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UC salutes the class of 2015

Graduates celebrate across a range of disciplines.

UC San Francisco medical students join the University of California's class of 2015.

Congratulations to the University of California’s class of 2015! Some 60,000 UC students this year will be awarded bachelor’s or advanced degrees, including those across UC’s health professional schools in medicine, dentistry, nursing, optometry, pharmacy, public health and veterinary medicine.

View UC coverage on Storify.

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UC med centers rated high-performing hospitals by U.S. News

New ratings based on care for five common conditions or procedures.

UC medical centers received several high-performing ratings in the Best Hospitals for Common Care rankings. (Photo by Elena Zhukova)

Four University of California medical centers are rated as high-performing hospitals in new rankings released today (May 20) by U.S. News & World Report.

The Best Hospitals for Common Care ratings measure the performance of hospitals in five common conditions or procedures – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure, heart bypass surgery, hip replacement and knee replacement.

UC Davis Medical Center was ranked as a high performer in four areas: COPD, heart bypass surgery, heart failure and hip replacement. UC San Francisco Medical Center ranked as a high performer in three areas: COPD, heart failure and hip replacement. UCLA Health System ranked as a high performer in two areas: heart bypass surgery and heart failure. UC Irvine Medical Center ranked as a high performer in one area: heart failure.

U.S. News created the rankings to help patients find better care for procedures and medical conditions that account for a large percentage of hospitalizations each year. The ratings are based on objective outcome measures such as deaths, infections, readmissions and operations that need to be repeated, along with patient satisfaction data. The ratings also rely on Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data for patients 65 and older, as well as survey data from the American Hospital Association and clinical registry data from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

“UC Davis is a leader in treating rare diseases and conditions,” said Ann Madden Rice, chief executive officer of UC Davis Medical Center. “I am extremely pleased that these new ratings also demonstrate our high performance in caring for those with the chronic lung, heart and orthopedic conditions that affect thousands in our region.”

The common care evaluations include more than 4,500 hospitals nationwide that were rated as high performers, average or below average. Only about 10 percent of the hospitals were rated as high performers for any condition or procedure.

Survey results are available online at

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UC Grad Slam winners make research accessible one pitch at a time

Graduate students captivate audience by keeping it simple.

UC Irvine's Ashley Fong delivers the top-prize-winning presentation at the UC Grad Slam on using stem cells to mend damaged hearts. (Photos by Robert Durell)

By Nicole Freeling

>>Watch UC Grad Slam and individual students’ presentations

It took UC Irvine graduate student Ashley Fong years to make significant advances in her research using stem cells to repair damaged heart muscle, but just minutes — three to be exact — to wow a panel of judges with a succinct explanation of her work and capture the championship at the first UC-wide Grad Slam tournament.

Graduate students are rarely rewarded for being brief or simple, but those were the exact requirements to win Monday, as 10 UC scientists and scholars competed to deliver the most illuminating three-minute explanation of their work.

An elated Fong took home $6,000 in prize money and the glory of out-talking her peers — all of whom had won similar contests at their home campuses and provided some tough competition.

Coming in second and third place were Daniel Hieber of UC Santa Barbara and Alex Phan of UC San Diego, with talks on efforts to save a language from extinction and a device to help glaucoma patients.

“I have experience speaking at conferences,” Fong said. “But those are long talks, with dozens of slides, to a roomful of experts.”

She participated in Grad Slam, she said, to learn to communicate her work and why it matters to people outside the field. That skill is a growing necessity for researchers everywhere, as public funding for research and higher education grows ever more competitive. In such a climate, academics who can articulate the value of their research have an important edge. Grad Slam was aimed at giving master’s and Ph.D. students important career-building skills, while offering the public a window into the breadth of work being done across UC campuses.

Contestants spent weeks preparing, taking workshops and working one-on-one with coaches to hone their ideas, craft the structure of their talk and present extremely complex ideas in a way that would be relatable to a general audience.

By the time they took to the stage Monday, the students had honed their presentations to a fine point. Most were also well-versed in speaking in front of an audience, having competed in several qualifying rounds before taking the top prize on each of their campuses.

Public speaking did not come naturally at first, said Phan, a graduate student in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “But once you take this on, it stops being quite so uncomfortable. You begin to build up your confidence.”

The effort paid off: Phan won third place for his talk Fight for Sight, about an implantable pressure sensor that provides continuous monitoring for glaucoma patients. Phan ultimately hopes to patent the technology and bring it to market. When the award was announced, Phan’s parents, who had traveled from Los Angeles to watch the competition, leapt from their seats. “We are so proud of him,” said his mother.

UC Grad Slam winners Alex Phan, left, third place; Ashley Fong, first place; and Daniel Hieber, second place.

Learning to demystify their research

“Making the mysteries of basic research more understandable and accessible to the public is one of my priorities, and part of our responsibility as the nation’s premier public research university,” said UC President Janet Napolitano, who served as the event emcee. “Grad Slam plays a key role in highlighting the broad, societal significance of research at UC.”

Non-academics, including NBC Bay Area News anchor Jessica Aguirre, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Josh Green and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, joined UC Regent Eddie Island and UC Provost Aimée Dorr as the contest judges. They evaluated contestants based on their ability to clearly and concisely explain their research and its impact.

The judges had a difficult task in determining the winner from a field of students, all of whom came across as polished, engaging and passionate about their pursuits.

“It’s been so great to be able to explain my research to people in my church, to my friends,” said UCLA master’s student Jean Paul Santos, who told the audience about a small, more powerful antennae he is engineering to help NASA scientists communicate directly with the Mars rover. “I had to figure out, how can I share the novelties of my research without going overboard or over your head?”

UC Riverside plant pathologist Jeannette Rapicavoli, who is a first-generation college student, said the experience had helped her better explain her research to her family. “It was like: ‘So this is why you want to be in college for nine years. We can understand it now.’”

Students described new insights into how species behave, how to help crops withstand drought, and how food waste can be harnessed as a source of fuel.

