Magazine

CSUN On The Leading Edge

California state university, northridge faculty members and their students are breaking new ground in research across the spectrum of sciences, engineering, economics, humanities, the arts and much more. They are doing much of this cutting-edge work in labs across campus — but some lead their students into the field to conduct research, from the high desert of the Eastern Sierra to coral reefs across the Pacific. This summer, the journal Nature lauded CSUN as a rising star in scientific research, naming the university as one of North America’s top 25 science institutions. CSUN holds this year’s record for the largest increase in research publication rates 

in North America, according to a listing of top tier peer-reviewed journals selected by Nature. Articles in chemistry, life sciences, physical sciences, and Earth and environmental sciences published in journals chosen by Nature were the markers. CSUN held the highest percent increase in publication rate at more than 190 percent, followed by NASA, the U. S. Geological Survey, Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University. CSUN was the only public institution of higher education in California listed. The accolade was due, in large part, to the innovative and diligent research of CSUN’s professors and students. In the following pages, we’ll introduce just a few of these bright stars.


Robert Carpenter and Peter Edmunds

Robert Carpenter and Peter Edmunds’ research has taken the marine biologists and their teams of CSUN students from Northridge across the Pacific to the island of Moorea, in French Polynesia. Professors Carpenter and Edmunds have teamed up with scientists from around the world to study the rich coral reefs of Moorea, near Tahiti, for more than a decade, in search of answers about rising ocean temperatures, seawater acidity and other factors — and what they mean for the long-term persistence of coral reefs in the Pacific and around the globe. In January, Edmunds and a team of biology undergraduate and graduate students began a one-year National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID-funded research project at Moorea to see if El Niño’s effect in causing seawater temperature to rise could in turn change the rate at which baby corals arrive on the reefs. The project focuses on determining how El Niño’s warm waters may affect the capacity of coral reefs to recover through growth of new colonies. In 2014, Edmunds, Carpenter and co-author Ruth D. Gates of the University of Hawaii also published a study on the research models they developed with 20 other scientists from around the world, which seek to determine how coral reefs might respond to warming seawater caused by ongoing global climate change. Their research sheds light on the future of our oceans, with implications for the human communities and economies that rely on near-shore marine environments. Among the oldest and most diverse of Earth’s ecosystems, coral reefs provide natural storm barriers for shorelines and homes, as well as habitat for countless marine species, and support commercial fisheries, tourism and recreation jobs. Scientists often call reef corals the “canary in the coal mine,” for their capacity to provide early warning of the dangers ahead as the oceans continue to warm and acidify through absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide. “We have two big themes for the Moorea longterm research project: what makes reefs resilient or not, and the other is what we call ‘reefs of the future,’” said Carpenter, who has taught at CSUN since 1988. “What will reefs look like in the next century, and will some species do better than others? Reasonable people don’t think that reefs are going to completely disappear with continued global change — but they certainly will change. So the idea is to be able to predict what those new reefs will look like, and how will they function?”


James Flynn and Sharlene Katz

Electrical and computer engineering professors Sharlene Katz and James Flynn may be preparing for New Year’s Eve in a cold, dark field on Wallops Island, on the Virginia coast. If all goes as planned, the pair of CSUN professors expect to be standing by for a Dec. 30 NASA rocket launch that will carry to the International Space Station the miniature satellite they helped their students design and build from scratch — all in the corner of an electrical engineering lab in Jacaranda Hall in Northridge.

Katz and Flynn have worked for more than three years with a cast of more than 70 students to build a custom-made CubeSat — a miniature satellite that rides on board a rocket also launching a larger satellite. The device, dubbed CSUNSat1, is no bigger than a small shoebox and was designed in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to test the effectiveness of JPL’s energy storage system to help explore deep space in extremely cold temperatures.

Once it’s delivered safely to the space station, astronauts will help deploy the CubeSat into its own orbit around Earth in early 2017, Katz said. The mission is expected to take about a month, and then the CSUN team will switch the CubeSat to operate from its experimental battery, Flynn said.

