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Student’s documentary helps her family heal from intergenerational trauma

Cecilia Mellieon and her daughter sit outdoors at Fortaleza Indian Ruins, homeland of their ancestors, near the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Lucy Village outside of Gila Bend, Arizona. Photo from 2001.

Grad student Cecilia Mellieon utilizes visual anthropology, a field of study founded at SF State, to tell stories of urban Native American life 

With a video camera in her hands and empathy in her heart, one San Francisco State University student is focusing her capstone project on a subject many families prefer to avoid: their intergenerational trauma.  

Cecilia Mellieon, a graduate student in Anthropology at San Francisco State, is the director of a documentary titled “He told us the sky is blue.” It traces her family’s trauma to Native American oppression, focusing on the Indian boarding school her father attended in Fort Apache, Arizona.  

“If it hadn’t been for his experience there, he would have never left his family or his village,” said Mellieon, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “He would have never moved to the Bay Area, and so I would not even be here if it wasn’t for him making those decisions to get away from them.” 

The U.S. government established the boarding schools to teach English and trade skills to Native American children. Violent corporal punishment occurred often.  

“The ultimate goal was to have fully assimilated second-generation children — children who were removed from their lands, children who didn’t grow up with their culture or their language or their family members,” Mellieon said. 

In her 55-minute film, Mellieon’s family recalls surviving an abusive household. They share feelings of sadness and regret as they also work to resolve their anger. 

“These are stories that I know too well, because I was there,” Mellieon said. “There are scenes where my brother and my mom are breaking down crying. I was crying with them.” 

Cecilia Mellieon headshot

Born and raised in San Francisco, Mellieon is passionate about telling stories of urban Native American life with nuance and sensitivity. She uses a supportive, collaborative approach that aims to not only create an ethnography, but also a work that will benefit the subjects. 

Her approach is an application of visual anthropology, a field of study that was founded by late SF State faculty members John Adair and John Collier. SF State Anthropology Professor Peter Biella (B.A., ’72; M.A., ’75) was one of Collier’s students, and today he is Mellieon’s adviser. 

Mellieon entered SF State as an undergraduate in 2018 at age 42. She had just completed her associate’s degree from Los Medanos College while her third child had yet to start kindergarten.  

A new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) extension to near her home in Antioch made the 50-mile commute to SF State feasible, with family help on child care. Now, one of her children, Tatihn Mellieon, also attends SF State, as a Creative Writing major and a student assistant in The Poetry Center. 

“It was the perfect grouping of coincidences that led to me to be able to go to State,” Cecilia Mellieon said. “If I had tried this at any other point in my life, I don’t think I would have had the life experiences. I don’t think I would have had the growth that I needed to be a confident student and be able to feel like I could tackle this.” 

Mellieon premiered “He told us the sky is blue” in November at Los Medanos College. She plans to take it to film festivals and make more anthropological films about big-city Indigenous life. 

Learn more about the Anthropology Department

Alum’s design, illustration work represents Filipinos and the Bay

Since drawing art in yearbooks in his youth, LeRoid David has wanted to make a positive impact through art 

Long before his illustrations would be seen at restaurants and on television, LeRoid David drew art in school yearbooks. Not just the covers. Every year he would sign dozens of yearbooks with a personalized comic for his peers. Each piece used the same caricature-based style and humor that is discernable in his work today. 

The San Francisco State University alumnus has a diverse client list. Fans have waved the cheer cards he created for NBC Sports from Oracle Park to Chase Center to Levi’s Stadium. Last year he designed the official San Francisco Giants T-shirt for Filipino Heritage Night. David’s digital caricatures are on signs for The Lumpia Co. restaurant, and his work appears in the 2003 superhero spoof film “Lumpia” plus the sequel “Lumpia with a Vengeance.”  

The erstwhile Tower Records at the Stonestown Galleria is where David (B.A., ’03) first applied the skills he was learning at nearby San Francisco State. He created in-store displays and doodled on the whiteboard above the cash register.  

David and the interviewer for this Q&A attended Burton High School in San Francisco together. 

In high school, you were sketching comic art by hand for the yearbook, newspaper and even the senior class T-shirt.  

I’ve always been an illustrator, going as far back when I was 3 years old growing up in San Francisco. I was always fascinated by product labels and logos, in addition to reading comics and watching cartoons. 

