UCLA helps faculty keep their skills polished

Whether they’ve already risen up the ranks in their department or are still early in their careers, just about every professor is familiar with the feeling of walking into a lecture hall for the first time and standing in front of students who expect to learn something from you. While these professors may be experts in nanotechnology, award-winning architects or leading historians of ancient Chinese civilizations, it’s understandable that being able to convey that knowledge to a room full of people isn’t always second nature.

Undergraduate Research Week 2019 in Photos

View highlights from Undergraduate Research Week 2019 including Research Poster Day, Friends of Research Luncheon, Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Award Ceremony, Oral Presentations, and the Sciences, Math and Engineering Award Ceremony.

  • Photo by Reed Hutchinson

  • Photo by Reed Hutchinson

  • Photo by Reed Hutchinson

  • Photo by Reed Hutchinson

  • Photo by Reed Hutchinson

  • Photo by Reed Hutchinson

  • Photo by Reed Hutchinson

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

  • Photo by Todd Cheney

Photos 1-7: Reed Hutchinson

Photos 8-20: Todd Cheney

A dream fulfilled on Denali

Early in the morning, while most people are still sleeping, Joy McKee climbed out of her tent at an altitude of 17,200 feet. After two and a half weeks of climbing, six months of training and 15 years pursuing some of the world’s tallest peaks, the summit of Denali was only 13 hours climbing and 3,110 vertical feet away.

Last July, McKee, Director of Development for Undergraduate Education, embarked on a nearly month-long journey to climb Alaska’s Denali. At 20,310 feet, it is the tallest mountain in North America and the third-tallest of the seven summits after Mount Everest and Aconcagua in Argentina.

An avid outdoorswoman since childhood, McKee has already climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Rainier, Tent Peak and others. But Denali would help fulfill her goal of climbing all the high points in the United States, and despite all her experience, proved to be one of her most challenging climbs yet.

McKee started working out with a trainer six months before the climb, mainly to prepare for the heavy 60-pound backpack and 40-pound sled she’d be hauling up the mountain at altitude. Climbers carry their own personal gear as well as gear shared among their climbing group, including food, fuel, tents, climbing supplies and more, enough for 22 days on the mountain. To prepare, McKee climbed the steps of UCLA’s Drake Stadium, the Santa Monica Stairs and other steep routes while wearing a 30-pound vest or carrying a 60-pound bag of dog food, among other exercises.

“I’m not necessarily an athlete – I’ve never done so many planks in my life,” McKee said. “The biggest challenge is you’re training on your own and you can’t really entirely mimic what you’re going to do [on Denali] so there’s a lot of uncertainty in the preparation process.”

On June 18, McKee joined seven other climbers and four guides on the very last expedition of Denali’s 2018 climbing season, which runs from May to July.

During a typical day on the mountain, the group might start climbing around midnight (since Denali is so far north, there is near-constant light during the summer months). Climbing days are often a 10-12 hour push with 10 minute breaks to rest, hydrate and snack – then pack up and do it all over again. Other days are spent resting, building snow walls, waiting out bad weather or acclimatizing cache climbs – when climbers carry gear up the mountain in multiple loads and bury it in the snow for safekeeping.

When the group (minus three climbers who decided to turn back) reached the “Autobahn,” a section of the final 3,000-foot climb to the summit, they found themselves at the back of, well, a traffic jam of seven teams. The group at the front was struggling to navigate around a steep rock face, forcing all the teams behind them to wait in freezing temperatures.

After two hours of waiting, and another two days hoping for a break in weather, McKee’s guides decided to call off their summit attempt. With a large storm system moving in and a limited window of time that the climbers could stay at high elevation without suffering frostbite or side effects of low oxygen, it was just too risky. McKee and the other climbers were disappointed, but they weren’t surprised, she said.

“When your tent’s shaking from the 30-plus mile per hour winds, you know it’s not happening,” she said. “The bottom line is everyone knows Denali’s this way. The challenge of that mountain is the weather and the extremity of energy that it takes to safely climb.”

As it turned out, they made the right decision. Some of the climbers who’d decided to go for the summit got lost in the storm, and McKee’s guides performed several rescues.

McKee said not summiting doesn’t take anything away from her experience of climbing Denali. She came so close and was proud of her own performance.

“I left nothing on the mountain,” she said. “I could go six more times to that mountain and never make it to the summit, and there’s so many other great mountains out there.”

For McKee, climbing isn’t just about the summit. It’s a chance for her to disconnect from everyday life and quiet her mind in some of the most awe-inspiring places on Earth.

“It’s one of the few ways that not only can you challenge yourself, you can challenge your perspective, you can challenge your thoughts and just remind yourself that we make a lot out of nothing in our everyday lives,” she said. “This true survival piece is one of the few ways you can access something so much beyond yourself.”

Pat Turner: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Dean Turner at Undergraduate Research Week 2018. Photo by Todd Cheney

As she meets with colleagues across campus and even across the entire University of California, Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia Turner is always struck by how highly regarded the staff of the Undergraduate Education (UE) are. In fact, during her first five year term, working with such well-respected colleagues is one of her “biggest sources of pleasure,” she said.

This fall, Turner was appointed to her second five-year term as Dean and Vice Provost.

Over the next few years, she hopes UE can help lower some of the barriers that may prevent students from graduating with the fullest experience possible.

