2019 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni

2019 Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Steve Benz, Elaine Gan, Les Guliasi, Laura Helmuth, and Jason Merchant

The Division of Graduate Studies and the five academic divisions—Arts, Engineering, Humanities, Physical and Biological Sciences, and Social Sciences—present the 2019 class of graduate student alumni honorees. Watch the event on the UC Santa Cruz Division of Graduate Studies YouTube channel.


steve-benz-3.jpgSteve Benz
Ph.D. Biomolecular Engineering and Bioinformatics 2012
M.S. Biomolecular Engineering and Bioinformatics 2010
Jack Baskin School of Engineering

President, Genomics

Steve Benz has worked in the field of bioinformatics for over 15 years, having completed his degree at UC Santa Cruz under Dr. David Haussler and where he was one of the lead developers on the UCSC Cancer Genomics Browser and co-developer of the pathway inference algorithm PARADIGM.

Benz co-founded the genomic oncology company Five3 Genomics in 2010 during his graduate studies and in 2014 sold it to NantOmics, where he currently serves as president of the genomics group. Prior to UCSC, he was a developer at a Boston-based web software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, where he was key in helping launch the company’s first direct-to-consumer offering.

Benz completed his B.S. degree in computer science, with minors in chemistry, biology, and music theory, at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. During his time at Wheaton, he was lead developer on a number of research genomics projects, including web software that enabled researchers to find complex DNA motifs in a variety of bacterial genomes. He served research internships at both UC San Francisco, assisting with some of the first microarray analysis done in the laboratory of Dr. Joe Gray, and at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, where he modernized the microarray analysis pipeline used by the Genomics Core, led by Dr. Simon Melov.

Benz has co-authored over 30 peer-reviewed publications and is a named inventor on over 30 patents. He lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, Danielle, and son, Elliot.

elaine-gan-150x191.jpgElaine Gan
Ph.D. Film and Digital Media 2016
M.F.A. Digital Arts and New Media 2011
Arts Division

Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow
Center for Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement
New York University

As assistant professor and faculty fellow at Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement at New York University, Graduate School of Arts and Science, Elaine Gan co-leads two new initiatives at NYU: Multi-Species Worldbuilding Lab (with NYU Office of Sustainability), launched in February to develop media projects about climate change, and Radical Ecologies Lab or RADlab (with NYU Center for the Humanities), launching this fall to develop graduate and undergraduate curriculum on interdisciplinary approaches to power and ecology.

Since receiving her Ph.D. in 2016, Gan has been the art director and a postdoctoral scholar for Aarhus University (Denmark) Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) (2016-2017), the Mellon Postdoctoral Scholar in Digital Humanities at the University of Southern California, and visiting researcher at the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA (2017-2018). She is co-editor of the anthology Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) and co-curator of the art and science exhibition DUMP! Multispecies Making and Unmaking (Kunsthal Aarhus, 2015).

Gan’s scholarly work has been published in journals that include Environmental Philosophy, Journal of Ethnobiology, New Formations, and Third Text. She has presented at Goldsmiths University of London, University of Chicago, UC San Diego, KTH Stockholm, Society for Artistic Research, and HKW Berlin, among others. Her artistic work has been exhibited in international art venues and has been awarded fellowships by the New York Foundation for the Arts, AURA, the Jerome Foundation, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC).

les-guliasi-150x196.jpgLes Guliasi
Ph.D. Sociology 2018
M.A. Sociology 1977
Social Sciences Division

Power Association of Northern California

Les Guliasi is an independent energy consultant and scholar. Following a lengthy career as an executive at Pacific Gas & Electric Company in San Francisco, Guliasi worked for Reliant/RRI Energy (now NRG Energy), and served as a senior consultant with Booz|Allen|Hamilton, focusing on developing renewable energy projects on government installations for the U.S. Department of Defense. He is currently affiliated with Trans Bay Cable, LLC, and SteelRiver Infrastructure Partners, where he is responsible for governmental and regulatory affairs and business development.

Guliasi has worked with government agencies, independent energy producers, and infrastructure asset owners in resource and strategic planning, business and renewable energy project development, generation and transmission project permitting and development, governmental and regulatory affairs, and energy and environmental policy planning and strategy. He has testified as an expert witness on policy matters before state regulatory commissions and the California legislature, and he has been an invited speaker at numerous industry forums and educational institutions on a wide range of energy policy topics.

Guliasi received a B.A. degree from UCLA, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from UC Santa Cruz. He is currently a fellow of the National Regulatory Research Institute (NRRI), an affiliate of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). He has recently completed a book-length monograph on energy policy, titled The Evolution of the Regulatory State: Energy Policy and Regulatory Reform in California. The manuscript is currently under consideration for publication by the University of California Press.

Guliasi has served as a board member of various energy, environmental, and nonprofit community-based organizations. He is currently involved in energy project development and active in California energy and environmental policy. He is president of the Power Association of Northern California.

laura-helmuth.jpgLaura Helmuth
Graduate Certificate, Science Communication 1998
Physical and Biological Sciences Division

Health, Science and Environment Editor
The Washington Post

As the Health, Science, and Environment Editor for The Washington Post, Dr. Laura Helmuth manages a team of a dozen reporters and three editors who cover all fields of research, science funding, health policy, and related subjects. She has been an editor for National Geographic, Slate, Smithsonian, and Science magazines, and a freelance writer or editor for the New York Times, Nautilus, National Wildlife, Stanford Medicine and other publications.

Helmuth was president of the National Association of Science Writers from 2016 to 2018 and currently serves on the advisory boards of High Country News, Spectrum, the Geological Society of Washington, the Society for Science and the Public, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SciLine service that connects scientists and journalists. She is a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s standing committee on advancing science communication research and practice.

Helmuth has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from UC Berkeley and started her science writing career at the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. She returns to UCSC regularly to guest lecture in the science writing program and mentor students.

Jason MerchantJason Merchant
Ph.D. Linguistics 1999
Humanities Division

Vice Provost for Academic and Graduate Affairs
Lorna Puttkammer Straus Professor in Linguistics
University of Chicago, Department of Linguistics and Humanities Collegiate Division

As vice provost for Academic and Graduate Affairs and the Lorna Puttkammer Straus Professor in Linguistics at the University of Chicago, Jason Merchant oversees all academic appointments and sets and implements policy for Ph.D. and postdoctoral programs.

Merchant primarily researches formal syntax. He has published and edited books and articles on grammatical theory, analyzing language structures in more than two dozen languages, with special emphasis on modern Greek, and on formal semantics, morphology, and phonology. He has also done experimental syntax, fieldwork in the Balkans, work on historical semantics and legal interpretation, and work on bilingual children’s language competency. He has served as associate editor for Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America, and for Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals and book series.

Merchant earned his B.A. in linguistics summa cum laude from Yale in 1991. He has been a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst fellow at the University of Tübingen, a Fulbright fellow at Utrecht University, and an Onassis fellow at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He held postdoctoral fellowships at Northwestern University and the University of Groningen before joining the faculty of the University of Chicago in 2001. He has taught at the École Normale Supérieure, Leiden University, University College London, and Konkuk University, Seoul. He has studied nineteen languages.

Merchant has had several academic leadership roles at the University of Chicago, including director of undergraduate studies in linguistics, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, interim chair of the Department of Linguistics, and deputy dean of the Humanities Division. He has also served on the College Council and board of the Graham School. He developed the Humanities core course Language and the Human, served as president of the University of Chicago’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and is a recipient of the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. He volunteers at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, teaching modern Greek to adults and children, including his own.