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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.

Physicist Robert Thornton’s influence lives on in Thornton Hall

SF State’s first Black dean of science was a physicist, educator and pen pals with Albert Einstein

Science is constantly striving to break barriers and challenge old ideas. So it’s apropos that one of the main science buildings on the San Francisco State University campus, Thornton Hall, is named for an individual who broke barriers as a science educator.

The nine-story building was named after physicist Robert Ambrose Thornton (1897 – 1982), the first dean of San Francisco State’s School of Natural Science in 1964 and the first Black faculty member to become a dean of science at the University. The building was built in 1972 and renamed after Thornton in 1981 at President Paul F. Romberg’s request. From his childhood to his work with Albert Einstein, Thornton was a force for science and education.

“Students today are asking us to change our rigid, orthodox views in order to implement the traditional values on which we say a democracy is based. I'm all for it. These dissidents of today could save America if we'd listen to them and work with them," Thornton told Pat Pierard in a 1967 interview for the The Daily Gator.

Thornton joined SF State in 1956 as a Physics professor with an expertise in theoretical mechanics and astrodynamics. In 1963, he was the first Black faculty appointed chairman of the Division of Natural Sciences and became dean of the School of Natural Science (later School of Science) the following year. He retired from SF State in 1969.

SF State was only one of the schools impacted by Thornton’s indelible influence. A physicist, educator and administrator, Thornton had a 65-year-long career that included stints at several colleges and universities, including three historically Black universities (Shaw University, Johnson C. Smith University and Talladega College), Kittrell College, University of Puerto Rico, University of Chicago, Brandeis University, Dillard University and Fisk University. Even after retiring, he continued teaching at the University of San Francisco.

As for his own formal education, Thornton earned a B.S. in Mathematics and Physics from Howard University in 1922, an M.S. from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in 1946 from the University of Minnesota. During this time, he had already begun teaching and earning his reputation as an educator … and Albert Einstein’s pen pal. 

In 1944, Thornton joined the University of Puerto Rico to establish a liberal arts curriculum in the engineering school. Aiming to create a program that incorporated the philosophical side of science, he reached out to respected scientists to gain support for his approach. One hopeful letter to Einstein led to a nine-year correspondence and several in-person visits.

Born in Houston, Texas, Thornton developed his thirst for knowledge at a young age. His mother worked as a midwife in affluent white homes, and Thornton would often accompany her to work. The experience allotted him opportunities to roam clients’ libraries and absorb new knowledge and ideas.

Thornton considered pursing the arts. He was a bass singer who was offered an audition for the musical “Shuffle Along,” a Broadway hit that inspired new interest in Black musicals and theatre. Though he ultimately pursued a career in science and education, Thornton saw creativity in the sciences.

Robert Thornton and John Hensill using lab equipment

Robert Thornton (Physical Sciences, left) and John Hensill (Natural Sciences, right).
Photo courtesy of the University Archives.

“Many people do not realize that scientists use the same type of imagination, intuition, idealization, and value judgements that the poet does,” Thornton told Pierard in the 1967 interview in The Daily Gator.

Learn more about the College of Science & Engineering and the new Science & Engineering Innovation Center, SF State’s first new science building in nearly 50 years.

Special thanks to University Archivist Meredith Eliassen for her assistance with this article.

Planetarium celebrates half a century as SF State’s direct connection to the universe

New funds will help the Charles F. Hagar planetarium continue its 50-year legacy as a beacon of education and community

“When we dim the lights and the stars come on, you can just hear the gasps all through the room,” said Physics & Astronomy undergraduate Sergio Lopez of the public planetarium shows he presents in Spanish at San Francisco State University’s Charles F. Hagar Planetarium. “I think that’s my favorite part.”

Students like Lopez are carrying on and evolving the legacy started by astronomy professor Charles Hagar when he designed the planetarium (and observatory) in 1973.

The planetarium was recently awarded $1.5 million to refurbish the facility from the Heising-Simons Foundation. The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation that works with its partners to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people. The fortuitous timing of the award — which coincides with the planetarium’s 50th anniversary — didn’t go unnoticed by Planetarium and Observatory Director Adrienne Cool.

“It’s no small feat for this planetarium to have been able to do what it does for 50 years,” she said.

Physics & Astronomy students take classes there, but it also offers free shows to anyone, including the public.

“We’re proud of the fact that this planetarium has provided a training ground and a community for so many people, and that so many have gone on to become science educators in the Bay Area and beyond,” Cool said.

