Campus & community, Campus news

Innovation, insights and intrigue: UC Berkeley’s top stories from 2023

From emerging work on artificial intelligence to the announcement of Chancellor Carol Christ’s upcoming retirement to a flurry of new construction on campus, Berkeley faced and embraced the future.

four photos - one of students walking on UC Berkeley's campus, one of a student smiling, one of three men working on a machine and one aerial shot of buildings. They represent a sample of stories published by Berkeley News during the 2013 academic year.

Graphic by Neil Freese/UC Berkeley

The year 2023 was a year of innovation and major change at UC Berkeley. From emerging work on artificial intelligence to the announcement of Chancellor Carol Christ’s upcoming retirement to a flurry of new construction on campus, Berkeley faced and embraced the future.

Much-needed student housing, a renovated and expanded student engineering center and a home for the campus’s first new college in 50 years were among the buildings springing up campuswide. Berkeley also announced the creation of a new center for aviation and space exploration located at NASA Ames’ Moffett Field in Mountain View. And campus experts made headlines discussing how, in the 1940s, physicist Robert Oppenheimer — the focus of the blockbuster movie Oppenheimer — made the physics department the center of American thought about the field of quantum mechanics.

As always, faculty members continued to contribute their expertise, most notably on breaking news ranging from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action to war crimes in Ukraine and the dangers of climate change. They even, for the first time, reconstructed Pink Floyd’s song, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1,” from brain recordings.

Here’s a look back at our top stories of the year.

Flurry of major campus construction projects to mark new academic year

From north to south, east to west and all the way to the nearby city of Albany, UC Berkeley’s landscape was transformed in the fall by numerous large construction projects that will create much-needed student housing, a renovated and expanded student engineering center and a home for the campus’s first new college in 50 years.

Read more about new buildings on campus: 

Brain recordings capture musicality of speech — with help from Pink Floyd

As the chords of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1,” filled the hospital suite, neuroscientists at Albany Medical Center diligently recorded the activity of electrodes placed on the brains of patients being prepared for epilepsy surgery.

The goal? To capture the electrical activity of brain regions tuned to attributes of the music — tone, rhythm, harmony and words — to see if they could reconstruct what the patient was hearing.

More than a decade later, after detailed analysis of data from 29 such patients, the answer is clearly yes.

Panel discusses Robert Oppenheimer’s Berkeley years

The story behind the summer blockbuster movie Oppenheimer, which opened across the nation last summer, began at UC Berkeley.

A 25-year-old J. Robert Oppenheimer arrived at Berkeley in fall 1929 as an assistant professor, and over the next dozen years established one of the greatest schools of theoretical physics in the U.S. — one that continues to this day. He made UC Berkeley’s physics department the center of American thought about the new field of quantum mechanics and how to apply it to atoms, nuclei and even neutron stars.

Listen to the panel discussion on the Berkeley Talks podcast or watch it on YouTube.

A history of innovation: Berkeley entrepreneurs, companies that changed the way we live

The culture and spirit of innovation at UC Berkeley throughout history can be seen in the changemakers — the Berkeley students, researchers, entrepreneurs, faculty members and alumni — who have helped in countless ways to improve our lives and our world.

For more information about how the Berkeley community is creating innovative and equitable solutions to society’s greatest challenges, visit the Entrepreneurship at Berkeley site.

Also, read about student-entrepreneur Alishba Imran’s journey as a young pioneer in robotics and machine learning.

Natalie Araujo holds her mom's hand and smiles at her younger brother while standing on UC Berkeley's campus.
“I never thought I’d learn English as a kid, and I never imagined that I’d be at a school like Berkeley,” said Araujo.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

‘Grief can coexist with happiness’: How one student found her way to UC Berkeley

As a young kid growing up in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, Natalie Araujo didn’t like school. She felt unwelcome, like an outsider looking into a world she’d never fit into, no matter how hard she tried. 

In second grade, though, things began to turn around. She had a bilingual teacher and was enrolled in an English language program. School slowly became a place where she felt she could thrive. But just two years ago, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a sudden family tragedy, her dream of going to college felt so far away, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever make it.

Now, as a first-year student at Berkeley, she plans to major in legal studies to pursue a career that combines her love of debate and of renewable energy — maybe in environmental law. 

UC Berkeley to join Atlantic Coast Conference in 2024-2025

In September, Chancellor Carol Christ announced that UC Berkeley will join the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 2024-25 academic year. In the decision, made amid significant conference realignment across the country in recent years, campus leadership prioritized the needs of its student-athletes and Cal Athletics’ long-term stability, while maintaining the program’s essential role on the Berkeley campus.

buildings and green space stretching into the distance
Artist’s rendering of NASA’s Ames Research Center and Moffett Field showing the future location of the Berkeley Space Center (gray buildings stretching from center to right). The center will be an innovation hub encouraging collaborations among UC Berkeley faculty and students, private companies, NASA scientists and engineers and Silicon Valley’s tech industry. NASA Ames’ iconic Hangar One, which once housed airships, is at left.

