1 million over the next five years. Muñoz plans to design and engineer a new kind of protein he previously discovered to create miniscule biosensors that can measure even slight changes inside cells and provide high-resolution, highly specific information in real time.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedKeck Three Students Chosen for Clinton Global Initiative Three of UC Merced’s student sustainability stars shared ideas about the future and network with international students and dignitaries at the upcoming session of Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U). Hoaithi Dang, Adriana Gomez and Gabriel Morabe were three of 1,000 college students selected from around the globe to take part in a weekend filled with seminars and innovation sessions at UC Berkeley, hosted by former President Bill Clinton. Each year, CGI U hosts a meeting where students, university representatives, topic experts and celebrities come together to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedCGIU University Researchers Identify Drug That Could Treat Melanoma Less than a year after mapping the genetic landscape of melanoma, a researcher has identified a drug that could be effective in battling the deadly skin cancer. Professor Fabian V. Filipp led a team of researchers on the new project, the results of which were published in the journal Neoplasia. Filipp and his team identified a genetic mutation that silences not only genes that suppress tumor generation, but also cell surface molecules that help the immune system recognize tumors.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedMelanoma 36


Study: Fishing Industry a Bigger Polluter than Previously Known Many studies have shown that raising cattle and pigs for food is hard on the environment, and fish has long been considered a better alternative. But the work of UC Merced graduate student Brandi McKuin indicates that because of emissions, fishing for large fish like tuna warms the climate just as much as raising pork, pound for pound. McKuin’s work suggests that despite a shift toward “cleaner” practices, the fishing industry is a far greater contributor to climate change than previously thought, and that shift could have its own negative consequences for the Earth.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedFishing Oceanic ‘Dead Zone’ Research Earns Campus’s 13th CAREER Award Professor Michael Beman became the 13th faculty member to win a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award since the campus opened, earning $700,000 over the next five years to help him further his studies of oceanic hypoxic and anoxic (low- and no-oxygen) “dead zones.” In the lab, Beman and his students will work on manipulating oxygen levels in water and look at whether the microbes accelerate or slow the loss of oxygen in the water.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedCareer UC Merced Becomes Drone Use Policy Hub UC Merced was chosen as the new hub for UC systemwide policies, procedures and training protocols for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and the new Center of Excellence for UAS Safety will be led by one of the campus’s doctoral candidates. This is UC Merced’s first UC Center of Excellence under the Campus and Public Safety umbrella. The center will be the clearinghouse for drone policy, privacy issues, liability and risk management, information about state and federal laws, training and other resources.

 Read the whole story: bit.ly/MercedDrones

 Student Jessica Rivas found her homes away from home in Yosemite and at UC Merced: bit.ly/DiscoverJessica  Those who give their time, money and effort to UC Merced make such a difference in the lives of students: bit.ly/MercedThankYou  Stephen Maxey had plenty of chances to give up. But he didn’t, and now he’s helping others, too: bit.ly/MercedMaxey



“My father told me my job was school, and he always reinforced the importance of getting an education.” — Abraham Olivares

Alumnus finds his purpose in


hen Abraham Olivares moved to Merced at age 20, a career in education was the furthest thing from his mind. Olivares said he didn’t have a lot of confidence in his abilities back then. Life is quite different now that he is the associate principal for Student Support at Golden Valley High School in Merced. Olivares, the son of Mexican immigrants, is one of nine siblings. He had planned to go into construction like his father. His parents had a different idea. “My father told me my job was school, and he always reinforced the importance of getting an education,” he said. Olivares met his wife, Kristi ImberiOlivares, while working at In-N-Out Burger in Sacramento, his hometown. After the birth of their first son, the couple moved to Merced in 2005 to be closer to her family. Imberi-Olivares transferred



By BRENDA ORTIZ, University Communications

from UC Davis to UC Merced to finish her undergraduate degree in social and cognitive science, and was one of the campus’s first graduates in 2006. Olivares continued to work at In-N-Out and considered going into the company’s management program. But conversations with his mother-inlaw helped his career path emerge more clearly. “She is the one who really pushed me into education,” Olivares said. “She is a phenomenal kindergarten teacher, and I trusted her wisdom.” A Transfer Path Olivares began attending Merced College and met with an advisor to create a Transfer Agreement Guarantee to attend UC Merced. He was hesitant at first, but his wife’s academic experience gave him confidence in the accessibility of faculty members and the abundance of research opportunities.

Olivares recalled thinking, “You have to go; it’s right here. How can you not go?” When he entered UC Merced in 2007, his wife was working toward her Ph.D. in Psychological Sciences. Olivares experienced incredible opportunities working side-by-side with faculty members performing research. He co-authored a paper on political party realignment with lecturer Jon Carlson. He and other seniors undertook the task of writing “The Fairy Shrimp Chronicles,” a book on UC Merced’s history, under the guidance of founding Professor Gregg Herken. Olivares wrote a chapter about fairy shrimp, which can be found in the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve, and helped edit other chapters. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in history as part of UC Merced’s first full graduating class in 2009, he went on to earn his teaching credential at California State University, Stanislaus, in 2010.