“We want to see how long the battery lasts, how it decays — repeating experiments in orbit that were done on the ground,” he said. “This whole experiment is important for deepspace technology. This battery will be able to go out past Jupiter without any heaters at all.”

The CubeSat uses solar panels to recharge its battery, and the experimental battery is designed to deliver a large surge of energy in a short period of time at very cold temperatures, Katz and Flynn said.

“This will affect future [space] missions,” Flynn said. “It’s not just a student experiment.” But it is one that’s provided students with priceless hands-on engineering experience.

CSUN was one of 14 universities selected last year for the orbital journey by the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative. Prior to selection, Katz and Flynn received a $200,000 grant from NASA to fund the project, competing against more than 100 other applicants for 13 grants.

“Students designed it, put together the circuit board and developed 40,000 lines of code to make it work,” Katz said. “They started with a blank page,” Flynn added.

The mission control for the CubeSat communications will be at CSUN. In August, the professors were busy testing the ground station radio, which will send commands to the CubeSat while it’s in orbit. The satellite can communicate back by sending data to CSUN. CSUNSat1 also will broadcast its status every three minutes to students around the world as it circles Earth, using a Morse code beacon.

“This is our mission control — our students developed the whole ground station software,” Katz said. “A big part of our job is to divide the jobs into bitesized pieces, so students can begin and finish a piece of the project.”

The miniature satellite is taking more than just the metaphorical hopes and dreams of CSUN students and professors with it into space. Its heat shield is inscribed in tiny type with the name of every student who worked on the project — as well as a return address, “in case it’s found,” Flynn quipped: “Jacaranda Hall, California State University, Northridge, California, U.S., Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy.” —Olivia Herstein and Christine Michaels


Steven Oppenheimer

The list of former CSUN undergraduates and graduate students who have conducted cancer research under the guidance and mentorship of biology professor Steven Oppenheimer goes on for pages and pages. Medical doctors. Dentists. Ph.D.s. Professors. Biotechnology researchers. Many completed their master’s degree and published studies with the professor. Such is the legacy of Oppenheimer, one of the longest-serving and most influential researchers in the history of CSUN’s Department of Biology.

He officially retired in May after teaching at CSUN since 1971, but he’s not riding off into the sunset — and he’s certainly not done researching the effects of specific chemicals on clusters of cells. The university has pledged to support his award-winning research program for biology undergraduates as long as he wants to continue.

“Research stimulates some students to go into a research career,” Oppenheimer said. “And in many cases, it’s a requirement to get into medical school, dental school, pharmacy school. These days, most of the biology majors need research to go on to more advanced degrees and programs.”

In CSUN’s Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology, Oppenheimer spent decades with graduate students studying the effects of certain sugars on sea urchin embryo cells. (The National Institutes of Health recommended sea urchin embryo cells as ideal models for cellular research, since their structure and mechanisms are similar to human cells.) Today, Oppenheimer’s undergraduates are testing the effects of different chemicals to see if they “unclump” clusters of yeast cells, another model system.

“If we find chemicals that unclump cells, those chemicals could potentially be used with humans to unclump cancer cells,” said Oppenheimer, “which should increase the likelihood of the body’s defenses to kill the cancer cells. Anything that can unclump the cells can help destroy cancer in the body.”

For the past 15 years, Oppenheimer has had 50 undergraduates per semester in the lab working on this research. The program was one of the factors that garnered him a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Mentoring from President Obama in 2010, one of only about 20 educators nationally honored with the annual award at a White House ceremony.

He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the nation’s most prestigious research honors, and he has co-authored about 300 published papers, books, abstracts and national presentations with his students and colleagues.

Oppenheimer also devoted two decades to organizing and publishing the New Journal of Student Research Abstracts, which celebrated its 20th year in 2015. The collaboration between CSUN and Los Angeles Unified School District and private-school teachers promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for K-12 students, and the annual journal includes hundreds of science project abstracts from students.

