For UC Berkeley, 2019 was a year of honoring the past and celebrating new beginnings. The campus held a symposium that marked the start of a yearlong initiative commemorating the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of enslaved Africans in the English colonies. In a push for universal open access publishing, the University of California broke ties with industry giant Elsevier and formed a new open-access agreement with Cambridge University Press. And, for the first time, newly admitted students were the focus of the 26th annual Cal Day, the campus’s open house.
When Berkeley wasn’t embarking on new ventures, it was making discoveries — from a graduate student disproving a “monster” black hole discovery to a research team developing digital forensics tools to unmask “deepfake” videos.
Here’s a look back at Berkeley’s top stories of the year — in photos, video and audio.
1. Couple builds bridge to Berkeley for Coachella Valley’s brightest, neediest youth
In a January story, we learned about Luisa and Oscar Armijo, who, for the past 20 years, have helped shepherd about 100 young people to Berkeley from Southern California’s Coachella Valley, where many Latino residents live at the poverty level and have less than a ninth-grade education. In their outreach, they promote Berkeley, network with high school counselors, help teens navigate the college application process, befriend and educate parents reluctant about college and help Berkeley admits in need with scholarships and dorm essentials. “We believe in the potential in everyone,” says Oscar Armijo. “But it takes access to opportunities to change your life, to open doors so that great things can happen.”
2. Peregrine falcon cameras installed on the Campanile
After a successful crowdfunding effort that brought in more than $14,500, Berkeley, working closely with state and federal agencies, installed two cameras on the second balcony of the Campanile in February. The cameras allowed people to watch a pair of peregrine falcons that have raised their young atop Berkeley’s bell tower for the past three years. Earlier this month, a third camera was installed. Get the latest peregrine news on the Cal Falcons Facebook page.
Listen to a Fiat Vox podcast episode about how the peregrines chase their prey at more 200 miles per hour through crowds on campus:
3. In push for open access, UC breaks ties with publishing giant Elsevier
The University of California system took a bold stand in February in its push for publicly funded UC research to be accessible to the world, free of charge: It chose not to renew its nearly $11 million-a-year scholarly journal subscription to publishing industry giant Elsevier, producer of more than 1,500 scientific journals. The UC had been trying to negotiate a new subscription deal with Elsevier since Dec. 31, when its five-year license ended. But Elsevier was unwilling to provide the main goal of UC’s fight: achieving what’s called universal open access publishing, so that the 10-campus system’s research could be freely available to anyone, anywhere.
4. 66 million-year-old deathbed linked to dinosaur-killing meteor
A March story outlined a new paper by paleontologist Robert DePalma and his colleagues, including two Berkeley professors, that described how a meteor impact 66 million years ago generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur — the first victims of Earth’s last mass extinction event. “It’s like a museum of the end of the Cretaceous in a layer a meter and a half thick,” said Mark Richards, a Berkeley professor emeritus of earth and planetary science who is now provost and professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington.
5. Campus comes alive on Cal Day to welcome new admits
In April, 45,000 students, staff, faculty, alumni and friends filled the campus for the 26th annual Cal Day, Berkeley’s open house. This year was the first time the day was devoted to newly admitted students. “For the new students, this is important, because they get the opportunity to really see themselves on our campus, as well as to get a better and deeper idea of what we are all about,” said Olufemi Ogundele, Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions.
6. How a botched train robbery led to the birth of modern American criminology
An April podcast detailed how the Bancroft Library opened a collection of crime materials by pioneering forensic scientist Edward Oscar Heinrich, a Berkeley lecturer and alumnus. The collection spans nearly 150 linear feet of crime lab materials — photographs, diaries, notes, newspaper clippings, letters and pieces of evidence — that shed light on some of America’s most notorious criminal cases that happened during Heinrich’s career, from the late 1910s to his death in 1953.
Read more about the Heinrich collection. Listen to the Fiat Vox podcast episode below.
