Brilliant Minds, Inspiring Lives

On the evening of June 4th, five distinguished members of the Triton family will be recognized at the 38th annual Alumni Celebration, recognizing outstanding Tritons who have brought honor and distinction to UC San Diego through their leadership, professional accomplishments and personal achievements.

“Our award recipients showcase the brilliance and far-reaching impact of a UC San Diego education,” says Steph Barry, assistant vice chancellor of Alumni and Community Engagement. “By honoring these individuals, we also celebrate the achievements of the entire Triton Family—a community of thought-leaders, game-changers, and dream-makers around the world.”

To attend the celebration or learn more, visit

Emerging Leaders

ASHLEY VAN ZEELAND, M.B.A. ’12, stands at the precipice of a medical revolution. As the cofounder and CEO of Cypher Genomics, a company at the forefront of genomic interpretation, she’s a major player in shaping the future of healthcare.

While working with Scripps Translational Science Institute on genetic medicine research, Van Zeeland became intrigued by the prospect of whole-genome analysis. This drive would lead to the genesis of Cypher Genomics, which benefitted greatly from her M.B.A. education at the Rady School of Management.

“[UC San Diego] gave me all the tools I needed to be able to still be a scientist and understand scientific aims and problems and technologies, but also understand the viewpoints of how to solve problems from more of a business perspective,” she says.

Cypher Genomics’ first patient was Lilly Grossman, who had lived her entire life with an idiopathic human disease—a hard-to-diagnose affliction that is unresponsive to standard treatment. Lilly bounced from specialist to specialist before Cypher Genomics’ method of genome sequencing uncovered a key mutation in Lilly’s DNA. Correctly identified, her disease was then targeted, and where doctors said she would likely only live to 20, the soon-to-be college freshman now has a full life expectancy.

Cypher Genomics was recently acquired by Human Longevity Inc., led by another Triton pioneer in genomics, J. Craig Venter, Muir ’72, Ph.D. ’75. Today, Van Zeeland is the company’s chief technology officer, helping build the world’s largest database of genomic data to transform medicine and improve the quality of life the world over.


DAVID PETERSON, M.A. ’05, is a master of languages—he has learned nearly 20, can speak a bit of eight, and has created 40. A luminary in the constructed language (or “conlang”) community, Peterson is technically-minded with a literary streak and a highly sought-after creative spark.

While earning his master’s degree in linguistics at UC San Diego, Peterson took what was once a small hobby and developed it into a full-time career. Scribbling in his notebooks, Peterson’s first attempt at conlang was “Megdevi,” which Peterson describes as little more than “a fancy, bizarre way to speak English.” From then on, Peterson dove into more complex worlds of fictional languages—far from English,
yet mirroring idiosyncrasies of natural languages for much more realistic results.

According to Peterson, creating language is strikingly similar to programming, puzzle-making or problem-solving, and combines a respect for grammar and a keen sense of aesthetics. Peterson is best known for creating the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, but has also created languages for other television series and feature films.

Additionally, Peterson served as a cofounder and original board member of the Language Creation Society, also serving as its president from 2011 to 2014. Peterson has authored two books, including the best-selling Art of Language Invention (2015), which landed him beside Trevor Noah on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and is packed with early linguistic insights gleaned from his days at UC San Diego.


Distinguished Alumni

As the U.S. Navy’s Oceanographer, Rear Admiral TIM GALLAUDET, M.S. ’91, Ph.D. ’01, leads the world’s most powerful military in addressing one the most critical issues of our time: climate change. With an exemplary career of science meeting service, Gallaudet applies the keen scientific understanding he developed at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego (SIO) to make the U.S. Navy a force for global impact.

The Navy has always been a constant in Gallaudet’s life. The son of a naval intelligence officer, Gallaudet studied oceanography at the U.S. Naval Academy and subsequently served as an officer in several afloat tours while earning master’s and Ph.D. degrees from SIO in 1991 and 2001, respectively. Gallaudet rose through the ranks and in 2009 was named the deputy director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, during which his leadership brought the Navy to the fore of our world’s climate change reality.