“It’s very good to excite students before college,” Oppenheimer said. “When you get them early, like in middle school, you can turn them on to science. We need more research scientists!”—Olivia Herstein



Richard Moore and Kenneth Chapman

How much do CSUN alumni earn five years after graduation? Ten years after graduation? Does their major impact their earning power? What if they work while in school and take longer to complete their degree?

CSUN management professor Richard Moore and economics professor Kenneth Chapman have teamed up for more than four years to answer these questions and more, in one of the most extensive studies of CSUN graduate success.

Moore and Chapman’s research led them to develop what they believe is a more accurate way of measuring the success of college graduates in general, using state employment and tax data to track how much alumni earn two years, five years and 10 years after they graduate from an institution. Their method takes into account students who drop out or transfer to other institutions, and it tracks the success of students who go on to graduate school.

“We do applied research, so it’s really consulting based on research — usually based on some social concern that’s on the front burner,” Moore said. “Right now, everyone’s concerned with the question, does college pay off?”

Early this year, their method of measuring student success was singled out as an “Innovation that Inspires” by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a global accrediting body and membership association for business schools. It was one of only 30 “innovations” from around the world to be recognized.

Moore and Chapman recently applied for funding to expand their research project to all five California State Universities (CSUs) in the Los Angeles area. They’ve also expanded their analysis for the CSU chancellor’s office, looking at how length of time in school and how much a student works during college impacts their earnings after graduation. One of their most interesting recent findings, Chapman said, was the data for CSUN’s College of Humanities graduates — 50 percent of whom work in education.

“We found that although their earnings were lower the first few years, by 10 years out, they’re pretty much tied with the median for the university alumni earnings,” Chapman said.

“That stereotype of the English major being a barista at Starbucks is not true,” Moore added.

Chapman, Moore and study contributor Bettina Huber, recently retired director of institutional research, established five guiding principles they said would create a realistic, unbiased way of measuring student success: follow all matriculated students over time; use standard data available in every state, such as employment records and tax rolls; create standard, easy-to-understand labor market measures; break down the data to the campus and program level; and make results public. The trio collected records for all entering CSUN students, including first-time freshmen and transfer and post-baccalaureate students, for the years 1995-2000. They issued their first report in 2013.

In fall 2015, they released a follow-up study, which showed that CSUN graduates earn more than $64,000 a year — nearly $16,000 a year more than their classmates who dropped out — 10 years after leaving the university.

“One of the most satisfying parts of doing this research is working with the students,” Moore said of the MBA students who work as research assistants on the study. “Our MBA students have a lot of work experience — we’re very lucky to have them for a year or two. We take them out in the field with us, and they look at things with fresh eyes.” —Olivia Herstein and Carmen Ramos Chandler


Jonathan Kelber

Jonathan Kelber’s biology research lab in Chaparral Hall hums with activity. Undergraduate researchers and graduate students peer through microscopes and observe how cells behave. They’re hunting for solutions to a longtime nemesis of biologists around the world: cancer.

Kelber, an assistant professor in the CSUN Department of Biology, and his team of graduate and undergraduate students identified a critical “support wall” gene in breast cancer called PEAK1 in 2015. They published the results of their research in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One journal. The report was the first ever to show that the PEAK1 gene is essential at the earliest stages of aggressive breast cancer metastasis.

Metastasis is the process of cancer cells moving from their original source — in this case the breast — to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and forming malignant tumors elsewhere.

Now, the team has grown and is taking on a new gene in pancreatic cancer. This summer, they were hard at work preparing another report to be submitted this fall for peer review for the journal Oncogene. Graduate student Armen Gharibi and undergraduate Sa La Kim, a junior majoring in biology, are the lead researchers on this pancreatic cancer project under Kelber’s guidance.

