Five UCR students embrace on campus while two faculty members look on.

54 Facts: People


UCR’s tapestry of trailblazers — from first-generation students to globally recognized researchers — bring together fluency of thinking that accelerates bold solutions and transforms lives.

Get to know the faces, narratives, and cultures of our student body. Then imagine all these stories, merging with yours, as you become a bold and brilliant UCR Highlander.

Fact 22: From UCR to the White House

White House assistant press secretary and UCR alumnus, Vedant Patel, meets with President Biden.
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After graduating as a Highlander in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in biology, UCR alumnus Vedant Patel was appointed as the White House’s assistant press secretary and spokesperson for the Biden administration. Prior to his White House gig, Patel served in high-profile press positions for the Democratic National Committee, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and Congressman Mike Honda.

During his time as a Highlander, Patel was a Resident Advisor at Pentland Hills Residence Hall, was active in the University’s Honors Program, a variety of clubs and student organizations, and spent time volunteering on local campaigns in the Riverside area. So, where did his love for civic engagement come from? Some of his high school teachers say it started with them.

“UC Riverside created a culture that fostered the importance of civic engagement and public service. It’s reflected across the board from the residence halls to the classrooms to the laboratories,” says Patel.

We’re so proud to be a part of Vedant’s unique story. High-fives and big Scotty Bear hugs to this India-born, California-raised, Riverside-nurtured Highlander.

Fact 23: Distinguished Scholars

UCR Distinguished Professors, Richard R. Schrock and Barry C. Barish, answer questions at an event on campus.
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Richard R. Schrock (’67) (pictured right), alumnus and MIT-turned-UCR chemistry professor, didn’t set out to win the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry. He simply aspired from age eight to get involved in chemistry, which he later studied at UCR. He chose to attend UCR for its undergraduate research opportunities. That foundation led Schrock to his work in producing the first useful catalyst for metathesis, a lab method used in making drugs for hepatitis C, osteoporosis, AIDS, and other diseases, and, of course, to a Nobel Prize.

Barry C. Barish (pictured left), who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of gravitational waves, is UCR’s second Nobel Laureate. He returned home to the UC family, having earned a Ph.D. in experimental particle physics in 1962 from UC Berkeley and building an illustrious career. A first-generation college student himself, Barish champions UCR’s research programs and orientation toward student success.

Fact 24: What’s So Funny About Spiders?

Stylized illustration of a blue spider web over a yellow field.
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First of all, who’s laughing about spiders? Apparently, retired entomology research associate, spider expert, and Ig Nobel winner, Rick Vetter is. That’s who!

Second of all, what’s an Ig Nobel award? It’s a parody of the prestigious Nobel Prize and it honors achievements that make people laugh, then think.

“I was on campus doing a study that involved boxes containing live spiders. I opened one of them and it was like a cartoon,” Vetter says. “Even though I was a good 6 feet away from her, she took off and I saw a cloud of dust, like she vaporized. And she wasn’t the only one. I kept running into people like this.”

Among the findings of the study were specific traits that entomologists particularly disliked about spiders, despite other insects having similar traits. These included the way spiders move, their speed, unexpected appearances, ability to bite and many legs.

Vetter says he is “extremely ecstatic” to have been awarded the Ig Nobel for this work and says, “It is a true honor, and something to add to my resume.” He also notes that now, UCR has winners of two Nobel prizes as well as one Ig Nobel. (Move over, professors Barish and Schrock.)

Fact 25: UCR X Marvel

John Jennings, professor of media and cultural studies at UCR, poses in front of a building.
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John Jennings, a professor of media and cultural studies at UCR, lends his voice in an essay, “Lift Every Voice” to discuss, “Marvel Voices,” a one-shot anthology series that hit superhero-inspired shelves in February 2020. Highlanders can learn from this two-time Eisner Award winner, graphic novelist, and essayist for Marvel Comics, who is dedicated to publishing speculative graphic novels by and about people of color. Bonus points also go out to Professor Jennings for creating “The Luke Cage Illustrated Syllabus,” which showcased as a UCR Arts exhibit.

