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Graduate Peers' Schedules

Summer 2014
(Email for availability)

Professional Development Peer:
Shawn Warner-Garcia

Diversity & Outreach Peer:
Hala Sun

Funding Peer:
Kyle Crocco

Writing Peer:
Ryan Dippre

The peers sometimes hold events or attend meetings during their regular office hours. To assure you connect with your Graduate Peer Advisor, we encourage you to contact them by email and make an appointment.


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UCSB Classes Suspended on Tuesday, a 'Day of Mourning and Reflection'; Memorial Service Planned at Harder Stadium

On his Facebook page, UCSB alum Michael Douglas said: "My deepest sympathy to the victims, families, and friends of this terrible tragedy. My thoughts are with the entire UCSB family. Michael Douglas, '68" Credit: Michael Douglas Facebook pageA Message from Chancellor Henry T. Yang and Interim Executive Vice Chancellor Joel Michaelsen

To the Campus Community:

In light of the tragic events that occurred on Friday night, after discussions with the Academic Senate, Associated Students, and our administrative colleagues, we are declaring Tuesday, May 27, a Day of Mourning and Reflection. There will be a memorial service at Harder Stadium on Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. organized jointly by students, staff, and faculty.  Also, Associated Students has asked us to let our community know that our students are planning a memorial wall at the Pardall Center.

Regular classes will not be held on Tuesday. However, because our academic community needs a space for talking and healing as well as mourning, we ask that faculty come to campus on Tuesday to be available to meet with students. We suggest that faculty communicate with our students and teaching assistants to let them know whether they will be meeting at their regularly scheduled class time, or in office hours, or both. Staff should report to work as usual, but employees who need to request time off from work should coordinate those requests with their supervisors. Classes will resume on Wednesday (May 28).

We wish to reiterate the message from the undergraduate deans that academic advisors are available to assist students who are concerned that this tragedy will interfere with the completion of their courses. Our dedicated advisors will do everything they can to ensure that no student’s academic record is adversely affected by this difficult situation. There will be extended walk-in advising hours this week starting on Tuesday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., including the lunch hour. Faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants will receive additional information from their department chairs and deans about how to provide guidance and alternatives to students who may need assistance as theyCredit: UC Santa Barbara Instagram (@ucsantabarbara) complete their academic year.

We remind students, faculty, and staff that professional counselors are available to provide support to all members of our community. We encourage you to consult them to address your own needs and to get advice about how you can help others if they reach out to you. Counselors can be reached by phone at 805-893-4411, 24 hours a day.  Counselors will be available for in-person visits all day Tuesday at the Student Resource Building.

This is a period of mourning for all of us. The moving candlelight vigil that our students organized on Saturday evening began the process of healing. On Tuesday we will remember and honor the victims of this horrible event, and come together as an academic community to reflect, talk with each other, and think about the future. As terrible as these past two days have been, they make us believe in our students and the entire UCSB community more than ever.

Henry T. Yang, Chancellor

Joel Michaelsen, Interim Executive Vice Chancellor


Chancellor Yang's Letter to the UC Santa Barbara Community

UCSB community members gathered Saturday evening for a Candelight Vigil in honor of the victims of the Isla Vista rampage. Credit: George Foulsham, Office of Public Affairs and Communications

The following is a letter to the UC Santa Barbara community from Chancellor Henry T. Yang:

It is with a heavy heart that I am writing again to share more sad news. Yesterday we were informed that three of our students, Katherine Cooper (senior), Christopher Martinez (junior), and Veronika Weiss (sophomore) were among those killed during the tragic events on Friday night. Today the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office released the names of the remaining victims and they are also members of our community. They are George Chen and W. Wang, both juniors in the College of Engineering. The parents of the third student have requested that we only use his initials, C.H.

Our sense of loss is immeasurable. We are offering our full support to their families, and our thoughts and prayers are with them. In the coming days we will also explore with the families how we may best honor their memories. We have established a fund, The UC Santa Barbara Community Fund (, to honor our students who were victims of this tragedy and to memorialize their lasting impact and contributions to the UC Santa Barbara community.

The number of reported injuries has been revised to 13. Nine of those taken to the hospital were UC Santa Barbara students. We have been informed that six of these nine students have already been released and one is expected to be released tomorrow (Monday, May 26). We fervently wish all the injured a full recovery.