The renovations will introduce a modern star projector that will produce an accurate night sky of 9,500 stars, details of the Milky Way and more. (The current star projector has been there since Hagar’s days.) Complementing the star projector will be full-dome video that enables planetarium presenters to take visitors on virtual trips through the Solar System, Milky Way and beyond, and display images from the James Web Space Telescope and other observatories around the world. There will also be a new dome as well as new control and audio systems, lighting and seating.

“Even the absolute top-of-the-line video projection still doesn’t look as good as the stars made by the old-style [star projector], which is more of a pinhole camera. [It’s basically a] ball with zillions of holes. Those stars look more like realistic stars,” said Planetarium and Observatory Technician Jim Gibson about the decision to continue using a star projector. It’s an important distinction, he explained, because many local planetariums only use video.

Since 1973, the planetarium has served approximately 100,000 people. Currently, around 1,800 people visit annually — and while many are SF State Physics & Astronomy students, more than 1,000 are students, faculty and staff from outside of the department, K-12 school children or members of the community.

The planetarium/observatory alumni network — alums trained as students to use the facilities — numbers in the hundreds and includes staff members at the California Academy of Sciences and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific along with community college and high school teachers.

Over a decade ago, Gibson began offering planetarium workshops to teach students how to use the planetarium equipment and lead planetarium shows. Physics & Astronomy graduate student Shvetha Suvarna Chynoweth enrolled because she wanted to navigate the night sky herself. But the experience became personal when it helped her connect with her family in a new way.

Given different interests and generational gaps, she found it difficult to relay her enthusiasm for her graduate work to her family. The workshop helped her connect their love of astrology, which for her family has religious connections, to her scientific astronomical interests. “This class helped me figure out how I can start tying things together — the things that they are interested in versus what I am interested in — to bridge the gap. It might not be completely connected but it’s how you get them to relate to stuff they really respect,” she said.

This type of connection is the goal of the monthly bilingual Spanish-English Noche de Estrellas planetarium/observatory public events led by Lopez and other students. The graduate school-bound Lopez, a native Spanish speaker, says these events helped him practice talking about astronomy in Spanish and to non-expert audiences.

Cool emphasizes that public planetarium shows for school children are all free, as they were when Hagar began 50 years ago — and she has no intention of changing this. She and Gibson anticipate that the renovated facilities will lead to increased student participation, broader student training opportunities, and enhanced visitor experiences.

Planetarium dome with a projection of stars and a constellation

“As the audience, you are looking at the universe as yourself. Here’s me seeing the stars, the sun, the moon and the planets. It is highlighting your relationship to the cosmos,” Gibson said. Understanding how the universe began is a very abstract concept. “Whereas when you’re in the planetarium, that’s what you see. If you go out at night, boom: Here’s your exact direct connection to the universe.”

The planetarium and observatory welcome everyone to visit. Learn more about the planetarium and observatory, get schedules for public shows or make a reservation.

Registration opens for Sierra Nevada Field Campus summer classes

Anyone can be a part of the scenic campus’ 75-year history by taking a class

Registration for the 2024 summer season at San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus (SNFC) is now open. This year will be the field campus’ 75th anniversary, and the summer course lineup is as strong as ever. The 7.1-acre campus is in the remote Sierra County near the Sierra Buttes and the North Yuba River. Both landmarks inspire countless SNFC visitors.

“SF State students have an incredible opportunity to take a class in the Sierra Nevada with expert instructors, enjoy three meals a day and connect with a whole community of people with shared interests in the environment and the arts,” said SNFC Director Darrow Feldstein. “This season will be filled with great opportunities for learning and connection.”

With nearly 40 different classes and workshop offerings — an SNFC record — there’s something for everyone. (And everyone’s welcome to register since SNFC classes aren’t just for San Francisco State students.) From June to mid-August, the campus will offer a variety of accredited classes (through SF State’s College of Professional & Global Education) and non-credit workshops with experts in everything from science and art to climate change and conservation.  

The 2024 listings include courses in natural history, local flora, watercolor and pastels, and even a new course on bear tracking (yes, bear tracking). Also new this year are a few courses about climate, culture and social justice that SF State students can take for credit.