Gallaudet’s professionalism, loyalty and excellence earned him several decorations and awards, from his 2003 Commander, Naval Air Forces Leadership Award to his instrumental role in creating a strong partnership between Naval Oceanography and Naval Special Forces (SEALs). Currently, Gallaudet heads the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command in conjunction with his roles as the senior oceanographer and navigator of the Navy. Within these posts, Gallaudet is a key advisor to the chief of naval operations and a senior leader in an array of issues ranging from national ocean policy to meteorology and climate change.

As Gallaudet continues to apply his oceanographic experience and scientific understanding to making the Navy a force for global change, he credits Scripps as the place where he learned to think critically. “I learned not only how to address complex problems, understand them and develop solutions, but also how to communicate the method, strategy and results effectively. That’s something I use on a daily basis. You have to take all your hard, complex science and communicate what you learned and why it matters. I regularly use all that I learned during my dissertation defense, just on a higher level.”


Picture BRUCE BEUTLER, REVELLE ’76, esteemed immunologist and geneticist, awake at 2:30 in the morning Googling his name. It may seem strange for a researcher at the top of his field, but if you’d just received an email congratulating you on winning the Nobel Prize, you might find yourself double-checking as well.

For Beutler, the award was no hoax but a duly deserved honor of a lifetime pursuing breakthroughs that could advance the human condition. Along with colleague Jules Hoffman, Beutler received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.

Now a leading immunologist, geneticist, professor and director of the Center for Genetics of Host Defense at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Beutler fondly remembers his early days of UC San Diego. “There was a lot of pride in the potential of the place. There was a sort of spirit of taking risks and doing things that were cool and new.”

That sense of incredible potential drove him to work harder and finish school quickly so he could dive into his career. Not only did Beutler enroll at UC San Diego at the age of 16, he earned his degree at an accelerated pace. “I could see that the world was going to change a lot because of genetics and molecular biology, and I wanted to be a part of that.” Beutler even recalls telling a friend at the time, “the train of science is leaving without me.”

That early worry becomes especially ironic considering how far Beutler has come. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he is also a winner of the Shaw Prize and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine.

When asked about his renowned work ethic and acute focus on his chosen topic, Beutler says, “If we hadn’t been focused and committed to one problem, we probably wouldn’t have gotten there. We’re all out to make really important discoveries, not incremental ones in the end.”

And it’s those big discoveries that keep Beutler going every day. “The real joy is the intellectual reward of finding something new and then really understanding it.”


San Diego City Council President SHERRI LIGHTNER, REVELLE ’72, M.S. ’78, a licensed mechanical engineer turned public official, believes that you sometimes need to break things to make them better. “If you don’t break something, you don’t know if you have an optimized design,” says Lightner. “I’m an engineer. We make things work, we solve problems.”

Seamlessly combining her engineering background with public service, Lightner has also broken barriers. Representing District One, she is the first female engineer to serve on the San Diego City Council, as well as the first female Council President. A leader in civic engagement, Lightner has served on multiple community planning organizations and committees. She was the first official to develop a comprehensive water policy in order to provide San Diego with an affordable and sustainable water supply. She led the effort to establish the Economic Development Committee in 2011, then served as Chair for over 4 years.

Lightner hadn’t always imagined that her career would lead her to City Council and the opportunity to be impactful and affect such profound change. What started with a simple passion for community service—beginning with the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and La Jolla Shores Association—would later evolve into a much grander ambition of addressing the city’s most pressing concerns.

“It was serving in the community that led me to believe that there were better ways that the City could deliver to its citizens, and to actually bring the neighborhoods to City Hall,” says Lightner. As Council President, a position she has held since 2014, her priorities include economic development, expansion of the tech, cybertech and blue tech industries in San Diego, water policy, promotion of STEM education, as well as closing the job skills gap and updating the City’s charter.

Despite everything that is on her plate, Lightner remains tirelessly dedicated to improving her community, a job that she notes cannot be completed without the technical and analytical background skills gained at UC San Diego. She additionally credits her alma mater for contributing to the lasting values that guide her every day, especially the importance of confidence and accountability. “UC San Diego taught you to be fearless,” adds Lightner. “You learned to stand up and account for yourself, and stand up for other folks as well.”

Now in her final year serving on the San Diego City Council, Lightner is focusing on finishing what she started eight years ago. “I want to be known as a council member who truly represented my community,” she says. ”If you don’t ask for something, the answer is always no. That’s why I’m continually asking for what I think our residents and communities deserve.”