Reviving a dead language

Daniel Hieber, a linguistics Ph.D. student and the lone competitor not in a science, technology or engineering field, took second place for his talk about how he has helped to revive a language in the Louisiana bayou whose last native speakers died in the 1930s. From wax audio recordings of their voices, along with written archives, Hieber has reconstructed the Chitimacha language, even creating a Rosetta Stone audio tape, which tribal members now listen to in their cars.

“For the first time in 70 years, you can hear Chitimacha being spoken again in the schools and communities of the bayou,” Hieber said.

Following each of the presentations, Napolitano bantered with researchers, asking them about how they got interested in their line of research. “The work you’re doing represents years of serious research. But there’s no reason we can’t have a little fun,” she said.

UC Davis food scientist Ryan Dowdy described how as a boy, he would mix together water, oil and food coloring as a kid and sell it on the street, instead of the usual lemonade.

“I charged 50 cents. I made a killing.”

Dowdy and his peers represent an emerging breed of researchers, who are breaking down the stereotype of the elite intellectual, said National Public Radio contributor Sandra Tsing Loh, who teaches a science communications class at UC Irvine and had come to cheer contestants on. The public is hungry, Lo said, for scholars and scientists who can unleash the excitement of their discoveries.

Far from fitting the image of the aloof scientist, Grad Slam contestants described their passion pursuing advances that directly touch the lives of Californians and people elsewhere.

Fong described the mantra she uses when the rigors and frustrations of research overwhelm her. It was the same one she used at Grad Slam to get herself primed for the competition. “When I need to ground myself, I just remember, I want to save lives. That’s the reason I got into research.”

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UC Health center breaks down barriers to sharing innovations

Center for Health Quality and Innovation holds fourth annual colloquium.

UC San Francisco's Rebecca Smith-Bindman is one of the UC Center for Health Quality and Innovation grant recipients who spoke at the center's fourth annual colloquium in Oakland.

By Alec Rosenberg

The University of California’s Center for Health Quality and Innovation has funded projects to improve care at UC medical centers, from higher survival rates for heart attacks to fewer blood clots and lower radiation doses.

But extending such improvements across all five UC medical centers continues to be a challenge, speakers said Wednesday (April 22) at the innovation center’s fourth annual colloquium in Oakland.

In four years, the innovation center has funded 50 projects, with a report finding that its grants produce a 5-to-1 return on investment, said Dr. John Stobo, UC Health executive vice president.

“While each project has been worthy in addressing cost, quality and safety, we have not been as successful in spreading projects from one or two medical centers to all UC medical centers and beyond,” Stobo said. “We are at a crossroads.”

The innovation center was established in October 2010 to foster innovations developed at UC medical center campuses and hospitals in order to improve quality, access and value in the delivery of health care.

Panelists provided an in-depth assessment of barriers to implementing systemwide change in the hopes of identifying solutions to sharing effective projects more broadly.

“That’s the only way we are going to get better,” said moderator Dr. Robert Wachter, professor and associate chair of the Department of Medicine at UC San Francisco. “We may have been too ambitious. Start smaller. Get it right. Build on your successes.”

Reducing radiation doses

The use of computed tomography (CT) exams has risen dramatically in the past 20 years, with about 1 in 5 patients receiving a CT scan each year. While the technology is an important medical advance, it’s estimated that 2 percent of cancers may be caused by CT radiation exposure. CT scans deliver much more radiation than conventional imaging, doses are highly variable and often are higher than needed, said innovation center grantee Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, professor in residence in the Department of Radiology at UCSF.

Smith-Bindman leads the UC DOSE project to optimize and standardize computed tomography radiation doses for patients across UC medical centers. The project has helped reduce CT doses by 25 percent at UC medical centers, generated nine papers and led to more than $10 million in additional grants to expand the work to other hospitals.

But getting buy-in across UC has been difficult, involving many phone calls and urging colleagues to implement changes, which has worked in some cases but not always, she said.

“I have become increasingly frustrated by the tension between research and improving the clinical service,” Smith-Bindman said. “As a researcher, I do not have clout alone to influence day-to-day practice or to motivate ongoing interest in this topic.”

Stopping blood clots

Blood clots are a leading cause of preventable deaths in hospitals nationwide. Among the most deadly of these conditions is venous thromboembolism, VTE, which occurs when a blood clot that develops in a deep vein of the leg or pelvis, dislodges and travels to the lung to form a pulmonary embolism.

A five-campus project led by Dr. Greg Maynard reduced the VTE rate at UC medical centers by 24 percent from 2011 to 2014, preventing about 170 VTE cases and saving $2 million a year.

Still, Maynard has trained other organizations in the VTE protocol and said that they were able to ramp up improvements more quickly than UC medical centers. Standardizing information technology systems would help, said Maynard, who became chief quality officer at UC Davis Medical Center in March after working at UC San Diego.

“It starts with making it a priority at the top,” Maynard said.

Healing hearts

More than 200,000 people have cardiac arrests in U.S. hospitals each year. Less than a quarter of them survive. The Advanced Resuscitation Training (ART) program developed at UC San Diego has reduced the incidence of cardiac arrest at UC San Diego hospitals and doubled survival for remaining victims to about 40 percent. A key factor in those improvements has been having support from the chief medical officer and chief nursing officer, said Dr. Rebecca Sell, assistant professor of clinical medicine at UC San Diego.

An innovation center grant has expanded the ART program, which focuses on prevention, identifying early indicators and creating a culture of resuscitation, to the other UC medical centers. While early results have been promising, “it requires a lot of collaboration,” said Dr. Matt Aldrich, associate professor of anesthesia at UCSF. “There’s a lot of herding cats.”

“It’s hard enough to change one department,” added Dr. Edward Lee, assistant clinical professor of general internal medicine at UCLA.

UC Davis has taken a bottom-up approach that has helped overcome concerns with a “let’s-do-this” mentality, said Dr. Aaron Bair, professor of emergency medicine at UC Davis.

Strength in numbers

Nearly 100 people attended the colloquium. Attendees said they found the discussion fruitful.

