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A healthy start to the new academic year

By Dave Jones on October 1, 2013 in University

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi told the Fall Convocation last week why UC Davis is uniquely positioned to be the premier university in the world on issues of food and health:

We have a first-rate health system, a “gold standard” College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and a new World Food Center, among many other outstanding schools and programs.

We have brainpower and expertise, interdisciplinary strength and an equally strong record of collaboration. We have energy and enthusiasm.

The chancellor then called on two faculty members to demonstrate UC Davis’ commitment to expanding the frontiers of knowledge and solving problems for the greater good:

• Professor Jorge Dubcovsky, a wheat geneticist, who talked about his success in bringing “more nutritious and healthier food to the tables of our fellow human beings.”

• Ulfat Shaikh, associate professor in pediatrics, who spoke about her passion for improving the quality and delivery of patient care in a culturally sensitive and compassionate manner, and fighting childhood obesity in the Central Valley.

As speakers at the Sept. 26 convocation, Dubcovsky and Shaik represented the thousands of people at UC Davis who are “Innovating Together to Advance Food and Health,” as expressed in the convocation’s theme. The annual program, marking the start of the new academic year, drew an estimated 1,200 people to Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

No shrinking from responsibility

“I believe it is our responsibility to use our growing knowledge about the nexus between food production, sustainable agriculture and well-being to create a healthier nation and world,” Katehi said.

“This is not something we can shrink from, nor would we want to do so.”

Dubcovsky told the audience about the discovery, some 30 years ago in the Middle East, of wild wheat with an unusually high level of protein in the grain, and the identification of the gene responsible for the amazing level of protein. Turns out, “all the wheat varieties that we were growing in the world had a broken version of that gene.” So Dubcovsky and others substituted the functional gene for the broken one, resulting in increases of 5 percent to 10 percent in protein, zinc and iron levels.

“Many places,” Dubcovsky said, “you do the research, you publish your results and that’s it” — you stop with the basic discovery.

Not at UC Davis. “We have active breeding programs and that gave us the opportunity to cross that wild wheat to our breeding lines and to develop real varieties that carry the improve gene.

“We were also able, because we have the seeds, to distribute those seeds to many countries in the world. … It’s a rewarding story,” said Dubcovsky, who was elected earlier this year to the National Academy of Sciences.

Shaik assured the students in the audience that they had made the “best choice” in UC Davis. “I came to UC Davis because I knew the only way to truly affect health and health care was to work at an institution that integrates education, research, patient care and community engagement.

“I know I am helping to change the practice of medicine because my research findings are included in what and how we teach the next generation of health professionals.”

UC Davis, she said, “opens doors for changing the world in ways that are not possible at any other UC campus. … That means the possibilities are endless for UC Davis students to learn, lead and innovate at a university that connects so many disciplines and professions.”

New knowledge

Karen Ross, secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, also addressed the convocation: “When we talk about the intersection of food and agriculture and health, you can do it here. ... You have all the ingredients to make it happen."

She said she believes the World Food Center “will make as big a difference for people, when they reflect 100 years from now, as the placement of the University Farm School in Davisville did 100 years ago.”

That farm and the agricultural program that it spawned, Ross said, have contributed to “a vital, resilient agricultural sector like none other in the world” — from the “simple” menu of wheat, grain and cattle a century ago to more than 400 viable commodities today.

“That’s great for here at home, but you also are providing the solutions to help food security be a reality for citizens of the globe,” she said.

“All of it starts with the ability to discover new knowledge and apply it in a real-world setting, to get results that matter to people wherever they are. That extension of knowledge is really a remarkable hallmark of what has transformed California agriculture.”

UC Davis, Ross said, is recognized everywhere around the world.

The state takes notice, too, most recently when the Legislature adopted a resolution commending UC Davis as the No. 1 school in agriculture and forestry, as declared in May by QS World University Rankings.

In a convocation surprise, Davis’ state representatives, Sen. Lois Wolk and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, stepped on stage to present a copy of the framed resolution, accepted by Katehi on behalf of faculty, staff and students.


The chancellor’s prepared remarks

Video: chancellor’s remarks and the complete program

“World Food Center Takes Big-Picture Approach,” video presentation at the convocation

Photo album from the New Student Celebration

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Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,