Having someone who successfully graduated from college tell them ‘It’s going to be OK; you are going to have an amazing time and experience’ really helps ease their doubts.” — Abraham Olivares

He obtained a master’s in educational leadership at CSU East Bay in 2015. ‘This is my Home’ Olivares taught special education and freshman social studies at Golden Valley High School in Merced as he pursued his graduate degree. He also took on leadership positions, serving on an instructional leadership team, acting as co-department chair of special education and overseeing the Merced High School District’s online program, to further enhance his competencies. Olivares moved into his administrative role as associate principal in 2015. Now he’s responsible for discipline and student support for grades 10 through 12. He is also accountable for overall safety and attendance at Golden Valley. Attendance is a major undertaking for Olivares, as he must ensure all students are accounted for during the school day.

His experience at UC Merced compels him to look at every challenge and task through a data mindset, which has helped him approach attendance from a different perspective and develop programs accordingly. One program Olivares implemented rewards students who have perfect attendance for a certain time period, from a week to a semester, with incentives varying from a $5 Starbucks gift card to a $100 gift card for the Merced Mall. While the program is new and hasn’t been measured, Olivares said Golden Valley has the highest attendance percentage in the district based on the last attendance cycle. He also identifies the students with the highest rate of chronic absences and surveys them to uncover the reasons for their absences and what might motivate them to want to be at school. When it comes to guiding students toward college, Olivares said students often fear the rigor and the cost involved.


Olivares shows his school spirit and models engaged behavior for his students, including donning a ‘sumo suit’ for a school rally.

“If someone like me, who was totally humbled by the opportunity to go to UC Merced, can do it, then they can totally do it,” he said. “Having someone who successfully graduated from college tell them ‘It’s going to be OK; you are going to have an amazing time and experience’ really helps ease their doubts.” Olivares said his quick advancement in the education field came about because of his education at UC Merced and his leadership experience. “Since attending UC Merced, I have been a lot more successful and do things with confidence,” Olivares said. “That’s what’s driven me to get to where I am in a relatively short amount of time.” Olivares is happy his path brought him to Merced, where he is raising two sons and a daughter and having a lasting effect on thousands of students’ lives. “This is my home now,” he said. “I want to be here forever.”






Soccer Player Strikes A Balance BETWEEN SPORTS AND ACADEMICS

By BRENDA ORTIZ, University Communications

alance might be the single most important skill soccer player Joseph Mayer has mastered, both on and off the field. Between practicing, competing, studying, attending classes, working and other responsibilities, it’s not always easy to balance academics and an intercollegiate sport. But Mayer, a senior biological sciences major who maintains a 3.78 grade-point average, has found the secret to success in college is time management and discipline. “In high school, I wasn’t that on top of my studies and I didn’t apply myself as much as I could have,” Mayer said. “Since I started college, I have been pretty consistent with my study habits.” His work made him one of the Scholar Athletes to earn honors from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). He joins fellow Bobcats Katerina Rocker Heppe (women’s soccer), Christopher Jones (men's cross country) and Victoria Rouse (women’s volleyball) in that recognition. 40


Mayer found that scheduling out his week helps him fit everything in. “It’s not that college is much more difficult, but I think it’s the first time in our lives that we have all of this freedom,” Mayer said. “There is no one saying, ‘Did you do your homework today? Do you have any tests coming up? Do you need to study?’” To be considered for the award, student-athletes must maintain a minimum 3.5 grade-point average, have achieved junior academic status and be nominated by their athletics department. “Receiving this great distinction shows that the student-athlete truly yearns to be successful and understands the true meanings of hard work and sacrifice,” said men’s soccer coach Albert Martins, who nominated Mayer. “Joseph is an inspiring player; he gives everything he has as soon as he steps on the field, and that helps raise the play of his teammates.” Mayer transferred from the College of the Redwoods in 2014 to be part of UC Merced’s young, thriving soccer program.

“Remember why you are at school. pursuing research in Professor Aaron “Not only is he a smart and Hernday’s microbiology lab. hardworking athlete, he is one of the It is a great opportunity that you’ve been “Joseph’s project is to engineer a strongest players each time he plays,” system that will allow us to quickly Martins said. given and you shouldn’t waste it.” and easily determine the cell type of Mayer shows that same dedication each individual cell in a switching off the soccer field by helping fellow — Scholar Athlete Joseph Mayer — population,” Hernday said. “This project athletes as a tutor for the UC Merced will affect many ongoing projects in my Athletics Department’s Student Athlete lab, and will generate a valuable resource that Learning Assistants (SALA) program. He will help many researchers in our field.” spends up to eight hours a week tutoring calculus, In addition to tackling an important project, Hernday physics, biology and chemistry students. For Mayer, it’s a credits Mayer with being an outstanding “lab citizen.” He gets along win-win situation. with others, is eager to help in the lab and keeps a positive attitude. “I enjoy being able to go over subjects with people and help them That outlook is likely why Mayer excels on and off the field. His understand the information better,” Mayer said. “It is also great for me advice for fellow classmates is simple: “Remember why you are at because I want to go to medical school and I will have to take the school,” he said. “It is a great opportunity that you’ve been given, and Medical School Admissions Test.” you shouldn’t waste it.” In addition to his work in the classroom and on the field, Mayer is SPRING 2016 | UC MERCED MAGAZINE