The safety and welfare of our students is our top priority. We have counselors available today and tomorrow at our Student Resource Building from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and by phone at 805-893-4411 around the clock. With support from the UCLA and UC Irvine police departments, we have also increased police patrols in Isla Vista and on campus. In addition, our CSO Escort Program provides courtesy escorts for our students and community members traveling on campus and in Isla Vista at any time. To request a CSO safety escort, simply call our Police Dispatch line at 805-893-2000. I encourage every student to enter this number in your cell phone now, so that it will be readily accessible when you need it. Escorts can also be requested through the red emergency phones located all over campus.

I am moved by the love and support demonstrated by our community, especially during these difficult times. Dilling and I were honored to join our students for last night’s candlelight vigil, the first of what I anticipate will be many events to honor the victims and to come together as a community. We are planning a campus memorial service, and will send another communication later today with additional information and other updates.


Henry T. Yang


4 Ways to Be a Loving Neighbor: My Personal Perspective Amid Isla Vista Tragedy

Credit: Hala Sun and Pages.

It was 9:25 p.m. on May 23. I was heading home after attending an amazing musical event sponsored by the Chinese Students & Scholars Association held at the MultiCultural Center Theater. The night was beautiful, until I saw multiple police cars, ambulance, and firetrucks passing by, all racing toward Isla Vista. Something did not feel right. I was scared. As soon as I arrived home, I checked my email, but there was no alert. So I quickly logged into Twitter to find out what was happening in Isla Vista (#IV). My heart sank when I found out that there was a massive shooting targeting female students.

Hala SunAs a woman of color, I felt vulnerable through this tragic event. However, I believe there is still hope. We cannot control all the events that happen every day in our lives or in our community. But we can do something now to facilitate change — by being a "loving neighbor." I would like to share my thoughts on four ways, or perhaps, four challenges for all of us at UCSB and in Isla Vista, as we work together to bring proximate justice.

1. Choose to cross the street to cross barriers of culture and fear. Sometimes, if we encounter situations that are messy and complicated, or if we meet someone from another culture, race, gender, or ethnicity that is unfamiliar, it is easy for us to fear and walk away without taking a closer look. However, the very first step to bringing proximate justice and to be a loving neighbor is to have the courage to cross the street — to cross that barrier and reach out.

2. Choose to open your eyes and notice.
We have our eyes generally open (unless we are sleeping), but we do have a choice, most of the time, to choose what we want to see or have to see. After crossing the street or the barrier, the next step is to take a closer look. But after seeing what is happening or what is needed, we sometimes close our eyes. Well, that’s OK. It is quite natural to close our eyes. What’s important is our courage to open our eyes again to figure out how we can help.

3. Choose to give time and money. After crossing the street, seeing, and realizing what is needed, we ought to make another decision — using our valuable time and/or money. We all can be hearers and readers of the news. But how often do we pause, to reflect, and to give? And we wonder whether our help would make any difference. Well, the good news is, yes it will — as long as we all work together toward a common goal. There is power and hope when we collaborate and when we give. We cannot make any changes if we, ourselves, are hesitant to give anything.

4. Choose to open your hearts and feel. We cannot live harmoniously and bring proximate justice if we do not open our hearts and truly feel what is happening around us — in our school, our community, our country, and our world. It is from our heart we can show love and attention to our family, friends, colleagues, students, faculty, staff, and our community members. It is only when we open our hearts that we can understand and be able to empathize or sympathize.


As we live in this busy, and often individualistic society, the concept of “neighbor” is slowly disappearing. All kinds of reforms and changes can be made at the policy, organizational, and/or institutional level. But I believe the most important change is the change that starts within us — transforming to become a good, loving neighbor to one another. By choosing to cross the street to cross barriers of culture and fear, by choosing to open our eyes and notice, as well as to give time and money, and by choosing to open our hearts and feel what is happening around us, we can all hope for change. And justice might be just around the corner, in close proximity. Now, before we ask who our neighbor is, let us first reflect on what kind of neighbor we have been and what kind we ought to be from this point forward.

(Editor's Note: Graduate Division Diversity and Outreach Peer Hala Sun is a doctoral student in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education. She holds two master's degrees: a Master in Public Administration, specializing in International Management, from the Monterey Institute of International Studies; and an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from the Monterey Institute. Hala, who speaks five languages, is of South Korean descent, grew up in the Philippines, and attended a Chinese school. Her research interests focus on bilingualism/multilingualism, second language acquisition, language development through interaction, and teacher development.) 


