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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

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. 

‘The Last of Us’ for amphibians: University researchers trace emergence of fungus threatening African amphibians

SF State professor, students describe how a deadly fungus began spreading among amphibians in Africa over the last 165 years

For the past few years, how a virus triggered a global pandemic has dominated conversations. Now, thanks to the TV show “The Last of Us” (about an apocalypse triggered by brain-eating ’shrooms), fungi have infected popular culture. The focus has been on pathogens that cause human disease, but what about those affecting nonhuman species? San Francisco State University scientists are among the many concerned about a fungus that has been detrimental for amphibians worldwide and is contributing to a loss of biodiversity.

In a new Frontiers in Conservation Science paper, San Francisco State researchers detail the relatively recent emergence and spread of a deadly fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd) among amphibians in Africa. Eight of the co-authors are former SF State students who were in a seminar class led by senior investigator Vance Vredenburg, a University Biology professor.

“When [amphibian] skin starts to change thickness, it basically creates a condition where they can’t maintain their internal processes and they die,” said co-author Eliseo Parra (B.S., ’14; M.S., ’17) about how the fungus attacks. “If infecting a mammal, it might affect your fingernails or something you wouldn’t even notice, but amphibians (frogs, salamanders) use their skin to breathe. It’s a very critical part of their body.”

The fungus is lethal for many amphibian populations but not others, Vredenburg says. His lab wanted to understand where the fungus is, how it got there and why it’s deadly for some amphibians, particularly in Africa where it has been under-studied.

In 2016, Vredenburg’s class, eager to get involved in conservation research, read papers about Bd and evaluated previously published data. In parallel, Vredenburg’s lab, in collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences, assessed the infection status of amphibian specimens from Africa. These two approaches gave the project nearly 17,000 records for analysis and a 165-year view of how this fungus interacts with amphibians across the continent.

The team reports low Bd prevalence and limited spread of the disease in Africa until 2000, when the prevalence increased from 3.2% to 18.7% and Bd became more widespread geographically. Vredenburg notes that not only is the fungus infecting amphibians but it is causing negative (often deadly) consequences versus being dormant.

The researchers also found two lineages of the fungus in Africa. One was a global lineage — considered the most dangerous version of the fungus — while the second was previously believed to be more benign, though the SF State team found evidence that it may also be destructive. Using their data, the team created a model that predicts that eastern, central and western Africa are the most vulnerable to Bd.

“We’re trying to extend our findings and make predictions about what could happen in the future. It’s the best way to make our study worth the work,” Vredenburg said.  “There are nearly 1,200 amphibian species in Africa. We wanted to say where are the riskiest places for outbreaks. Those will probably be the places where you have the most hosts in one place.”

“It’s very important to note that Bd didn’t spread worldwide without humans helping in one way or another,” added co-author Hasan Sulaeman (B.S., ’16; M.S., ’19). “It’s not the first pathogen that affects hundreds of species worldwide and it’s not going to be the last.”

The team points out that this project does not fit the traditional molds for science research papers or literature reviews. The fact that a scientific paper resulted from research done in a class is rare too, Vredenburg explains, attributing the feat to students’ talent and motivation.

Both Parra and Sulaeman participated in the project as students in the seminar class and as researchers in Vredenburg’s lab. They are among the students who continued to be involved for some part of the five years after the initial semester-long project. Through this experience, they gained valuable insight into the scientific publication process — something that is not trivial or quick — early in their careers.

Sulaeman is currently working on CDC-funded national SARS-CoV-2 studies, while Parra studies animal behavior in rainforests as a Ph.D. student at UCLA. Both alums recall the research environment that Vredenburg fostered that brought together undergraduate and graduate students with a variety of cultural and scientific backgrounds and levels of expertise. They both note the power in diversity and how it improves science.

“When you have a lot of really smart people in a room sitting at a table regularly, it is possible to do a lot. Maybe we didn’t understand that at the time or maybe this was a big lesson for us [students],” Parra said. “But Vance definitely knew that you could actually walk away from a class with an important piece of published research.”

Visit the Biology Department’s website to learn more about classes, research and more.