LeRoid David’s digital illustrations of The Lumpia Co. of proprietors Alex Retodo and Earl “E-40” Stevens smiling and holding pieces of lumpia in each hand while wearing T-shirts with the text Eat Lumpia

LeRoid David’s digital illustrations of The Lumpia Co. of proprietors Alex Retodo and Earl “E-40” Stevens. Photo credit: courtesy of The Lumpia Co. 

I’ll always remember you would take the time, upon anybody’s request, to sign their yearbook with a personalized cartoon. 

That goes way back to elementary school. Around that age I realized that art can make a big impact. I saw the impact of creating something for someone and how it affects them emotionally. I got hooked to using art to make an impact. It gave me a feeling of wanting to do more. 

To this day, I will get a message from old classmates, even people I haven’t seen since elementary school. They would go through their closet and find something that I did for them, and I don’t even remember it! 

Tell us about your job at Tower Records and how it intersected with your SF State life.  

I started out just like a regular cashier. Slowly over time, I got involved with the visual arts team. I would assist the store artists with a lot of the signage, and that’s when I would start to apply the design techniques I learned from class.  

I stayed with Tower Records ’til the very end, which was 2006. I was able to move up and work for the regional office to do marketing and events locally for the Bay Area stores. My job was to propose music events, whether it’s album signings or even in-store performances.  

Describe a class or a moment at SF State that had a major impact on your life. 

Man, there were a lot of moments. The first thing that stands out is becoming part of DAI [the Design and Industry Department] at SFSU. It not only helped develop my skills as a designer, but it also helped me learn how to connect with my peers, learning how to network and how to be a better communicator. 

The second thing at State was being part of FilGrad, the student-run Filipino graduation. At State I solely focused on my major and what I needed to do to graduate. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to take other classes such as Ethnic Studies. I knew that SF State had a very strong Ethnic Studies program, especially when it came to Filipino American history, so I joined FilGrad as a way to connect with the Filipino American community. 

Of course at the very end, we held a very special fundraiser: We hosted the premiere of the “Lumpia” movie at SF State. It was crazy, man, it was. It was a sold-out, standing-room crowd.

I’m a second-generation Filipino American. My parents immigrated to the U.S. when they were really young, so I didn’t grow up speaking Tagalog. I only knew what being Filipino was to food, pretty much. It wasn’t until my later years, and again, especially at SF State, where I learned about Filipino American history. 

I saw that, as artists, that we, too, can also create — and be part of that history, too. 

Learn more about SF State’s School of Design

Alum designs FDA-authorized app to treat fibromyalgia symptoms

Nelson Mitchell developed his design mind as a graduate student at SF State 

Learning to design furniture at San Francisco State University can lead to more careers than one may expect. For Nelson Mitchell, his master’s degree was the pathway to creating an innovative mobile app to treat fibromyalgia. 

Mitchell, a user-experience designer, is head of design and co-founder of Swing Therapeutics. Earlier this year the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized its app, Stanza, to be marketed to treat symptoms of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that affects 10 million Americans. It is the first fibromyalgia digital therapeutic approved by the FDA. Available only by prescription, Stanza employs a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy. It has proven effective in extensive randomized controlled trials and real-world studies, with 73% of patients demonstrating improvement in symptoms. 

Stanza provides patients with a customized schedule of treatment, incorporating practices such as mindfulness and self-reflection throughout their daily routine. “It’s the therapist in your pocket,” Mitchell said.  

Nelson Mitchell smiles while standing in front of a brick wall on a foggy day

Mitchell (M.A., ’10) entered San Francisco State as smartphones started to become a near necessity for daily life. Faculty and students already knew that enduring product design concepts would be key to success in the mobile software space. 

“I was designing chairs and lamps and stuff like that, but SF State’s program was really great at teaching me the design process and how to think like a designer — how to come up with a hypothesis, test, iterate and refine the idea,” Mitchell said. “I took that and applied it to software and interface design.” 

School of Design faculty such as Ricardo Gomes, Shirl Buss, Hsiao-Yun Chu and Nancy Noble gave Mitchell the tools and the freedom to explore his interests in depth. 

“I felt like I had a new kernel, a new framework,” he said. “SF State gave me the chance to build it — and really build it in a way that I understood it. It’s like the difference between owning a bike and having someone else fix it versus being able to take it apart and put it back together.” 