 

Two women holding snakes
Three people smiling at a fourth person's finger with a butterfuly sitting on it
Someone standing outside near a cabin exterior wall of pastel art
Backs of three people painting as they face a mountain and trees
Starry night sky with trees and cabin light up with the glow from a campfire

Students and SNFC visitors can chose to participate in a variety of experiences, including engaging with wildlife, learning a variety of art forms or crafts using natural materials, and making new friends around a campfire. SNFC students and expert instructors come from SF State and beyond.

 

SNFC offers mini-grants and scholarships to students interested in summer courses or research experiences. Throughout the year, student and faculty researchers use the campus as a basecamp for field research. Beyond the summer classes and research, SNFC is also increasing opportunities for people to volunteer, hold events or get involved in other ways.

“This place was created 75 years ago for the University community and beyond. Everyone should be taking advantage of this incredible place whether for a class, a job or just to enjoy the mountains and take a break from it all,” Feldstein said.

Consider registering for an SNFC summer course or reach out to get involved in other ways.

Learn more at sierra.sfsu.edu.

SF State program prepares participants to view AI through an ethical lens

The Ethical AI certificate provides a foundation in the computer science, philosophy and business of ethical AI

U.S. President Joe Biden recently issued an executive order on managing the risks of artificial intelligence (AI), and the European Union is discussing AI laws abroad. While the news has been flooded with stories of self-driving cars, Chat GPT and how AI will affect jobs, a group of San Francisco State University faculty has been concerned by the ethical implications of AI for years.

That’s why they developed San Francisco State’s Graduate Certificate in Ethical Artificial Intelligence in 2019. The program was created by Computer Science Professor Dragutin Petkovic, Lam Family College of Business Professor Denise Kleinrichert, and Philosophy Professor Carlos Montemayor. They’ve seen the impact of this program on students and think this type of education is as important as ever. Any SF State graduate student and anyone with a bachelor’s degree (non-matriculated post-baccalaureates) can apply for the program.

“People don’t understand the issues of AI and its impact to society. It can create problems because now it’s everywhere,” Petkovic explained, noting that the potential problems are not just limited to a single industry. “In my opinion, [ethical AI education is the] most consequential project I’ve been working on by far.”

AI technologies continue to grow and impact everything from health care, defense, media, education and more. Despite advances, AI systems can still produce errors, demonstrate biases and lack transparency in decision making. The faculty knew that everyone — AI users, educators, politicians, lawyers, auditors and others — would need access to ethical AI education to make informed decisions.

“The professors are not talking to you as though you’re already an expert in the subdomains,” said Rafael Ayala (M.A., ’22), who works at the software corporation Autodesk in third-party risk management. “They are making sure we have access to broad scopes of knowledge and bringing people together.”

Ayala came to SF State with a background in philosophy and education. As a first-generation student and the first in his family to go to college, it wasn’t easy for him to tell his family he was leaving his paid job to pursue a master’s degree in Philosophy. Though he partly chose SF State because of the Ethical AI program — he could see its growing prominence in everyday life — he had no aspirations for a career in tech.

“The program did a great job of helping me build up that technical prowess and having the vocabulary I needed,” he explained, crediting the certificate for building his confidence to work at Autodesk. “I am working in tech, and … artificial intelligence is huge and we need to constantly evaluate [it].”

As part of Adobe’s legal team, attorney Ted McCullough became more interested in AI two years ago. He enrolled in the certificate program because he wanted to know about the ethical dimensions of the technology, but also had technical computer science questions. He was recently promoted to a director role on the legal team at Adobe, in part due to the AI expertise he gained from the certificate program.

“[SF State’s program] seemed like a really good fit because it had everything that I was looking for in terms of a computer science curriculum, a philosophy curriculum and a business curriculum all with a practical bent,” he said.

Coming in with an academic background in computer science and philosophy, McCullough feels there’s often a curriculum gap between the math and science of AI and the policy issues, but that this certificate helps begin filling that gap.

The certificate was designed to be accessible for any non-expert, Petkovic said. He hopes more students, working professionals, and employers take advantage of the University program. Though the certificate requires a bachelor’s degree for enrollment, he encourages undergraduates and anyone else interested to reach out to the him and his faculty colleagues about possible options.

“We need to educate people, but then there has to be some level of regulation … ,” Petkovic said, emphasizing why everyone from computer scientists to government officials should receive a holistic education on AI. “We are one part of the puzzle.”

Learn more about the Graduate Certificate in Ethical Artificial Intelligence.

SF State researchers return to Burning Man for a new look at the festival’s environmental impact

The SF State researchers were part of a climate science-themed camp called Land Phil.

