Onscreen, Milana Vayntrub plays an unconventional superhero. As Squirrel Girl in Marvel’s “New Warriors” television series (anticipated to debut this year) she eats nuts, kicks butts and possesses all the powers of a squirrel, which she uses to save the world from villains including Doctor Doom and Galactus.
In real life, Vayntrub, who graduated from UC San Diego in 2008 with a degree in communication, is a hero of another sort. While on vacation in Greece, she found an unexpected calling to aid Syrian refugees and captured the experience through a DIY documentary, “Can’t Do Nothing.” Today, her grassroots organization, #CantDoNothing, spreads awareness of the global refugee crisis and calls for others to get involved with issues that are important to them.
Vayntrub is among a nontraditional class of heroes being celebrated at UC San Diego Alumni’s 40 Under 40 awards. The awards honor a group of rising stars across science, technology, medicine, arts, education and social justice who are disrupting the status quo to help build a better world.
“UC San Diego is an extraordinary university built on a foundation of challenging convention, pushing boundaries and expectations, and producing breakthrough work for the greater good,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “I’m enormously proud to recognize alumni who embody our spirit of nontradition by making meaningful, remarkable contributions to our campus and well beyond.”
You might say alumnus Daniel Caspi’s super power is an exceptional grasp of organic chemistry and a penchant for solving complex technical problems. Shortly after earning his Ph.D. from Caltech, the 2002 UC San Diego graduate joined Abbott (now AbbVie), where he served on the team that developed a cure for Hepatitis C. His name is on the patent for the drug, ABT-267 (now, Viekira Pak™), which was one of the first to offer patients a treatment that would cure the disease, and better yet, without harsh side effects.
Combining his experience in drug development with his longstanding skills in IT and computer programming, Caspi then started his own company, Element TwentySix. The firm specializes in niche Mac app development and in building custom IT solutions for business processes and automation. Element TwentySix’s client list now spans the globe from Silicon Valley, to Nigeria, and includes several Fortune 500 companies.
Caspi is also passionate about engaging students in chemistry. He led the technical development of BACON, an online tutorial that uses real-world examples from medicine and pop culture to illustrate organic chemistry concepts.
“Most college students don’t receive much exposure to what organic chemistry can be in real life,” Caspi told Oy! Chicago. “I’ve had the privilege of working on a cure for a disease, manufacturing it and seeing it all the way to the point that is actually saving lives.”
Alumna Alicia Garza is a hero saving lives in another way. Not long after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter spread across social media and ignited public discourse and activism around police violence. The hashtag—which has since evolved into a national organization, Black Lives Matter Global Network—was created by three black women, including Garza. As co-founder, Garza is committed to translating the online energy of the movement into real-world action that will lead to systemic change.
It’s not the first time Garza has been a force for justice and equality. Since graduating from UC San Diego in 2002 with degrees in anthropology and sociology, she has advocated around issues of health, student rights, anti-racism and violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people of color. She currently serves as special projects director in the Oakland office of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which represents 20,000 caregivers and housekeepers and lobbies for labor legislation on their behalf.
“I worked with Alicia when she was a student and worked to bring the first women of color conference to UC San Diego,” said Edwina Welch, campus diversity officer and director of the Cross-Cultural Center at UC San Diego. “Alicia has always been interested in the power of working in a coalition to make systemic change.”
In Paul Martini’s superhero story, cyber attackers are the No. 1 villain. Martini is the CEO and co-founder of iboss, a cloud-based cybersecurity company and the leading provider of web gateway as a service. Headquartered in Boston, the company builds and markets hardware and cloud-based technology to enhance network security against cyberattacks.
The 2001 computer science and engineering graduate started the company, along with his brother Peter, in 2003. Within a decade, iboss had amassed scores of patents. They also saw opportunity in the rapidly growing popularity of mobile devices and cloud applications, and created a revolutionary approach to solving the problems these new distributed technologies presented. Today, through its novel Distributed Gateway Platform, iboss protects over 4,000 organizations worldwide, making it one of the fastest growing cybersecurity companies in the world.
Martini credits the collaborative atmosphere he experienced as an undergraduate at the Jacobs School of Engineering with helping to shape iboss. The company, which also has a location in San Diego, continues to maintain close ties to the campus.
“Look at the way UC San Diego is such a research-oriented university,” Martini told Triton magazine. “It’s teaching how to be more progressive in the way [students] think about solving a problem. In our space, dealing with cyber warfare, you’re basically a researcher every single day.”
This article was originally published on UC San Diego News Center.