“This is great,” said Dr. Catherine Lau, a UCSF hospitalist who is entering the third and final year of an innovation center project to improve neurosurgical patient outcomes and care experiences. “It’s really about sustainability and changing the culture.”

Innovation center Executive Director Karyn DiGiorgio agreed.

“The Center for Health Quality and Innovation plans to keep focusing on scaling up successful projects across UC Health,” DiGiorgio said.

Despite facing barriers, it’s important for UC Health to continue to look at things from a systemwide basis, Stobo said. He pointed to UC Health’s year-old Leveraging Scale for Value initiative, where UC’s five medical centers are working to collaborate as a system to save in the range of $100 million to $150 million a year, focusing initially on supply chain, revenue cycle and clinical laboratories.

“I feel energized about what we can do to spread innovations and help UC Health and the UC system demonstrate the way for others,” Stobo said.

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UC students visit peach farm, meet with President Napolitano

Fruitful discussion of Global Food Initiative.

UC President Janet Napolitano listens to UC Global Food Initiative student fellows discuss their projects at Masumoto Family Farm in Del Rey. (Photos by Roger J. Wyan)

By Alec Rosenberg

For 28 UC Global Food Initiative student fellows, their classroom Monday wasn’t a lecture hall or laboratory, but the sandy soils of Masumoto Family Farm near Fresno.

The fellows, representing each UC campus, gathered at the 80-acre organic farm to dig into the soil, thin the fruiting peach trees and sit under a sycamore tree to discuss the food initiative with UC President Janet Napolitano.

UC Merced undergraduate student Hoaithi Dang, who is working to develop food education as part of a freshman core course next year, called the visit invigorating.

“I feel so inspired to continue my work and do more,” Dang said.

Napolitano listened to the students talk about their projects, asked them questions and announced that she was extending the Global Food Initiative student fellowship program, which began last fall, for another two years.

“Where do we go from here and how do we make this more of a student-based initiative?” Napolitano asked the fellows. “I’m really interested in your ideas and your research.”

Napolitano, together with UC’s 10 chancellors, launched the Global Food Initiative in July in an effort to help put UC’s campuses, the state and world on a pathway to sustainably and nutritiously feed themselves. It’s an important subject to the fellows, who offered several suggestions for building the fellowship program and the broader initiative.

A fruitful visit

UC Riverside graduate student Dietlinde Heilmayr suggested that fellows should meet at the beginning of the year to set goals, share ideas and develop collaborations.

“We should think about having a workshop with food fellows and associated faculty in the fall to discuss projects and timelines and develop peer-to-peer relationships,” Napolitano replied, receiving thumbs up and nods of approval from the fellows.

Ian Davies, a UCLA undergraduate student who is working to add two community gardens at the campus, said it would be good to know more about other fellows’ projects earlier, which could encourage joint efforts.

“I think that would be really fruitful,” said Davies, who plans to visit gardens at each UC campus and compile that information for sharing.

Having a digital archive such as a wiki also would be useful for fellows to share best practices, said Ankita Raturi, a UC Irvine graduate student who is working to model the environmental impact of agricultural systems.

Global Food Initiative student fellows dig in the dirt with Mas Masumoto at his family farm near Fresno.

A history lesson

The farm visit helped connect the fellows with each other and the land.

The father-and-daughter team of Mas and Nikiko Masumoto, both UC Berkeley graduates, led fellows on a tour of their family farm, where they grow peaches, nectarines and grapes for raisins.

“The key is the soil,” said Mas Masumoto, a third-generation Japanese-American farmer and author of books including “Epitaph for a Peach,” where he tells the story of his efforts to rescue the sweet and juicy variety of Sun Crest peaches.

Standing in an orchard of those now 50-year-old Sun Crest peach trees, Masumoto asked the students to dig into the soil with a shovel, put their hands into dirt and feel how it crumbles into sand.

“I love this place because it has so much history and they’re respectful of it so it can be there for their next generation,” said Samantha Smith, a UC Davis graduate student who is working with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources to help scientists share stories about their research with the public. “This perspective will help bring about change.”

Nikiko Masumoto discusses thinning peach trees with Global Food Initiative student fellows.

Nikiko Masumoto taught the students how to thin peach trees — removing unneeded fruit from each limb, including small ones and “twins,” or double peaches, to make room for the strongest pieces of fruit, which will begin to be harvested in five weeks. Pinching off the immature fruit between their thumbs and index fingers, students called it therapeutic.

“I grew up in a suburb,” said Jacqueline Chang, a UC Berkeley undergraduate student assisting ANR on a survey to assess student hunger. “It’s really cool for me to see literally where my food is coming from. I’ve eaten Masumoto peaches from Berkeley Bowl. But to touch the fuzzy little peaches here (on the farm) is great.”

Sowing solutions

From farm to fork, fellow projects are trying to make the food system more nutritious and sustainable.

Kripa Akila Jagannathan, a UC Berkeley graduate student, is working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to make climate models that are more useful for farmers.

UC San Diego undergraduate students Jancy Benavides and Jane Kang are doing research to advance urban agriculture at Ocean View Growing Grounds. The former vacant lot is now a thriving community garden thanks to a partnership between the local community and UC San Diego.

Jonathan Schor, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at UC San Francisco, is developing a mobile app that takes nutritional facts such as a food’s calorie count and translates that into an equivalent physical activity such as running or lifting weights.

“That will keep you away from a Big Mac,” Napolitano said. “I love the idea.”

UC Santa Barbara undergraduate students Kathryn Parkinson and Emilie Wood are working to reduce food waste in UCSB’s dining commons — testing two messages to see which is more effective with students. They hope to spread their efforts across UC.

Joanna Ory, a UC Santa Cruz graduate student whose project focuses on food equity but also is doing international research on water pollution from pesticides, asked Napolitano how she will make the global part more prominent in the Global Food Initiative.

“I’ve been thinking about the global part of the food initiative,” said Napolitano, who noted that UC has students and researchers in over 100 countries. “We’re just starting.”

Inspiring ideas

It’s important for students to build their understanding of agriculture by seeing firsthand how farming works, said UC Regent Fred Ruiz, who joined fellows on the farm visit.