The team, from the University’s School of the Environment, wants to know if sustainability efforts are making a difference

Ten years ago, Clarissa Maciel learned that her professor would be absent from class because he was at Burning Man. As a San Francisco State University Geography undergraduate, she found the news both cool and perplexing. A college professor at a week-long festival famous for raucous music, elaborate art installations and anything goes attitudes? It turned out that her professor, now School of the Environment Co-Director Andrew Oliphant, was there to work on a research project with a master’s student: an analysis of the micrometeorology of a transient city in the desert.

All this became a faded memory for Maciel — now a San Francisco State graduate student — until she found herself heading to Burning Man to help Oliphant and other researchers conduct a follow-up to the 2013 study. In addition to gathering more data, the team (which was made up of researchers from SF State, San Jose State and UC Berkeley) wanted to understand if and how Burning Man’s new commitment to sustainability is making a difference on the event’s carbon footprint. Just like in the past, team members measured carbon emissions before, during and after the construction of the temporary city on the playa (flat and dry land) in Black Rock City, Nevada.

Burning Man organizers have launched efforts to become carbon negative and participate in programs to offset the festival’s carbon emissions. Oliphant and his team want to know if this is making an impact.

Maciel is particularly interested in how humans can work with their landscape to tackle the effects of climate change. For her master’s thesis, she’s studying soil greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of farm management practices on reducing emissions produced by agriculture. Her interests and skills nicely complement the work happening in Oliphant’s study.

“Everybody’s focused on planting more trees. Yes, that is great, but I want us to focus on the actual land that’s underneath us and focus on the soil and nurture the actual soil,” Maciel said. “That can help us improve the emissions that are released into the atmosphere.”

At Burning Man, the researchers set up a 100-foot flux tower that measured CO2 emissions, wind speed and turbulence, air and playa temperature, and more. The tower was positioned close to the center of the city near a lot of foot traffic. Since she’s interested in studying the emissions that come from the land, Maciel used a chamber — a literal cube that collects gasses emitted from the soil, that’s similar to what she uses for her thesis work — to measure emissions coming from the bare playa at a location that was relatively pristine and at a second site with more foot traffic. It means she can start studying the emissions coming from the land and how more than 70,000 attendees might be affecting it.

With hot days, freezing nights, strong winds and occasional torrential downpours, the weather during Burning Man mirrors the unpredictability that the rest of the world is starting to experience more and more. As Maciel sees it, that makes the festival even more valuable as a microcosm of larger climate forces.

“I think that we should always be prepared for crazy weather, especially in our current time,” Maciel said, pointing to the unexpected hurricane in Southern California last month as an example. “That’s exactly why we’re doing these studies. Climate change? We’re in climate chaos. We never know what to expect.”

The team is still analyzing the latest data, but in 2013 they saw that the transient city’s CO2 emissions were comparable to Mexico City and parts of London. Maciel is interested to see if there’s a shift in emission trends, especially after climate change literally rained on the experiment. The rain might have impacted the playa microbial biome and thus CO2 emissions from the surface, she explains. She thinks the study could have applications beyond the annual festival.

“Burning Man could be a model for a carless city. There are very few cars there. Most people are walking or using a bike. If the emissions are equivalent to that of other urban cities, we could look at [Burning Man’s] transportation sector and compare it to those cities,” she explained.

a 100-foot tower in the middle of the desert during the day (left) and at night (right) when it displays colorful lights

The 100-foot flux tower during the day (left) and night (right).
Photo credit: Andrew Oliphant and Clarissa Maciel

Two people on the desert floor looking at a computer near a large transparent cube

Clarissa Maciel taking measurements using her chamber. Photo credit: Andrew Oliphant

Although Oliphant was already intrigued by the microclimate of Burning Man’s ephemeral city, it was his former student Garrett Bradford (M.S., ’15) who helped officially kick off the project in 2013. Bradford frequented Burning Man and wanted to study the role of buildings on turbulence and airflow there for his thesis. This year, Bradford, along with his 4-year-old son, traveled to Burning Man to lead the climate science themed camp. School of Environment Lecturer Malori Redman also returned this year after participating as an undergraduate researcher 10 years ago. This year, she rode a bicycle outfitted with equipment to measure the city’s impact on temperature, humidity and CO2 concentration.