Resources and Support Services in Wake of Isla Vista Tragedy

The GradPost has compiled a list of phone numbers, websites, announcements, and other information to assist students, parents, faculty, staff, and the public in the wake of the Isla Vista tragedy. As we get more information, we will add to this list, so please bookmark this article.


Message from the UCSB Graduate Division Dean About the Isla Vista Tragedy

Dear Graduate Students,

I know that like me you are both shocked and deeply saddened by the events in Isla Vista last night. Our thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this tragedy. We send our most heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims.

As graduate students you are at the center of our university. Many of you live in or near Isla Vista and most serve as friends, teachers, and mentors to our undergraduates. One cannot help but feel shaken by this tragedy, and it is an emotional day for many.

Please reach out to any fellow graduate students who might need support. Counseling services are available: There is a 24/7 UCSB counseling hotline for emergency support and referrals at (805) 893-4411. In addition, professional counseling support is available on campus today (May 24) at the Student Resource Building.

The University is closely monitoring the situation and will be updating the following site:

Any news specific to graduate students will be placed on the GradPost news blog ( and GradPost Facebook page ( We all stand in solidarity and support with our UCSB community. Please feel free to contact me directly at if you wish to comment or express concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Carol Genetti
UC Santa Barbara Graduate Division

Other resources

Call Center for community members and parents with questions: (805) 893-3901

Community 24/7 Disaster Distress Hotline: (800) 985-5990

Hillel (781 Embarcadero del Norte) and St. Marks (6550 Picasso) in Isla Vista are open and available today.


Materials Ph.D. Student Leah Kuritzky Is Helping to Change the World of Lighting Forever

Leah Kuritzky gives a laser light bulb demonstration as part of her Grad Slam presentation. Credit: Patricia Marroquin

Meet Leah Kuritzky, a third-year Ph.D. student in Materials. She is going to change the world of lighting as we know it forever.

Leah grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in Chemistry, and is now a researcher on the cutting edge of solid-state lighting. Recently, she wowed the general public and other participants at the Grad Slam with a three-minute talk on her research on laser lighting applications.

In her talk, Leah said lasers could be used to mitigate the energy crisis. Twenty-two percent of U.S. electricity consumption goes to lighting, she said. The current state of art in efficient lighting is the LED light bulb, but as we increase LED brightness, the  efficiency drops.

So how can you get high brightness, high efficiency, and low cost? Lasers. Her research is focused on the atomic scale of laser materials to improve efficiency, so that in the future we can reduce energy consumption and light the world.

For this interview, I met Leah at the Engineering II building, where she works and does research in various areas of solid-state lighting (i.e., lasers and LEDs). Though she sometimes works up to 50 or more hours a week (and many weekends), she was kind enough to show me some of the lighting applications, share her grad school experience, and how she become interested in lasers and energy efficiency.

Tell me what motivated you to get into the field of science?

I went to Parkland High School in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I had a lot of positive peer pressure there. My best friends in orchestra were high achievers and motivated me to achieve. I also had great teachers, especially in Chemistry and in English. It was a really hard decision to decide what field to go into when I went to college.

How did you go from a B.S. in Chemistry to graduate school in Materials?

Leah's Poster Presentation. Credit: Leah KuritzkyI had a couple of summer research internships at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory while I was an undergraduate at Stanford. Those internships were my first introduction to working with semiconductor materials (like solar cells and computer chips) in the lab. I found the work interesting, and I also realized that many of the breakthroughs of the next decades will likely come out of the field of Materials.   

I applied to several programs and was accepted at UCSB. The Materials Department is very welcoming of people from a variety of academic backgrounds. Many of my colleagues come from different backgrounds, such as Physics and Engineering. I had to take a few courses in Physics and Electrical Engineering to get up to speed, but that is encouraged in my department and my research group.

What are you researching now?

I’m researching high power blue m-Pplane gallium nitride laser diodes. Until recently, all the work done in the solid-state lighting field was for the c-plane of the gallium nitride crystal. In fact, virtually every blue or white LED or laser that you can buy today is fabricated on the c-plane of gallium nitride. My work on the m-plane could result in higher efficiency devices than what’s possible on the c-plane.

How did you become interested in lasers?

I visited different groups and schools. My main interest in lasers came out of my interest in working on energy efficiency and semiconductor materials.

What are some of the main obstacles in your research with lasers?

Blue LaserOne of Leah's samples emitting light at the blue wavelength. Credit: Kyle CroccoThe consistency of the material quality in the m-plane is a big problem. I have to constantly calibrate my crystal growths to have a consistent control group for my experiments. I share a growth reactor with other graduate students, and we all have to be concerned about how our different runs affect the reactor and therefore each others’ results.