“When you ask graduating students what makes them most proud about their time at UCLA, they will often say something about their research project, the company they started, their participation in Honors, or the internship they took while studying abroad. And as dean, I know those same experiences have a direct correlation to student success after graduation, in the real world,” Turner said. “My challenge is that the programs that provide those opportunities can’t accommodate every student who wants to participate, and for programs like study abroad, students’ financial situations can pose challenges.”

That’s why fundraising continues to be a priority for her. “With increased funding, more students would be able to have access to these types of experiences,” she said.

“It’s about opening up these opportunities so our restrictions of space and bandwidth don’t interfere with students’ ability to do things,” she said. She encourages staff to embrace their role in helping students chart meaningful pathways through their time at UCLA, whether through co-curricular programs or academic resources.

The entire University of California is feeling the pressure to speed up time-to-degree. “Pressure on UCLA will only increase in the years to come. But at UCLA, we already do an excellent job graduating students in a timely manner,” Turner said. “Still, over the next two to three years, my staff and I will be honing our efforts and developing new ones to help students graduate in four years or fewer, prepared for what comes next.”

”Undergraduate Education shines in our ability to personalize the UCLA undergraduate experience,” Turner said. “Part of our challenge will be to keep that personal touch for students while encouraging their timely completion of degree requirements. Opportunities like service learning and civic engagement enable students to make personal connections with the community and with our faculty and staff and to discover and pursue new passions.”

“What UCLA has afforded with the existence of a division focused on undergraduate education is a home for the academic side of the undergraduate’s experience and a whole team of people who are looking out for that,” she said. “From orientation to academic counseling and scholarships, our programs give students an opportunity to learn about themselves, which gives them a meaning and focus to what they learn in the classrooms and the labs.”

New Student and Transition Programs director trains therapy dog for patients and students

Clara with a new student orientation group

As director of New Student and Transition Programs, Roxanne Neal knows just how to make new Bruins feel comfortable and cared for during the sometimes difficult transition to college.

Now, it seems, she’s passed on those skills to a protégé – but not a human one.

Neal’s three-year-old yellow Labrador named Clara is a newly certified therapy dog. Together, the two bring smiles and comfort to hospital patients, medical staff and even UCLA students who need a few snuggles from a furry friend to get through a tough day.

Neal started training Clara in obedience when she was just five months old. Her potential as a therapy dog was apparent from the beginning, like when she didn’t even flinch while training next to a boisterous herd of cattle on the ranch where she was born. Last year, Neal began researching therapy dog certification, which is offered through a program called Pet Partners.

Neal said she was partly inspired by her mother, who interacted with a therapy dog at UCLA Medical Center while recovering from knee and hip surgery. Though her mother was never big on dogs, Neal saw how the dog lifted her spirits.

“She really responded to this dog hanging out and being really sweet to everyone. He would just go check on all the patients, and I thought that was a great thing,” Neal said. “People just transform around the dogs.”

The certification process includes a handler course for the human partner, a team evaluation during which the dog demonstrates that it can follow commands and stay calm in unexpected situations, and shadowing a real team in a hospital. Once the team passes a final evaluation, they are ready to start volunteering. For Clara, the process took about eight months; she passed in August.

Roxanne Neal and Clara

Neal and Clara now visit Providence St. John’s Health Center two or three times a month for up to two hours at a time. Upon arrival, they check in with a volunteer coordinator who gives them their room assignments for the day – either a designated floor or patients who have requested a visit. Inside the patient’s room, Clara usually sits on a chair or on the floor next to the patient so the patient can pet her.

“She loves the human interaction. She loves people and the attention and petting,” Neal said. “[With] one patient I put Clara on the chair, and Clara leaned forward with her head on the bed and the patient started petting her and talking softly and Clara just melted. She knows how to take it all in.”

The medical staff are always just as excited as the patients to see Clara, Neal said, and she makes sure they have their snuggles with Clara too. Their last visit was on Thanksgiving morning, which she said felt extra meaningful.

Clara isn’t just a fixture at St. John’s, however – Neal has started bringing her to work too. Clara has become a mascot of sorts for the thousands of freshman and transfer Bruins who attend new student orientation programs during the summer, and many orientation groups even request to have Clara in their group photo. She also brought stress relief to the Hill during midterms and finals this quarter.

Neal said students homesick for their own pets find comfort in showering Clara with affection.

“She was on so many Snapchats,” Neal said. “I joke that she thinks her name is ‘Pretty.’”

As she enters her 30th year with NSTP, Neal said she enjoys putting the skills she’s honed at work to use in a new environment where it’s all about Clara.

“Communication skills and talking to people, that’s literally my job. Being able to do that through my dog who I love gives me a different way to connect with people and do it in a way that really changes the environment a lot,” Neal said. “People that don’t normally want to socialize with a volunteer, they’ll just pet the dog, and that seems to be enough.”

UCLA’s top teachers recognized at ceremony at Chancellor’s residence

The recipients of UCLA’s highest honor for teaching, the Distinguished Teaching Awards, were honored by the UCLA Academic Senate at the Andrea L. Rich Night to Honor Teaching awards ceremony at the Chancellor’s residence on Oct. 25. The winners were selected in three categories: senate faculty members, non-senate faculty members and teaching assistants.