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Gifts provide unique opportunities through Chancellor’s Fellow Awards

By Trina Wood

Giving makes a difference at UC Davis in countless ways. One of those ways is through the Chancellor’s Fellow Awards, which are supported by thousands of generous donors who give to the university through the UC Davis Annual Fund. These annual awards honor and encourage the achievements of outstanding faculty members early in their careers. Each year, several fellows are selected, and each receives a one-time award of $25,000 to be used in support of research, teaching and service activities. They are also recognized with the title of “Chancellor’s Fellow” for five years. In addition to supporting these outstanding faculty as they advance knowledge in their fields, the awards benefit students by providing them with additional research and learning opportunities. We’ve highlighted only a handful of exemplary faculty from dozens of Chancellor’s Fellows to show how gifts to the UC Davis Annual Fund, and membership in the UC Davis Chancellor’s Club, makes a huge impact in the advancement of UC Davis’ excellence in teaching, research and student support.

Photo: Jay Stachowicz in a lab

Jay Stachowicz (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Protecting marine biodiversity

As a kid growing up on the east coast, Jay Stachowicz loved exploring tide pools and watching the diversity of life in such a small ecosystem. Now as a professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, Stachowicz studies the importance of biodiversity in California coastal ecosystems from kelp forests to tide pools to sea grass beds.

“Communities with a diversity of organisms can respond better to environmental change than those without diversity,” he says. “It’s like a biological insurance policy against a changing environment.”

Stachowicz received a Chancellor’s Fellow Award in 2006, which he used to hire a recent UC Davis graduate for a year to extend an ongoing study of the effect of species loss in intertidal communities. They found much stronger effects of diversity in the longer-term study than had previously been discovered, which in turn enabled Stachowicz to garner a four-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue the research. Some of the results have been crucial in demonstrating the importance of establishing protected marine areas off California’s coast.

“The unrestricted funds from this award allowed me to take research risks that are harder to fund through more traditional channels. It also made me feel valued by the university in a very tangible way — for that I am thankful.”

Photo: A woman in Antarctica

Dawn Sumner (courtesy)

Exploring evolution under the ice

As an associate professor of geology, Dawn Sumner’s research addresses the role and history of microbial processes in the early history of the Earth and other planets. When she received a Chancellor’s Fellow Award in 2004, she was able to fund experiments on living bacteria that would give her clues for how ancient bacteria behaved in forming rocks.

“Geologists can’t generally get funding for this type of research. The Chancellor’s Fellow Award allowed me to create a bridge between disciplines and gain critical experience in a new field that opened doors for other funding and research opportunities,” Sumner says.

One of those opportunities included a recent six-week field expedition funded by NASA on the shores of frozen Lake Joyce in Antarctica, exploring microbial mats that live under the ice. Sumner was looking for clues to the evolution of photosynthesis among these bacterial communities, which are similar to those found on Earth billions of years ago.

Since returning from Antarctica in December, Sumner has given talks to students and neighbors, sharing her experiences. “Gifts that support awards such as the Chancellor’s Fellows help create that ripple effect of knowledge and excitement.”

Photo: Nicole Baumgarth in a lab

Nicole Baumgarth (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Discovering pieces of the puzzle

Nicole Baumgarth, professor in the Center for Comparative Medicine, says one of the biggest impacts in receiving a Chancellor’s Fellow Award in 2007 was the joy of being recognized—not only for her basic research in antiviral immunity, but for her dedication to improving graduate education.

“We’re training our next generation of faculty and researchers,” she said. “It’s essential to provide them the best opportunities we can.”

A veterinarian by training, Baumgarth has always been interested in infectious diseases. “It’s like a big puzzle. We have a few of the pieces in place, but others haven’t even been turned over yet.”

In particular, she studies B lymphocytes, antibody producing cells, and the role they play in protecting people from disease. Her goal is that this research will one day lead to better vaccines.

Baumgarth used the award money to purchase equipment that saves time for the undergraduate and graduate researchers in her lab, and for development of a new model to better analyze B lymphoctye responses to influenza. “This award is very important because it recognizes faculty in the ‘teenage years’ of an academic career and creates a stronger bond between young faculty and the campus.”

Photo: Chen-Nee Chuah in a lab

Chen-Nee Chuah (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Secure networking

Chen-Nee Chuah’s career as an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering was influenced in part by the opportunity to conduct research when she was an undergraduate at Rutgers and her wonderful graduate experience at UC Berkeley.

A Chancellor’s Fellow Award last year enabled her to offer similar research experience to her students at UC Davis, including support for attending conferences. Chuah’s research explores novel network architectures and algorithms to meet emerging and future needs of our society.

“When the Internet breaks down, there is no black box to tell us what went wrong,” Chuah says. “We’re trying to build new measurement and introspection capability into the networking infrastructure to improve its reliability, security, and manageability.”

The award also provided seed funding for research in social computing, which leverages underlying social relationships to create new networking services. This new direction creates an exciting opportunity for Chuah and her team to collaborate with researchers from other disciplines, including data mining, economics, and sociology.

“I feel very honored to have received a Chancellor’s Fellow Award and really appreciate that our campus values and encourages interdisciplinary research and collaboration.”

Photo: portrait

Kimberly McAllister (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Understanding connections

Fifteen years ago as a neurobiology graduate student, Kimberly McAllister was doubtful that researchers could ever fully understand complex diseases like schizophrenia or autism. Now an associate professor in the departments of neurology, and neurobiology, physiology and behavior, McAllister says that with a strong interdisciplinary focus on neurodevelopment and disease, researchers are starting to develop powerful animal models for psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.

A Chancellor’s Fellow Award in 2008 allowed McAllister to fund a unique experiment looking at how synapses or connections in the brain are altered by experience during development and disease.

“Our goal is to use this new approach to test hypotheses of what we think strengthens and weakens brain connections. Once we figure that out, we can test the role of genes thought to be involved in diseases like schizophrenia or autism,” McAllister says. “This will show us molecular pathways to target with therapies.”

The preliminary data obtained with the help of the award led the way to a five-year National Institutes of Health grant of nearly $2 million. “Having access to unrestricted funds like the Chancellor’s Fellow Award is critically important for starting new, riskier directions in basic research that can be leveraged into much larger grants. This program provides a real synergy between disciplines and people at UC Davis—it’s exciting to be a valued part of this campus community.”

By giving to UC Davis through the Annual Fund, donors are supporting initiatives like the Chancellor’s Fellow Awards, which in turn benefit the campus community as a whole and the many constituents who are served by the research and public service of UC Davis. Donors may give to the UC Davis Annual Fund in any amount; those who give $1,000 or more become members of the UC Davis Chancellor’s Club in recognition of their support.

This article was originally published in UC Davis Magazine.