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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 30 · Number 1 · Fall 2012

News & Notes

We're the coolest!

Sierra magazine has named UC Davis the nation’s “Coolest School” for its commitment to sustainability.

Already an international powerhouse in the environmental sciences, UC Davis’ No. 1 ranking as the “Coolest School” reflects its real-world green achievements on a number of diverse fronts, according to the Sierra Club’s official publication, which announced the honor in August. From research to classroom learning and campus operations, the university is advancing knowledge on this issue, which is of deep interest to students and employees alike.

“At UC Davis, not only can you take a class about sustainability, but you can go on a field trip with the professor, join a club, get involved in the Student Farm. Sustainability is a really important topic, and UC Davis is a good place to learn about it,” said student Tessa Artale, director of the Campus Center for the Environment.

The magazine noted that UC Davis received the honor for establishing rigorous green purchasing standards; diverting nearly 70 percent of campus trash from landfills; and offering an extensive transportation system that includes the student-run, natural gas-powered Unitrans bus service that carries more than 21,000 passengers daily, 42 miles of bike paths and 20,000-plus bike parking spaces on its 5,300-acre campus. It also has established itself as a leader in environmental sustainability through a number of other measures:

A Climate Action Plan that has reduced campus greenhouse gas emissions below year 2000 levels and expects to reach year 1990 levels by 2020.

A $39 million Smart Lighting Initiative that is on track to reduce campus electrical use by 60 percent by 2015, saving $3 million on the annual electricity bill. In June, UC Davis became the first campus in the nation to introduce adaptive, networked exterior lighting, a project that alone will save $100,000 annually in electricity costs. [See “Smart Lighting,” page 5].

Sustainable transportation planning that encourages more than 85 percent of students and 46 percent of employees to walk, bicycle, carpool, ride a bus or take train for commuting.

Last fall, the university drew international attention for its commitment to sustainability when it officially opened the doors to UC Davis West Village, the nation’s largest planned zero net energy community. The 130-acre development, which will house about 3,000 students, faculty and staff, is designed to generate as much electricity as it uses in the course of a year.

UC Davis is using its world-renowned arboretum as a model to transition the 900-acre central campus into a “public garden” featuring sustainable maintenance practices and native plants.

Four UC Davis building complexes are certified LEED platinum, the highest ranking awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council — that’s more than any other UC campus. One is the world’s first LEED platinum winery and brewery where students are learning to produce fine wine and beer using less water and electricity.

Other notable UC Davis campus sustainability achievements include aggressive recycling, composting and reuse efforts that divert more than 60 percent of campus waste from entering landfills annually. Aggie Stadium has won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Wastewise Game Day Challenge diversion rate championship for the past two years. In 2011, the stadium diverted more than 93 percent of its waste on challenge day. Throughout the year, the stadium recycles or composts about 80 percent of its waste.

Also, Student Housing’s Dining Services spends more than 20 percent of its $5.6 million food budget each year on local products, buys organic items such as poultry and grains, and serves olive oil and tomatoes from campus farms.

“At UC Davis, sustainability is one of our core values,” said Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “I am very proud of the staff, faculty and students who have worked so hard to make this achievement possible and to invest in a more sustainable future for our campus.”

More information: (including a video)


Red planet connections

When the rover Curiosity landed safely on Mars in August, UC Davis had extra cause to celebrate — alumni Adam Steltzner ’90 and José Santos ’04 helped develop its landing system, and geology professor Dawn Sumner helped conduct the scientific phase of the mission.

Steltzner was the lead mechanical engineer for the rover’s entry, descent and landing system. Santos also worked on that project. They both were mechanical engineering majors at UC Davis.

Sumner, a co-investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team, served as a long-term planner from the mission’s base at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. One of her first tasks was to direct Curiosity, via computer, to shoot some of the first true color photographs ever taken of Mars. She also coordinated the first scientific interpretations of what was seen when the rover landed while helping to make daily decisions about the research vehicle’s activities.

“One of the important parts of this mission for me is to inspire students to ask big, important questions and participate in human endeavors, like exploration of other planets,” Sumner said. 

Steltzner’s unusual path to NASA — and his Elvis-style hairstyle — have earned him nicknames like “rock ’n’ roll engineer” and “Elvis guy.” Steltzner struggled in high school and failed geometry, played bass in some San Francisco Bay Area bands and watched his friends go to college. Then some idle stargazing on the way home from a gig spurred an interest in astronomy, and he enrolled in a physics class at community college. He was hooked, and decided to go on to college.

Since joining the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1991, Steltzner has worked on a number of other projects in addition to Curiosity, including the Galileo and Cassini missions to Jupiter and Saturn, respectively; and three other Mars missions — Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity.

Aggie Olympians

Three Aggies who had never competed on the same team before — two of them alums and one an incoming veterinary student — represented the U.S. in the London Olympics this summer.

Swimmer Scott Weltz ’10, in his first international competition, placed fifth in the 200-meter breaststroke. His stunning showing led news media, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News, to call him one of the most remarkable stories of the Summer Olympics.

