54 Facts: People
UNPARALLELED PEOPLE (Facts 22–38)
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
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
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?
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, 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: Build It and They Will Connect
On the day UCR suspended in-person classes to help flatten the COVID-19 pandemic curve, first-year computer science major Ervin Young sprung into action building computers for students in need. He knew the internet’s ability to connect isolated individuals would become crucial. The Google Chromebooks his home school district supplied to low-income students had too many limitations (web browsing only and short life spans), so he built a desktop PC that could be upgraded for many years and allow for programming and video editing projects. The first prototype took three hours to build, organize, and configure. Hopes were high to build at least five more with the help of his brother’s high school computer club. “I am so very proud of our UC Riverside students, who truly have that inner sense of community and belonging, and who think of helping others,” says Paea LePendu, a computer science lecturer in the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE). “For Ervin to act creatively and put to such use the engineer’s natural ability to tinker and create is just plain awesome.”
Fact 27: Fabric For Face Coverings
The members of dance club Ballet Folklórico de UCR were so moved by the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on vulnerable populations, that they donated their costume fabric to make face coverings for free health clinics in Coachella, California. Two hundred yards of fabric were sent to retired master seamstress Maria Elena Triana who donated her time and talents to produce over 800 face coverings. The coverings were then sent to 40 service and health organizations across the country.
Fact 28: 37th SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. (SFWA) honored UCR’s Creative Writing Professor Nalo Hopkinson as the 37th SFWA Grand Master for contributions to the literature of science fiction and fantasy (SFF). Her first novel, “Brown Girl in the Ring,” was published as the winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest in 1998 and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Nalo’s works (and awards received) grew from there, as she has published additional novels and collections of short fiction, and edited various works. SFWA President Mary Robinette Kowal says, “Naming Nalo as Grand Master recognizes not only her phenomenal writing but also her work as an educator who has shaped so many of the rising stars of modern SFF.”
Fact 29: A Podcast that Amplifies Black Voices at UCR
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.
- 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
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
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
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
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, 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 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
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
UCR alumna Nwaka Onwusa (’08) worked four jobs while pursuing her sociology degree. One of those jobs, working at the box office for the campus fine arts theater, set her on a path that led to her current position as chief curator and vice president of curatorial affairs for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio (she joined the hall of fame as director of curatorial affairs in 2019). A former box office manager at UCR encouraged Onwusa to apply for a job at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, where she started out working in its box office. Over 10 years with the museum, she moved from the box office to the education department and later became the curator, responsible for exhibits including “Legends of Motown” and “All Eyez on Me: The Writing of Tupac Shakur.” At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Onwusa, who was the first member of her family to attend college, put on an exhibit about Public Enemy’s influence and created the Interactive Garage, an exhibit where museum visitors can play real musical instruments.
Fact 38: Makerspace Solutions
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.”