EOS Center aims to expand workforce, empowerment to increase local coastal resiliency

The SF State research center is taking a multipronged approach to environmental issues affecting the San Francisco Bay

San Francisco State University’s Estuary & Ocean Science (EOS) Center has received a $4.35 million grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy (SCC) to build coastal resiliency in the San Francisco Bay. The multipronged three-year endeavor will work on nature-based adaptations to mitigate the effects of climate change, provide community partners with guidance and develop academic curricula and field trips for local youth. The proposal consists of four main projects, with several aiming to boost the number of people qualified for related jobs.

“I think this proposal represents a direction that the EOS Center and the University broadly are  embracing. Understanding climate change and adapting to and mitigating climate change are really important topics for us to focus a lot of our attention on,” said EOS Center’s Interim Executive Director and lead scientist Katharyn Boyer, noting how this work intersects with other topics that “we at San Francisco State hold dear, like social justice.”

“We’re certainly interested in training scientists, but we’re also interested in the fact that there is so much work to be done now,” said Boyer, explaining that more hands-on experiences might help youth interested in entry-level jobs related to the Bay. “For coastal climate adaption, there needs to be people who know how to design and fabricate and actually implement these kinds of projects. There’s a wide range of workforce needs.”

This SCC-funded project was designed with input from a variety of community collaborators, Boyer explains. Community partners included several community colleges, government agencies, other science and environmental organizations, including co-located partners at the EOS Center, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the National Estuarine Research Reserve. The projects are:

  • Climate workforce capacity building: In collaboration with seven community colleges, the EOS Center and partners will develop new curricula, provide real-world data sets and organize field trips to nature-based shoreline projects for hands-on work with implementation and monitoring. Scientists will also organize field trips and offer training relevant to nature-based shoreline projects for English-language learners from San Rafael's Canal community (via a collaboration with Conservation Corps North Bay) and underserved communities in San Francisco's Bayview/Hunters Point (via a collaboration with Literacy for Environmental Justice). Teachers and staff at collaborating institutions will also have educational opportunities and support. The intent is to build an educational pipeline to four-year institutions like SF State.
  • Oyster shell recycling pilot: Scientists are testing human-made oyster reefs to protect against shoreline erosion, and incorporating native oyster shells may help make these structures a desirable habitat for native species. Since there is no robust source of local shells, scientists will work with two major restaurants to collect and prepare the shells. Information about the project and its environmental importance will be shared with more than 250,000 restaurant patrons per year. Vocational training will be offered for the Canal community youth in San Rafael through a collaboration with the Conservation Corps North Bay.
  • Planning and permitting a living seawall at the EOS Center, Tiburon: A living seawall incorporates materials conducive for native species along traditional vertical seawalls, which typically have little habitat value. The seawall at the EOS Center will be retrofitted to include horizontal relief in a variety of configurations, which will allow scientists and students to determine best approaches to create habitat and shoreline resilience. This funding supports the first step: design and permitting of the seawall retrofit, which will also include a small boat launching facility to make the seawall more accessible for research and community visits.
  • Pilot Regional Climate Science Consortium: The EOS Center will dedicate offices/meeting spaces for groups of scientists focused on advancing innovative science guidance for nature-based adaptations along shorelines in the San Francisco Bay. This consortium will work with partners to identify scientific needs, summarize findings and advice, and provide guidance on environmental and shoreline projects.

In addition to supporting collaborations with community colleges and other local organizations focused on underserved youth, the new grant also has funds to support work with Indigenous communities. By providing youth with projects that educate them on the effects of climate change, Boyer hopes they can make informed decisions about their career paths and their communities.

“We want youth in these underserved communities to have some tools and some agency about what happens along their shorelines,” Boyer added. “And we want to know from these communities from the very beginning how they think this work should look.”

At SF State, the program also provides University students a chance to participate in field trips and be scientific colleagues. For instance, Boyer hopes SF State graduate student participation might encourage a near-peer mentorship relationship between SF State students and youth from collaborating organizations. 