“What Armen and Sa La have shown is that this new gene we are studying seems to have a similar effect in pancreatic cancer to what we reported for PEAK1 in breast cancer,” Kelber said. “It causes the growth factor TGFβ [which is a protein that regulates cell growth] to become a tumor-promoting factor. What we’re probably going to see over the next few years is that PEAK1 is just one of many molecular components that cause [the protein] to become bad, in the context of cancer. Instead of suppressing the growth of the cancer cell, it shifts to promote growth and promotes metastasis.

“One of the things about pancreatic cancer that’s really bad is that it’s rarely detected early,” he said. “It’s almost the only cancer currently that has a five-year survival rate that’s less than 10 percent. That means within five years of being diagnosed, about 95 percent of patients die. Unlike breast cancer, where you can diagnose it early — and if you do so, the survival rate is nearly 100 percent — pancreatic cancer is both difficult to detect and to treat when detected.”

But, his team is on a roll. A related study on pancreatic cancer by two other graduate students in Kelber’s lab, Malachia Hoover and Yvess Adamian, was accepted for publication in another (aptly named) peer-reviewed journal, Oncotarget. And there’s much more research to be done.

“We’re hoping this new gene in pancreatic cancer that we’re trying to report on will be a way to detect cancer before it grows into a large tumor in the pancreas,” Kelber said.

It’s crucial to provide research opportunities to students, particularly undergraduates, Kelber said.

“One of the things students will get out of this experience is the ability to think critically and process ideas with high standards of excellence,” he said. “That isn’t just relevant in science — it’s relevant in any area of life.”

Now entering his fifth year at CSUN, the professor said it’s been gratifying to mentor students as they publish their first scientific journal reports, hear from colleagues at national conferences and expand their research using new tools in the fight against cancer.

“It’s nice to see the students take ownership of what they’re doing and know that their contributions will be immensely important in the realm of science,” he said. —Olivia Herstein and Christine Michaels


Stan Conte

Stan Conte ’78 (Physical Therapy) feared the worst. It was the tail end of the 1996 baseball season, and at the time he was the rehab coordinator for the San Francisco Giants. The Giants were on their way to 94 losses and a last-place finish in the National League West. Conte was summoned to the suite of General Manager Brian Sabean during the season’s last road trip in Colorado.

“This was never a good thing when the GM calls you at the end of the season, because there may be a good chance you’re going to get fired,” Conte recalled. Instead, Sabean talked about the high number of injuries the team had suffered that season and asked if Conte could do something to cut that number. “Without knowing whether I could or couldn’t, I said, ‘Of course I can,’” Conte said.

Conte was promoted during the offseason to head athletic trainer for the Giants, and he set about improving the team’s strength and conditioning and injury-prevention programs — which led to 60 percent fewer injuries the next season. He wanted to examine the history of players’ injuries to see if there were patterns. But there was a problem: The disabled list, the well-known record of teams’ injuries, did not have a historical log.

Conte changed that by undertaking a self-imposed research study, recording injury trends from 1989-99. His findings, which were published in 2001, showed that injuries were increasing in Major League Baseball (MLB). Conte credited this study with getting him into research, even while he continued to oversee the training staffs for the Giants and then the Dodgers from 2007-15. Today, he is a consultant for MLB on injuries.

In 2010, he served on a committee that developed a program to record all injuries, which has been adopted throughout the league. Conte also worked with the league to use the website pitchsmart.org, which makes recommendations on how much young pitchers should throw and rest through age 18.

In the March/April issue of the American Journal of Orthopedics, Conte co-authored an article on baseball injuries recorded from 1998- 2015. His findings showed that injuries continue to go up annually, and that the total amount of money lost to players on the disabled list during the seasons recorded was more than $7.6 billion.

Conte never intended to focus on research, as his career was dominated by training and rehabilitating players.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a researcher. I’m more of a clinician,” he said. Even with his busy schedule, Conte has continued to champion CSUN and its physical therapy program.