Demonstrates a Clear Trajectory for the Next Generation


Chancellor Dorothy Leland, far right, and UC Merced YES engage area schoolchildren in science and engineering activities.

ne of UC Merced’s most important goals has been to increase the college-going rate of young people in the San Joaquin Valley, and there might be no better way to do it than through community outreach. Programs like the Young Engineer and Science Academy — better known as UC Merced YES — are quickly becoming a force for change in the region. About once a month each semester since Spring 2015, YES has taken a group of engineering and physics student volunteers to schools in Fresno, Clovis, Madera and Merced. They spend time outdoors with the children, demonstrating quad-copter flights and water rockets, and mentor them during hands-on activities such as building rubber-band-powered cars and paper rockets of their own. “The students love this — they don’t want us to leave,” said Brandy Nikaido, director of External Relations and Special Projects at the UC Merced Fresno Center. She works with Petia



Gueorguieva, director of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Resource Center on campus to organize the YES events. “They bond with our students and look up to them, and these events make them think about what they could study when they go to college.” Outreach is a critical component of the Office of Governmental and Community Relations, which works with other campus and external groups to organize opportunities for students, faculty members and administrators to interact with the public and with legislators who can throw their support behind the campus. YES is just one example of the many outreach efforts undertaken by UC Merced. In January 2015, the campus was recognized for its history of accomplishments with the prestigious Carnegie Foundation Classification for Community Engagement. Campus community members participate in chambers of commerce and other civic organizations and in hundreds of volunteer positions. Even campus clubs and groups get out into the community.

Just a few examples include:

 Rotoract students feeding homeless people by taking meals out into the community and eating with people who are probably isolated and lonely;  the Society of Women Engineers hosting a young women’s conference each year for more than 100 sixththrough 12th-graders;  the Science Alliance offering a weekly after-school science club at Stefani Elementary School;  the Distinguished Ladies working with children and a local nonprofit;  the I CAN READ Literacy Initiative offering one-on-one tutoring for K-3 students twice a week each semester at two local schools; and  the Lift While You Lead Mentoring Network pairing UC Merced students with local high school teachers to mentor small groups of high school students to encourage empowerment and positive life choices.

“It’s especially important that our students take part in outreach to younger children, because they become mentors and role models, and demonstrate to younger children that they, too, can go to college and give back to the community,” said Cori Lucero, executive director of Governmental and Community Relations. So far, finding students who want to give back to the community hasn’t been a problem. “The YES program is an ideal avenue to reach the communities around Merced,” UC Merced engineering student Eduardo Rojas-Flores said. “The main focus is to provide insight to students about STEM studies, and provide activities that are educational and fun. “I first heard of the program last year and happily volunteered for the Clovis event. Many children do not have the opportunities to see college students or professionals doing their jobs, so this program helps spark their interest in college and STEM studies.” The hands-on activities allow the schoolchildren to better understand concepts they are learning in class, and to show them real-world applications for these concepts. CONTINUED ON PAGE 44 >>



Physics student Julian Cuevas took the lead in arranging one of the YES events at his grade-school alma mater, Sheehy Elementary in Merced. He organized a visit to his fourth-grade class, still taught by the same teacher, Eleazar Flores. “I strongly feel that exposing students to higher levels of education at this early age is imperative to the benefit of our society. Students need to know that it is OK to dream and aim high,” Flores said. “I certainly have witnessed an increase in the interest in higher education. Thanks to events like these and the efforts of students like Julian, students learn that a higher education is within their grasp.” He said the YES visit had an incredible effect on his students who, at first, didn’t believe Cuevas had been a student who sat right where they were sitting.

“They feel challenged and motivated, and the fact that they can relate to him as a former Sheehy student only made them look up to him even more.” Flores said. “It lets them know that regardless of what circumstances they are in, they can accomplish anything with their education.” Flores strongly commended Cuevas and said he hopes other college students will make the same efforts to reach out to students at their former elementary schools, too. For his part, Cuevas was happy to have the chance to share. “I’m hopeful that at some point, every K-8 student in the Merced–Fresno area will have heard of us, and we’ll have inspired generations about STEM, but more importantly, to pursue their dreams,” Cuevas said.

“They bond with our students and look up to them, and these events make them think about what they could study when they go to college.” — Brandy Nikaido director of External Relations and Special Projects at the UC Merced Fresno Center

The YES team is focused on increasing children’s interest in and access to higher education and science and engineering topics.

“It lets them know that regardless of what circumstances they are in, they can accomplish anything with their education.” — Eleazar Flores fourth-grade teacher at Sheehy Elementary School




University Communications 5200 N. Lake Road Merced, CA 95343





Turn static files into dynamic content formats.

Create a flipbook
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.