“This is a major push for the EOS Center to expand our capacity to do climate adaptation work and to involve our students and to involve the region’s youth,” said Boyer. “Climate change is one of the biggest issues of our time and it’s exciting that scientists at SF State are leading in innovation and creation of educational opportunity to work with nature to lessen the impacts.”

Visit the EOS Center website to learn more about its work

SF State launches new School of the Environment

The school expands student opportunities to study environmental topics

SAN FRANCISCO – August 18, 2023 — San Francisco State University’s College of Science & Engineering (CoSE) launched a new School of the Environment (SotE) to meet the evolving needs of students studying and researching environmental topics.

The new school merges CoSE’s Departments of Earth & Climate Sciences and Geography & Environment with the Environmental Studies degree programs formerly in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement. Three faculty from the programs will co-direct the new school until a new director is elected.

“It'll help us better serve our students because we’ll be able to work more collaboratively,” said Autumn Thoyre, one of three SotE co-directors. “In the past, we’d have students who were interested in the environment but didn't know which degree or career path to follow. We can guide them more effectively with this change.”

The undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates of the three programs will now be housed in SotE but will remain unchanged at the founding. The graduation requirements for students currently in, or those who have applied to, the three programs as of Fall 2023 will be unaffected by the move. Over time, the school will continue to refine the degrees to best reflect the school’s mission and meet the needs of a wide-ranging and growing environmental workforce.

By merging the programs, SotE makes it easier for students to get the necessary advising to understand these different programs and find the one that best fits their interests. The new school will boost the faculty to student ratio and expand student opportunities. Students will have easier access to a larger variety of courses, scholarships and research experiences that were previously limited to one program. Some programs did not previously offer graduate degrees so SotE helps provide students a clearer path to master’s degrees.

The co-directors also look forward to starting fresh and building SotE from the ground up. It’s an opportunity to better incorporate social justice into the fabric of this school and build a stronger and more diverse environmental workforce, they explain.

“It's an opportunity to say we're going to put this at the forefront and at the foundation of what we're building. Let’s think about equity and justice and building a welcoming community. That's really different,” said SotE Co-Director Andrew Oliphant.

In the upcoming years, SotE hopes to evaluate current programs to establish new opportunities to meet the evolving needs for students’ academic and professional development.  

“Bringing together students and faculty from these different programs will create opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration that will lead to exciting research possibilities and new career pathways for SF State students,” said SotE Co-Director Mary Leech. But the co-directors also acknowledge that there’s a lot of environmental work happening outside of SotE or any one college. They hope the new school will help build collaborations across this community and be another conduit for enhanced student opportunities. 

For more information about this change, visit the School of Environment’s website.

Alumnus thanks SF State mentors for his success as research faculty

Alum Juan Mendoza (B.S., ’03) says SF State gave him the foundation to be one of the top researchers in the United States

San Francisco State University alumnus Juan Mendoza gets emotional thinking about how much has changed in his family in just one generation. His parents immigrated to the United States from a small farming town in Mexico where they had limited educational opportunities. Thanks to them, Mendoza is now at a top research university as a faculty scientist whose accomplishments were recently recognized by one of the premier research organizations in the United States.

“That potential is out there. It could be anyone. [But] I had to be found to be where I am,” said Mendoza (B.S., ’03), crediting San Francisco State’s part in his journey. When the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) named him one of 31 inaugural Freeman Hrabowski scholars earlier this year, he was quick to thank his SF State mentors for setting him up for success. Mendoza’s recent accolade recognizes early career faculty for their outstanding research and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in science. The research award provides up to $8.6 million for each scholar for the next 10 years.

“Working at San Francisco State with other students is when I fell in love with research science. That got me through the really tough times at the graduate level and at the postdoc level and still gets me through hard times now as faculty as well,” said Mendoza, who is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.

As an undergrad, Mendoza originally transferred to SF State from a private university in Washington state because it was more affordable. An aspiring physician, he was a Biochemistry major but struggled academically, partly because he worked so much. He ultimately left school early to join the dot-com boom and worked in tech for a few years. When the economic upheaval after 9/11 left him unemployed, Mendoza returned to SF State to finish his bachelor’s degree.

