David Haussler receives Lifetime Achievement Award, Holger Schmidt awarded Innovator of the Year

From left – front row: Chancellor Cynthia Larive, Holger Schmidt, Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer, Susana Ruiz; back row: David Haussler, Darrie Ganzhorn,

April 17, 2024

By Sandra Messick, Rose Miyatsu, Emily Cerf

The 2023 recipients of the Chancellor’s Innovation Impact Awards were honored April 11. From left – front row: Chancellor Cynthia Larive, Holger Schmidt, Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer, Susana Ruiz; back row: David Haussler, Darrie Ganzhorn, AVC for Strategic Initiatives Eric Palkovacs , VC for University Advancement Mark Delos Reyes Davis, and AVC for Innovation & Business Engagement Ryan Sharp. UC Santa Cruz announced the recipients of the 2023 Chancellor’s Innovation Impact awards, recognizing the outstanding research and creativity taking place across the university.

Awards for Innovator of the Year, Lifetime Achievement in Innovation, and Community Changemaker were presented at a celebration on April 11. The recipients include innovators who have created breakthroughs in knowledge and technology that are improving our world, creators bringing forgotten history to life by merging storytelling, augmented reality, and holographic filmmaking, and community partners transforming lives and providing nourishment through job training, transitional employment, and organic farming.

“Innovation has always been a part of UC Santa Cruz’s DNA, but it’s not innovation for innovation’s sake, but innovation with positive real-world impacts,” said UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive. “That’s what is so special about these awards. We’re recognizing members of our community who are committed to addressing the world’s most vexing issues and solving longstanding scientific and technical puzzles that have the potential to greatly improve people’s lives. Others we’re honoring are literally getting their hands dirty to help give their neighbors a better future. It is inspiring to come together to celebrate all of this work.”

Organized by the Innovation & Business Engagement Hub, the awards program recognizes transformational work across UC Santa Cruz – in the arts, engineering, humanities, physical and biological sciences, and social sciences.

“Each day, across the campus, and often across disciplines, our faculty colleagues push the boundaries of knowledge, understanding, and experience through research, creative scholarship, technology, and social engagement,” said Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer. “Their hard work and dedication results in key insights, new innovations, and means of expression that transform the lives of others.”

Innovator of the Year Awards

Professors Holger Schmidt and Susana Ruiz and her team each received Innovator of the Year Awards which recognize faculty, staff or teams whose activities or achievements in the past year have had a measurable societal impact or the strong potential to make a significant impact in the future. The lead faculty member’s lab or project receives a $10,000 research award to further advance their innovative work.

Susana Ruiz, associate professor of film and digital media, Huy Truong, Emmy Award-nominated director of photography and media artist, and Professor Emerita of Literature Karen Tei Yamashita, received the 2023 Innovator of the Year award for The Last Chinatown, a public memorial experience bringing light to the historical erasure of Santa Cruz’s last Chinatown, which was destroyed by a flood in 1955, through photography, augmented reality (AR), and holographic filmmaking.

For two decades, co-directors Ruiz and Truong, a former lecturer in film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz, have been shining a light on and bringing to life forgotten and erased stories and histories and working to develop a unique style bringing together documentary storytelling and game design. Their previous projects have served as important tools in local and global conversations and social justice campaigns.

The Last Chinatown is their first hyper-local work. Ruiz and Truong learned of the city’s Chinatowns in 2018 when they attended a performance by Cynthia Ling Lee, a dancer, choreographer, and UCSC professor of performance, play & design. In it, she portrayed residents spanning a century of Chinese presence there. Santa Cruz had four distinct Chinatowns throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, yet for the most part, that history remains virtually forgotten, the lives, legacies, and labors of the residents of these Chinatowns removed from collective memory. Ruiz and Truong created this work in response to this historical vacuum.

Their interdisciplinary and multidimensional approach brings history, culture, and community to life through interpretative arts and augmented reality incorporating documentary  and gameplay.

