Angela Belcher (8/50)
CCS was honored to showcase 50 individuals and activities during our 50th Anniversary in 2017-2018 to share our rich history. Take a look at the amazing people responsible for making our unconventional College possible!
Earlier this year, CCS alumna and MacArthur fellow Angela Belcher (Biology ‘91) returned to CCS under The Transdisciplinary Fund to have a conversation with CCS students. Belcher talked about a range of topics, including how the College impacted her PhD and career. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
CCS: How has CCS impacted your life?
Angie Belcher: I would say the best career decision I ever made was Creative Studies. It has meant so much to me in terms of how I think about science and think about the world, and my career, in general.
If you ask me what I think [is] the single most important part of my success, I’ll say College of Creative Studies, and the reason is because it taught me very early on that you have the power to set your own way of thinking, that there are no boundaries between disciplines, and that you can have a really, really positive relationship with your professors and your mentors where you’re treated more as a person and colleague. I give at least one talk a week at a university or someplace, and they always introduce me and say, “She has a degree from the College of Creative Studies, and now you’ll see why when she starts to speak.” I’ve always been so proud of that, because it’s always an interesting talking point. The audience goes “Wow, what’s Creative Studies? How did you do it?” I always tell the story of having the ability to write my own education and figure out what I think is the most important thing for my learning and my life—that’s been really important for me.
If you ask me what I think [is] the single most important part of my success, I’ll say College of Creative Studies.
CCS: Why did you choose to come to CCS? How did you find out about the College?
AB: I heard about this idea of being able to “design your own major” and this sounded really good to me because I don’t like to follow rules. So fewer rules was an attraction. Part of it was through field research out on Santa Cruz Island where I met Adrian Wenner, the CCS Provost at the time, and he said, “Sure, you can come here.” And he had me transferred to UCSB. And the rest is history. I guess he kind of saved my life by inviting me to CCS.
CCS: What was your favorite aspect of CCS?
AB: I was a student in biology, and I was really interested in the origin of life since about middle school, how you got from […] small molecules to cells in humans. And there’s not really a major for that, and so I was excited to be in the College of Creative Studies where I could do chemistry and biology and extra physics. I was also interested in studying geology, and I was really interested in getting to understand those ideas.
And the thing that I loved the most at CCS was I took graduate-level biochemistry. I was the first undergraduate to ever take the class. They said, “You can’t take this class. You don’t have any of the prerequisites.” The professor called the provost and he said, “Yes, she can.” I sat in the front row and taped the lectures. It was so hard, having not had undergraduate thermodynamics yet. It changed—it really changed—my life, because it was in that class that I fell in love with molecules. I really fell in love with large molecules, and thought this is what I really want to do. I want to study molecules. And what the interfaces of those molecules look like, with maybe the rocks and formations, things that led to the beginning of life. I took the advantage of working in biology, physics, chemistry, and ecology labs here and during my fifth year my advisor said, “You know, there comes a time when every mommy bird has to kick a baby bird out of the nest, and your time has come.” So they made me graduate. I even said, “Well, this is the best job I’ve ever had.” And he said, “It’s not a job you know–this is school!”
CCS: Where and what did you study as a graduate student? How did your CCS education help you excel as a graduate student?
AB: Because I’d already taken so many graduate courses in biochemistry and molecular biology—mostly molecular biology—I decided to do something really different in graduate school. I applied to the Chemistry Department here at UCSB, and I decided to do inorganic chemistry, which I knew nothing about. When I came in you had to take a placement exam to see how much you knew, and I scored the lowest score ever to be scored on the placement exam. I knew nothing. I even had someone say, ‘What makes you think you can be an inorganic chemist?’ And I thought, ‘You know, how hard can being an inorganic chemist, be? You just have to learn it.’ I was really lucky, because I worked between Galen Stucky in Chemistry and Dan Morse, who’s now emeritus in MCD Biology.
My PhD work is my connection to the origin of life and the love of molecules. You have probably seen the red abalone that comes right from the coast. Its shell is mostly inorganic material. It’s basically made out of calcium carbonate, but it’s 2% by mass organic, 2% by mass protein, yet it’s 3,000 times tougher than its geologic counterpart. The organisms make these beautiful nanomaterials that are encoded by their DNA, and they make these exquisite structures. I spent my PhD trying to understand how these structures were made. But wait—what does that have to do with the origin of life?
Well, it was about 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian geologic time period, the explosion of life, that organisms started making hard materials. For billions of years before that, things were soft and squishy. Photosynthesis and other complex systems evolved, but organisms couldn’t make calcium carbonate—something hard. Well, the reason they started learning to make calcium carbonate is the ocean changed. There’s increased calcium, iron, and silicon in the environment, and organisms adapted to it. They took proteins they already had, and they started pushing them outwards and grabbing onto these toxic ions, like iron and silicon and calcium, and they started building structures. They repurposed these proteins, to build structures. And then, from there, we had teeth, and we had bones, and glassy silica-based structures. I wanted to figure out how to use proteins to make better, smarter products, like batteries and semiconductors.
So that was my PhD, which was an absolute blast. I went from Creative Studies to biology to chemistry, and I said, “Oh, electrical engineering, I haven’t been there.” I went and did my postdoc in electrical engineering. I worked with a really great professor, Evelyn Hu, who is now at Harvard.
CCS: What advice would you give to current CCS students?
AB: You can learn what you need to learn. Go learn it.
I’d built the first virus-based battery, I went in to meet with a bunch of electrochemists, and I was the only woman, and I was in this big boardroom, and I was surrounded by these electrochemists, and they were all yelling at me, and telling me you could not use biology to build a battery. And I was like, “Well, did you see my Science paper?” The biggest challenge is changing the way people think about something. And that’s what I think, when I say that Creative Studies was one of the most valuable experiences I had, it’s because we do not put limitations on what we think you can do. You want to take this class? Why not try taking this class? You think this class is important? Why not try it? And you may fail, but we’re not going to penalize you for doing it. I mean, to me, that trained the way that I approached my science and the world. I can try it, and it’s not going to be the end of the world if it doesn’t work, and I’m going to learn something interesting along the way.
I was naïve, and I didn’t expect pushback. That’s one thing I’d like to tell students—that you’re in a really special circumstance here [in CCS at UCSB]. Everyone is supportive, and it’s not always going to be the case once you leave. Or even in another department. You may get a little more pushback outside of Creative Studies, or later on. But that doesn’t mean that it changes the way that you look at the world... For example, the technology we built to image cancer cells deep inside the body was based on technology we built for solar cells, and we learned some interesting things about solar cells, and said, “Well, let’s apply this to cancer imaging.” And, to me, it’s a normal step because I’m a materials scientist, so everything’s a material—everything has a material solution. Cancer cells and solar cells don’t look that different to me from the materials perspective. People gave me a really hard time at first, saying “You don’t work on cancer.” Again, I just say, “I know, but I can learn. You know, I know I can learn it.” That’s CCS.
CCS: Anything else you would like to say about CCS?
AB: The thing that I take away most from my Creative Studies time is all the research experience that I had. I didn’t specialize. I got as many different experiences that I could have. And the other thing that I take away that was very, very valuable, the most empowering thing was of someone saying that I was in charge of what I thought was most important about my education. Take advantage of that, and embrace that spirit!