Color is another problem. Lasers actually are not white, but they have specific wavelengths in narrow ranges, such as blue or violet. Green is a really difficult color to achieve, but also really important for many applications like high color-quality displays and traffic lights.

White light is a combination of many different colors. In order to get white light for street lamps or indoor lighting, you have to start, for example, with a blue laser or LED and add a yellow phosphor. Other types of combinations are possible, but this combination is the most common for white LEDs that are on the market today.

What are some of the laser lighting applications?

Leah KuritzkyLeah with a laser traffic light. Credit: Kyle CroccoDisplays like your TV or computer monitors and projectors, traffic lights, home lighting, of course, the light in Blu-Ray DVD players, data storage, and lab equipment (for analysis).

Let’s talk a little about your grad life. What advice would you give to people coming to graduate school?

Apply for fellowships. I applied the year before starting graduate school at the advice of my research mentors. I applied to the NSF and NDSEG graduate fellowships, and I won the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Coming in funded allowed me much more flexibility in which group I could join because my advisor did not have to worry about having to fund me.

What is the most favorite thing you do to relax?

Leah KuritzkyLeah outdoors. Credit: Leah KuritzkyRock climbing, playing violin, and salsa dancing. I climb at the downtown gym, and like to go on weekend climbs to Bishop, Joshua Tree, or nearby, at Lizard’s Mouth. I have played the violin since I was nine, and I recently bought a piano for my house. My boyfriend plays piano and most of my climbing friends do also, which makes for fun, musical evenings.

What is the one thing you hope to be doing five or 10 years out of graduate school?

It’s always evolving. Originally, I wanted to work at the National Renewable Energy Lab, and I needed a Ph.D. to do it. But now I’m looking at everything: industry, postdocs in academia, and government lab type jobs.

What is your biggest accomplishment in life and why

There are many of them and each builds on the rest. They are all interrelated. I would say graduating from Stanford, my internships, and my NSF Fellowship.


Graduates and Friends, UCSB Wants Your Selfies and Stories

Graduates, UC Santa Barbara is celebrating its Class of 2014 – both its undergrads and graduate students. Join in on the conversation through social media. Whether you're sharing photos, videos, and stories, or just saying congrats to a friend, you are being asked to use the university's official hashtag, #UCSB2014.

Additionally, Graduate Division has established its own hashtags: #MasteredIt and #PhinallyDone. Share your images on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites using the university's hashtag AND the degree hashtag that applies to you (Master's degree or Ph.D.). Let’s celebrate our graduating grad students – there will be nearly 400 participating in the ceremony on June 15.

The social media campaign is underway! When you use the hashtag #UCSB2014, your images and posts will appear on UCSB's hashtag #UCSB2014 social media Commencement site: Don't forget to use Graduate Division's additional hashtag (#MasteredIt or #PhinallyDone).

Another component of the campaign is to share your stories with the campus community. The Office of Public Affairs and Communications is seeking student volunteers to write about their thoughts, reflections, and perspectives in the days leading up to Commencement. These blog entries will be aggregated in one place via Storify. Students may submit one entry or many, about one to two paragraphs in length. Photos or videos are encouraged to accompany the entries. If you are interested in participating, please contact Alex Parraga at

You can get started now. Show your Gaucho pride. We look forward to seeing your selfies and stories on social media!

For more information about Commencement, visit the Graduate Division Commencement page.

Also, see UCSB’s Commencement website and these subpages:

2014 Commencement Schedule

Guest Speakers

Additional Resources


Students Invited to Apply for New Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Emphasis in Environment and Society

The UCSB Academic Senate has recently approved the creation of an interdepartmental Ph.D. emphasis in Environment and Society (IEES). Its goal is to provide students with opportunities to receive training and mentorship in environmental studies beyond the scope of their degree programs. The program is based in the Environmental Studies program. All students who complete the emphasis will receive a certificate similar to an undergraduate minor.

Students who participate in the program will have to register for (1) a core seminar offered in the fall quarter and (2) three elective courses in departments and disciplines other than their own. Additionally, they must have on their dissertation committees at least one outside committee member listed as emphasis-affiliated faculty. Students must also attend the IEES annual symposium and include some aspect of interdisciplinary environmental studies as a substantial part of their dissertation.