Through an app on a mobile device, people can walk down the re-constructed China Lane – now the Aude Castagna Galleria – as they listen to George Ow, Jr., one of the last residents with memories of living in the last Santa Cruz Chinatown, and his cousin Georgina Wong, share memories of the neighborhood. The immersive experience asks participants to think about their bodies in the actual space as they listen to the water in the San Lorenzo River, smell the nearby plants, and feel the wind on their skin.

When Ruiz and Truong began this work in 2020 during the pandemic, the racialized xenophobia, and anti-Asian violence throughout this country was extremely alarming. They locate this artwork in the politics of the contemporary moment while helping to heal past and present painful divisions by creating a sense of belonging and inclusion to what is their home while asking participants to do the same.

The Last Chinatown will launch at Santa Cruz’s Museum of Art and History in May. It is supported by UC Santa Cruz’s Arts Research Institute, the Committee on Research, and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Holger Schmidt, Distinguished Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering and Narinder Kapany Chair of Optoelectronics, received the award for his work on highly sensitive devices called optofluidic chips. His research currently focuses on using these chips to detect biomarkers – molecules such as DNA or proteins – that alert scientists to the presence of disease. The chips are a crucial element of real-time diagnostic and disease-monitoring devices and have a 99.8 percent accuracy. Schmidt’s lab’s systems have been used to detect many infectious diseases, including COVID-19, Ebola virus,  influenza, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and cancer biomarkers.

Schmidt’s hybrid optofluidics system achieves high sensitivity by using liquid-core waveguides, which ensure that even the faintest traces of light from a target particle can be detected. Through a novel signal modulation technique, particles in both high and low concentrations can be detected simultaneously, which was not possible until recently. In addition, single particle signals at low concentrations can be identified in real time with high accuracy.

The optofluidic technology was the foundation of medical device developer Fluxus, originally a UC Santa Cruz spinoff. It was acquired by Fujirebio (an H.U. Group company) in 2022. The company aims to market and supply the technologies for medical diagnostics  worldwide.

The data generated by the optofluidic devices can be analyzed  on a mobile device, eliminating the need for internet access or even a laptop computer. This provides a data security advantage, because results can be produced without the need to share data with a cloud server provider. The portability, level of accuracy, and low technology demands have the potential to advance healthcare especially for remote, rural, and under-developed areas.

Schmidt takes a collaborative approach and explores new ways to apply his expertise to support his colleagues and make discoveries. He is currently working with Kevin Bundy, assistant professor of astronomy & astrophysics, to develop a spectrometer-on-chip device to capture, separate, and measure light at ultraviolet, visible, and infrared wavelengths to study the properties of objects in space, including the composition and distance. Another recent project combines a nanopore with optofluidics to test for SARS-CoV-2 and the Zika virus, achieving the same accuracy as PCR testing in a matter of hours rather than days.

Schmidt’s recent neural network data analysis approach has both advanced an ultra-sensitive compact, mobile, and highly accurate disease diagnostic and monitoring device toward a variety of healthcare implementations, and opened the door for a broad range of new research, discoveries, and subsequent high impact.

Community Changemaker

This year the Community Changemaker Award was presented to the Homeless Garden Project (HGP). The award recognizes a leader or organization in the Santa Cruz region that has contributed significantly to driving regional economic prosperity through innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, or support for growing the innovation ecosystem in close collaboration with the university.

The Homeless Garden Project provides job training, transitional employment, and support services to people who are experiencing homelessness, conducts education and volunteer programming for the broader community, and operates an organic urban farm, workshop, and related enterprises.

After completing the training program that includes a year of transitional support and job training, participants have transitioned from being homeless to careers in farming, social services, retail, and trades, and to having their own homes. Since 2014, 96 percent of graduating participants have gotten jobs and 87 percent have gotten housing.