Key to the success of the original Burning Man experiment and this year’s follow up was the faculty expertise and the interests and skills of students like Maciel, Bradford and Redman. For Oliphant, these types of partnerships have been some of his most rewarding research collaborations and have taken projects in directions he never envisioned.

“My advice to students is to understand and appreciate the unique value that they can bring to any research project and to reach out to professors regarding research opportunities,” Oliphant said. “When given an opportunity, fully engage as a research partner especially sharing ideas and questioning assumptions.”

Learn more about research happening in the School of the Environment.

A trip to Kenya shifts student perspectives on what an engineer is

A new international engineering summer program gives students research experience and broadens their minds

“When are you able to say you’re actually an engineer? I think this is something I’ve been trying to figure out for almost a year now,” said San Francisco State University Mechanical Engineering student Vasav Juthani.

Until recently, Juthani felt that he can’t claim the title “engineer” until he’s completed his Engineering degree. But an international research experience this summer made him question his beliefs.

“When we went to Kenya, the teachers there had no engineering degrees, and they proudly say, ‘I’m an engineer,’” he said.

Juthani was one of two San Francisco State students (and one of seven students total) who travelled to Kenya for a six-week summer experience doing engineering education research. The program, designed by SF State and Purdue University Engineering faculty, takes students to the Tumaini Innovation Center in Eldoret, Kenya, to work on engineering projects and provide engineering education. The program is funded by the National Foundation of Sciences, and the summer 2023 cohort was the first to participate in the program, which is slated to run for three years.

“It’s pretty unusual for Engineering students to study abroad,” said SF State School of Engineering Assistant Professor Stephane Claussen, who is leading the project. It’s usually hard to fit international experiences into the extremely structured programs typical of the engineering field, Claussen explains. “We’re offering students experiences abroad, and they’re engaging in research in this very rich way. But it’s in partnership with community organizations, which is also pretty unique for Engineering students,” she added.

The university engineers are partnering with Tumaini, a school reducing educational barriers faced by vulnerable youth in Eldoret. Tumaini educators teach and provide mentorship, youth vocational training and more so individuals can build successful and productive careers in their communities.

The visiting university students worked with this community to support ongoing engineering and educational projects at the school. Many of the university engineers were first-time researchers, but there’s a limit to how much prior research experience could have prepared them for this experience. The Kenyan engineering environment was very different from what most of the students were used to.

Juthani, who loves working on cars, recalls talking to a Tumaini alum who works at a car body shop. Learning about Juthani’s interests, the mechanic asked him how’d fix his car. Juthani eagerly listed ideas, and the alum pointed out that none of those ideas are feasible — none of the necessary parts are available, so they make everything from scratch.

“It was just very interesting to see how they operate with the resources they have on hand,” said Juthani. “It kind of makes me want to explore the world more and do the same kind of opportunity elsewhere.”

Within his very first week, Juthani watched a group of students build a system to transport water upstairs to a hair dressing and beauty therapy class. They had most of the idea down, Juthani said, but needed a little help executing. He tried to assist and quickly realized that he’d have to adapt his own communication style to connect with his new colleagues.

“Even with the language barrier, they’re able to understand what I was explaining to them. It was a very surreal feeling to be there and have them understand what you’re saying,” Juthani said. “It really changed something in my head, and I was very excited for the rest of the experience.”

These are the types of changes Claussen and her faculty collaborators hoped for. Engineers are not simply individuals doing math in a cubicle, she explains, and they have a responsibility to consider the social implications of their work.

“There’s a lot of learning that goes on. How do we interact with people in a responsible way? And how do we make sure that they are willingly joining your research study and so on?” Claussen said.

Students walking through a manufacturing plant
Students walking on a nature hike in Kenya

Students went on field trips while in Eldoret, Kenya

The faculty organizers wanted this research experience to be accessible for any student. The program pays for travel, lodging and basic meals, and students receive a stipend for their work. In addition to research, the program includes nature hikes, field trips to the local university and manufacturing plants, and more. The faculty also tried to make an inclusive application process, taking students’ different backgrounds and experiences into consideration. They want any student to be eligible for this transformative opportunity.

“Before this experience, I feel like I hit an educational block where I just couldn’t process stuff the same way. This experience helped push me out of my comfort zone and forced me to learn on my own and do research on how I can improve something,” Juthani said. “I think that’s the whole point of an engineer. [It’s] figuring out how you can improve something.”

Learn more about this year’s application (currently open) and discover more  SF State’s School of Engineering.

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