Faculty at UCI apply their scholarly endeavors to hands-on activities that enrich lives throughout the world. They engage in volunteerism, research, and teaching to lead change that will improve the world in which we live. Take a look at a few of UCI’s amazing faculty and their passion for research.
Templeton Prize Won by UCI Professor
Francisco Ayala, UC Irvine professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, won the 2010 Templeton Prize which was awarded to him in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Valued at $1.51 million, the Prize is the world’s largest annual award given to an individual and honors a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Dr. Ayala donated the monetary award to UCI for graduate fellowships in biological sciences.
“Francisco Ayala’s thoughtful contributions to the science-religion debate, along with his groundbreaking research and its implications for world health, exemplify the highest level of intellectual discourse and excellence at UC Irvine,” said UCI Chancellor Michael Drake. “No one is more deserving of this honor.” In addition to holding professorships in biology, philosophy, logic, and philosophy of biology (a field he helped establish), Dr. Ayala is also University Professor, the highest rank within the California university system and the only person with that title at UCI.
Taking Coping Skills Global
Floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, volcanic eruptions – Indonesians have seen it all. While life goes on after such disasters, survivors can bear emotional and physical scars. With a UC Irvine team affiliated with Psychology Beyond Borders, they are getting help with healing. Thanks to UC Irvine researcher, Roxane Cohen Silver, and UC Irvine psychology and social behavior graduate student, Edwin Tan, Indonesian students and their families are learning to cope with trauma.
“Indonesians tend to avoid outwardly showing their emotions and often repress their feelings,” Tan says. “We give them an opportunity to talk about these things if they need to.” “Disaster is part of their world,” says Cohen Silver. “We hope to teach the families how to deal with the constant threat of disaster, and also how to cope with the likely future exposure.”
Pioneering Stem Cell Research
Hans S. Keirstead is an associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. He is one of the nation’s pioneers in the use of human embryonic stem cells in the study of spinal cord injuries. The research he conducts also focuses on understanding stem cell therapies as they relate to spinal muscular atrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases of the nervous system.
A therapy developed at UC Irvine that made paralyzed rats walk again will become the world’s first embryonic stem cell treatment tested in humans. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the therapy, based on work by a research team led by Dr. Keirstead. “This trial was approved only after rigorous safety testing and consultation of countless experts in the field. Any benefit to the patient, even an incremental one, would be a resounding victory.”
“I have never seen in my career a biological tool as powerful as stem cells. It addresses every single human disease.” Embryonic stem cells, which are extracted from embryos just five days after fertilization, are capable of becoming any type of cell in the body, can be grown in infinite numbers, and can replace cells that have been destroyed or damaged by disease or injury.
Helping Haitians Find Their Families
When a devastating earthquake leveled much of Haiti recently, it knocked out communications and made it nearly impossible for families in the stricken nation and elsewhere to locate and identify loved ones. In one weekend, Chen Li, UC Irvine associate professor of computer science, and six of his students created a Web site with a collective search engine to help reunite family members separated by the earthquake.
The Haiti Family Reunification site scours and pulls data from other Web sites and compiles it in one location. Sources include CNN iReport, the Red Cross and the Person Finder application hosted by Google. Shortly after its launch, the Google site alone was receiving about 90 queries per minute.
“One focus of my research team is how to make search engines more powerful,” Li says. “We’re always trying to find real-world applications for our research results, and this disaster gave us the opportunity.”
He and his students began the Family Reunification project after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They developed a search engine that lets people look for lost relatives by quickly scanning ever-changing databases, even if a person’s name is spelled incorrectly – instead of having to visit each Web site independently and input multiple variations of a name.
Doctoral students Sattam Alsubaiee, Alexander Behm, Inci Cetindil, Shengyue Ji and Rares Vernica, as well as undergrad Dustin Lakin, helped create the Haiti Family Reunification site.
UCI Professor Elected to National Academy of Sciences
Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor in UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology and forensic memory expert, is one of only a handful of scientists from around the world elected to the respected National Academy of Sciences. “I’m honored to join such accomplished scientists and scholars,” Loftus said. “It's a humbling experience. I'm still saying ‘pinch me’ to myself.”
A pioneer in false memory research, her work during the past three decades indicates that memory is highly susceptible to distortion and contamination, and that people can be influenced to “remember” familiar or common experiences that did not actually occur. Loftus has examined numerous claims of repressed memory in court that have turned out to be highly dubious or false. She also has explored the memories of eyewitnesses whose accounts are sometimes inaccurate and have led to the conviction of innocent people.
The Review of General Psychology ranked Dr. Loftus among the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century – a list that begins with luminaries B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.