At his company, Mitchell is spreading the word about the Gator work ethic: “Nobody is going to work as hard for you as graduates from SF State,” he told his team. “These are people that we need to create opportunities for.” 

One of Swing Therapeutics’ first in-house software engineers, Mantasha Khan, joined the company after completing her Computer Science degree from SF State. Khan (B.S., ’21) has a passion for creating technology solutions for health. She notes that Lecturer Jose Ortiz-Costa’s “Introduction to Database Systems” course provided her with an invaluable foundation of skills. 

“I’ve been meaning to reach out to [Ortiz-Costa], just throw it out there, [to say that] you have helped me so much,’” said Khan, who attended SF State as an international student from India. “Everything you have taught has been helping me every single day in my work, so I’m very grateful.”  

Learn more about the SF State School of Design and Computer Science Department

‘Finding Filipino’: Renowned comics artist discovered herself attending SF State

Rina Ayuyang’s new graphic novel and comic posters explore Filipino American culture and history — including on campus 

One evening in the 1990s, Rina Ayuyang was passing through the Creative Arts building at San Francisco State University. In a small recital hall, she discovered a Filipino ensemble performing a ballad, “Dahil Sayo (Because of You).” She recognized the song because her parents would dance to it in the living room of her childhood home. 

“I lived near campus and would walk down the halls a lot, and I’d just stumble upon things that were happening,” Ayayung recalled. “It was a very film-noir scene actually, this woman singing this Filipino romantic ballad that I just came and found myself in. And it was a very magical experience.”  

It was one of the many life-changing experiences for Ayuyang at San Francisco State to influence her as a comics artist and shape her as a human being. 

New graphic novel 

“The Man in the McIntosh Suit” (Drawn and Quarterly, 2023) is Ayuyang’s new graphic novel, presenting a Filipino American take on the Great Depression. Mistaken identities, speakeasies and lost love intersect from strawberry farms on the Central Coast to Manilatown in San Francisco. 

Kirkus Reviews writes: “Ayuyang spins a captivating tale that is both an homage to starry-eyed Hollywood movies of the period and a corrective that highlights the anti-Asian racism faced by immigrants as well as the thriving communities they formed.” 

Throughout her work, Ayuyang (B.A., ’98) aims not only to increase representation of Filipino Americans in the arts, but awareness of their key roles in U.S. history. 

“We always feel like we’ve come a long way, but there are still things that need to be addressed. We like to bury things in our history that aren’t as pretty,” Ayuyang said. “I feel like as an artist, we need to continue to use our platform to share ideas, motivate and inspire.” 

‘Finding Filipino’ and the ‘CIA’ 

Ayuyang was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and chose to attend SF State because she had deep family roots in the Bay Area. She majored in Art with an emphasis in Conceptual and Information Arts, an experimental program where she says everybody made their own rules and embraced a do-it-yourself ethos that prepared her well for a career in comic arts. 

“They called it the ‘CIA’,” Ayuyang said. “It was a little fun rag-tag artist operation going on. It had this grassroots feeling that felt very San Francisco, bohemian-like. It was very much my jam.” 

The courses that Ayuyang took in the College of Ethnic Studies from professors such as Dan Begonia taught her about the hidden histories of Filipino farmworkers and activists in California. She met lifelong friends in the Asian American Studies Department and participated in the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, a student organization.  

SF State has had such an impact on Ayuyang that she dedicated a comic to the University in her new poster series, “Finding Filipino.” Presented by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the Art on Market Street Poster Series, the nine posters are on display at 30 bus shelters in downtown San Francisco through June.  

On the “Finding Filipino at SF State” poster, she shares her Gator story: “Here, I learned that I was more than a ‘model minority,’ that I could be an artist, a writer, an athlete — anything I wanted to be.” 

Learn more about the SF State School of Art and College of Ethnic Studies

Speakers share stories of personal transformation at Commencement

SF State ‘can be your rock,’ said Jayshree Ullal, president and CEO of cloud networking company Arista Networks, at the May 26 event

San Francisco State University celebrated the Class of 2023 at its annual Commencement ceremony Friday, May 26, at Oracle Park. More than 4,000 graduates and more than 31,000 people attended the event, which featured technology business leader Jayshree Ullal as keynote speaker. Ullal talked about the challenges she faced coming to the U.S. from her native India to attend San Francisco State in 1977. 