Field Operations and HOK

Berkeley Space Center at NASA Ames to become innovation hub for new aviation, space technology

UC Berkeley is teaming up with NASA’s Ames Research Center and developer SKS Partners to create research space for companies interested in collaborating with UC Berkeley and NASA scientists and engineers to generate futuristic innovations in aviation, space exploration and how we live and work in space.

The Berkeley Space Center, announced in October, aims to accommodate up to 1.4 million square feet of research space on 36 acres of land at NASA Ames’ Moffett Field in Mountain View, leased from NASA.

a composite image of six photos in the shape of a puzzle pieces locked together that show various moments in the lives of two people who went from Russian protests to UC Berkeley
Ilya Matveev (bottom left) and Ilya Budraitskis (upper right) have long been critics of Russia’s embrace of authoritarianism. They fled as Russia invaded Ukraine. Meanwhile, UC Berkeley faculty and staff solved the puzzle of how to give them refuge on campus.

Neil Freese/UC Berkeley (Source: Nikolay Vorobyev, Jade Koroliuk, Daniel Alvarado, Ilya Matveev, Ilya Budraitskis)

Rescuing dissent: Inside the yearlong mission to bring prominent Putin critics to UC Berkeley

In February 2022, Ilya Matveev knew his life was in jeopardy.

The prominent critic of Vladimir Putin had devoted his decade-plus academic life in Moscow and St. Petersburg to researching his country’s embrace of authoritarianism. But it wasn’t until the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that he and his friend and fellow activist Ilya Budraitskis learned how aggressively the government was cracking down on dissenting voices like theirs.

So the scholars did what millions of Ukrainians and hundreds of thousands of Russians have done since the war began last year: They fled. What neither of them knew was that their ultimate destination would be UC Berkeley, more than 6,000 miles away.

Also, read: 

Ty-Ron Douglas holds his palms together while speaking to an audience not pictured
Ty-Ron Douglas is the associate athletic director of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice (DEIBJ) at Cal Athletics.

Courtesy of Ty-Ron Douglas

‘Justice is the juice’ of DEIBJ

We’ve heard the acronym DEIBJ a lot on campus, especially in the past few years. For those who might not know, it stands for diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice. A growing number of people at UC Berkeley have positions dedicated solely to this incredibly important work.

In this Berkeley Voices episode, Ty-Ron Douglas, the associate athletic director of DEIBJ at Cal Athletics, explains the nuts and bolts of DEIBJ in his upbeat and clear-eyed way that he seems to apply to all things he does. He also talks about growing up in Bermuda, a precocious kid feeling like he didn’t belong; why sport is a legitimate academic discipline; and how “justice is the juice” of DEIBJ.

illustration of three clay figures arguing
Research from UC Berkeley says mismatches in conceptual definitions of basic things — even animals — help explain why people end up talking past each other so often.

Jon Kenfield via Flickr

I say dog, you say chicken? New study explores why we disagree so often

Is a dog more similar to a chicken or an eagle? Is a penguin noisy? Is a whale friendly?

Psychologists at UC Berkeley say these absurd-sounding questions might help us better understand what’s at the heart of some of society’s most vexing arguments.

Research published in March shows that our concepts about and associations with even the most basic words vary widely. At the same time, people tend to significantly overestimate how many others hold the same conceptual beliefs.

It’s a mismatch that researchers say gets at the heart of the most heated debates, from the courtroom to the dinner table.

John Schulman stands at a podium in front of a projection of black text on a white background.
John Schulman discussed recent advances in reinforcement learning and truthfulness during the EECS Colloquium Distinguished Lecture Series in April.

Jim Block/UC Berkeley

ChatGPT architect, Berkeley alum John Schulman on his journey with AI

John Schulman cofounded the ambitious software company OpenAI in December 2015, shortly before finishing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley. At OpenAI, he led the reinforcement learning team that developed ChatGPT — a chatbot based on the company’s generative pre-trained (GPT) language models — which has become a global sensation, thanks to its ability to generate remarkably human-like responses.

During a campus visit in April, Berkeley News spoke with Schulman about why he chose Berkeley for graduate school, the allure of towel-folding robots and what he sees for the future of artificial general intelligence.

Listen to a Berkeley Talks episode with Schulman, where he discusses making AI more truthful.

Caty Vera sits in a UC Berkeley class with a handful of other students
Catey Vera is the recipient of the 2023 University Medal, which honors the top graduating senior. Vera’s persistence through the pandemic while helping nurse her dying father and working for Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Center makes her an exemplar of the best of UC Berkeley.

