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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Outstanding Young Alumni Awardees

Bun-Ching Lam, Ph.D. ’81
Outstanding Alumna

Fusion Music to our Ears. Bun-Ching Lam’s music inspires audiences around the world. Her orchestral compositions have been performed by, among others, the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, and the National Youth Orchestra of Holland.

Born in the Macao region of China, Lam accepted a scholarship to the doctoral program in the UCSD Music Department where she says faculty mentors like Roger Reynolds and Pauline Olveros steered her into composing. “Before I went to UCSD, I was a pianist who wrote little things here and there,” she says.  “If not for UCSD, I wouldn’t have become a composer.”

Lam’s astonishing body of opera, instrumental, and choral work has won acclaim for fusing Eastern and Western elements.  She was recently appointed to serve as the resident composer of the Macao Orchestra in China and, in October 2009, Heidelberg University, Germany, presented a retrospective of her chamber music. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, National Endowment of the Arts funding, and countless international prizes and commissions. But her most treasured experience, she says, was her “Four Songs” poems-and-music collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett. “My only regret,” she says, “is that I didn’t ask him out to lunch.”     

Sam Popkin, professor, political science
Distinguished Teaching Award

Pollster Professor. Sam Popkin is a nationally known political analyst, public opinion expert, and a prolific author known for his work on peasant societies in Southeast Asia.

An adviser to five presidential campaigns, his experiences have ranged from polling and strategy for the Clinton campaign, to playing Ronald Reagan during debate rehearsals for President Carter. From 1983 to 1990, he consulted with CBS News election units on surveys and analysis and has been a consultant to political parties in Canada and Europe.

Popkin has inspired legions of students at UCSD. “My students have applied what they learned from me in their professional work in government,” he says, “and also in navigating the political process. I’m really proud of that.”

Popkin strongly believes teaching goes hand in hand with research and public service. “Teaching has value for research,” he says. “People who learn to explain their research do better work than isolated researchers in think tanks.”

Popkin is a favorite speaker at the Alumni Association’s UCSD Near You events, where “Sam’s name on the invitation guarantees a standing-room-only crowd,” says Dean of Social Sciences Jeffrey Elman. “As I watch our former students interact with Sam, it is obvious that they have tremendous affection and respect for him.”

LaVerne Ragster, Ph.D. ’80
Professional Achievement Award

Caribbean Conservationist. LaVerne Ragster is a conservationist, research scientist, and education administrator, who has transformed not only the Caribbean region, but has earned national and worldwide respect from leading climate change scientists and environmental leaders. Growing up in the Virgin Isles, she says that she learned the value of infrastructure resilience from her civil engineer father, and natural resource stewardship from her biologist mother.

“They both approached life from a scientific perspective,” Ragster recalls.  “Science is a way to prepare for life.”

Ragster did her Ph.D. in biology at UC San Diego, concen­trating on plant biochemistry. “We learned how to function independently, and we also learned how to work with a team,” she says. “Those qualities have served me well ever since.”

The immediate past president of the University of the Virgin Islands, Ragster has pioneered sustainable development, and her work with Caribbean universities and non-governmental organizations has intensified interest in natural resource

In the wake of Haiti’s earthquake devastation, Ragster wants a greater emphasis on natural hazard management. “This is an opportunity for the people of the Caribbean to focus more on ways to deal with natural hazards, which are absolutely a part of the way we live,” she says.

Thom Sherman, Warren ’88
Distinguished Service Award

Show Time. Thom Sherman’s talent for the dramatic arts took root when he studied acting at UCSD, performing in campus productions such as Hamlet and Volpone. He moved to Los Angeles after graduation and, after a few years as a struggling actor, ran into a UCSD friend, Helen Douglass, Marshall ’87, who urged him to apply for production jobs. 

He started on the bottom rung of the producing ladder, delivering scripts, but has since put his talents to work creating a string of hit television series. “I realized there are a lot of people in this business who make a nice living doing things other than acting,” he says. Sherman had already amassed a stellar track record at ABC with hits like Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey’s Anatomy, when CBS and Time Warner hired him to be one of the team that launched The CW in 2006.

“If I develop shows that become successful on The CW,” he said at the time, “I will be part of a team that created something out of nothing, and that’s exciting.” Now, as executive vice president for drama development at the network, Sherman has been the prime mover behind such popular programs as Gossip Girl and America’s Next Top Model.

He has also helped launch the new UCSD Alumni Entertainment Alliance, a support and networking group for young alumni in entertainment.