Fact 26: The Future of Sustainable Housing

Team members Chloe Russ and Cooper Proulx stand inside the frame of the under-construction home, their team’s entry in the 2023 Orange County Sustainability Decathlon to envision the future of sustainable housing in California
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Mechanical engineering major Cooper Proulx jumped at the chance to enter the 2023 Orange County Sustainability Decathlon, a competition that challenged students to envision the future of sustainable housing in California. Cooper led the UCR team in designing and building a solar-powered model home to address climate change and California’s housing needs by showcasing innovative water use and conservation, energy efficiency, architecture, interior design, and innovation. “This was a truly student-led project,” said Sundararajan Venkatadriagaram, the team’s faculty advisor and electrical engineering associate professor in the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE). “The students planned and executed every aspect of the project.” Cooper (right) is pictured with team member and biochemistry major, Chloe Russ, in the frame of the house they and other students designed and built.

Fact 27: Helping People to Feel Sound

Ethan Castro, co-founder of EDGE Sound Research,  works in his lab on Thursday February 2, 2023, at its offices in Riverside.
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The co-founders of EDGE Sound Research, Ethan Castro and Valtteri Salomaki, share their latest creation, ResonX™. This technology is something they dubbed “embodied audio,” designed to capture frequencies that turn into a sensory experience for the user. The idea was born out of Castro’s personal need. He was born hard of hearing, and his desire to connect with music led him to research possibilities to connect — and feel — music. Ph.D. candidate Castro (music Ph.D student) and Salomaki (’20) met at UCR and their passion to create, innovate in the Inland Empire, and make a brought them together. Their work with ResonX™ landed them a spot in the NBA Launchpad, the NBA’s initiative to pilot emerging technologies that can innovate the NBA ecosystem.

Fact 28: From Disney Make-Believe to Reality

A young Jennifer Ibarra posing with Ariel
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A Highlander’s wish of teaching a R’Course about Disneyland rides came true! “I have always been a huge Disney fan ever since I was small,” says Jennifer Ibarra, now in her third year at UCR. Her family had annual passes to Disneyland since 2012 and went every weekend when she was a child. Today, she swipes her Magic Key Pass once or twice a month, sometimes driving straight from campus after class. Given Jennifer’s passion for Disney, it’s not surprising her proposal to teach a student-led R’Course centered around it. The thought of teaching a one-unit class under the direction of a faculty mentor excited Jennifer, who plans to become a teacher.

Before her class “EDUC 198: Disney Imagineer” became a course, she worked with Cathy Lussier, an associate professor of teaching, on teaching strategies and a syllabus. Students learned about queues, ride engineering, Disney history, and what goes on behind the scenes through lectures, videos, discussions, activities with prizes, and guest speakers. For their final project, they teamed up to dream up a ride, sketch it out, and present the experience. The course will be taught on more time in fall 2024 before it’s retired.

Fact 29: A Podcast that Amplifies Black Voices at UCR

Digital illustration for the Blue, Gold & Black Podcast. The podcast title is displayed in block letters at the bottom, with illustrated silhouettes of Black students in gold and blue colors. The background shows graphics depicting sound waves.
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UCR’s Blue, Gold & BLACK (BGB) podcast brings students, campus leaders, and community partners together to explore the intersection of being Black and being a UCR Highlander. Each episode serves to amplify community members’ voices and bring awareness to the work they do in their respective campus sector. Check out all BGB episodes on your favorite platforms and follow @BlueGoldBLACK on social media.

