Coastlines Online, UC Santa Barbara Alumni Association


Fall 2017
Edge of Discovery header

Preparing for massive advances in medical science.

By Sophia Fischer

Imagine a future with no cancer, Alzheimer’s or diabetes, where DNA and gene editing corrects disease before it happens, where blindness can be reversed. As these and other major innovations in medical research progress, more students want in. UC Santa Barbara has seen a significant jump in the number of undergraduates choosing life science majors from biochemistry to cell biology; molecular to marine biology; ecology and evolution to psychology and pharmacology. To meet the demand, the university is creating new majors, revamping courses, increasing research opportunities and hiring additional faculty.

“The 20th century saw tremendous advances in the physical sciences,” said Pierre Wiltzius, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science. “The biological sciences are still in their infancy stages in terms of predicting what happens to living systems and that’s the biggest trophy of the 21st century: making biology and life sciences into something that has the same level of prediction and understanding that we have in physical science. I want undergraduate students to be part of that and indeed they are motivated to participate.”

The Numbers
Biological science majors have been the most popular among students every year since 2011 with about one-quarter of all incoming UCSB freshmen declaring biology as a major. There were more bachelor’s degrees conferred in life science majors - more than 1,300 - than any other area of study among the 5,580 UCSB graduates in June, 2017, according to UCSB’s Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment.

UCSB faculty and administrators offer reasons for the increased interest in life science including perceived job security, marketplace demand, and exciting new tools and techniques developed in science research and healthcare.

“I think when the economic meltdown happened people stopped wanting to go into business, finance and law. Going into healthcare seemed like a good job,” explained Stephen Poole, UCSB associate professor and chair of Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology. “On the first day of class we ask, ‘What do you want to do with your career?’ Most students say health sciences: physician assistant, biotech, pharmacist, doctor, anything in allied health fields that requires a bachelor’s degree. It’s pretty diverse and not just MD.”

In fact, there has been a huge increase nationwide with 15.8 percent of all incoming college freshmen to four-year institutions indicating their intended major in the biological and life sciences, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Of the 30 fastest growing occupations over the next seven years, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics lists 20 as health related.

“Students ask what’s supposed to happen and we tell them we don’t know because you are the first person to do it. That’s what science is, the exploration of the unknown and it’s exciting to students to do an experiment no one has done before.”
—Associate Professor Rolf Christoffersen

New Directions
Reflecting this emphasis, UCSB is developing majors in neuroscience, bioengineering, marine science and data science. New classes are being offered in psychological and brain science. UCSB renamed the Department of Chemistry to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the Department of Psychology to the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. The university established the Brain Initiative, part of a federal program to encourage collaborative brain research, and a new bioengineering building opened on campus in August to house engineering, chemistry and biochemistry departments.

“I’m excited about having a diverse collection of researchers all with interests at the interface of life sciences and engineering together in a single building,” said Kevin Plaxco, Chemistry & Biochemistry vice chair and director of the Center for Bioengineering. “Until now, the biology hadn’t advanced far enough, our understanding wasn’t sophisticated enough to seriously exploit biology-inspired ideas and biological materials in engineering applications. But that has changed; the time is ripe for an engineering revolution.”

For fall, 2017, 15 new faculty were hired across science disciplines. Last year 24 new science professors joined the university. Wiltzius expects robust hiring to continue.

It will take biophysicists, biochemists, computer scientists, bio statisticians and others with different competencies and disciplines to work together,” Wiltzius remarked. “At UCSB, this is what we are good at, working outside of our disciplines on large complex problems that we can make major contributions to.”

To help students succeed in these demanding science majors, support programs and new ways of teaching have been introduced. There is more engagement rather than lecture in the classroom, small discussion groups, peer mentors, and research opportunities. In 2014, UCSB received a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to fund the BioMentors program to increase success and retention of students in biology.

“There’s been a lot of effort in biological science departments to improve the quality of teaching especially in these large initial classes,” said Associate Professor Rolf Christoffersen, who teaches Intro to Biology to several thousand UCSB students each year.

Queenan in the lab with a student researcher
“Diseases of the mind and brain have become the most pressing issues medically, economically and socially. We need new thinking, expertise from multiple areas, we need an all hands-on deck effort.”
— B.N. Queenan, associate director of the UCSB Brain Initiative

More Research
As one of the top research centers in the world, UCSB will continue to place an emphasis on student research. About 57 percent of all undergraduates participate in research and the university hopes to increase that number to 100 percent. With that goal in mind, a biology research lab experience class was introduced attracting more than 800 students each year.

“Students ask what’s supposed to happen and we tell them we don’t know because you are the first person to do it. That’s what science is, the exploration of the unknown and it’s exciting to students to do an experiment no one has done before,” Christoffersen commented. “With the results, we’re creating this huge database that is really useful to the scientific community.”

