Life at & around UCLA

Undergraduate research at UCLA (Apr 2018 post)

posted May 1, 2018, 9:59 AM by TIMOTHY FISHER   [ updated May 1, 2018, 4:48 PM ]

A big change in university research over the past few decades has been the growth of undergraduate research. Historically, engineering undergraduates' time was consumed with a heavy course load of required classes with intense homework (and occasionally laboratory) exercises during the academic year, and most students went home for the summer, usually hoping to find work in a pre-engineering function with a local company. In the late 1980s, the US National Science Foundation started its "Research Experiences for Undergraduates" (REU) program, which has now proliferated across the country. I was fortunate to participate in one of the early REU sites at the Cornell Theory Center in the summer of 1989, and it gave me invaluable insights into academic research, ultimately leading to my decision to pursue graduate studies and a faculty career. Today, the NSF REU program has scores of formal "REU Sites" that seek to provide (mostly) summer research opportunities for students across the country. Here at UCLA, we have four REU Sites -- in math, physics, nano chemistry, and wireless technology. 

In my faculty career, summer undergraduate research has led to some of our lab's most prolific researchers. For example, current PhD student Yuan Hu started as an undergraduate researcher in a joint BS-MS program between Purdue and Shanghai Jiaotong University. Other alumni from our undergraduate researchers include:

At UCLA, the process for finding a project that matches student interest has been made much easier with the development of the centralized Undergraduate Research Portal. Here, students can find dozens of open research project descriptions for both the summer and academic year. My group is starting to populate the portal with new topics that will also be highlighted on this web site -- watch for them if you are interested!

Volunteerism on LA's Westside (Feb 2018 post)

posted Feb 18, 2018, 10:29 PM by Tim Fisher   [ updated Feb 20, 2018, 6:00 PM ]

This bi-monthly entry focuses on the many opportunities for volunteerism at and around UCLA. One of the most significant changes in moving from a rural university town to an urban area is the increased awareness of the needs, struggles, and aspirations of people in the community. A substantial reason for this change in perception is simply the difference in population density -- similar needs exist everywhere. I encourage all my students to strongly consider spending some of their time in volunteer work, and fortunately, UCLA offers a well organized Volunteer Center to help people plug in to such activities. Here, you can find a plethora of opportunities to serve, ranging from projects at local schools to support of at-risk youth.

Typically a prospective volunteer will first think about needs -- as well they should. But in addition, my experience suggests that a good match between community needs and a person's skills (sometimes called 'gifts') is also very important. For example, if you speak a foreign language, perhaps a need exists to teach English to those who only know that foreign language. In my case, I've spent countless hours volunteering with sports at many levels -- e.g., I was the volunteer Assistant Assistant Baseball Coach at Cornell while I was pursuing my PhD (note: my advisor was overly kind to let me do so). Since then, I've coached youth baseball with my own children and also without them, just because I enjoy it so much. Here in LA, I'm expecting to volunteer with youth baseball in a nearby community. 

Another strong need exists for experienced mentors of undergraduates in extra-curricular activities. Many student clubs and organizations benefit greatly from experienced advisors. A significant but perhaps non-obvious example involves the Greek system, which seems to make news far too often for poor behavior. While mentoring will not eliminate all such problems, it certainly would help immensely. And I know from my own experience, as well as that of my sons, that fraternities can become very positive forces both for their members and those that they touch through outreach and volunteerism. For example, my two sons cycled across the continent (>3000 miles) to raise money for people with disabilities through their national fraternity's Journey of Hope

Lastly, innumerable other opportunities exist for direct off-campus volunteerism. Such opportunities are available at virtually any community center or religious organization in the local community. A personal favorite of mine is the Westside Vineyard. But regardless of whether or not the foregoing volunteer opportunities fit you, I hope that you'll find a way to give back to your local community. 

Graduate student life in LA (Dec 2017 post)

posted Dec 31, 2017, 3:26 PM by Tim Fisher

In this December 2017 entry, I provide some insights into living in LA for graduate students (and prospective ones who are in the midst of searching for a graduate program and locale that fits them). The post covers several important factors:

  • Where will I live?

  • How will I commute?

  • How much will it cost?

  • Is it safe?

  • Is it fun?

  • Should I even go to grad school?

Where will I live?

Students have myriad choices of where to live on LA’s “Westside”. I was surprised to learn that UCLA owns many apartment buildings throughout the Westside that it rents to graduate students and faculty. In fact, my house sits in a neighborhood (Palms/Mar Vista) with several of these apartments. Below is a picture of the apartment around the corner from my house. The accommodations are very nice and actually quite stylish.

One big benefit of living in an urban area — particularly one with such good weather — is that you can walk or bike to do almost anything. The picture below shows our neighborhood Trader Joe’s grocery store (which has very competitive prices). The shopping is so convenient that we no longer make make prolonged grocery excursions; instead, we typically decide after the workday what we want for dinner, and then walk to pick up the ingredients.

How will I commute?

Even though LA is known as a car town, moving around the Westside absolutely does not require a car. In fact, I rarely drive at all — and never to work. Instead, I use a human-powered two-wheeler, aka the bicycle. My commute is 4-5 miles, and I can ride virtually every day because of the great LA weather. The commute takes 20-25 min, regardless of traffic — in fact, my downhill evening commute is typically faster than it would be in a car! Here’s a picture of me heading home from work.