The emphasis can benefit graduate students in a variety of ways, including:

  • Provide student participants with the interdisciplinary tools — including methods, concepts, vocabularies, analytical frameworks, and critical thinking skills — necessary to communicate across disciplines and undertake dissertation projects that address complex environmental issues;
  • Provide a structured opportunity to develop an area of conceptual depth or methodological expertise not available in their home department by engaging with faculty in any of the 15 departments participating in the emphasis;
  • Open up new opportunities for mentorship from a faculty member from another discipline through participation on their dissertation committee (participating students must have one faculty member from outside their discipline on their committee);
  • Introduce participants to new ways of thinking about the environment and provide them with guidance on how to integrate these perspectives into their research and writing;
  • Create an opportunity to participate in an interdisciplinary and interdepartmental community of students exploring diverse and interconnected questions about the environment and society; and
  • Improve competitiveness in the academic job  market where interdisciplinary training is often sought after.

Those interested in joining the Fall 2014 cohort should apply by July 1, 2014. See the flier for application details.


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Deborah Barany

Deborah Barany, a third-year student in the new interdepartmental graduate program in Dynamical Neuroscience, is conducting research on how the brain integrates and organizes relevant information to produce successful action. Deborah recently participated in the Grad Slam - a campuswide competition for the best three-minute research talk. Her presentation wowed the audience and judges and she took home one of the top prizes. Deborah has an M.A. in Psychology from UCSB and a B.A. in Neuroscience and Mathematics from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Read on to learn more about Deborah's research and experiences in graduate school.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

Deborah Barany at Watsons Bay, Sydney, AustraliaThe overall goal of my research in the Action Lab is to understand how the human brain controls goal-directed movement. My work so far has focused on using fMRI and machine learning algorithms to analyze the patterns of brain activity associated with different components of simple movements (for example, an object’s location, movement direction, or hand posture). By looking at these patterns, we can infer the large-scale representations of movement across many brain regions. Researching questions in motor control with fMRI and other neuroimaging techniques has quite a few practical challenges, but it ultimately allows us to better understand how the brain integrates and organizes relevant information to produce successful action, and how this underlying organization might differ in people with movement disorders.

The simple reason for why I chose this topic is that I wanted a way to combine my interest for sports and music with my interest in science and math. My senior year of high school, I learned about how cognitive neuroscience methods could be used to answer questions related to how athletes learn to move about dynamic environments, and how musicians learn to link specific movements to produce beautiful sound. I was instantly hooked, and knew that I wanted to be involved in that type of research.

What was it like to participate in the Grad Slam? What did you learn from the experience?

Graduate Division Dean Carol Genetti with the Grad Slam 2014 winners: James Allen, center, grand prize winner; and runners-up Damien Kudela and Deborah Barany. Credit: Patricia MarroquinThe Grad Slam was such a fun experience, although at times a little (a lot) nerve-wracking. But I loved the opportunity to be able to share my research with the community, as well as to hear about all the amazing work being done on campus. I had no idea of the extent and breadth of the graduate student research at UCSB — it is great to have Grad Slam as a platform to facilitate the communication of all these diverse projects in an interesting way.

I learned quite a bit going through each stage of the process. Preparing the presentation really forced me to think about the best way to communicate my research. Hopefully, I can transfer what I’ve learned from Grad Slam to more casual conversations so I don’t get as many blank stares while trying to explain what I do.

I also benefited from attending a professional development workshop that allowed us to practice our presentation and get valuable feedback from other students and staff, including a few of last year’s Grad Slammers. Finally, I realized that it takes a lot of time and effort to be able to craft and deliver a short three-minute talk, but it was definitely worth it to gain the confidence to communicate about neuroscience and to be able to share my excitement for research with a general audience.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

Deborah in front of the MRI scanner at the UCSB Brain Imaging CenterI was lucky in that I came to UCSB as part of a unusually large (and good-looking) incoming cohort for Psychological & Brain Sciences — being able to take the same classes, learn the ropes, and just hang out together really made it easy to adapt to and be comfortable with the grind of graduate student life. I am also grateful to have an outstanding advisor, Dr. Scott Grafton, who allows me the flexibility and resources to explore different experimental ideas while at the same time keeping me set up to succeed.

In the same way, the current and former members in the Action Lab have helped me grow immensely as a scientist — they’re always ready and willing to help when I have a question or when I’m stuck on a problem (which seems like most of the time). In general, I feel like I’m always surrounded by amazing people doing amazing things, so I’m just happy to be a part of it all and enjoy the journey. And the Santa Barbara weather isn’t too shabby, either.