“This kind of experience helps make our farm complete,” Mas Masumoto said. “It makes me wish I was young and a student again.”

Before the tour, fellows gathered Sunday evening to meet the Masumotos and discuss student engagement. UCOP Sustainability Director Matthew St. Clair spoke about how as a UC Berkeley graduate student, in 2003, he helped lead efforts to get the UC Regents to adopt a systemwide green building policy and clean energy standard. St. Clair was then hired by UCOP to implement the sustainability policy, which has expanded to nine sections, including foodservice, and become a model for other universities.

“You have the luxury of idealism and knowing what we should do,” St. Clair said to the fellows. “Work with UC while pushing UC to do all it can.”

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Turning back the clock on Parkinson’s disease

UC San Diego is investigating ways of earlier diagnosis of the disease.

David Higgins was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease years after his initial symptoms appeared. (Photo by Ryan Parks, UC San Diego)

By Christina S. Johnson, UC San Diego

Like many young people, David Higgins was initially in denial about the possibility of having a serious, lifelong disease.

“My friends would say, ‘You walk funny,” and I’d say, ‘I have a stiff back,’’ recalled Higgins, now 57. ”Parkinson’s was the last thing on my mind,” he said, or on the mind of his doctor at the time, who had him tested for cardiovascular disease, brain cancer and stroke.

“There was a lot of rationalizing and denial on my part,” said Higgins even though his mother, maternal grandmother and an uncle all died of Parkinson’s disease, a group of progressive motor system disorders that affect as many as 1 million Americans.

Eventually, after several years, Higgins’ worsening condition was impossible to ignore. “I went out for a run one day and it felt like I was moving through mud. I knew I had to do something.”

That something was a life-changing consultation with Dr. Irene Litvan, the Tasch Endowed Professor in Parkinson’s Disease Research and director of the Movement Disorder Center at UC San Diego Health System.

“Dr. Litvan diagnosed me in 2.5 seconds,” Higgins said. “At the exact precise moment she said ‘You have Parkinson’s,’ there was relief. Adversity is less troubling than ambiguity.”

That moment occurred on Dec. 5, 2011.

Higgins was Litvan’s first patient on her first day of clinical work at UC San Diego.

Center for Excellence

Since then, under her leadership, the Movement Disorder Center has grown and blossomed. In February, the center’s outstanding track record in comprehensive patient care, research and education was formally recognized by other leaders in the field through its designation as a Center of Excellence by the National Parkinson Foundation.

There are only 25 Centers of Excellence for Parkinson’s in the United States; 16 internationally. UC San Francisco also has a Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s.

Peter Schmidt, vice president of research and professional programs at the Parkinson Foundation, characterized the designation as reflecting a shared vision “for the integrated research and care enterprise, where patient-focused clinicians deliver the latest care and newest therapies.”

“Their clinic benefits from research into novel approaches that advance our knowledge and their research agenda reflects the priorities of patients and families,” he said.

Higgins puts it this way: “I know good people attract good people. The Center of Excellence will bring in smarter and better researchers to whom I will have access. I know I will have immediate, early access to any innovations that come about, and I have Dr. Litvan to filter out which new treatments are most substantiated and relevant to me. It means I get the best care possible.”

Target: early diagnosis

Parkinson’s disease — the disease that actor Michael J. Fox has — is a chronic, progressive neurological disorder, characterized by tell-tale tremors, stiffness and other declines in motor control. Loss of motor function is caused by degeneration of neurons that produce the chemical messenger dopamine. Classic Parkinson’s disease symptoms usually begin when 50 to 80 percent of these dopamine neurons have died.

The Holy Grail of many progressive, currently incurable, diseases — including Parkinson’s — is to be able to diagnose the disease in its earliest stages and halt its progression before damage has been done. Among the more intriguing discoveries made about Parkinson’s in recent years is that some of its earliest signs may be unrelated to declines in motor skills. Loss of smell, constipation, depression and dream-enacting behaviors, for example, often precede more identifiable Parkinson’s symptoms.

“The definition of Parkinson’s disease is presently being refined,” said Litvan, who is a member of the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Task Force working on this re-definition. “One of the advantages of being treated at a Center of Excellence such as ours is that the professionals who evaluate patients also participate in research and are up-to-date on the latest diagnostic methods, technology and treatment options for Parkinson’s disease and related disorders.

New developments

UC San Diego is one of only a few centers in the nation conducting research on a PET scan that detects deposits of a protein called tau that aggregates in the brain of patients with a related Parkinsonian disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). “The PET scan may allow us to make an accurate diagnosis of this disorder in vivo,” Litvan said. “This could help us properly manage the person’s condition and identify people who would be most likely to benefit from investigational therapies.”

There is also a growing interest in identifying biomarkers in blood that could inexpensively and non-invasively diagnose different neurodegenerative disorders at their most incipient stages.

Another promising development is evidence suggesting that Parkinson’s may spread from one neuron to its neighbors by aggregations of a protein called alpha-synuclein. If this is the case, capturing and removing the aggregations before they affect neighboring cells might slow or halt the progression of the disease. “I am very excited about this area of research,” Litvan said.

Litvan is also involved in a phase three, double-blind placebo-controlled study of a calcium channel blocker use to treat high blood pressure. In animal studies, the drug, called isradapine, blocks specific calcium channels that increase before dopamine-producing neurons die. “We hope what is observed in animals will also occur in humans,” she said.

Since 2011, Higgins has gone on medications and embraced a physical therapy regime at the Movement Disorder Center that has virtually erased any outward signs of illness. He has also become a full-time patient advocate for Parkinson’s and was recently in Washington, D.C., lobbying officials to appropriate more funding for Parkinson’s disease research.

“People see me and they ask why I am here,” he said. “They can’t tell I have Parkinson’s. I am here because I believe that institutions like UC San Diego and science in general are our hope for new therapies and cures.”

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California launches initiative to advance precision medicine

UC leading public-private effort to advance data-driven medicine.

