Feb 29, 2012
Dr. Ronald Busuttil, executive chair of the Department of Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine, spoke with pride about the thousands of life-saving liver transplants performed at UCLA. Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Lecturer Peter Lanfer shared his fascination with little-known characters in the Bible. Small-particles physicist Katsushi Arisaka enthused about his part in an international research effort to find the “God particle” that created the universe.
Throughout the sessions, a special group of about two dozen UCLA students listened raptly, asked questions and contributed to the conversation during this wide-ranging research symposium like no other — designed specifically for students with intellectual disabilities like autism and Down’s syndrome.
They are all participants in Pathway at UCLA Extension, a program that gives them a college-going experience to foster greater independence. The 90-minute symposium, with small groups of students rotating through 10-minute presentations in private study rooms at Charles Young Research Library, was funded by the UCLA Volunteer Center and organized with UCLA’s chapter of Circle of Friends, a student organization that works with people with special needs.
The Feb. 27 symposium — titled “Three Pillars, One University” to reflect its unique take on UCLA’s three-part mission of teaching, research and service — was the brainchild of Matt Rosenstein, a third-year student majoring in religious studies and also taking pre-med courses. A fellow with the Volunteer Center and founder of UCLA’s Circle of Friends, Rosenstein said he was inspired to action as a freshman after hearing a speech by Chancellor Gene Block on UCLA Volunteer Day.
“He spoke about the Volunteer Center’s mission to fulfill the pillar of public service within the context of the university’s larger mission,” recalled Rosenstein. Ever since, he added, “it’s been a dream of mine to have professors volunteer alongside students to share the experience that I am so blessed to have at UCLA.”
Said Busuttil of carving out time out of his busy schedule to participate, “I’m doing this because I think the amazing work we’re doing in transplant surgery at UCLA is something that needs to be shared with young, enthusiastic, energetic, excited people.”
That describes the Pathway students with whom Busuttil shared the adventure of transplant medicine. “Before we started doing transplants, we had to learn how to do them,” he said. “And can you guess how we learned?”
One student correctly guessed that the first transplants were on animals — and specifically on pigs, whose livers most closely resemble those of humans. “Bingo!” Busuttil said, sharing a photo of fat and happy Polly, the pig who received a successful liver transplant at UCLA in 1983.
Landfer, who teaches a class on comparative religions, explained why he accepted Rosenstein’s invitation to give a talk to Pathway students. “I thought it was a neat opportunity,” the lecturer said. “We work with students and give lectures all the time, but being able to reach beyond [traditional] academics to reach students who might not have access to what we do is very rare.”
“Have you heard about Adam and Eve?” Landfer asked his small group. “Or Noah? The guy with the big boat and all the animals?” His questions drew pleased nods of recognition.
Landfer went on to discuss the lesser-known Enoch, whom the Bible says lived to the age of 365. That number, one student discerned, is equal to the number of days in a year, leading Landfer to talk about the ancient Egyptians’ 365-day solar calendar.
Physicist Arisaka wowed students with Hubble telescope images of massive galaxies sparkling with billions of shimmering stars. “The universe is growing, expanding at the speed of light,” he said, stretching his arms wide in illustration. He described his work with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a collaboration of 2,000 researchers who are using a massive super-collider in Geneva, Switzerland, to re-create the Big Bang that occurred 14 billion years ago.
The research, Arisaka explained, hopes to answer questions like “Why are we here?” and “How was something created from nothing?”
Also volunteering to teach at the symposium were Assistant Adjunct Professor David Weisbart, a mathematician who focuses on quantum theory, geometry and functional analysis; Dr. Isaac Yang, a professor of neurosurgery and principal investigator at the UCLA Brain Tumor Program; and Ann Kerr, coordinator of the Fulbright Scholar Program at the International Institute. She brought along two graduate students who shared their experiences as international students.
Alexandra, a Pathway student, felt thrilled to be hearing from such experts. “I felt inspired for learning, even when it wasn’t a profession that I would want to study,” she said. “It’s just exciting to learn” — an experience, she added, that she rarely had in middle or high school.
“It’s so hard to learn,” she said. “But this was fun.”