UCSC | April 18, 2019 | Matthew Renda

UC Santa Cruz will recognize five graduate school alumni who are making outsize contributions to the world in increasingly multifaceted ways.

The five recipients of the 2019 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award exemplify the diverse ways in which the former graduate students have translated their scholarship into an appreciable impact in various fields.

UC Santa Cruz graduate student alumni are providing insights into the future of renewable energy, advancing the territory of linguistic theory, producing incisive and important journalism, crafting significant and provocative artistic productions, developing technology to cure cancer, and much more.

The five recipients are set to be honored as part of Alumni Weekend, April 26–28. Awards will be conferred during a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 27, at the Stevenson Event Center to be followed immediately by the Career Paths Panel, where honorees are slated to discuss how their studies at UC Santa Cruz informed their flourishing careers.

The five graduate alumni honorees and the graduate divisions they represent include the following:

Steve Benz, president, Genomics division of NantOmics

Most of the awardees recognized this year took the knowledge and skills accrued during their graduate studies and translated them into successful careers. For Steve Benz, it was a bit different as he began his career while still enrolled at UC Santa Cruz.

Benz graduated with a M.S. in biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics in 2010 before earning a Ph.D. in the same discipline in 2012. It was during those years he and two of his fellow students in the program (Zack Sanborn, Ph.D. 2012, and Charlie Vaske, Ph.D. 2009) developed the ideas and technology that became the foundation of Five3 Genomics—a company on the bleeding edge of cancer diagnosis.

“We were talking with our advisor about our projects and he said, ‘Hey look, what you have here is pretty good,’” Benz said. “Our ideas were so unique at the time our advisor thought they were worthy of getting patents.”

The technology in question involved extracting normal and cancer cells from a cancer patient and comparing the results to determine what was driving the patient’s tumor.

“It was the first ever tumor versus normal sequence comparison,” Benz said. Along with that technology, Benz and his partners developed a pathway algorithm capable of mapping the interaction of genes within tumors. They created a company and sought funding to help bring their technology to market.

While still being refined, the product is already helping oncologists personalize treatments for cancer patients by identifying which specific genes are affected by a given cancer thereby determining which drugs are best aligned to help attack the disease.

Three years after graduating, Benz and the team sold Five3 Genomics to NantOmics where he continues to serve as president of the genomics division.

“None of this would have happened without the guidance and advice of Professor David Haussler and the rest of the team at UCSC,” Benz said. “They’re the ones who gave us the right direction, kicked us out of the nest and said, ‘You have the technology that can change the world, so go change the world.’”

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