“I don’t know how but somehow [Frank Bayliss] found me,” Mendoza said, explaining that Bayliss — the director of the Student Enrichment Opportunities (SEO) office at the time — completely shifted his educational experience. Bayliss helped Mendoza get a fellowship and connect with SF State faculty.

“What really changed my life was being able to focus on studying and research. That really brought out that excellence in me,” Mendoza said. In addition to financial support, SEO helped him connect with faculty like Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Raymond Esquerra. This network helped him get research experience and solid letters of recommendation, giving him a chance at really good Ph.D. programs, Mendoza adds.

“Dr. Esquerra is someone that I just completely admire,” said Mendoza, who was a postbaccalaureate researcher in Esquerra’s lab. This lab was where Mendoza fell in love with protein structure and its role in human health and biology. His mentor was the first to encourage Mendoza to combine his computational tech background with chemistry.

“It got me so excited. It gave me that first idea of combining both lab science and computation, which at that time was a lot rarer than it is now,” he explained. Computational science is now heavily integrated into many life science and biotech jobs.

At the University of Chicago, Mendoza runs his own lab and mentors his own host of students. His group studies the biophysics of the immune system. They want to understand how proteins interact and how scientists can bioengineer protein structure and protein interactions to improve human health. His lab also uses computational tools to advance protein engineering. So much of this started at SF State, says Mendoza — and he’s determined to give his students the same kind of support that made such a difference for him.

“I want to pay it back,” he said. “I’m just one person, but San Francisco State and the SEO office have helped so many people. I’m just trying to do my little part, not only in my lab, but in other parts of campus.”

Learn more about SF State’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Student Enrichment Opportunities (SEO) office.

Associate professor lands prestigious grant for work on sustainable engineering

Example of buildings incorporating green infrastructure

NSF Early CAREER awardee Jenna Wong explores how nature can be incorporated into building design

As a Bay Area native, San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Jenna Wong understands the importance of sustainability and structural engineering from personal experience. She was on hand for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and recalls being fascinated afterward by how downtown buildings were designed to withstand the formidable power of nature.

This year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) named Wong an Early CAREER grant recipient to study the resilience of green infrastructure. Her proposal focuses on the practice of incorporating nature, like a vertical greenery and green roof structure, into a building’s design. Wong’s five-year grant of $510,000 will help inform green infrastructure guidelines and equip San Francisco State students with skills for an environmentally conscious workforce.

“This is going to prepare students, the next generation of engineers, by teaching them what sustainable structural resilience is,” Wong said, adding that climate change is a reality that engineers must tackle.

While Californians are familiar with sustainability, engineers focus on a parallel track called structural resilience. It’s how they design structures to endure natural hazards and continue to serve their communities after an event. Engineers plan for the worst-case scenarios — considering factors such as the maximum weight a structure can tolerate — but that’s difficult to do when loads are variable for items such as plants and trees. Despite their many benefits, green infrastructures are dynamic living environments that can be unpredictable.

Jenna Wong

“If we consider climate change and influences from the environment, this dynamic weight is going to vary over time,” Wong said. “There are also conditions where we may exceed [the weight] if we don’t have proper maintenance. For example, we have windborne storms with significant rain and puddling on roof surfaces.”

Wong is concerned about the lack of guidelines for sustainable structures. Her team will use computational modeling to estimate how green infrastructures impact a structure’s properties and earthquake response. This information will inform guidelines for these sustainable structures and help Wong’s group develop a strategy for green infrastructure that improves earthquake response.

Wong’s project broadens educational discussions about new and more sustainable materials. This is important, she explains, because engineering classes traditionally focus on materials like concrete and wood although in reality students are going to encounter sustainable materials like timbercrete (timber waste + concrete) and hempcrete (hemp + concrete).

In addition to developing new curricula, Wong will make educational YouTube videos on these topics in collaboration with a variety of industry and academic professionals. The videos will cover green infrastructure, sustainability and possible career paths.