“While I was pursuing electrical engineering, I was only one or two of 100 female students in a class of 100,” said Ullal (B.S., ’81), who studied electrical engineering at SF State and went on to become president and CEO of cloud networking company Arista Networks. “This made cutting class difficult, as we were conspicuous by our absence!” 

Despite being a trailblazer in a then mostly male field — and a “very shy, quiet introvert” to boot — Ullal said her Engineering professors and fellow students were supportive.   

“This great San Francisco State institution shaped me and guided my future,” she said. “And it can be your rock just like it’s my foundational rock.” 

Two honorary California State University degrees were also conferred at Commencement: legendary Rolling Stone writer and editor, author, DJ and TV host Ben Fong-Torres (B.A., ’66) was honored with a Doctor of Fine Arts, while activist, filmmaker, author and psychotherapist Satsuki Ina received a Doctor of Humane Letters.  

“Actually I didn’t attend my Commencement. Hey, it was the Sixties. We forgot, man,” Fong-Torres joked to the crowd. “But I have never forgotten this university’s impact on me. … I got that [Rolling Stone] gig, I think, because of the freedom that we had to experiment with journalism here at SF State, and the lessons learned from that freedom.” 

During Ina’s speech, she encouraged the Class of 2023 to make the world a better place through empathy and action. 

“I urge you to bring with you something that has always been inside of you, even before college, and that is your compassion,” she said. “We need all that you bring, and more than ever in this world of conflict, violence, injustice and suffering, we need your compassion. We need you to care and love family and friends, of course, but also the stranger, the other, the foreigner. Reach out beyond your comfort zone, welcome the outsider. It is compassion that can mend the fractures, heal the wounds and bring us together.” 

Other speakers included SF State President Lynn Mahoney, Associated Students President Karina Zamora and Associated Students Chief of Staff Iese Esera. Two student hood recipients, among 12 graduates honored for their academic and personal achievements, also shared their stories. 

“I began my journey in higher education as a homeless first-generation college student with a baby on my hip and another in my belly. I did not have support, money, guidance or a place to call my own. But what I did have was a dream,” said undergraduate speaker Nicole Bañuelos. “I had a dream that I would earn my degree in Biology and go on to study medicine and save human lives. This dream carried me through my most trying times. I learned how to study through morning sickness and nausea, how to hold a textbook in one hand and a baby in another, how to hold my head up high when I felt like the world was looking down on me. But most of all I learned how to never give up in the face of adversity and that after every dark night there is a brighter day.” 

Graduate student speaker Hasti Jafari, who was born in Iran, reflected on the Iranian women’s movement and the important lessons the Class of 2023 can learn from the brave activists there. 

“As someone honored to have called both countries home, I encourage you to see their fight as your fight, as the basic rights of women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities are under threat in this country as well,” Jafari said. “And in this deeply interconnected world, none of us are free until all of us are free.” 

Learn more information about SF State’s 2023 Commencement. 

Student script wins national award from Broadcast Education Association

Jae Hamilton wrote raucous speculative episode of U.K. teen sitcom ‘Derry Girls’ 

What started as a class assignment has turned into a national award for a San Francisco State University student who has since graduated. Jae Hamilton is a first-place winner in the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) Festival of Media Arts. Her speculative script for an episode of the U.K. teen sitcom “Derry Girls” brings a raucous yet thoughtful twist to a Catholic girls school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. 

Hamilton (B.A./B.S., ’22) is among 300 student winners, representing 82 colleges and universities nationwide. They were honored at an awards ceremony at the festival on April 17 in Las Vegas. BEA is a leading international academic media organization that drives insights, excellence in media production and career advancement for educators, students and professionals. 

Hamilton wrote the script last fall as an assignment in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) 470: “Dramatic Writing for Television and Electronic Media.” The plot takes the “Derry Girls” protagonists to a shop in town where one of the characters gets in a dispute with the owner for overcharging for candy. In the episode’s secondary plotline, Hamilton takes the Derry girls as far from their comfort zone as she thought possible: to a museum exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, showcasing his trademark provocative images of nude men. 