“I got the best possible education I could have gotten from any school,” he said. “In the medical field, it’s about who you are, what you do and how hard you work. Cal State Northridge, for me, was the perfect university for me to get my start in this field.” —Jorge Martin


Joshua Schwartz

Plate tectonics create the continental crust that forms Earth’s dynamic landscapes, such as mountain belts and ocean basins. The phenomenon is one of our planet’s unique characteristics and distinguishes it from other planets in the solar system — but it’s not fully understood by geologists. CSUN geological sciences associate professor Joshua Schwartz has dedicated his research to this enigma, earning a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation for continued support of his project investigating the growth of Earth’s lower continental crust.

“One of the key problems in understanding the geology of planet Earth is understanding how continental crust is created,” Schwartz said. “My primary focus is to understand how magmas are generated in arcs, and what processes trigger voluminous surges of magma. These are fundamental problems in geology that we still do not understand.”

Geologic records have indicated surges of continental crust growth in short periods of time in several parts of the world.

“The Sierra Nevadas [are] a classic example of a huge volcanic mountain belt that was basically [formed] in 10 million years,” Schwartz said. “What we don’t understand is what is happening in the Earth that causes these surges of molten rock to be [formed in] the crust.”

To investigate the causes, Schwartz examines arc flare-ups — huge bursts of molten rock that create mountain belts — in Fiordland, New Zealand. Arc flare-ups come from the mantle, or melting of the planet’s deepest crust, and can provide insights about the mechanism that caused the rapid surge of lower continental crust.

The initial idea to investigate arc flare-ups in Fiordland came from three of Schwartz’s geology graduate students — Joseph Sadorski ’15, Meghann Decker ’16 and Samantha Gebauer ’16 — who dated the timing of magmatism, the motion or activity of magma, in southwest New Zealand.

“All of the dates [they] came up with were basically the same age,” Schwartz said. “So, it revealed to us that there was a surge of magmatism that was [formed in] the lower crust in a ‘very short’ 10 million-year window.”

Magmatic arcs normally take more than 100 million years to grow, Schwartz explained. His team’s finding that huge surges occurred in short intervals in certain parts of the world was a groundbreaking discovery in geology (no pun intended).

Specific minerals found in the molten rocks indicate the timing of magmatic events, as well as crust decomposition. Schwartz, who transports the rocks from New Zealand back to Northridge, uses the CSUN PLASMA lab to analyze the rocks, with assistance from undergraduate and graduate students.

“We have a high-resolution mass spectrometer [at CSUN], where we determine isotope ratios of uranium and lead from minerals like zircon,” Schwartz explained. “They have small amounts of uranium that decay to lead, so by analyzing uranium and lead, we can calculate the age in which those crystals [like zircon] are formed.”

Most of his CSUN graduate students have joined him on research trips to New Zealand over the past three years, Schwartz said. He’s planning another trip to Fiordland in January 2017. —Cati Mayer


Edith Wen-Chu Chen and Lawrence Chu

The epidemiological paradox, also known as the immigrant health paradox, refers to the finding that Latina and Latino immigrants have equally good or even better health outcomes than whites. According to research, the more acculturated Latina and Latino immigrants were, the less healthy they became. Two CSUN professors are researching if the same paradox also applies to Asian immigrants in California.

Asian-American studies professor Edith Wen-Chu Chen and health sciences professor Lawrence Chu have been examining whether acculturation puts Asian-Americans at higher risk for health disparities — and if they are more prone to certain diseases.

“There are health researchers who report general findings about Asian-Americans, but they know little about the history, current struggles and issues facing the different Asian-American populations — and there are other social science-trained researchers who study Asian-Americans that know a lot about the population, but they are not involved in health research,” Chen said. “That’s where the coming together of both of our disciplines makes this project so special.”

According to the Health Wealth Gradient, an equation used by sociologists and health scientists, wealthier people live healthier lifestyles than people from disadvantaged communities, Chu said.

“It has a lot to do with stress levels and how people who are affluent can buy healthy foods, have healthier food options, live in safer communities, have better schools and so on,” Chu added. “That, in turn, leads to less stress, which, in turn, leads to healthier lifestyles and healthier outcomes.”