“Children nowadays are experiencing [education] via YouTube channels and other platforms,” she explained. “I’m hoping to bring it to a higher level. Not only for high schoolers, but for our college students and even for the broader community so they can have a fun yet informative experience that exposes them to a lot of different topics.”

Wong’s latest award supports her ongoing mentorship efforts across the School of Engineering. In recent years, she’s been leading the NSF Hispanic-serving intuitions-funded Engineering Success Center, which provides students with academic, advising and professional development support.

“I want to motivate my students, especially knowing that they may not necessarily have the same support system as others,” Wong said. “I want to find ways within the classroom to build that community and create easily accessible resources for them to bring out their inherent resilience.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Engineering.

New assistant dean dedicated to nurturing an anti-racist culture in CoSE

Professor Diane Harris will lead the implementation of the College of Science & Engineering’s strategic plan to create an environment of multiculturalism, inclusiveness and equity

San Francisco State University Professor Diane Harris is the newly appointed assistant dean for the College of Science & Engineering (CoSE), tasked with institutionalizing an anti-racist multicultural community within the college. The inspiration for the position began in 2020 when CoSE issued a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd and others, such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“We must honor those who sacrificed their lives. Although we continue to experience the trauma of racism, we must commit to confronting racism and to stopping its violence and destruction,” Harris noted. “More than likely, because of its ingrained historic and continuous perpetuation, we will not eradicate racism in its entirety — however, we have a choice. We can sit back and do nothing and let this racist destruction continue or we can actively do something by creating an anti-racist community within CoSE.”

As assistant dean, Harris is tasked with implementing the goals and objectives of the Strategic Action Plan developed by the CoSE Anti-Racism Task Force and completed in August 2022. Harris credits CoSE Dean Carmen Domingo for starting CoSE’s initial conversations and coordinating community commitment three years ago. One of Assistant Dean Harris’ tasks, in collaboration with Dean Domingo and members of CoSE, is to create an Anti-Racism Committee (ARC). Harris will work closely with ARC — which will be comprised of faculty, staff and students representing multicultural communities — to meet the Strategic Action Plan’s short- and long-term goals and accountability benchmarks for dismantling racist structures and building new structures of multiculturalism, inclusion, equity and anti-racism within the college.

Among the overarching goals of the Strategic Action Plan is the goal of assessing the racial climate that CoSE students, faculty and staff experience in their academic endeavors. Although eradicating racism is a worthy goal, Harris knows it’s a lofty one and she points out that this work is very complex.

“We will be constantly evaluating our policies and practices to discern whether or not they are effective in allowing us to change the existing racial climate to an inclusive and equitable community of multiculturalism,” she explained. This process requires commitment from faculty, staff and students, as well as time, effort and resources to facilitate the building of an anti-racism, multicultural community.

Another goal of the CoSE Strategic Action Plan aligns with the commitment across SF State and the CSU system to generate a climate of anti-racism through social justice for diversity, inclusion and equity. Building partnerships between CoSE and other colleges throughout the SF State community will advance social justice, create a climate of anti-racism and produce a community of multiculturalism, inclusion and equity across campus.

The work toward achieving the intended goals for creating a multicultural, inclusive and equitable community is intensive and requires experience. Harris has plenty of experience with the community at SF State based on both her childhood and professional experiences.

“I think all of this really started with my mother,” Harris said. Her mother worked full time while attending some classes at SF State and later became a longtime credentialed teacher for the Berkeley Unified School District. Harris recalls accompanying her mother to class as a child and often waited in the library while her mother attended class. She marveled at the librarians’ kindness (and patience) and fondly recalls pretending to be a college student. These experiences and the support from her family inspired Harris to pursue her education and to become a licensed psychologist, credentialed school psychologist and SF State professor. Harris never forgot those early SF State memories and deeply cherishes them.

In the Psychology Department, Harris has been the graduate coordinator for the school psychology concentration, taught and trained graduate students in the clinical psychology concentration and taught clinical psychology courses to undergraduate students prior to her recent appointment as assistant dean. Her research has focused on the development of eating disorders within communities of color. Harris’ commitment to service is evidenced by many positions of leadership in professional and civic organizations at local and national levels, and at SF State she has participated and held leadership positions in numerous on-campus service committees.