One of the biggest unknowns in the biological sciences is the brain. The relatively new UCSB Brain Initiative is bringing together faculty, researchers and students from many disciplines to create the type of research collaborations the university prides itself on. B.N. Queenan, associate director of the UCSB Brain Initiative, is particularly interested in training non-science majors to play a role in the future of biomedical sciences. Students studying programming, graphic design, marketing, economics and financial analysis can contribute their skills.

“Diseases of the mind and brain have become the most pressing issues medically, economically and socially,” Queenan said. “The lost quality of life is enormous- we all have a loved one suffering from Parkinsons, Alzheimer’s, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or autism. We need new thinking, expertise from multiple areas, we need an all hands-on deck effort.”

The impact of these research initiatives will have an effect for decades, said UCSB Vice Chancellor for Research Joseph Incandela.

“Physics, chemistry and other hard sciences will continue to make progress and in some sense there are revolutions going on in all of these areas but to a large extent biological systems are becoming more accessible to be understood,” Incandela said. “Scientists really focus on what they can solve.”

Queenan values the unique research environment at UCSB, adding that not having a medical school at the university promotes the fundamental research that leads to long-term scientific revolutions.

“The future of medicine is and has always been in basic research, in people studying things they find interesting,” Queenan said. “If we want things to improve, it’s critical for society to train students to be scientists and to keep pushing the boundaries of discovery in the fundamental sciences. But we also need to train students regardless of their major to know how each of them is capable of making medicine better. We need to convince every student that they can contribute to solving the world’s health problems.”

UCSB faculty shares additional predictions and hopes for science students and the future of healthcare.

Pierre Wiltzius, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science:
Pierre Wiltzius, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science: Once we understand the biology at that level- and it will take a number of decades to get there- then we will also understand how diseases happen. Diagnostics right now are very often way too late. By the time we are diagnosed with cancer it’s way down the hill ahead. You want to know 10 years before then you have a much better chance. There will be completely new ways of drug discovery. Right now it’s by trial and error- you try 100 compounds and hope that one works and doesn’t kill. The whole concept of correcting mistakes in the DNA or in the gene through gene and dna editing techniques will lead to revolutionary dramatic changes in diagnostics, therapeutics and ultimately prevention. This will turn medicine into something completely different than what it is today. Why UCSB? We are different from other UC campuses in that we don’t have major professional schools- there is no business, law or medical school so our faculty is mostly focused on undergrad and Ph.D. level research. This is the kind of research we want to be a part of.

Joseph Incandela, vice chancellor for Research:
One of the interesting things of a campus like ours is that we have a very strong connection between the more engineering-oriented researchers who develop these tools like spectrometers, magnets and microscopes working together with those scientists who use those tools. Advances always start with new tools and new ways of looking at things. For example, the discovery of DNA is only 50 years old. We know what DNA is, now we can read mine and your DNA and poke at it and take one pair out and put another one in- all these new tools then get the mind going and the more theoretical thinkers going, “What if?”

You have physics, chemistry, many branches of engineering and even marine science and religious studies connected to look at things like is there a morality in fish behavior, and how are we looking at moral issues related to life sciences? Let’s figure out how life works to help understand diseases and the health and welfare of the human race. From physics, brain and neuroscience, even big data and computing aside, there’s a strong interest in understanding what life really is at a fundamental level and that is something that we are approaching an understanding of. There’s beginning to be some understanding of how life may be driven by the laws of physics to exist. The whole idea of really understanding life and life processes, being able to alter how we treat disease and understand interactions of humans and environment, are the big topics of the century, and there is a lot more to be learned than in other fields.

Stephen Poole, associate professor and chair of Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology:
Across the country there has been an explosion in the number of undergrads wanting to go into life sciences. By senior year students are realistic about the GPA they need to be competitive for med school but there are a lot of other jobs in health sciences. They learn over time and decide to that maybe they would like to be a scientist while others would rather sell pharmaceuticals. One student who worked in my lab decided to go into fashion design.

Rolf Christoffersen, associate professor, Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology:
So many students came to me and said, “I read the chapter over and over again but still failed.” They think that’s what they need to do. If you ask students what’s the best way to study they always say the worst way. I always tell them how to learn better. We assume they know how to learn when they get here out of high school but high school learning is very different than college, especially for students from less rich resource environments. You get here and you’re not equipped to get to med school. Those are their goals.

Kevin Plaxco, Chemistry and Biochemistry vice chair and director of the Center for Bioengineering:
Bioengineering is the wave of the future for engineering. If you look around the biosphere you see the evolution of all kinds of amazing challenges using a simple toolkit. We humans don’t exploit those tools and processes very much yet but the potential is great.