Yet, research has indicated that Mexican immigrants, in particular, who usually have lower incomes and therefore less access to healthcare, were healthier in terms of average life expectancy and had healthier babies than people born in the U.S. This pattern is contrary to the Health Wealth Gradient, Chen explained.

“There is quite a body of research on the immigrant health paradox on Mexican-Americans, but this paradox has not been deeply examined or systematically researched among Asian-Americans,” Chu said, adding that the research is particularly difficult because most data sets combine all Asian populations into one group. “There are so many subsets of ethnicities for Asians, and they are all different in their immigrant experiences and what they might be at risk for in terms of diseases and injuries.”

The pair’s research is based on the evaluation of secondary data from the California Health Interview Survey. Prior research studies have established that Asian-Americans are generally more prone to diabetes and obesity than other populations.

“Asian-Americans are more likely to have diabetes at similar BMIs (Body Mass Index) to whites, and they are more likely to have Type 2 diabetes at normal BMIs compared to whites,” Chen said. “Our question is: What is specific about the Asian-American experience that can put them at risk for Type 2 diabetes and obesity?”

“Also, are there some groups within the Asian- American community that are more at risk for diabetes and obesity than others?” Chu added. “And if so, are there unique risk factors among these groups that can explain that?”

Chen and Chu are continuing their research, involving students from CSUN’s BUILD PODER undergraduate research training program (for more on the program, see page 30). The project is supported by BUILD PODER and CSUN’s Research Infrastructure in Minority Institutions program. —Cati Mayer


Kimberly Kirner

When they turn on the tap, most Los Angeles residents give little to no thought about the origins of their water. Kimberly Kirner, however, knows exactly where the water comes from. The CSUN associate professor of anthropology has spent years studying the communities and landscape of the Owens Valley, in the Eastern Sierra mountains, investigating the impact of more than 50 years of pumping water from the high desert community.

Along with Kirner, a team of CSUN botany and environmental science professors and graduate students in 2014-16 studied the environmental and human impacts on plant life in the Owens Valley, one of LA’s main water sources. The project looked at numbers — measuring changes in the diversity of plants and water use — as well as the perspective of valley residents on those changes, Kirner said. The team is preparing to publish its findings.

“The study is looking at the challenges faced by rural communities in arid land, in the face of climate change and water policy,” Kirner said. “We’re trying to understand how different agency perspectives and cultural perspectives shape the way that people perceive of and respond to climate change. How do they adapt to changing environmental circumstances? What are the negative impacts on their heritage, their culture?”

The research team also aims to improve communication and cross-cultural understanding between the many agencies that manage water and land resources in the Owens Valley, and the people who live on that land, Kirner said.

“They don’t necessarily intersect or speak to each other very well,” she said. “What they care about and the scales at which they perceive change are quite different.”

Kirner and her team incorporated historical documents on water policy and the Owens Valley from the past half century, along with interviews of local residents — including members of the indigenous Paiute tribe — to paint a picture of valley residents’ changing perspectives over time.

Satellite data and information gathered by CSUN botanist Paula Schiffman allowed the team to analyze empirical data and determine how much the valley’s biodiversity had changed, then correlated the data with water policy changes. Kirner said she hoped to open LA residents’ eyes to the impact their water use has on plant diversity, during a drought or otherwise.

She also worked with colleagues in the CSUN Department of Geography to create a “participatory geographic” system online that Owens Valley community members can use to communicate with one another anonymously about environmental change over time, including posting photos and sharing stories.

For the graduate student research assistants, the field experience was invaluable, noted Kirner, now entering her sixth year at CSUN.

“Doing research alongside faculty, whether in the field or on campus, gives students a chance to be mentored in a way that they begin to understand how the research process works — inclusive of mistakes, frustrations and barriers,” she said. “Then they can more easily see themselves gaining the confidence to go out and do it themselves.” —Olivia Herstein and Christine Michaels