Harris also has served as one of the co-principal investigators for the NSF Advance IT Catalyst and a co-investigative team member for the NSF Transforms grant. These grants aim to examine the institutional policies and practices and transform the climate at SF State to an inclusive and supportive environment for the advancement of faculty women, especially women of color, in the academic STEM-related professions.

Learn more about the College of Science & Engineering. If you are a CoSE student and interested in CoSE’s anti-racism efforts, please contact Assistant Dean Harris at

SF State Fulbright scholar studies millennia of climate change via trees

Triana Anderson’s thesis is the foundation for her Fulbright project studying Chilean coastal climate change

Remember in grade school learning to count tree rings to determine a tree’s age? Turns out tree rings can reveal climate information, too, says San Francisco State University student Triana Anderson. For her thesis project, she is applying a novel approach to use trees as a gauge for coastal climate change over thousands of years. Her expertise has earned her a Fulbright scholarship to do a parallel project in Chile for nine months after she graduates this fall.

“The idea is that Chile and California have two very parallel climate systems, but one is in the northern hemisphere. There are a lot of questions that climate scientists have about how coastal systems will change as the planet warms,” said Anderson, an Earth & Climate Sciences master’s student at San Francisco State. Studying trees in California and Chile will help identify how climate change differs in the two hemispheres.

Anderson has unknowingly been preparing for this Fulbright adventure her whole life. Having grown up in Northern California, she spent a lot of time outdoors listening to her dad describe how the coast has changed since his childhood. “I think that helped bring a climate change perspective at a young age — even though I wouldn’t have called it that as a kid,” she said.

Her choice to study in Chile? That was also intentional. She attended Spanish-speaking immersion schools since she was 5 years old, loving it so much she minored in Spanish as an undergrad.

“I think it’s always been a goal to go live in a Spanish-speaking country and fully solidify those pathways that are in my brain,” she explained. She’s excited that a Fulbright experience will fuse her scientific and personal goals.

Triana Anderson headshot outdoors

The novel technique she’s taking to Chile was developed at SF State. Anderson came to the University after cold calling and instantly clicking with her future thesis adviser, Associate Professor Alexander Stine. He introduced her to the idea of using trees to evaluate climate change, and she was hooked on the idea.

Traditionally, scientists — like those in Chile — measure variability in tree ring width to determine climate fluctuations. Some researchers glean more info by looking at the cellular structure of wood but are limited by the small sample of wood cells they can manually assess under a microscope.

For her graduate work, Anderson coupled a new high-resolution imaging technique to assess cellular structure with an artificial intelligence algorithm to take mass measurements of lots of cells from lots of trees. It allows her to look at both temperature and precipitation changes together, whereas traditional methods force scientists to focus on temperature or precipitation separately. Because she can look at larger sample sizes, she can also average out noise from confounding variables like insect infestations or competition between species.

She’s been using this approach to study changes in California’s coastal climates. Studies show a decline in coastal fog over the last 100 years, but Anderson points out that’s a relatively short period of time when considering climate trends. Her study uses coastal redwoods to look at climate changes over 2,000 years.

“[Redwoods] live that long, which is insane. It’s crazy to think that there are living organisms that have experienced all of that history,” she said. The Chilean researchers are eager to apply her approach in their studies.

As a graduate student, Anderson was supported by the Monterverdi Fellowship and the Professor Emeritus Dave Dempsey and Rebecca Douglass Scholarship in Earth and Climate Sciences.

She’s not entirely sure what will come after the Fulbright, but she hopes teaching is in the mix. At SF State, she excitedly elected to teach an oceanography class for non-science majors. She’s glad that community work is part of her Fulbright program, too. She’s hoping to teach science education or youth girls’ sports in Chile.

“I love working with kids. I think it’s so cool to watch their brains make all those little connections,” she explained, noting that the youngest community members are the ones to be most impacted by climate change.

Visit the Fellowships Office for information about Fulbright and other programs. Visit the Earth & Climate Sciences website to learn more about research and academics.

