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Yuba County resident named UC Davis’ top graduate, UC Davis celebrates six decades of medalists

June 15, 2012

Larissa Miyachi holding a flask with yellow colored liquid

Larissa Miyachi discovered her interest in medicine doing research with fluorescent dyes and nanoparticles for a cancer therapy. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo)

A Yuba County, Calif., resident destined for medical school will join yet another class today (June 15) when she graduates from the University of California, Davis.

As this year’s top graduating senior, Larissa Miyachi will become the 2012 University Medalist — the latest in a select group of graduates who have further distinguished themselves for their achievements and their impact on their world.

The more than 45 medalists — only one is selected each year — include the U.S. Treasury Department’s chief economist, the president of a Thai university, an art professor and other academics, 10 doctors as well as engineers, lawyers and math teachers. Their work ranges from trying to find a cure for cancer to helping the poor in developing countries.

Together, they have earned at least 53 advanced degrees, and seven younger medalists are still working toward doctorates or, like Larissa, bound for medical school. Several hold patents.

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi said the university is extremely proud of its University Medalists. "They exemplify the best of UC Davis: the quest for discovery, the passion for service and the drive to excel.”

A new University Medalist website unveiled Friday (June 15) celebrates their stories.

Miyachi is a biochemistry and molecular biology major. James Hildreth, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, proudly interrupted one of her classes to congratulate her, and classmates broke into applause.

Denise Albert, the 1996 medalist who now practices psychiatry in San Francisco, will present the award to Miyachi at the college’s commencement, which begins at 9 a.m. in the ARC Pavilion.

Later Friday, Sidney Gutmann, the 1977 medalist and an ophthalmologist from Carmichael, will be among the faculty members at the College of Engineering's commencement to greet his daughter, Rachel, after she crosses the stage in recognition of earning her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

The University Medal, established by an anonymous donor in 1965, recognizes a graduating senior for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society. Today, the award includes a plaque with an inlaid medal and a $2,000 honorarium.

“That prize is a really good way of honoring someone’s work and encouraging someone along a great path,” said 2008 medalist Matthew Holden, who is pursing a doctorate in applied math and computation at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Miyachi was home-schooled in Oregon House, attended Yuba Community College and then transferred to UC Davis. Her fellow medalists include a man who studied on the G.I. Bill, a high school dropout, a Vietnamese refugee and international students.

UC Davis put Miyachi at the lab bench even before she enrolled. An internship at the Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology introduced the community college student to scientific research: “If it hadn’t been for that, I think I might not have realized my interest in medicine.”

Miyachi did research with nanoparticles for possible cancer therapy and, as a volunteer at the UC Davis Medical Center, assisted nurses and helped care for radiology and cardiology patients.

“I’ve walked around this big campus and thought, ‘Here I am learning to do something significant with my life.’ It’s a really privileged feeling.”

Like Miyachi, the medalists recounted the profound effects of opportunities to explore their world and challenge themselves through honors programs, research, study abroad, internships and a campus book project, as well as intercollegiate athletics and club sports. They remember mentors by name.

Their memories of campus also range from the turmoil of anti-war protests to the pleasures of reading on the banks of Putah Creek. One learned to square dance and was ready to do-si-do when he later met a beautiful dancer. Several found the love of their life on campus, and one gave his son the middle name “Davis.”

“By really investing in my education, I gained much more than degrees or a profession,” said Albert. “I gained the freedom and capacity to choose a different life for myself. … UC Davis has such a fond place in my heart.”

UC Davis estimates that it will confer about 8,475 degrees — including 6,725 bachelor’s degrees and 1,750 advanced degrees — for the 2011-12 academic year.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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