By Laura Kurtzman, UC San Francisco

Gov. Jerry Brown is launching a statewide initiative with the University of California, to advance the field of precision medicine. The effort will involve collaborating with other academic and industry partners and starting to build the infrastructure and assemble the resources necessary to further develop the field.

The goal is to integrate clinical data with genomic, environmental, socioeconomic, mobile and other data from patients so scientists can understand diseases better and develop more precise therapies.

The California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine will be a first step toward enabling the state’s scientists to study any disease and even the health care system itself, using data from across the UC health care system and other academic medical centers and health care providers.

UC San Francisco is hosting the two-year initiative, through UC Health, which includes UC’s five medical centers, with $3 million in startup funds from the state. The public-private initiative aims to leverage these funds with contributions from other academic and industry partners.

The California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine will develop two demonstration projects in disease areas where UC and its external partners have deep expertise. These projects will be designed to protect patient privacy.

The initiative will also inventory the public and private precision medicine assets now available in the state, and convene experts in medicine, technology, privacy, bioethics and intellectual property to ensure the secure, fair and respectful exchange of data and knowledge.

“UC Health is bringing UC’s medical centers and health professional schools together, and this initiative is building on our collaborative successes,” said UC President Janet Napolitano. “A number of our medical centers are already working on precision medicine and have deep scientific and medical expertise in this area. Other UC campuses have deep technological expertise.”

Finding a way to harness all the data

Precision medicine aims to develop more accurate diagnostic tools and therapies. This work is likely to reveal, for example, why people who seem to have the same disease often respond so differently to medication. It also offers an opportunity to understand why many diseases, such as heart, lung and kidney disease, as well as asthma, stroke and cancer, affect racial and ethnic groups in different ways.

Despite the revolution in genetics and genomics, and the steep fall in the cost of sequencing, researchers have not yet been able to harness all of the molecular, environmental and social data that is now available, much less the data collected through mobile technology, and link them to clinical information.

“The success of the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine depends upon finding ways to effectively collect and integrate diverse forms of data, from the very objective – genomic and molecular – to the more subjective – environmental influences and life experiences,” said Keith Yamamoto, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research at UCSF. “This fantastic collaboration between the state and the University of California shows that both perceive the remarkable opportunity that we have.”

With so many campuses spread throughout the state and so much scientific, clinical and computational expertise, the UC system has the potential to bring it all together, said Atul Butte, M.D., Ph.D., who is leading the initiative.

“If we can work with interested parties in biotech and Silicon Valley, we’ll have a wealth of resources to develop precision medicine,” said Butte, UCSF professor of pediatrics, who directs UCSF’s Institute for Computational Health Sciences and is executive director of clinical informatics at UC Health. “We have the potential to gain completely new insights into disease and develop new diagnostics and therapeutics.”

National momentum in precision medicine

Precision medicine has been embraced by President Barack Obama, who announced a national effort in January, and recently named an expert panel, including former UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, M.D., M.P.H., and Esteban Gonzalez Burchard, M.D., M.P.H., UCSF professor of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences, to oversee the recruitment of one million volunteers to share their data, along with tissue samples. The panel also includes experts from Google and Intel.

“UCSF has been instrumental in developing precision medicine, and we’ve made it a campus priority,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, M.B.B.S. “But we can only really begin to make use of this concept if we partner with other UC campuses and academic and industry groups across the state who are also working very hard on these issues.”

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UC medical students celebrate Match Day

More than 650 UC graduating medical students match to residency programs.

UCLA graduating medical students Jiwoon Chang (left) and Abinav Baweja celebrate after learning that they matched together to the internal medicine residency program at NYU.

For graduating medical students, Match Day is the Academy Awards without the red carpet, March Madness without the brackets. It’s a thrilling time when the nation’s future doctors learn which hospital has accepted them for residency to get advanced training in their chosen specialty.

On March 20, more than 650 UC medical students were among the nearly 17,000 seniors at traditional U.S. medical schools who learned where they were matched.

UCLA graduating medical students Abinav Baweja and Jiwoon Chang couldn’t wait to tell each other where they were matched. The friends were overjoyed to find out that they matched together to their first choice – a top East Coast program in internal medicine.

“NYU: We said it at the same time. We burst into tears and laughter. It was a big moment for both of us,” Baweja said. “There is no better feeling than this … we made it!”

UC Davis' Chelsea Ma reacts to her residency match.

Virtually all UC graduating medical students matched, including 105 at UC Davis, 96 at UC Irvine, 161 at UCLA, 115 at UC San Diego and 177 at UC San Francisco. Most will continue their training in California.

“It’s a little hard to put into words,” said Agustin Morales, a fourth-year UC Davis medical student from Salinas who was part of the first San Joaquin Valley PRIME cohort – a collaboration between the UC Davis School of Medicine, UC Merced and UCSF Fresno that trains medical students with a special emphasis on patients in underserved communities.

“It’s been an amazing journey, and I matched to my number-one pick, UCSF Fresno,” added Morales. “It’s a gem of a program in internal medicine and I’m excited about the next three years.”

Newly minted UC Irvine doctor Jacob Blickenstaff and his wife, Jacky, cheer over his letter from the medical institution where he'll begin his career.

Fourth-year UCSF medical student Aaron Smith, was excited to be graduating and begin his residency program in internal medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.

“My dream growing up has always been to become a doctor,” Smith said. “Now when people call me a doc, I’m actually a doc! This is the fulfillment of what I’ve always wanted to do.”

At UC Irvine, Match Day is an emotional, festive event during which the future doctors are called to a podium one at a time to open an envelope and read aloud before hundreds of family members, friends and classmates the name and location of the hospital where they’ll spend the next three to seven years pursuing postgraduate medical training as a resident physician.

UC San Diego graduating medical students celebrate their matches.

A former elementary school teacher, Marcella Torres, 40, used her experience volunteering with the Peace Corps in Panama and helping Burmese refugees in Northern Thailand to enter UC Irvine’s PRIME program for the Latino community, the first medical training program to address the specific needs of America’s largest and fastest-growing community. She matched with a family medicine residency program at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez and next month plans to go Cuba with another PRIME student to observe its community-based primary care health system.