“It’s hijinks, but the basis is taking care of your own and standing up for what you feel is injustice,” Hamilton said. “I wrote it because it’s funny, but it’s also about self-acceptance. Even though they are very simple characters, they deal with lots of different emotions and themes.” 

A double major in Visual Communication Design and Creative Writing, Hamilton entered San Francisco State as a transfer student after a career as a theatre props technician in Atlanta. She is pursuing a career in video game design, and her passion is writing plays.  

“Writing is my happy place. It always has been,” Hamilton said.  

Hamilton is not the only member of the SF State community to be honored at the BEA festival. Her BECA 470 instructor from last fall, Associate Professor Marie Drennan, garnered Best of Competition in the Mini-Episodic/Webisode category of the faculty scriptwriting competition. 

Learn more about the SF State Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts and Creative Writing departments and the SF State School of Design


Jae Hamilton selfie while seated in front of a kitchen sink and window

SF State alum, author Ernest J. Gaines honored with USA stamp

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is most known for his novels ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ and ‘A Lesson Before Dying’

A San Francisco State University alumnus is the latest American to be honored with a first-class stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. The late novelist Ernest J. Gaines is the face of the 46th stamp in the Black Heritage Series

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is known for writing about the people in small-town Louisiana where he was raised, often exploring enslaved people, their descendants and their enslavers. He rose to fame in 1971 with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a historical novel chronicling the recollections of its 110-year-old Black protagonist, whose life spans from slavery to the civil rights era. After garnering a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, it was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning television movie starring Cicely Tyson. His novel “A Lesson Before Dying,” about a Black man on death row for a murder he did not commit, not only won the 1993 National Books Critics Circle Award, but was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection. President Barack Obama awarded Gaines the National Medal of the Arts in 2013. Gaines died in 2019 at age 86. 

“Ernest J. Gaines remains an important role model for Creative Writing students at San Francisco State,” said May-lee Chai, associate professor and acting chair of the Creative Writing Department. “We remind our students that his first short story was published in our undergraduate journal, Transfer Magazine, which he later said led to multiple opportunities for him as a writer. His legacy as a literary giant and advocate for social justice is deeply inspiring.” 

Gaines was born in 1933 on a plantation in Oscar, Louisiana. He lived in the same former slave quarters where his family had been residing for five generations. At age 15, he moved to the Bay Area — the Navy town of Vallejo — due to a lack of educational opportunities in the South. His region of rural Louisiana lacked both a high school and a library where Black people were welcome. After Vallejo Junior College and the Army, Gaines enrolled at SF State. 

“It was there that I really got seriously into the writing,” Gaines said in a 2016 interview with the Academy of Achievement of his time at SF State. “I had some wonderful teachers on the campus at that time who were writers as well. And they encouraged me to write.” 

Learn more about the SF State Creative Writing Department. 


Black Wall of Fame celebrates SF State’s Black community past, present

Soul of SF State celebrates Black History Month with inaugural art exhibition

San Francisco State University is celebrating the contributions of Black alumni, faculty, staff and students with a new Black Wall of Fame on view through Thursday, Feb. 29, at the Art Gallery on the terrace level of the Cesar Chavez Student Center. The Black Wall of Fame was created by Soul of SF State, a group that plans events and initiatives meant to uplift the University’s Black community. Soul of SF State co-founder Shanice Robinson-Blacknell (B.A., ’15; M.A., ’18; M.Ed., ’19, Ed.D, 23), a lecturer in the Equity, Leadership Studies, and Instructional Technologies and Africana Studies departments and a recent doctoral graduate in the Graduate College of Education, spoke with SF State News about how she hopes to make the Black Wall of Fame a Black History Month tradition.

Where did the idea for the Black Wall of Fame come from?

There are so many phenomenal people that have been on this campus for 20, 30 years, some even almost 40 years who have never been recognized. It was very important for me to make sure we kick off Black History Month not just with events, but with something that can be

an event that happens each year.

Sometimes our heads get wrapped around the 1968 student strike, but there are phenomenal things that have happened after the strike. I just wanted to highlight that. We have so many phenomenal Black leaders on campus.

What’s the criteria for being included in the Black Wall of Fame?

If you’re an alum, current student, faculty or staff member and you’re leading great research, or if you’re producing great programming or providing resources to Black students on campus and BIPOC communities, those are the people I want to highlight.