Two new exoplanets discovered in SF State astronomer’s 100 Earths Survey

Astronomy & Physics Assistant Professor John Michael Brewer detected rare types of planets and planetary systems thanks to a precise new tool

Have you ever considered the stars in the night sky and wondered how many are orbited by planets like ours? San Francisco State University Astronomy & Physics Assistant Professor John Michael Brewer has … and he’s getting answers. He’s the latest in San Francisco State’s long list of planet hunters hoping to find new planets comparable to our Earth. He and his collaborators are inching closer to their goal with their new discovery.

Their latest report describes the detection of two new exoplanets in what was believed to be a two-planet system. The new exoplanets are the first to be discovered in the 100 Earths Survey, a project led by Brewer that uses an extremely precise new tool to detect planets previously beyond scientists’ reach. The findings have been accepted to the Astronomical Journal but the preprint is already available on arXiv.

The new exoplanets orbit rho Coronae Borealis, a star about the same size as our sun. Two large planets were already known to orbit this star. But the new survey discovered a third planet that’s much smaller (four times the mass of the Earth, which is considered small) with a 13-day orbit and a fourth planet that’s similar to Neptune (20 Earth masses) with a 280-day orbit.

“If we’re going to find an Earth-like planet, it has to be around a sun-like star. This is exactly the kind of star that we want to be looking around. But we haven’t been able to find small planets like Earth in long-period orbits around these types of stars before,” Brewer explained. “This one study doesn’t tell us [whether our solar system is unique], but at least it tells us that we can start seeing whether or not there’s [Earth-like] planets [around sun-like stars].”

Usually astronomers find small Earth-like planets with orbits less than 40 days around small stars. But the Earth orbits the sun (which is slightly more massive than rho Coronae Borealis) every 365 days. Although the new small planet is uninhabitable because it’s too close to its star, its discovery shows that the new survey expands the types of planets scientists can detect.

Prior research found that the planetary system around rho Coronae Borealis consisted of a large planet (330 Earth masses) with a 39-day orbit discovered in 1997 and a second smaller one (25 Earth masses) with a 102-day orbit found in 2016.

The two new planets and the previously discovered planets make up a four-planet system that is not arranged like our solar system, where planets grow in size the further away they are from the sun. However, this four-planet system’s arrangement is rare, giving hope that the 100 Earths Survey might be able to detect other uncommon planetary systems.

“Now we’re starting to look at what planet architectures really look like instead of just the glimpses we’ve been able to see until now,” Brewer said, explaining that these types of systems were below detection limits. The 100 Earths Survey started in 2019 and not only confirmed the first two planets and discovered the two new ones, it also found hints that there might be more planets in this system. It managed to do all this with just 163 observations in under three years — which is fast compared to previous surveys. The planets detected in 2016 required 800 observations over eight years to find one new planet and one old.

The quick pace of discovery was made possible by using EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer (EXPRES), a spectrometer housed at the Lowell Observatory’s Lowell Discovery Telescope in Arizona. Designed by former San Francisco State Assistant Professor and alumna Debra Fischer, EXPRES measures light from a star to measure changes in its velocity as it is tugged around by its planets. Though EXPRES is not the first device of its kind, its level of high resolution and ability to cut through noise in measurements is matched by only a few other spectrographs in the world.

“We’re starting to probe the space where we expect to find habitable planets,” Brewer said. “Hence the name of the 100 Earth Survey. We want to find a bunch of Earth-like planets.”

Brewer started his master’s degree at SF State before moving to Yale University to work on his Ph.D. with renowned planet hunter Fischer. Now that he’s leading the project, Brewer wants to involve more of his students. The 100 Earths Survey and EXPRES have been collaborative since the beginning, providing a great learning opportunity for students, Brewer explained, noting that he’s already looping his students into tangential projects.

“There’s only 15,000 astronomers in the world,” Brewer said, explaining why it’s important for SF State students to mingle with the science community early in their career. “Everyone knows something slightly different, and everybody brings something else to the table. And that’s crucial to building students’ thinking whether they go on to a Ph.D. program or industry.”

Learn more about SF State’s Physics & Astronomy Department.