Among the UC San Diego participants was Thomas Onyia, an immigrant from central Africa who plans to be an anesthesiologist and participate in surgical outreach missions in Africa and other developing countries.

UC San Francisco medical students Tarann Henderson (left) and Matthew Abad-Santos matched with emergency medicine and surgery programs, respectively.

“I feel great,” said Onyia, after his envelope revealed that he got his wish to do his residency at UC San Diego. “The best thing about it is that I have great mentors here who have supported me throughout the process.”

With a match rate of 93.9 percent, nearly all of the nation’s seniors at traditional medical schools landed a first-year residency.

A computer algorithm from the National Resident Matching Program matches the preferences of applicants with the preferences of residency programs at teaching hospitals throughout the country. The students from traditional medical schools such as UC apply for the available residency positions along with thousands of independent applicants, including osteopathic students and graduates of foreign medical schools. Overall, more than 41,000 individuals applied for more than 30,000 residency slots across the country.

“We are extremely proud of this year’s Match Day group,” said Mark Servis, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior associate dean for medical education at the UC Davis School of Medicine. “This is the future of medicine, caring individuals with a passion for health care and a desire to develop their clinical skills to the very best of their abilities. As I told them before they opened their envelopes, ‘It’s not where you match that is most important, it’s what you do in caring for your patients and working with others that is the key to your success and the ultimate accomplishment as a physician.’”

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UC Global Food Initiative: Healing hunger, nurturing nutrition

UC President Janet Napolitano highlights initiative’s role in Cultures magazine.

UC President Janet Napolitano and UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla listen as volunteer Karemah Alhark talks about the Ocean View Growing Grounds. (Photo by Erika Johnson, UC San Diego)

By Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California. This piece was published in the March edition of Cultures magazine.

The quest to establish global food security has never been so urgent.

A billion people – most of them in the developing world – suffer from chronic hunger or serious nutritional deficiencies. More than a half billion – primarily in industrialized nations – are obese, and diabetes mellitus is an epidemic. Against this backdrop, climate change and population growth fuel additional uncertainty about how the world will feed itself in the years ahead.

Recognizing that the University of California (UC) is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in addressing food security and the related challenges of nutrition and sustainability, we launched the UC Global Food Initiative in July 2014.

Our goal is audacious and far-reaching. We aim for nothing less than the development and export of solutions for food security, health and sustainability throughout California, the United States and the world. By building on the extensive efforts already underway, and creating new collaborations among our 10 campuses, affiliated national laboratories, and the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC looks to put the world on a pathway to feed itself in ways that are both nutritious and sustainable.

Why UC?

UC is California’s land-grant university and has played a key part in helping California become the nation’s leading agricultural state. In the late 1800s, UC research showed how to remove salts from the alkali soils in the Central Valley, turning what was once barren land into one of the world’s most productive farming regions.

UC has continued to play a pivotal role in food over the years. Our student farms at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz have provided innovative learning opportunities since the 1970s. UC San Diego researchers, whose work has linked air pollution with reduced crop yields, are studying ways to achieve global food security and mitigate climate change. Our agricultural division has collaborators in more than 130 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, working to solve agricultural problems at home and abroad. We have been a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, helping farmers increase water efficiency and developing new plant varieties that feed the world. Our flood-tolerant rice, for example, is now grown by more than 10 million farmers.

It is intrinsic to our role as a public research university that we address pressing societal problems such as global food security. Our campuses, agricultural division and laboratories are equipped to tackle the food challenge across multiple disciplines. UC is deeply engaged in the knowledge export business – rooted in California, but with a global reach – in the fields of agriculture, medicine, nutrition, climate science, public policy, social science, biological science, humanities, arts and law, among others.

Our efforts start at home. UC campuses are living laboratories for sustainable operations, with the Global Food Initiative complementing our ongoing commitments to sustainability. For example, UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative draws upon the campus’s research and teaching expertise to find new and innovative ways to promote healthy living at UCLA and share that education and research with other communities. Last year, UC sustainable food procurement practices shifted more than $25 million (20 percent) of our total annual food expenditure toward local, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources. We have set a systemwide goal of zero waste by 2020 and pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025.

The UC Global Food Initiative is a collaborative endeavor, involving faculty, staff and students, including a class of 54 student fellows. We have launched projects developed by multicampus working groups to identify best practices and develop toolkits to implement them in curriculum, operations, policy, research and service. From increasing local food security to enhancing the availability of healthy eating choices, we are working to improve nutrition and sustainability on our campuses and then share those ideas with schools and communities in California, across the country and around the world.

Extending our reach

Through food, we are making new connections. We have launched the UC Food Observer blog, a daily selection of must-read news on food policy, nutrition, agriculture and more to help inform conversations around food. UC San Francisco launched SugarScience, a research and education initiative designed to highlight the most authoritative scientific findings on sugar and its impact on health. UC Berkeley’s Edible Education course, which this semester includes such food luminaries as Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, is expanding its audience by making the lectures available to the public by live stream.

The UC Global Food Initiative is reaching out to partner with others in government, higher education, school districts, nonprofit organizations and the private sector.

These partnerships can be profound. For example, UC Davis, with more than two dozen centers focused on food and agriculture, has had a longstanding collaboration with Mars Inc. that continues to blossom. UC Davis, Mars and other global partners are part of the African Orphan Crops Consortium, which is sequencing 100 African crop species and training the next generation of plant breeders to increase food security and improve nutrition, especially among Africa’s youth. In January, UC Davis and Mars launched the Innovation Institute for Food and Health, designed to deliver big-impact, Silicon Valley-type breakthroughs in food, agriculture and health.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory engineers have designed a highly efficient cookstove and partnered with a nonprofit organization to address food security issues posed by displaced persons in Darfur. Berkeley Lab scientists also developed a system for removing arsenic from groundwater, which an Indian company has licensed, to help provide safe drinking water for people in India and Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, UC Santa Barbara hosted the California Higher Education Food Summit, which convened students, staff and faculty from UC, California State University and community college campuses, and community and food agency leaders, to discuss food access, security and justice. This Global Food Initiative event was organized by students, an inspiring example of what we can accomplish when we work together toward a common purpose.