Topics include:

  • Efforts for justice and equity at UCR
  • Student success resources on campus
  • How to find a mentor on and off campus
  • Paths to higher education
  • How listeners can engage with UCR’s Black community
  • Connections among members of the campus community
  • Various perspectives of the Black experience throughout the African diaspora
  • Expressing Black joy and optimism

Fact 30: UCR Student, Small Business Owner, and Spicy Chicken Lover

UCR student and Baba’s Chicken business owner, Mahmoud Hemood, smiles for the camera.
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During his third year at UCR, Mahmoud Hemood opened a successful downtown Riverside eatery that celebrates his love for hot chicken sandwiches. Of all the dining options in this chic local food-court inspired experience, the Baba’s Chicken line is pretty much always the longest. But the food is so worth the wait. And the best part? All UCR students get a discount! That’s proof that Highlanders really do take care of other Highlanders.

Fact 31: For the History Books

UCR's men's basketball coach, Mike Magpayo, chats with his team during a timeout during a game. Maypayo is the first Division I men's basketball coach of Asian descent.
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Head coach and 2022-23 Big West Coach of the Year, Mike Magpayo, lead the UCR men's basketball team into its best season in the program’s Division I history. UCR finished the 2022-23 season with a 22-12 record, which also saw Magpayo become the fastest UCR men’s basketball coach to secure 25 Big West victories. Leading a staff entirely in its first year together, Magpayo guided UCR to a number of program firsts in its Division I era, including its first 20-win season, first 10-win Big West season, a program-record five Big West Player of the Week awards, and its fourth consecutive winning season. “We are building something special here in a program that our entire university, city, and region can be proud of and that means everything,” says Magpayo, who was named the nation’s first-ever Asian-American basketball head coach at the men’s Division I level, the 2022 Rising Coaches Trailblazer Award recipient for those who paved the way for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the coaching and sports industry, and the 2020-21 Joe B. Hall Award recipient. He also has served as the president of the Asian Coaches Association, whose mission is to support and elevate Asian coaches at all levels. 

Fact 32: First African American Woman to Head a Major Zoo

Denise Verret, UCR alumna and director of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited institution, stands in front of the Los Angeles Zoo entrance.
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When Denise Verret (’88) started her new role in May 2020, she became the first female African American zoo director of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited institution in that group’s nearly 100-year history. Denise grew up being told by her mother that being a minority is an asset and opportunity, and as director, this UCR alumna hopes to be a mentor to other women of color and minorities who are becoming “firsts” like her. To her, being first means she won’t be the last! Denise is passionate about the unique conservation efforts underway at the L.A. Zoo and how conserving wildlife can help visitors learn about compassion, empathy, and taking action.

Fact 33: Going Viral

UCR chemistry professor, Timothy Su, smiles in front of a tree-lined background.
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Professor Timothy Su came up with an unique way for his general chemistry students to show off their knowledge, create TikTok videos explaining various scientific concepts. In 60 seconds or less, Su's students have cooked spaghetti, made cartoons, done dances, and more to illustrate concepts like chemical reactions, chemical laws, and chemical states. Posting their videos with #chemclout, these students earn extra credit, compete for a spot in the class-elected Hall of Fame, and are generating millions of views!

Fact 34: Award-Winning, Queer, Nonbinary, Trans Artist & Dance Professor

Ni’ja Whitson, assistant professor of dance at UCR, performs with rope lights wrapped around her.
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Ni’ja Whitson, assistant professor of dance at UCR, created, directed, and choreographed “Oba Qween Baba King Baba,” which won the Queer Nonbinary Trans multidisiplinary artist their second Bessie — one of dance’s most prestigious awards. Whitson was awarded a 2019 Bessie for Outstanding Visual Design, recognizing the masterpiece’s unique design which was formatted for an audience that sits above floor level. During the performance, projected lighting illuminates the floor with constellations, a colorful geographic map of Africa, and images of dancers that move throughout the floor as live performers dressed in beige, white, and black garments take center stage to rhythms of hip-hop, classical, and jazz music. A portion of the performance also includes live musicians.