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

Logan Fiorella and Deborah Barany with a new friend in Queensland, Australia.My field is still rapidly evolving — it’s difficult to keep up with all the new ideas and methods, but it’s an exciting time to be involved as well. I’m driven by a desire to make meaningful contributions to our understanding of the brain, and I’d like to think that every time I read a new article, learn a new skill, or have a conversation about research, I move one tiny step toward that goal.

In addition, my family (many of whom are scientists) has been a constant source of motivation and support. I especially admire my grandmother, Kate Bárány, who was a muscle physiologist and strong advocate for women in science, and whose life and work I am only beginning to truly appreciate as I move forward in my education.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and describe why.

This is mostly due to the recency effect, but I’m proud of completing my first graduate research project. I went into the project knowing very little about how to conduct an fMRI experiment, and how to analyze the data, but I received an incredible amount of mentorship from my collaborators that allowed me to feel somewhat competent every step of the way. There were a good share of frustrating moments, but it was so rewarding to see the project progress from the first pilot subject to the final revision of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience (see "Feature Interactions Enable Decoding of Sensorimotor Transformations for Goal-Directed Movement"). I’m glad to be done, but mostly because this means I can start all over again with a new project and hopefully be able to apply what I’ve learned.

What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do? Along these same lines, what makes you happy?

Deborah does some rock climbing in Santa Barbara.I love to play sports, which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to fieldwork in motor control. At UCSB, I’m part of the Psychological & Brain Sciences IM volleyball team (“Bump, Set, Psych”), and I play pickup handball with other graduate students. I try to take advantage of the wonderful Santa Barbara climate, which means playing year-round outdoor tennis, hiking, rock climbing, and (unsuccessfully) surfing. I enjoy playing guitar — either writing songs or playing whatever is currently stuck in my head.

Recently, both because of and in spite of being in graduate school, I’ve been able to travel to and explore various parts of the world with my boyfriend Logan Fiorella. When not traveling, we enjoy going to the movies, partially, if not completely, due to the free popcorn coupons they have at the theaters in Santa Barbara.

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I hope to have an academic position somewhere nice where I can do important research and teach motivated students. Dreaming big.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

I think I echo a common sentiment in that grad school is all about finding the right balance between work and life outside of work. Almost three years in, I’m still working on finding the right balance. So far I’ve come to realize that if I’m able to get outside of the basement where I work and enjoy the sunshine for just a short time, I usually end up having a good day.


UCSB Ph.D. and Towbes Alum Veronique LaCapra: Public Radio Journalist for NPR Affiliate Is a Science Storyteller

Véronique LaCapra, who earned a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology from UCSB in 2000, has pursued her passion for storytelling in a career as a science, environment, and health journalist at St. Louis Public Radio, a local NPR affiliate station.

Véronique LaCapra has gone to great lengths for her career, both literally and figuratively. The UCSB Ph.D. alum traveled for days – catching three flights, hopping on a ferry, and riding in a pickup – to reach the Galapagos Islands, where she followed two field scientists who captured birds and trapped mosquitoes for their research into avian malaria. She toured a "honeymoon resort" for slimy salamanders built at the St. Louis Zoo to help them breed. And she donned hospital scrubs to witness kidney-pancreas transplant surgery on a Type 1 diabetic.

Whether she’s in a field, a zoo, or an operating room, Dr. LaCapra – a 1992 Towbes fellow recipient who earned her Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology from UCSB in 2000 – gets to tell compelling stories in her “never boring” career as a science, environment, and health reporter for St. Louis Public Radio, a local NPR affiliate station. 

It was the environment, not journalism, that first captivated Véronique during her childhood years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and abroad. “We spent many summers visiting my mother’s family in (Auxerre) France,” LaCapra, who grew up bicultural and bilingual, said in an interview with the GradPost. “My mother loved being out in nature, and we spent a lot of time outdoors. I loved hiking, swimming, and being around wildlife.”

An inquisitive Véronique “brought my mom home tadpoles, caterpillars, earthworms — and eventually a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution,” LaCapra wrote in her Galapagos piece.

UCSB Ph.D. student Véronique LaCapra takes water samples in Brazil's Pantanal.

There were several factors that played into her decision to pursue that Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara.