For almost 30 years, HGP has run the 3.5-acre certified organic farm known as Natural Bridges Farm. In 2023, they provided more than 18,000 hours of paid job training and transitional employment, and 390 hours of social work support to trainees. The project has donated more than 11,000 lbs. of produce to local nonprofits, served 6,000 meals in 2023, and earned more than $32,000 in farm production revenues through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at the farm stand.

In 1990 the Citizens Committee for the Homeless launched the Homeless Garden Project. It was co-founded by Paul Lee, a former professor of philosophy at UC Santa Cruz, who had the idea of starting a garden where people experiencing homelessness could feel safe and experience beauty. Co-creator Lynne Cooper, a UC Santa Cruz alumna who also served as the founding director, grew that idea to build a community and create a path into jobs, housing, and belonging.

HGP is a long-time university partner in community-engaged research, investigating how work on the farm can inform research and how research can inform work on the farm. For example, working with Campus + Community and the HGP farm, UC Santa Cruz student Trevin Dace, a former garden volunteer and intern, wrote his senior thesis in sociology titled The Psychological and Social Benefits of Agriculture, focusing on program trainees, volunteers, and staff who work on the farm. In 2016, Heather Bullock, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Economic Justice and Action (CEJA); Shirley Truong, assistant director of institutional research; and Lina Chhun, currently assistant professor of American studies, women and gender studies, and Asian American studies at the University of Texas, Austin published a study titled Combating Social Exclusion: “Safe Space” and the Dynamics of Inclusion at a Homeless Farming Site.”

Professor Bullock, who recently joined HGP’s Board of Directors, has partnered with the Homeless Garden Project for 15 years, assessing the project’s short- and long- term impact on trainees. CEJA is collaborating  with project staff on a manual to share the project’s successes and inform the development of new transitional employment programs.

The Homeless Garden Project runs a robust volunteer program where UC Santa Cruz students and staff, along with community volunteers, can work on the farm, in their stores, and the office. CEJA provides UC Santa Cruz students with paid summer internships with HGP.

Darrie Ganzhorn, who has been part of the project for more than 30 years and was named executive director in 2008, accepted the award on behalf of the Homeless Garden Project.

Lifetime Achievement in Innovation

David Haussler, distinguished professor of biomolecular engineering in the Baskin School of Engineering and scientific director of the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute, has been awarded the 2023 Lifetime Achievement in Innovation Award.

The award recognizes a faculty member whose career accomplishments include innovations that have led to significant, long-term societal impact and who is an inspiration and positive influence for students and colleagues. The recipient receives an award of $5,000 to direct to a division, department, or lab of their choosing to support innovative research activities.

Haussler’s work lies at the interface of mathematics, computer science, and molecular biology. He develops new statistical and algorithmic methods to explore the molecular function and evolution of the human genome, integrating cross-species comparative and high-throughput genomics data to study gene structure, function, and regulation.

Haussler joined the UC Santa Cruz faculty in 1986. His early research in machine learning helped found the field of computational learning theory, and his later work helped revolutionize the field of genomics. Haussler is known worldwide for breaking down the entrenched academic silos that often hinder collaborative, interdisciplinary research, and for his commitment to sharing technology and data broadly.

During the famous international Human Genome Project, Haussler and then-graduate student Jim Kent solved the puzzle of how the DNA pieces that were being sequenced by other international centers fit together into a cohesive sequence and posted the first publicly available assembly of the human genome on the Internet on July 7, 2000. Haussler and his team were insistent that the genetic blueprint be open source — available to all at no cost.

“When I think back on some of the incredible successes of the Human Genome Project and some of the key people who brought them, and some of the heroes, I would certainly list David Haussler very quickly,” said Eric Green, Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH)’s National Human Genome Research Institute. “David brought this incredible creativity and energy and problem-solving ethos to the project. … He was really there to sort of save the day when it was very clear that we didn’t have everything lined up that was going to be needed to represent and put together the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle known as the human genome sequence. David and his colleagues like Jim Kent arrived on the scene and they were incredible.”