Moving forward

As the UC Global Food Initiative advances, we seek to find common ground to help communities in California and around the world find their way to a sustainable food future.

We are enhancing campus gardens, integrating food issues into more courses, reforming vending machine practices to increase the availability of healthy choices, and leveraging food-purchasing power to encourage sustainable farming practices and to serve nutritious fare in campus dining halls. Along with identifying best practices and sharing them, we plan to use the power of UC research and extension to help individuals and communities access safe, affordable and nutritious food while sustaining our natural resources. And we are deploying UC’s research to help shape, impact and drive policy discussions around food issues at the local, statewide, national and international levels.

Finding solutions to the food crisis, one of the most critical problems of our age, is within our reach. We hope that by making global food issues a priority, we will inspire others to join our efforts to put the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself.

Related link:
Cultures magazine article

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Facebook connection leads to lifesaving organ transplant

‘I call James Lebowitz my angel,’ donor recipient says.

By Yadira Galindo and Jackie Carr, UC San Diego

In January 2015, the lives of more than 60 people changed forever when Paul and Susan Lebowitz made the decision to donate their son’s organs and body tissue to recipients across the United States.

That month their beloved son James had suffered a fatal brain aneurysm at his university dormitory at Cal Poly Pomona. Doctors informed the parents that James’ life could not be saved and suggested organ donation.

In shock and grief, Paul posted a message to Facebook announcing the loss of 18-year-old James, “I don’t want to say goodbye, I thought we had a whole lifetime together.”

After discussion with his wife, a second Facebook message offered the possibility of organ donation.

“If you know someone on an organ transplant list, please let me know,” posted the father. “We can potentially direct a donation from James to help them. We have a day.”

Luckily, a man named George Martinez and his longtime friends Tommy and Randy were among Facebook’s 1.3 billion registered users. The men read Paul’s post and immediately replied by tagging and suggesting George as a potential recipient. Minutes later, a connection was made.

Martinez is a 15-year Navy veteran who works as a substance abuse assessor for the San Diego County Office of the Public Defender. He counsels people with substance abuse issues to get the help they need. George’s life was split between work and undergoing continuous medical treatment for kidney failure.

For 3.5 years, Martinez sat through dialysis from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. three days a week. He would sleep for a few hours and then go to work. George was looking at an additional 2.5 years of dialysis before his turn could come up on the transplant list.

“My family members were not a match for an organ donation,” said Martinez. “My friends that tried were not a match either. I don’t think I could have waited another 2.5 years. I felt my body was really getting weak. It was getting hard to go to work. I’m more surprised than anybody that Facebook came to my aid.”

After hearing Martinez’s story, the Lebowitzs knew that helping George would not only save his life, but it would also help hundreds of other people he counseled on how to overcome addiction and return to a healthy lifestyle.

“It hit me in an instant as we watched over our son, that someone we know, or one step away from us, might be on the transplant list,” said Paul. “For my wife and I, there was no choice to be made. My son could help others. He liked to help people feel good and to fix problems. I have no doubt that James would want to do this.”

The amount of time a patient waits on a transplant list varies by geographic location. In San Diego, the average wait is five to seven years. In 2014, there were more than 20,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant in California — but only 2,000 people received one. More than 100,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a kidney.

“We are in desperate need for lifesaving organ transplants in the United States,” said Dr. Kristin Mekeel, surgical director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation Program at UC San Diego Health System. “Right now, there are more than 120,000 people listed for organ transplants, but only 24,000 transplants are done per year. The number of patients on the transplant list grows longer every year, but the number of donors remains static. The only way we can make up the difference is having more donations.”

George underwent a successful kidney transplant surgery at UC San Diego Medical Center, the largest kidney transplant program south of Los Angeles.

“Wow — UC San Diego — what a team. For the first three days after the surgery, I thought I was the only patient in the hospital. I don’t think I went five seconds that I pressed a button that a nurse was not there,” said Martinez. “The team kept me informed of everything.”

Martinez’s health has improved each day, allowing him to participate in a paddle out memorial service at La Jolla Shores to honor James and his lifesaving gift. Dozens of people on kayaks, boards and a boat joined the Levowitzs to say thank you and goodbye to a young man who helped more people than he’ll ever know.

“My commitment to the Lebowitz family is to get well, take care of this kidney and continue to help people,” said Martinez. “I want to help continue James’ legacy of caring.”

James saved Martinez and four additional people who were matched through the organ donation waiting list. A 50-year-old California man received James’ second kidney while a 60-year-old Californian was given his liver. A Nebraska man in his 30s was gifted James’ lungs and, fittingly, an 18-year-old Californian received his heart.

“Not only are you helping individuals, but each one of these people that James saved has a family and friends,” said Paul. “We’re really talking about touching a thousand people or more. You should register to be an organ donor.”

Tissue banks have a very limited supply of donated skin, bone, heart valves, tendons and corneas­— making James a hero to many people. Tissues from his corneas have helped two people see again.

“I call James Lebowitz my angel,” said Martinez. “I cannot imagine what they went through to make the decision to help others through their loss. I would encourage people to please be organ donors. An act of kindness and love can go so far.”

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Learn more about becoming a donor

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U.S. News ranks UC grad schools among best in nation

In each discipline, all or nearly all UC graduate schools were highly ranked.

Graduate student Morgan Nunn Martinez performs research at the Stable Isotopes Lab, UC San Diego.

By Alec Rosenberg, UC Newsroom

University of California graduate schools rank among the nation’s top programs in a survey released today (March 10) by U.S. News & World Report.

U.S. News’ 2016 Best Graduate Schools guide evaluates graduate schools for business, education, engineering, law, medicine and nursing, and specialties within each area. In each discipline, all or nearly all UC graduate schools were highly ranked.