LaCapra had earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental policy and biology from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1991 and knew she wanted to study ecology in graduate school. “But I wasn’t sure how I wanted to specialize within that field, so I applied to quite a few different graduate schools,” LaCapra said. “I was interested in marine biology and aquatic ecology in general, and I hoped to do fieldwork overseas. As someone who had grown up in Boston and gone to undergrad at Cornell, I wanted to try living on the West Coast for a while, so most of the schools I applied to were in California, Oregon, or Washington state.”

She chose UCSB, first and foremost, she said, because of its attractive financial package that included a Towbes fellowship, which is marking 25 years of assistance to graduate students here.

Reporter Véronique LaCapra, wearing hospital scrubs, holds a microphone to record a double transplant operation.Another lure for LaCapra was the opportunity to do fieldwork in Brazil under Professor John Melack, one of two UCSB professors who invited her to work with them. And, of course, a third reason to leave Cornell for California, she said, was that “Santa Barbara is a beautiful place!”

LaCapra’s dissertation involved research into floodplain water chemistry in burned and unburned areas of the Pantanal wetland of Brazil. This research fed into her love of exploring different parts of the world.

When nearing the end of her graduate studies, LaCapra thought she might want to work for a big environmental organization such as the World Wildlife Fund or Conservation International. But when offered a position as a pesticide regulator at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., she took it, figuring she might move from there to one of those big non-governmental organizations.

But she stayed a while, until she “eventually got burned out on the politics of working for a regulatory agency,” she said. “And I also realized I wanted to put my lifelong love of writing toward something more creative than government reports!”

She considered pursuing environmental writing. “Almost by accident,” she said, “I ended up taking a writing for radio class taught by a former NPR host. I loved the class, and went from there to a couple of audio documentary production workshops at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. After those, I was hooked!”

Dr. Véronique LaCapra interviews professor and monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower.Her supervisor at the EPA allowed her to spend four months working as a radio reporter at the Voice of America. There, she covered health and environmental research of interest to VOA’s developing-country audience. This led to her going part time at the EPA in order to keep freelancing at Voice of America, which in turn led to her landing the job she has now, as a radio science journalist in St. Louis. In addition to airing on St. Louis Public Radio, LaCapra's work regularly airs nationally on NPR.

What LaCapra enjoys most about the job she has held since February 2010 is the variety of assignments she undertakes. “I like that I get to cover a wide range of topics – everything from new science research, to health and environmental policy, to agriculture and biotechnology. Every day is different, and it’s never boring. I love the craft of radio – taking first-person interviews and weaving them together with ambient sound, music, or other elements, to create compelling stories.”

Véronique LaCapra met up with scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands.Her storytelling work has taken her all over the map to interview people from all walks of life – surgeons to sewer district supervisors. And she attributes her graduate education at UCSB for helping to prepare her for this role.

“Having a background in science has helped me earn the respect and trust of both the scientists I interview and of listeners,” she said. “I think I approach journalism like a scientist, in a way – I do my research and strive to be as accurate in my reporting as I possibly can be.”

For LaCapra, the rewards of the job come from feedback she receives from both her interview subjects and listeners. “I love when someone tells me: ‘You know, I didn’t think I’d be interested in that topic, but your story made me keep listening!’”

For more on LaCapra’s own interesting story, keep reading. The science journalist discusses what she enjoyed most about her graduate studies here at UCSB; shares the experience she had in her two field seasons of research in the Pantanal wetland in Brazil; offers advice on how to better prepare UCSB grad students for careers; among other topics.

UCSB Ph.D. students Steve Hamilton and Véronique LaCapra conduct research in Brazil's Pantanal. Today Dr. Hamilton is a Professor of Ecosystem Ecology & Biogeochemistry at Michigan State University.

Please tell us about your UCSB dissertation and research.

The title was “The Biogeochemistry of Floodplain Waters in Burned and Unburned Areas of the Pantanal Wetland of Brazil.”

For my dissertation research, I spent two field seasons living in the small Brazilian town of Corumbá, on the border of Bolivia, in huge wetland called the Pantanal. It’s a seasonally flooded savanna, crisscrossed by several major rivers (the largest of which is the Paraguay River), all of which flood during the rainy season. It’s also an area that has a long history of free-range cattle ranching. At the start of the dry season, the ranchers burn large areas to get rid of the dry, dead vegetation left over from the previous flood season, and to get new grass to sprout for their cattle.

