Basic Science Lights the Way series grants public access to great scientific minds

July 14, 2023

This past semester, members of the UC Berkeley community were treated to another thought-provoking series of talks called Basic Science Lights the Way. The panel discussions showcase the work of professors whose research provides the foundation of knowledge for many real-world applications.

This year, attendees learned about applied mathematics, great events in evolution, the challenges faced by new faculty members, and the body’s ability to repair and regenerate itself.

Interest remained strong in the sixth season of Basic Science Lights the Way, with over 1,400 people watching the series online. Audience members could pose questions to the panelists, granting access to leading minds in a variety of scientific disciplines.

Many who regularly attend these talks are lifelong learners whose pursuit of knowledge continues far beyond their formal education. The view that learning never stops highlights many teachers’ and students’ belief in brighter futures. Nowhere was this theme more central than in the first session, New Faculty Tales from the Lab.

"It's been said that teaching is the greatest act of optimism, and our new faculty members are the epitome of that hope,” said Steven Kahn, Dean of the Division of Mathematical & Physical Sciences. “They arrive at Berkeley with new ideas, fresh approaches, and a rejuvenating energy."

After sharing details of their innovative research, assistant professors Penny Wieser, James Nuñez, and Eric Ma disclosed the behind-the-scenes challenges often coinciding with starting a new lab. These promising scholars were drawn to Berkeley but were quickly confronted by supply chain disruptions and the pandemic. The faculty members likened their experience to one-person startups, navigating the tricky balancing act of funding, mentorship, teaching, lab setup, and research.

The scholarly lectures continued with Mathematics That Matter, illustrating forms of mathematics with practical applications.

Three applied mathematicians – Per-Olof Persson, Krutika Tawri, and Olga Holtz – explained the complicated principles they are investigating, including fluid mechanics, matrix multiplication, and turbulence around complex shapes. Numerically-inclined audience members had the opportunity to prod faculty on their projects and opinions, such as artificial intelligence (AI)'s usefulness in their fields (debatable at this stage but promising).

Another top-of-mind topic for lifelong learners was Repair and Regeneration in the Body. The scientists studying this topic shared the new methods they are exploring to restore the body and mind:

  • Andrea Gomez studies the potential for psychedelics to reactivate connections in the brain and turn back time on a molecular level.
  • Dirk Hockemeyer searches for ways to use the latest gene editing technologies to rebuild telomeres, which are sections at the ends of chromosomes that keep DNA strands from fraying, like plastic tips on shoelaces.
  • Megan Martik seeks to reprogram neural crests to regenerate damaged tissue. Zebrafish, for example, can regrow up to 60% of their heart thanks to this group of cells.
A screenshot from the New Faculty Tales from the Lab session with four panelists on screen.

A screenshot from the New Faculty Tales from the Lab panel discussion, with Penny Weiser, James Nuñez, Eric Ma, and moderator Rebecca Heald.

There’s a surprise every day … This is the exciting part; you don't know what tomorrow brings.
Professor Dirk Hockemeyer on his job