The annual Best Graduate Schools rankings are based on two types of data: expert opinions about program excellence and statistical indicators that measure the quality of a school’s faculty, research and students.

Below are UC’s ranked schools in the six main disciplines, which include for the first time expanded rankings for nursing, with master’s programs evaluated based on both statistical and reputational data. For specialty programs within these areas, go to the Best Graduate Schools site.


All six of UC’s business schools were ranked:

7. UC Berkeley Haas School of Business
15. UCLA Anderson School of Management
48. UC Davis Graduate School of Management
53. UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business
63. UC San Diego Rady School of Management
Ranked: UC Riverside A. Gary Anderson Graduate School of Management

Of note: UC Berkeley’s business school had the No. 1 part-time MBA program, and UCLA’s was No. 5. For executive MBA programs, UCLA ranked No. 8 and UC Berkeley was No. 9.


In education, all eight of UC’s schools were ranked:

13. UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
17. UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education
31. UC Irvine School of Education
38. UC Davis School of Education
67. UC Santa Barbara Gervitz Graduate School of Education
76. UC Riverside Graduate School of Education
99. UC San Diego Department of Education Studies
110. UC Santa Cruz Education Department


All nine of UC’s engineering schools were ranked:

3. UC Berkeley College of Engineering
14. UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science
17. UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
23. UC Santa Barbara College of Engineering
33. UC Davis College of Engineering
37. UC Irvine Henry Samueli School of Engineering
71. UC Riverside Bourns College of Engineering
88. UC Santa Cruz Jack Baskin School of Engineering
140. UC Merced School of Engineering


All five of UC’s law schools were ranked, including UC Irvine in its first year of eligibility:

8. UC Berkeley School of Law
16. UCLA School of Law
30. UC Irvine School of Law
31. UC Davis School of Law
59. UC Hastings College of the Law

Medicine: Research

Five UC medical schools were ranked in research:

3. UC San Francisco School of Medicine
13. UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine
17. UC San Diego School of Medicine
43. UC Davis School of Medicine
45. UC Irvine School of Medicine

Medicine: Primary care

Five UC medical schools were ranked in primary care:

3. UC San Francisco School of Medicine
7. UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine
19. UC Davis School of Medicine
19. UC San Diego School of Medicine
62. UC Irvine School of Medicine


Three UC nursing schools were ranked, including UC Davis, in the first year it was eligible for inclusion in the survey:

2. UC San Francisco School of Nursing
19. UCLA School of Nursing
43. UC Davis Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing

In other health-related rankings this year, UC Davis was recognized as the nation’s best veterinary school, while in public health UC Berkeley ranked ninth and UCLA was 10th.

The rankings also include previous assessments of a number of other health fields, which U.S. News surveys but not each year. UCLA ranked first in clinical psychology and UCSF ranked first in pharmacy. The surveys do not rank dental or optometry schools.

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UC leads nation in NIH biomedical research funds

UC system received $1.8B in 2014 contract and grant funding from NIH.

UC San Francisco and UC Newsroom

The University of California system received more than $1.8 billion in 2014 contract and grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), making it the leading recipient for high-caliber biomedical research that is driving advances in science and breakthroughs in health.

UC placed three campuses in the top 20 funding recipients and five in the top 50, according to annual NIH figures. UC San Francisco was second overall in NIH funding, and for the second year in a row its four schools — dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy — led the nation in federal biomedical research funding in their fields.

These highly competitive NIH funds enable UC scientists to advance understanding of the underlying causes of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, HIV, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and others, and work to develop improved therapies for them.

“The projects these funds support at UCSF are driving advances in the biomedical sciences, from fundamental, curiosity-driven science to the application of those discoveries to patient care and populations, to training the next generation of scientists and health care professionals to carry those innovations forward,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, M.B.B.S. “NIH funding is the lifeblood of that research and the heart of efforts by our faculty, staff, students and trainees to collectively transform health.”

The UCSF School of Medicine topped the list of NIH funding for medical schools for the third year in a row, at $480.6 million for fiscal year 2014, supporting research, graduate-student training and fellowships for postdoctoral scholars.

The UCSF schools of pharmacy, dentistry and nursing also ranked first in their fields in NIH grants for 2014: Pharmacy for the 35th consecutive year, with $31.8 million in grants; dentistry for the 23rd year, with $15.5 million; and nursing for the 10th time in the last dozen years, with $10.1 million.

All told, UCSF received more than $538.1 million total in grants, with an additional $8.5 million in NIH contracts, for which UCSF scientists compete to perform specific research projects for the national institutes. Johns Hopkins University was the top organization with $618.6 million in overall NIH funding.

NIH funding not only supports powerful scientific advances in research institutions nationwide, it buoys local and regional economies, as the scientists purchase materials and instruments and employ laboratory staff. Other economic engines include patents and scientific advances generated by NIH-funded research and related industries, such as biotechnology, as well as the entrepreneurs who launch companies based on research conducted on campus. These grants also play a tremendous role in helping innovative young scientists launch their research careers.

“In the past year, our graduate students and postdocs played key roles in discoveries in areas like the human microbiome, cancer immunotherapy and genome editing,” said Elizabeth Watkins, Ph.D., dean of the UCSF Graduate Division and vice chancellor of student academic affairs. “These funds are critical in supporting the early careers of those future scientific leaders, and instrumental in supporting the discoveries they make.”

By the numbers

Here is a UC campus/location breakdown of National Institutes of Health funding for 2014:

  • UC Berkeley: $122.5M
  • UC Davis: $189.3M
  • UC Irvine: $105.3M
  • UCLA: $373.1M
  • UC Merced: $4M
  • UC Riverside: $15.4M
  • UC San Diego: $398.7M
  • UCSF: $546.6M
  • UC Santa Barbara: $18M
  • UC Santa Cruz: $30.1M
  • UC Office of the President: $216,000
  • Berkeley Lab: $26M
  • Livermore Lab: $2.6M
  • Los Alamos Lab: $5.2M

UC system total: $1.8B

Related link:
UCSF schools lead nation again in NIH biomedical research funds

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