For Haussler’s team, sequencing the genome was just the beginning. Under his direction, Kent went on to develop the UCSC Genome Browser, a publicly available, web-based tool for visualizing genomes that is used extensively in biomedical research both within academia and industry.

Over the years, the Browser has grown and evolved with contributions from thousands of researchers worldwide. Today it gets  hundreds of users every minute, hundreds of thousands in a year. An association of the top academic research funders recently named it a Core Biodata Resource because of the critical role it plays to continued global research efforts in the life sciences and biomedicine.

Haussler also led the teams that developed two key tools for use in precision medicine- based treatments of cancer – the BAMBAM and PARADIGM cancer genomics analysis systems. BAMBAM was used to identify genetic changes in cancer cells, while PARADIGM was used to understand which molecular pathways are affected by those changes. These were licensed to Five3 Genomics, founded by former graduate students who had worked with Haussler and UC Santa Cruz Professor of Biomolecular Engineering Josh Stuart. Five3 was acquired by NantWorks, which continued to commercialize the tools. These tools had an early impact on the field of cancer genomics.

These contributions to the openness of science epitomize the ethos of UC Santa Cruz – bringing teams together across disciplines and geographic locations and sharing technology and data for the sole purpose of finding answers to big science questions that could improve the lives of people and the planet.

Large-scale consortium and interdisciplinary projects were rare at the time of the Human Genome Project, but Haussler realized immediately that to truly reap the benefits of the emerging field of genomics, all disciplines would need to play a role. He  became the founding scientific director of the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute to facilitate these collaborations that challenge the scientific status quo. He has brought in diverse teams to work on numerous applications of genomics for humans, animals, and viruses. Over the years, members of the institute have led projects in sequencing the DNA of Neanderthals, identifying new treatment options for pediatric cancers, developing tools for tracking COVID variants that were used by all the major health organizations around the world, pioneering technologies for growing brain tissues in the lab to study neural connections in health and disease, using environmental DNA to document biodiversity in a given area, and work on tools for de-extinction.

Most recently, the institute has also led global consortiums to finally complete the work of the original human genome project by completing the first telomere-to-telomere sequence of a human genome, filling in the 8 percent of the genome that was not able to be sequenced in the 2000s, and creating the first draft of a “human pangenome” that will replace the 20-year-old genome reference sequence with a reference that incorporates human variation and diversity for better personalized medicine.

“David was really the spearhead leadership for that whole [pangenome] initiative, and it’s going to have ripple effects,” said Karen Miga, current director of the production center for the international Human Pangenome Reference Consortium and assistant professor of biomolecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz. “It will change the way that we do precision medicine, it will change the way we do comparative genomics. … And that’s just one pillar of all the many pillars of the Genomics Institute that I think David has really had an influence on.”

Numerous former students and postdocs have noted that Haussler’s mentorship has been influential in shaping not just their careers, but the field as a whole.

“Despite the browser, despite assembling the human genome for the first time, despite an amazing career in hardcore computer science, I think probably David is best known for all the people he has trained and mentored … and that is an amazing legacy,” said Katie Pollard, who was Haussler’s postdoc in the early 2000s and is currently the director of the Gladstone Institute of Data Science & Biotechnology at UCSF and a Chan-Zuckerburg Biohub Investigator. “I really credit David for creating a very open and connected community that has … helped science itself move forward.”

Today, Haussler is returning to his early interest in the brain and how it works. Using the most advanced AI available, he hopes to uncover how cells and tissues behave at the level of a systems model, which he believes will revolutionize human medicine.

Selection Process

Awardees are selected by the chancellor, campus provost and executive vice chancellor, and vice chancellor for research, informed by recommendations provided by the Innovation Impact Awards Review Committee. The committee was chaired by the assistant vice chancellor for Innovation & Business Engagement and also included representatives nominated by the vice chancellor of research and the deans of the Arts, Baskin School of Engineering,  Humanities, Physical and Biological Sciences, and Social Sciences.

Last modified: May 10, 2024