Runner Kim Conley ’09 fell short of qualifying for the 5,000-meter finals, but ran her best time ever. Kayaker Carrie Johnson, in her third Olympics, made it to the semifinals in the solo 500-meter and 200-meter races, then left for UC Davis to start her first year of veterinary classes.

A warning on climate 'tipping point'

Humans may be causing an irreversible, planetary-scale tipping point that could severely impact fisheries, agriculture, clean water and much of what Earth needs to sustain its inhabitants.

That is the consensus of an international team of 22 scientists that includes two UC Davis professors. Such a change has not been seen since the shift from the Ice Age to an interglacial age 11,700 years ago — a time of mass extinctions and extreme climate shifts, according to the authors, who estimate that Earth may experience the next major tipping point within a few generations.

The authors call for accelerated global cooperation to reduce world population growth and per-capita resource use, replace fossil fuels with sustainable sources, develop more efficient food production and distribution systems, and better protect land and ocean areas not already dominated by humans. They also urge focused research to identify early warning signs of a global transition.

“Once you go past the tipping point, putting it back together is much more difficult than preventing something from happening,” said Alan Hastings, professor of environmental science and policy and one of the study’s authors.

Hastings uses mathematical models to understand natural systems. For example, he studied a coral reef that had been overrun with seaweed after a 1983 plague killed nearly all of the sea urchins that served as natural grazers for the coral. Grazing parrotfish filled in for the sea urchins, forming a second line of defense, until they became overfished. Hastings calculated that once the reef went past its tipping point, a drastic increase in parrotfish would be required to bring it back to a healthy state. 

The researchers analyzed how similar scenarios might play out on a global scale, as well as what data from the end of the last glacial period might reveal about future tipping points.

“This isn’t the first time a tipping point has happened,” said paleontologist Geerat Vermeij, who brought a geological perspective to the review. He analyzed fossil records for clues about the nature, speed, causes and predictability of past tipping points. “We’d like to know what these earlier ones were like and if they tell us anything about future ones.”

The paper describes an urgent need for better predictive models that are based on a detailed understanding of how the biosphere reacted in the distant past to rapidly changing conditions, including climate and human population growth. Better forecasting could lead to better decisions about protecting natural resources.

Vermeij thinks that in some ways, Earth has already reached a tipping point.

“Many people who have written about our ecological future have expressed a level of optimism that I simply don’t share,” he said. “I think it’s de rigueur to write optimistically because people don’t like pessimism, and rightly so. But sometimes you have to be realistic. Sometimes you have to say things the way they are.”

Hastings also warns that solutions will be difficult. “Irrespective of the impact on global warming, we don’t have simple ways to generate enough energy to power the world the way it’s been going for that much longer,” he said. “Things are going to get ugly.”

The team reported its conclusions in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature.

Kat Kerlin


Champion of change


Henry “Hoby” Wedler (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Henry “Hoby” Wedler ’11, a blind graduate student in organic chemistry, was one of 14 individuals honored in May at the White House as Champions of Change for leading the way for people with disabilities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

As a UC Davis undergraduate, Wedler double majored in chemistry and history. He originally planned to study history in graduate school, thinking his blindness posed too great an obstacle to a lab-oriented, scientific career. But under the guidance of chemistry professor Dean Tantillo, the lab equipment was made accessible to Wedler — this was achieved by creating 3-D ball-and-stick models. One day, Wedler hopes to become a chemistry professor.

Wedler said programs offered by the National Federation of the Blind in high school also helped give him the confidence to challenge the mistaken belief that STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — are too visual and, therefore, impractical for blind people.

“I use the same mental process in doing chemistry as I use for my survival as a blind traveler,” Wedler wrote for a White House blog. “When I think about the map of a campus or town, the layout of desks in a classroom or the position of carbons in a benzene molecule, I use the same set of skills. I discovered that the reason chemistry has been such a passion for me is because I’ve always used that part of my brain.”

Wedler also founded and teaches at an annual chemistry camp near Napa for blind and low-vision high school students. He was nominated for the Champions of Change honor by Douglas Sprei of Learning Ally, a nonprofit formerly known as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.

Heart-Stopping Clean?

Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical widely used in hand soaps and other personal-care products, hinders muscle contractions at a cellular level, slows swimming in fish and reduces muscular strength in mice, according to UC Davis researchers.

The investigators performed several experiments to evaluate the effects of triclosan on muscle activity, using doses similar to those that people and animals may be exposed to during everyday life. They found that triclosan impaired the ability of isolated heart muscle cells and skeletal muscle fibers to contract.

Triclosan is commonly found in antibacterial personal-care products such as hand soaps as well as deodorants, mouthwashes, toothpaste, bedding, clothes, carpets, toys and trash bags. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 estimated that more than 1 million pounds of triclosan are produced annually in the United States.

“Triclosan is found in virtually everyone’s home and is pervasive in the environment,” said Isaac Pessah, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and principal investigator of the study. “These findings provide strong evidence that the chemical is of concern to both human and environmental health.”


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