TRANSITIONS: Vajra Watson, Michael Ziccardi

Woman hugs student participant at conference.
Vajra Watson embraces a participant at 2019’s SAYS Summit College Day, an annual event to assist students on the path to higher education. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)


Vajra Watson, director of the Office of Research and Policy for Equity since 2008 and founder of the university-sponsored Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, or SAYS, is leaving UC Davis to become the new faculty director of the Doctorate of Educational Leadership Program at California State University, Sacramento.


A farewell celebration for Vajra Watson will be held from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3. More details will be available as the date approaches. If you are interested in participating, please complete this interest form

In her 12 years here, she focused on the transformation of education in service of social change by connecting the university, schools and community.

Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, which she launched the year she joined UC Davis, is a social justice movement that seeks to break the barriers to young people’s achievement, by encouraging them to elevate their voices through spoken word performance poetry. The award-winning program puts community-based, poet mentors in classrooms to help teachers develop instructional styles that reclaim and reimagine schooling for underserved youth.

“The essence of SAYS is the unabashed, truth-telling, multilingual voices of young people who are courageously creating spaces that transform lives,” Watson said.

Ebony Lewis, executive director of Undergraduate Admissions, which formerly included Watson’s Office of Research and Policy for Equity, said: “Dr. Watson constantly innovates new ways to improve the lives of the underserved in our community.”

Vajra Watson headshot

Her legacy, Lewis said, includes leaving the SAYS program in great hands with equally dedicated staff members who will continue its important work of access, equity and opportunity.

Watson oversaw the SAYS Summit College Day, held annually the last 11 years, bringing hundreds of students to UC Davis for mentoring, inspiration and workshops. The summit creates an empowering space for socio-economically challenged students as they move toward and through higher education. By allowing students to be the authors of their own lives, they become critically aware and are motivated to achieve college readiness.

Denisha “Coco” Bland, SAYS program coordinator, described Watson as “a fearless, fierce and bold equity warrior who has dedicated her time and efforts to uplifting and transcending this university by closing an equity gap between UC Davis and the Sacramento community through elevating the voices, youth and community while exposing the Sacramento region to higher education.”

Watson also led the campus’s annual Equity Summit and its program of Social Justice Awards. Recently celebrating its 10th year, the Equity Summit brings together educators, community members and experts from a variety of fields to address key social issues.

She is the recipient of a UC Davis Early Career Award and a Soaring to New Heights award for achievement in diversity, and the American Educational Research Association’s Social Impact Award and Social Justice Leadership Award.

Of all of her accomplishments, Watson will say her most important role is that of being the mother of two amazing children, Tsadiku, 18, and Adiyah, 14, whom she describes as her living legacy, and who embody her passion for equity, systemic change, and supporting our youth to “Make School Their Hustle!”

— Kate Armstrong, student intern, Undergraduate Admissions Marketing

Wildlife veterinarian tends to a sea turtle.
Ziccardi, tending to a sea turtle, leads the Oiled Wildlife Care Network and the One Health Institute.

Michael Ziccardi, a wildlife veterinarian at UC Davis, has been appointed executive director of the One Health Institute, the largest research center in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

He formerly served as an associate director of the One Health Institute, and as the co-director of its flagship program, the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. He holds three UC Davis degrees — doctorate in veterinary medicine, master’s degree in preventive veterinary medicine and Ph.D. in epidemiology — and holds the title of health science clinical professor in the Department of Medicine and Epidemiology.

Michael Ziccardi headshot

The One Health Institute, or OHI, works at the interface of animals, people and the environment to solve complex problems related to health and conservation, such as zoonotic disease emergence, food insecurity and biodiversity loss.

Ziccardi’s appointment is for five years. “Dr. Ziccardi brings experience in leadership, strategic planning and operational management to his new role,” said Michael Lairmore, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine. “His knowledge, advocacy experience, and vision will help expand partnership opportunities for the One Health Institute.”

The OHI has been on the forefront of the global response to COVID-19, providing legislative guidance in the United States as well as laboratory support and workforce training in some of the least resourced regions of the world, through pandemic preparedness and response projects including USAID PREDICT and USAID One Health Workforce-Next Generation.

“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, society has experienced firsthand the key importance of pursuing large-scale issues with a one health focus, as well as the amazing expertise and cutting-edge science that OHI staff and faculty continue to bring to the problem,” Ziccardi said. “I look forward to helping keep the OHI at the forefront of critical global health issues, and also exploring how we can better use our skills to address other societal problems.”

Ziccardi served as the co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center for the last six years. The institute’s other operations include the Planetary Health Center of Expertise (part of the UC Global Health Institute), the EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics, the California Raptor Center and the OHI Laboratory.

He continues as the director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, a partnership between the Wildlife Health Center and the state’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, part of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network, under his leadership since 2003, is widely recognized as an international leader in oil spill response with more than 40 member organizations throughout California, including world-class aquaria, universities, scientific organizations and rehabilitation groups.

A veteran of more than 50 spills worldwide, Ziccardi helped establish and lead the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Unit during the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. He wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s oiled marine mammal response plan in 2005 for rescuing and treating oiled marine mammals, and oversaw a complete revision after the 2010 incident.

“I enthusiastically welcome Dr. Michael Ziccardi as the OHI’s new leader,” said Jonna Mazet, who had served as the executive director since the institute’s founding in 2009. “I anticipate great success as he leads the OHI into its next phase, pursuing a healthier, more equitable and more sustainable future for humanity and the planet.”

— Kristin Burns, School of Veterinary Medicine

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