Paving the Way to a Better Future

At UC Santa Barbara, collaboration and innovation are in our institutional DNA. As a tier one research university, we’re renowned and ranked — across the globe — for our impact across the disciplines. Illuminating both the past and the present, our discoveries and scholarship are paving the way toward a better future.

Here are just a few recent highlights:

Chasing Covid

As the omicron variant was first starting to emerge, Zach Aralis, a graduate student researcher in biomolecular science and engineering, worked quickly to develop a new lab test specific to omicron. Guided by virologist and professor Carolina Arias, and with access to the omicron genome, he designed a test from scratch that can pick up features unique to omicron, such as the genetic sequences that underlie the variant’s significant number of mutations. Aralis’ assay could serve as a template for defense against future major COVID variants.

A research team led by professors Michael Mahan, David Low and Charles Samuel developed a new cell phone app and lab kit that have transformed a smartphone into a COVID-19/flu detection system. The detection system is among the most rapid, sensitive, affordable and scalable tests known — and can be readily adapted for other pathogens with pandemic potential including deadly variants of COVID and flu. It also provides a platform for inexpensive home-based testing. Published in the journal JAMA Network Open, the system succeeded in achieving rapid and accurate diagnosis of COVID-19, COVID variants, and flu viruses.

Corona Virus

It Takes Two to Tonga

In January 2022, the volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai devastated the nation of Tonga. The eruption triggered tsunamis as far afield as the Caribbean and generated atmospheric waves that traveled around the globe several times. Meanwhile, the volcano’s plume shot gas and ash through the stratosphere into the lower mesosphere.

Just two months after the eruption, geologists put together a preliminary account of how it unfolded. Earth scientists Melissa Scruggs, a recent doctoral graduate, and emeritus professor Frank Spera were part of an international team of researchers that published the first holistic account of the event in the journal Earthquake Research Advances.

Robin Matoza led a team of 76 scientists, from 17 nations, to characterize the eruption’s atmospheric waves, the strongest recorded from a volcano since the 1883 Krakatau eruption. The team’s work details the size of the waves originating from the eruption, which the authors found were on par with those from Krakatau. The data also provides exceptional resolution of the evolving wavefield compared to what was available from the historic event. Published in the journal Science, it is the first comprehensive account of the eruption’s atmospheric waves.

Racism and Representation

Anti-Asian racism and violence seemed to spike during the pandemic. But Diane Fujino, a professor of Asian American studies, notes this racism is nothing new; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II are merely the most visible manifestations of physical and structural racism Asians have faced since their arrival to this country. Asian American activism, however, is “conspicuously invisible,” Fujino writes in “Contemporary Asian American Activism: Building Movements for Liberation” (University of Washington Press, 2022). Co-edited with UC Davis professor Robyn Magalit Rodriguez ’96, a UCSB alumna, the book counters the trope of the “model minority,” highlighting current Asian American activism and centering on the question of how to create change.

Born into slavery, John Wesley Gilbert became one of America’s great scholars — a classicist, a linguist, an archaeologist and an educator, a community leader and a missionary. Yet he is little known to the general public. John W.I. Lee, an associate professor of history, aims to correct that oversight with “The First Black Archaeologist: A Life of John Wesley Gilbert” (Oxford University Press, 2022). The biography meticulously traces Gilbert’s rise to national prominence in an era when African Americans often faced obstacles in obtaining even an elementary education. It also details his lifelong commitment to interracial cooperation, an important but sometimes overlooked thread of 19th century U.S. history, and opens a window to the blossoming of African American education during and after the U.S. Civil War.

stop asian hate sculpture and book cover

Top: Michele Bell | Chinatown Live


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Indigenous Lifeways & Place Names

Graduate student Sarah Noe’s research, published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, adds to a growing body of knowledge that highlights the resilience of Native Californians throughout the Mission Period, actively maintaining technological, subsistence and religious practices despite the hardships of the time. Understanding the continuity of their persistence in the face of colonialism, she said, counters the erasure narrative that has been the center of popular history for so long. Examining food refuse in Native Californian living quarters at Mission Santa Clara, her findings demonstrate that the group continued to traditionally prepare their Spanish-style meals by fracturing mammalian bones to extract marrow and grease.

A paper in the journal People and Nature co-authored by Grace Wu, an assistant professor of environmental studies, states that addressing place names could be a starting point for reckoning with the country’s history of dispossessing Indigenous nations from their lands. The study quantifies the scale of the problem in U.S. national parks and puts the movement to change place names in context. Reviewing more than 2,000 place names in 16 national parks, including Acadia, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains, the researchers’ analysis revealed a striking trend of names that commemorate violence and colonialism while erasing Indigenous cultures. The team places its work in service to local and national name-changing campaigns. For over a century, Native American groups like the Blackfeet and Lakota have called for changing place names at national parks and monuments.

Check out more exciting research on the Current

Additional Stories

Spring / Summer 2022

Additional Features

circuit board illustration

The Ethics of Technology

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Bee Happy

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Gauchos Gone Pro