After particularly bad dry seasons, there are sometimes large fish kills. I was interested in trying to understand what might be causing those. To do that, I compared floodplain water chemistry in burned and unburned areas of the wetland. My research supported previous work carried out by students in Melack’s lab, suggesting that the fish kills are a natural phenomenon caused by the flooding of large areas of dry vegetation. When that vegetation breaks down, the process of decomposition consumes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, asphyxiating the fish that can’t get to faster flowing, more oxygen-rich waters.

What was graduate school like for you?

I loved my time living and working in the Pantanal. I also learned a lot from some of the older, more experienced students in Melack’s lab, several of whom were Brazilian themselves. Since I was essentially fresh out of undergrad (I took only one year “off” to teach environmental education in between undergrad and grad school), it was great to have the benefit of their experience in figuring out how to conduct my own research. I also got really wonderful support from the Brazilian researchers I worked with in the Pantanal. I am still in touch with several of the friends I had when I lived there, and I have been back to Brazil several times to visit since then.

Is there anything you didn’t know about graduate school then that you wish you had known before you began?

Well, when I was in grad school at UCSB, the EEMB program was very unstructured (I believe it has changed a lot since then). There were really no required classes, or even deadlines for completing written or oral exams. Although I enjoy working independently, back then I would have had an easier time with a more structured program, and with more guidance from my advisor (and other professors) along the way.

What were your career goals while you were a grad student at UCSB?

I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do after graduate school for most of the time I was at UCSB. I knew I loved being out in nature, doing the fieldwork. And I also loved living in Brazil, learning and adapting to a new culture and language. In my last year or two, back in Santa Barbara, I realized I probably didn’t want to become a professor.  But at the time, there was really no guidance available for Ph.D. students (at least in ecology) who wanted to pursue a career outside of academia.

Do you have any suggestions for universities on how to better prepare grad students for careers?

That’s a tough question. I think (hope?) most graduate schools are doing a better job of recognizing that many Ph.D. students will not become professors, and of providing more guidance about alternative careers. Just this past week, I spoke with graduate students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis about my career trajectory – that graduate seminar was all about exposing students to alternative science careers –  in industry, government, non-profits, etc.

Véronique LaCapra with one of her mentors, public radio journalist Alex Chadwick.I also think financial counseling for students is critical, in this age of ever-increasing educational costs.

What strengths do you think a grad student would bring to an employer?

I think graduate school gives students strong analytical skills, and the ability to work and think independently.

Who has been and/or is a hero, mentor, role model, or inspiration to you?

My parents ... several wonderful high school teachers ... and so many people that I’ve had the opportunity to meet as a science reporter, who are passionate about their work and beliefs.

At UCSB, Dr. Oliver Chadwick, without whose support (both moral and financial) I might not have completed my doctorate.

In public radio, there are so many! But (public radio journalist) Alex Chadwick; (former NPR field producer, host, and reporter) Katie Davis; John Biewen of the Center for Documentary Studies; (NPR multimedia engineer and journalist) Flawn Williams; and (NPR science editor) Alison Richards, just to name a few!

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

Véronique LaCapra met Garrison Keillor at a public radio event.I hope that’s still to come!

What’s on your bucket list of things to do that you haven’t done?

I want to travel as much as I can and see as much of the world as I can.

What is something that very few people know about you or that would surprise people to learn about you?

People who know me know this, but it might be a surprise to the people I’ve interviewed – I’m very much of an introvert. So it takes a lot of “gearing up” for me to approach people I don’t know, and get them to talk to me on tape!

You do a lot of traveling for your job. What do you do for fun and/or relaxation when not working?

Yup, traveling! As much as I can. And I also love to sing. I’ve been in choral groups for most of my life – although sadly, not since becoming a full-time reporter – the schedule is just too unpredictable.

What did receiving fellowship assistance mean to you?

It meant a lot. The financial package I was offered was one of the main factors that made me choose UCSB over the other graduate programs I was accepted into. Thanks to the fellowship, and subsequent research and teaching assistant positions, I was able to get my graduate degree without incurring any debt at all – which has given me an enormous amount of freedom in choosing what career to pursue after graduate school.

Here are links to some of Véronique LaCapra's work:

Investigation: Missouri's Execution Drug Source Raises Legal, Ethical Questions

'Shake-and-Bake' Meth Causes Uptick in Burn Victims

Ancient Suburb Near St. Louis Could Be Lost Forever

Trumpeter Swans Flock in Record Numbers to St. Louis-Area Bird Sanctuary

Two Young Women Scientists from UMSL Forge Their Futures in the Galapagos

You can see and hear more of LaCapra’s work at

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