Sofia Liashcheva/UC Berkeley

For top graduating senior, a pirouette from ballet to human rights

Growing up, student Catey Vera dreamed of being a professional ballet dancer. At 8, she entered a ballet school and at 14, she began studying dance at the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts. But soon after, she found out she had ovarian cancer. The surgery to remove the tumor damaged her stomach muscles and forced her to choose a new career path — a choice that she embraced and made the most of.  

At Berkeley, she worked with Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Center, where she investigated alleged war crimes in Myanmar. She also worked at Human Rights Watch, served as president of the Prytanean Women’s Honor Society and served as co-president of the Pointe of Berkeley Ballet Company.

In May, Vera, who earned a B.A. from Berkeley with a major in cognitive science and a double minor in data science and interdisciplinary human rights, was selected to receive the University Medal, the highest honor for a Berkeley graduating senior.

Also, read a profile about a student who took 30 years and 100 flights to graduate and other graduation 2023 stories.

Jennifer Chayes and Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ smile and pose for a photo
Jennifer Chayes (left), associate provost and dean of UC Berkeley’s new College of Computing, Data Science, and Society, with Chancellor Carol Christ.

Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

UC Berkeley gets new college, its first in 50 years

The UC Board of Regents voted in May to establish UC Berkeley’s College of Computing, Data Science, and Society (CDSS), the campus’s first new college in more than 50 years.

The college will develop, implement and share high-quality, ethics-oriented and accessible curricula, educating a diverse student body in data science, computing and statistics. It will also create new fields, applications and solutions to societal problems through groundbreaking, multidisciplinary research that capitalizes on Berkeley’s excellence across campus.

Yuria Celidwen smiling with green triangle design illustrated in the background
Yuria Celidwen, a UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute senior fellow, sheds light on how Western institutions can ethically approach the use of psychedelics.

Neil Freese/UC Berkeley

Why Indigenous ‘Spirit medicine’ principles must be a priority in psychedelic research

Yuria Celidwen was born into a family of Indigenous mystics, healers, poets and explorers from the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico.

“I grew up with one foot in the wilderness and another in the magical realism of Indigenous culture,” said Celdiwen, a native of Indigenous Nahua and Mayan descent. “We carry intergenerational trauma, and also intergenerational bliss.”

Today, as a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, Celidwen is exploring how Western institutions can ethically approach the growing research and use of psychedelics as viable medical therapies. She recently led a study published in the journal The Lancet Regional Health — Americas.

A bird stands on one foot in a flooded field. The bird is standing behind a chain-link fence, which has a sign that reads
A black-crowned night-heron stands at the edge of a Superfund clean-up site, located near the Richmond waterfront, when heavy rains flooded the area in January 2023.

Courtesy of Kristina Hill

Rising groundwater threatens thousands of toxic sites in the Bay Area

As climate change brings devastating storms and rising tides to California, many coastal communities face another threat, one that’s hidden and trickling up from below.

When sea levels rise, dense saltwater moves inland beneath the soil, pushing up the layer of fresh groundwater that floats above it. In many coastal areas, even a few inches of sea level rise can raise the groundwater table enough to flood basements, leak through cracks in sewer lines and disrupt underground infrastructure.

It can also seep into toxic sites from below, mobilizing hazardous materials and spreading pollutants far beyond the limits of the original contamination.

A new report in June found that over the next century, rising groundwater levels in the San Francisco Bay Area could impact twice as much land area as coastal flooding alone, putting more than 5,200 state- and federally managed contaminated sites at risk. Many of these sites are near communities already burdened with high levels of pollution, including West Oakland, the waterfront in Richmond and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco.

A photo illustration showing students entering the UC Berkeley campus at Sather Gate. The outer frame is in black and white negative; the central frame is in full color.
After voters in 1996 banned the use of race-based admissions in California universities, UC Berkeley became a pioneer in efforts to build a diverse campus community without the benefit of affirmative action.

Neil Freese/UC Berkeley

Berkeley leaders, scholars react to Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action

Chancellor Carol Christ and several other top UC Berkeley officials said the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June, that public and private universities cannot use race as a factor in admitting students, is regrettable. They warned the decision will reduce opportunities for people of color and thwart the nation’s progress toward racial equality.

Berkeley scholars have played critical roles in writing policy and arguing the law on affirmative action at a national level, while others have researched the educational and social impact of race-based admissions. Berkeley News obtained a range of campus reactions to the ruling.

A portrait of Chancellor Carol Christ in her office.
Chancellor Carol Christ announced her retirement in June.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Chancellor Carol Christ announces 2024 retirement, plans for ambitious year

In June, Chancellor Carol Christ sent the following message: “It is with decidedly mixed feelings that I am writing to let you know I will be stepping down and retiring next summer, at the end of June 2024. My time in office has been meaningful and rewarding beyond compare, and I will sorely miss the challenges, the opportunities and the daily interactions with the members of Cal’s amazing extended family.”

Also, read: UC president launches search for next Berkeley chancellor.