I want to make it bigger each year because I want [inductees] to know that San Francisco State loves [them], and if [the University] didn’t say it while you were there, we’re going to say it every Black History Month.

We feature people like the Dancing Divas (SF State’s historically Black college or university-inspired majorette and hip-hop dance team), the Divine 9 (Black Greek letter organizations) and emeritus and emerita faculty.

I want [students] to feel empowered — of course faculty and staff, too, but mostly the students. Seeing the Dancing Divas, the Gospel Gator students come in and say, “Oh, my God! There’s my picture!” And seeing them get so excited that they Facetime their parents … that made me happy.

Tell me about one of the inductees and why they inspired you.

Dr. Doris Flowers is one of my heroes in education. I would love to be like her. She co-founded the Equity and Social Justice Master of Arts program (in the Graduate College of Education) and is also the chair of my dissertation. In 2019 she was the department chair of two departments Equity, Leadership Studies, and Instructional Technologies and Africana Studies and she just retired as associate dean of the Graduate College of Education. She’s been at SF State for 33 years.

When I was applying for graduate school, I reached out to her not even knowing who she was. I just told her, “I’m really interested in this master’s program and I don’t have a 3.0 GPA to get into the program. I technically have a 2.9.” She told me to still apply and submit a personal statement indicating why this program is a great fit for me and specifying why my GPA had fallen. Because of her, I was able to get in the program and I thrived.

I have become not just her mentee, but I’m also teaching in the same department as hers. It’s awesome to have a full-circle moment with people who inspired me and helped get me across the finish line. And then they see enough in me to create opportunities for me.

What do you hope this wall does for the SF State community?

I hope that this wall will empower Black students, faculty and staff, but also allow others like President Mahoney and Vice President Moore to see the Black community from our perspective. I want people every year to see the Black Wall of Fame, even if they’re not students.

If you know of someone you think should be added to the Black Wall of Fame, email Dr. Shanice Robinson-Blacknell at

Graduation photo of Shanice Robinson

Soul of SF State co-founder Shanice Robinson-Blacknell (B.A., ’15; M.A., ’18; M.Ed., ’19, Ed.D, 23), a Department of Equity, Leadership Studies, and Instructional Technologies and Africana Studies lecturer and a recent doctoral graduate in the Graduate College of Education, helped to launch the Black Wall of Fame at SF State.

Alumna’s authentic curiosity leads to science podcasting success

Alie Ward was unhappy with her career until her love for the sometimes grubby natural world opened new doors

Science communicator Alie Ward (B.A., ’99) has unique advice for anyone starting a new career: “Get in like a cockroach.”

“Don’t wait to be invited in like a vampire,” said Ward, the host of “Ologies,” an award-winning popular science podcast, and a Daytime Emmy Award-winning science correspondent for CBS’s “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca.” “Get under cracks and doors.”

Ward says that can include repeatedly sending cold emails, volunteering, asking questions, being authentic and weird, and generally being persistent.

While emulating roaches might not be common career advice, it’s paid off for Ward, who followed a winding road in her journey to science podcasting. (She also points out that despite their bad rep, cockroaches are fastidious, resourceful and humble.)

“It took me until my late thirties to really find science communication as a goal. I didn’t even know that you could do it,” she explained. Instead, she spent many of her early years debating whether she should follow her passion for science or her love of arts and entertainment.

Initially, she leaned into science by becoming a Biology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. After a year, she transferred to a community college, largely due to affordability, and then transferred to San Francisco State University to finish her undergraduate career as a Cinema major.

“I loved science, but I was also really missing the arts aspect. I thought maybe I would go into science illustration, but I was missing performance and writing and humor,” Ward said. She hoped she’d eventually find a way to combine science with film. “I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to pan out but I did it anyway.”

After participating in dozens of student films and building an entertainment-focused network, Ward got an agent, relocated to Los Angeles and moved further away from science. After acting for a few years, she worked as an illustrator for LA Weekly, a writer/editor for The Los Angeles Times and even a culinary TV personality with the Cooking Channel. She’d sprinkle in science when she could, but she no longer felt authentic, and she became increasingly dissatisfied with her career path.