7. Not their mothers’ mariachi: Student band has a Berkeley spin
In May, we highlighted a Berkeley student mariachi band — Mariachi Luz de Oro de Berkeley (Berkeley’s Mariachi Light of Gold). Although the 15-member band performs traditional Mexican mariachi in classic charro getup, the group is far from conventional. At the time of the story, the band included seven women, six students with no Mexican roots — backgrounds included Native American, Vietnamese, Salvadoran and Chinese — and a few musicians who struggled with Spanish, or didn’t speak it at all.
8. Their workshop’s no palace, but they hold the keys to the kingdom
In May, we also learned about how Berkeley’s eight locksmiths guard the master keys to hundreds of buildings on and around the campus, applying expertise, tools of the trade and good humor to assist campus members in a bind. With literally thousands of secured facilities spanning their coverage area — including structures built in the late 1800s — they fix and even create from scratch hardware ranging from ultra-modern to fascinatingly antiquated. Their jobs have taken them from the hilly heights of the Lawrence Hall of Science and the UC Botanical Garden down into the vast network of underground steam tunnels built on campus in the early 1900s to provide buildings with heat.
9. At rainy commencement ceremony, a call to ‘stay woke’
In May, thousands of poncho-clad graduates filled California Memorial Stadium for a rainy spring commencement ceremony. During the ceremony, many of the speakers encouraged graduates to take the lessons of the campus, both academic and personal, with them as they entered the professional world. “We need each of you to get into the arena of addressing the world’s greatest injustices and societal threats as early as possible,” said keynote speaker Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America.
10. The ministry of being out
In June, teaching professor of economics Martha Olney shared her story of coming out. “So, my wife’s a minister,” she begins. “In the 1980s, being a lesbian Baptist pastor … we knew them all. We knew all of them.” In this podcast episode, Olney recounts how she met her now-wife Esther Hargis as a graduate student. A few of their friends knew they were together, but “it wasn’t something you told people,” she said. It wasn’t until the couple decided to adopt their son, Jimmy, nearly two decades later, that they decided they had to live their lives fully out.
See photos and read the story about Olney. Listen to the Fiat Vox podcast episode below.
11. Researchers use facial quirks to unmask ‘deepfakes’
A June story told how researchers at Berkeley and the University of Southern California (USC) are racing to develop digital forensics tools that can unmask “deepfakes” — hyper-realistic artificial intelligence-generated videos of people doing or saying things they never did or said. The above video shows two examples of deepfakes — “face swap” and “lip-sync” — which were produced by USC computer scientists for research purposes, and a new technique the team has developed for spotting them.
12. Deportation worries fuel anxiety, poor sleep among U.S.-born Latinx youth
A June study showed that fear of losing loved ones to deportation may be fueling higher levels of anxiety and poorer sleep quality among the U.S.-born teenage children of Mexican and Central American immigrants. The study tracked the mental and physical health of these children in California in the years before and after the 2016 presidential election. It also asked about their sleep quality and their degree of worry about the personal consequences of U.S immigration policies.
13. ‘This base is going to blow sky high.’ Port Chicago, 75 years later
A new collection of eight oral history interviews that recount details of the Port Chicago disaster, a harrowing munitions explosion on July 17, 1944, were digitized and released in July for the first time by the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center to recognize the 75th anniversary of the deadly explosion.
14. $47 million grant to explore how a healthy lifestyle changes the aging brain
Also in July, Berkeley was awarded a five-year grant expected to total $47 million from the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA) to incorporate advanced brain imaging into an Alzheimer’s Association-led study to explore whether lifestyle changes can protect memory in those at risk of developing dementia. The expanded study will be the first large-scale investigation of how lifestyle interventions, which include exercise, diet, cognitive stimulation and health coaching, affect well-known biological markers of Alzheimer’s and dementia in the brain.
15. Berkeley to mark ‘400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Injustice’
In August, Berkeley held a symposium that marked the start of a yearlong initiative, “400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Oppression,” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of enslaved Africans in the English colonies. The event drew hundreds of attendees who heard from more than a dozen historians and social scientists about the impact and legacy of slavery in society today.
16. Campus fills with energy as newest students move in
Some 6,400 first-year students, of which nearly three-quarters were California residents, moved into campus housing in August. The youngest was age 15, and the oldest was 28. About 18% of the students were underrepresented minorities, and 22% had parents without a four-year college or university degree. This year, Berkeley distributed almost $230 million in financial aid to its undergraduate and graduate students, up $35 million compared to last year.