“For this performance, I want the audience to feel like they are in the sky; I want them to see the sky below them and feel as if they are wrapped in sacred, cosmic love,” Whitson says. Highlanders can find the award-winning professor teaching class in the on-campus Arts building or doing a virtual guest-speaking gig for the off-campus UCRArts building. 

Fact 35: UCR ROOTS: Coachella's DJ Alf Alpha

Rafael Lopez, UCR alumnus and founding member of UCR’s Hip Hop Congress chapter, stands with arms crossed in front of a green screen.
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Rafael Lopez graduated from UCR in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. But before putting on that cap and gown, he was a founding member of UCR’s Hip Hop Congress chapter and began DJing at UCR music festivals — sharing the Highlander stage with stars like Lupe Fiasco. Post-graduation, he took an internship at a music studio in Culver City, less than an hour away from our campus. Then just one year after becoming the resident DJ at ACE Hotel in Palm Springs, mega-festival and concert promoters Goldenvoice took notice of this UCR alumnus and offered him a spot on the Coachella lineup in 2011, where he’s played the festival every year since.

“My window of time was going to close if I didn’t take the chance,” says Rafael. “In the end, you really don’t have anything to lose.”

Fact 36: Finding Family

UCR alumna Regina Louise appears on Good Morning America to discuss her book, which later became a movie based on her life.
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It was a day more than 30 years in the making. Regina Louise grew up in foster homes and psychiatric facilities, moving over 30 times before she turned 18. During this time, she developed a tight bond with her counselor Jeanne Kerr, so tight that Kerr petitioned to adopt Louise. A court ruling stopped the adoption in 1974 because Kerr was white and Louise was Black. As detailed in the UCR alumna's memoirs, one of which began as her creative writing master's thesis, and the Lifetime Movie based on her life, "I Am Somebody's Child: The Regina Louise Story," Kerr and Louise did become family, the adoption finally proceeding after a three-decade delay. Guided by her own experiences, Louise is an advocate and mentor for other foster children.

Fact 37: Curating Music History

Nwaka Onwusa, UCR alumna and chief curator and vice president of curatorial affairs for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH
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Nwaka Onwusa ‘08, has managed the enviable feat of making music the guiding theme of her career. According to her, the road to curating music history began at UCR — first at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and now The Hip Hop Museum. The first in her family to attend college, Nwaka says her experience working in the UCR fine arts box office got her foot in the door at the Grammy Museum box office, then joining its education department, and later becoming its curator. UCR allowed Nwaka to make mistakes, get back up, and try again, attributing her success to administration, deans, and faculty that believed in her and fortified her as a human being.

In the last 15 years of her career, Nwaka conceptualized, researched, and produced more than 20 exhibits for the Grammy Museum, including “Legends of Motown,” “All Eyez on Me: The Writings of Tupac Shakur,” and “Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey.” At the Rock Hall, Nwaka brought a broader range of artists into the fold, including those traditional rock ’n’ roll fans might consider outside the genre’s boundaries, especially West Coast hip-hop artists. Now, she will help to create an experience unlike any other at The Hip Hop Museum in New York City. Owusa was honored as one of UCR’s 40 Under 40.

Fact 38: Makerspace Solutions

Three students, two females flanking one male, pose inside the Creat'R Lab on the UCR campus.
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UCR Library’s Creat’R Lab Makerspace is “home to creation,” according to Innovative Media Librarian Alvaro Alvarez. The Lab is open to the UCR community. Services range from workshops to helping clubs with 3D-designed costumes. Outcomes can result in welcome surprises, which was the case when a bioengineering professor requested a standard 3D-scanning of a stress strain apparatus for pork skin. “The professor mentioned that the device I was scanning was too expensive to buy and too expensive to make with the engineering lab on campus,” says Brendon Wheeler, Maker Services Coordinator. “I worked with them to produce a plastic device that would save money. I also provided designed pieces that they could [use to] build their own machine parts if the device was damaged.” 

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