Yet through all of this, one thing remained consistent: Ward’s lifelong fascination with bugs. She began posting about them on social media simply for the joy of it and caught the eye of Lila Higgins, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Higgins invited Ward to the museum for a behind-the-scenes tour and encouraged Ward to volunteer. Ward listened. Volunteering — something she did purely for fun — helped Ward feel like herself and led to her becoming a science correspondent for CBS.

“I love science. Yes, I also love TV and film. Yes, I also love being on [‘The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca’]. You know what’d be a little bit better? If they had to do less with tech and more with biology,” Ward said. “You just start to whittle down what’s really at the root of what you love and who you are.”

In 2017, nearly 20 years after she pursued science at school, she launched her podcast “Ologies.” It now ranks consistently among the top science podcasts on Apple Podcasts. Each week, Ward chats with an expert about their field and their passions, unafraid to ask seemingly silly questions she knows she and her listeners have.

The conversations are led by her guest’s passion and Ward’s curiosity. She didn’t want expert sound bites that lacked any personal depth. She adds “asides” in her voice to provide necessary explanations or context. She realized she could also provide little “brain breaks” in the form of tangents, like one about wicker furniture in the middle of a conversation about molecular biology.

She also keeps in the occasional expletive — though she agonized over whether she wanted her podcast marked by a little “E” for explicit. None of the other top science podcasts had an “E.” But eventually she decided to opt for personal authenticity over phony decorum.

“If everyone’s shaving off parts of themselves to make this smooth surface, then the smooth surfaces look identical to each other. Then where’s your impact? Where’s your voice?” she asked. “Being gravely weird can sometimes be the most comforting thing. I would rather have a hundred people like my authentic self than a thousand people like a façade.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Cinema.

Alum’s typeface recognized by nation’s oldest professional design association

Chalermpol “Pol” Jittagasem created a typeface to help English language learners with pronunciation

Chalermpol “Pol” Jittagasem (M.A., ’21) created a typeface that tells a story about the immigrant experience, a story he knows well. An immigrant from Thailand, Jittagasem came to the United States 10 years ago on a student visa and struggled to learn English. Words like “subtle,” “basically” and “half” were confusing.

“I had no idea how many syllables there were and where to put the stress,” he said.

As a graduate student in Design at San Francisco State University and later as a student in a typography certificate program, he developed a typeface to help English learners with English pronunciation. His project recently caught the attention of the oldest professional design association in the nation: Vaja was included in the STA 100, the Society of Typographic Arts’ (STA) annual competition recognizing the 100 most innovative communication designs from around the world.

Jittagasem’s typeface, which he named Vaja (meaning “speech” in Thai), was designed to help people learning English phonetically pronounce English words. As part of the STA honor, it is featured on the organization’s website along with the other winners.

Chalermpol “Pol” Jittagasem stands in front of a graffitti covered wall

Chalermpol “Pol” Jittagasem created the typeface Vaja for a certificate program at Letterform Archive's Type West.

He created Vaja in Letterform Archive’s Type West certificate program, but he has been playing around with the concept since graduate school. His thesis project was a typographic design that could help Thai speakers pronounce English words.

“A lot of Thai people have difficulty with [English] pronunciation because it’s a different language, and we have to memorize how we stress here and there. Like the word ‘colonel’ — I don’t know why the ‘l’ is in the middle like that, that’s something you must memorize.” To help, he created small details, or cues, on the letterforms that would tell a Thai person how to pronounce English words.

Language and culture have been through lines in Jittagasem’s work, says SF State Design Professor Hsiao-Yun Chu, who worked closely with him in graduate school. “We take the Roman alphabet somewhat for granted; and yet, for people trying to assimilate and learn a language, it can be very daunting,” she said. “His graduate project created a new typeface that would help English language learners from Thailand to improve their pronunciation, making the process more inclusive. This is a highly creative and humanistic way to look at the power of typography.”

Vaja expanded his thesis to include all English learners, not just Thai people. The typeface comes in bold, italic and thin, and each style represents different sounds and where to put the stress. For example, the bold style indicates where to put the stress on a word and the italics are soft sounds.

The typeface isn’t ready to be downloaded just yet, but when it is Jittagasem hopes it will be used in dictionaries, English pronunciation flashcards, academic writing and even newspapers. In the meantime, he plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in design and visual communications to take his vision even further.

Learn more about SF State’s School of Design.