17. Berkeley’s student-led climate strike: ‘Let’s demand climate action’
In September, hundreds of students, staff, faculty and community members packed onto Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, joining millions across the world for a Global Climate Change Strike. The global strike, inspired by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, had a simple and urgent message: “Our house is on fire — let’s act like it.” People of all ages held signs and spoke out, showing their commitment to tackling climate change, an issue that many say is the biggest challenge this generation faces.
18. A genius by design: Berkeley CED professor named MacArthur Fellow
Also in September, Walter Hood, a Berkeley professor of landscape architecture and of environmental planning and urban design, was named a 2019 fellow of the MacArthur Foundation. He was awarded what is known colloquially as a “genius” grant. Hood and 25 other fellows received $625,000 to use in any way they wish. The unrestricted fellowships go to extraordinarily talented and creative recipients as an investment in their potential. Hood was recognized for “creating ecologically sustainable urban spaces that resonate with and enrich the lives of current residents while also honoring communal histories.”
19. UC now holds largest CRISPR-Cas9 patent portfolio
In October, Berkeley’s total CRISPR-Cas9 patent portfolio reached 16, making the largest CRISPR-Cas9 patent portfolio in the country. It has since risen to 18, and the university will receive the 19th patent on Dec. 24 and the 20th and final patent on Dec. 31. The extensive portfolio covers compositions and methods for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology, including targeting and editing genes and modulating transcription in any setting, such as within plant, animal and human cells.
20. California rolls out first statewide earthquake early warning system
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in October the debut of the nation’s first statewide earthquake early warning system that will deliver alerts to people’s cellphones through an app developed at Berkeley. The mobile phone app, MyShake, can provide seconds of warning before the ground starts to shake from a nearby quake — enough time to drop, cover and hold on to prevent injury.
21. How one DACA student found his community — and voice — at Berkeley
In November, UC lawyers appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that the Trump administration acted capriciously and unlawfully when it rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. Ratu Orisi Lalabalavu, a 22-year-old senior double majoring in anthropology and social welfare, is one of hundreds of DACA students on campus — and some 700,000 young immigrants across the country — living in limbo since DACA was rescinded in 2017 under Trump. The Supreme Court is expected to have a decision in spring 2020.
22. Big Game bonfire’s back — healthier, safer and a shining light
It’s been a Berkeley tradition for more than 100 years — the towering Greek Theatre bonfire held the night before the Cal-Stanford Big Game. But bonfires aren’t wise in fire-ravaged California. In November, before Saturday’s 122nd Big Game, the show went on — with an environmental twist. The campus’s Rally Committee, in partnership with local pyrotechnic and design/build experts, engineered a liquid petroleum-based, flame-shooting, multi-tiered aluminum and steel structure. The students named their effort Project Phoenix.
23. Berkeley student throws cold water on ‘monster’ black hole discovery
A December story discussed how Berkeley graduate student astronomer Kareem El-Badry found an error in a report that Chinese astronomers had located an unusual binary star system in which one of the two stars orbiting each other had exploded as a supernova and turned into a black hole that was astoundingly large: 70 times the mass of our sun. “I was suspicious from the beginning,” El-Badry said. “We know of 20 to 30 black holes in binaries, and they are all half as massive, or less than 70 solar masses. It just made me want to read the paper carefully and try to understand what (the researchers) did.” Within 20 minutes of obtaining the Chinese team’s original data, he had confirmed the error.
24. Festive winter commencement puts a focus on justice, public service
In December, 650 graduates and their families and friends filled Haas Pavilion for the 2019 winter commencement ceremony. “Working for lasting social progress takes time,” said keynote speaker Robert D. Haas. “There will be days and months and years when you wonder if it’s even worth it. But if you persevere, stay focused on the result you are trying to achieve, and join with partners who share your belief in the need for change — well, anything is possible.” Graduate Juliet Peña, a media studies and legal studies double major, said her biggest takeaway from Berkeley was to be compassionate with other people. “That’s what I learned the most — to care about communities, how to live with other people,” she said. “And I’m going to take that into the world.”