If you’re not ready to push pedals, the mass transit options on the Westside are very good (and rapidly improving all across LA). For example, the bus in the picture below picks up at the Trader Joe’s and makes its last stop 20-30 min later at the doorstep of the main UCLA Engineering complex (for 50 cents per ride with a UCLA ID).

How much will it cost?

UCLA, as well as all major universities located in urban areas, recognizes the financial strains of being a student while living in a relatively expensive area. UCLA’s graduate stipends are set by a fixed scale available here. The idea is that students have a reasonable financial baseline with opportunity for increases as they gain more experience and credentials. Moreover, the university offers housing (see above) at relatively low rates — my graduate students tell me that most students pay $700-1200 per month for a shared apartment, depending on size and location. Further, UCLA provides generous subsidized rates for mass transit.

The big savings in comparison to rural universities derives from the ability to live without a car, which typically costs students more than $3000 per year in insurance, maintenance, fuel, and parking (not including car payments). When car payments are added, the total cost of owning and maintaining a car can easily exceed $5000 per year (i.e, roughly half the cost of housing — to me that’s crazy!). Here at UCLA, you simply don’t need a car for day-to-day activities, and for occasional excursions you can easily ride-share or rent. Because of the foregoing subsidies and conveniences, my sense is that the basic cost of living on the Westside for a graduate student is very similar to that at most other major research universities — urban or rural.

Is it safe?

Like any major urban area, residents need to take basic safety precautions such as locking doors. At the same time, Los Angeles generally has a lower crime rate than most other major US cities. Furthermore, LA’s Westside, where UCLA is located, is one of the lowest-crime areas in the city, as shown in the crime map below (source: Trulia).

Is it fun?

Of course, LA is known to be one of the most interesting and beautiful places on earth, and its reputation is well earned. The weather here is almost always perfect — sunny and moderately warm. If you’re thinking about graduate school, then your first priority should be to find a place where you can work toward your academic goals. At the same time, LA provides an ideal environment for those with a ‘work hard / play hard’ mentality.

The opportunities for entertainment and recreation abound in the area. I particularly enjoy outdoor activities and provide a few (of many, many) pictures that capture the lifestyle.

UCLA marina where you can rent sailboats and kayaks (Marina Del Rey).

Surfers at the beach near El Segundo

Hiking in the Santa Monica mountains

Should I even go to graduate school?

Only you can answer this question. All good graduate students in my experience are motivated by a strong inner drive to achieve something great through acquired knowledge. If you are unsure about grad school, this article might help.

In any case, if you’ve reached this far into the blog, I thank you for your time and attention, and convey my best wishes for your future.

UCLA is an amazing, ascendant PUBLIC university

posted Oct 21, 2017, 4:39 PM by Tim Fisher   [ updated Nov 14, 2017, 10:35 PM ]

If you've reached this page, then you probably already know that UCLA is a great institution. What you might not know is that, in the most recent set of overall institutional rankings in the US and globally, UCLA has emerged as the #1 public university in the United States: 
Of course, no single ranking can capture all the qualities and characteristics of a single institution, but the fact that these three rankings use quite different criteria and still place UCLA in the #1 spot among US public institutions is significant (note: as I was preparing this entry, US News & World Report released a separate "Best Global Universities" ranking, which places UCLA at #13 in the world and #3 among US publics; and 4 of the top 16 universities overall in this global ranking are from the University of California system!). 

In terms of engineering-specific rankings, UCLA does quite well (#16 in the 2018 US News and World Report graduate rankings for engineering), although its relatively small size is a handicap in rankings -- but certainly not in reality. The main reason for this effect is that many college/school-level ranking systems use total research funding (regardless of program size) as a major criterion. However, this disadvantage in rankings becomes a big advantage in reality because students (and other faculty) are able to develop close relationships at UCLA with virtually all of a department's faculty members. My department (Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering) has 34 full-time faculty members; in comparison, the large, highly ranked engineering programs in the US typically have three times this number of faculty in mechanical and aerospace engineering (which many divide into separate departments). I simply don’t see the advantages of monstrous size other than for the purposes of ranking — but I do see many disadvantages.  I have visited all of the best engineering programs and am certain that the quality of faculty on a person-by-person basis at UCLA is good as anywhere in the world -- as a newcomer, I seem to learn something wonderfully new every day about my outstanding faculty colleagues. As a testament to this quality, I recently learned an amazing fact about UCLA engineering (see the paid version of the USNWR link above): the percentage of UCLA engineering faculty members in the US National Academy of Engineering is the 2nd highest in the country (behind only Princeton -- also a school whose small size adversely affects its engineering rankings). 

Finally, you might wonder whether the distinction between public and private universities is relevant. Certainly the distinction is not important to everyone, but it is to me. My sentiments on this topic are well captured in a recent paper about UC-Berkeley and the UC system: "[The faculty’s desire to stay] comes from the sense and satisfaction about being a public university, and certainly an engine of upward mobility. That’s a source of great pride." I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Most public universities (with the University of California system as the exemplar) go out of their way to be "engine[s] of upward mobility" for society. At UCLA, this orientation motivates us to seek out excellent students from less privileged backgrounds, for example by intentionally structuring our curricula to welcome transfer students. In contrast, many other universities (both private and some public) make transferring into their engineering programs almost impossible, reasoning that their classes are too unique and specialized even at the beginning of the curriculum. Regardless of your personal opinion on this issue, I hope you'd agree that at least some of our great universities should be the "engine[s] of upward mobility" for such wonderfully talented students -- UCLA certainly is, and I'm proud of it!

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