Driving Innovation

Their achievements are the foundation for UC Davis’ status today as one of the top research institutions in the nation. But while we may remember what they gave us, we don’t always remember their names.


Plant biologist Katherine Esau, who received a National Medal of Science and wrote a classic text on plant anatomy, spent 35 years at UC Davis as a graduate student and faculty member. Her research spanned from hybridization of sugar beets (above) to light-microscope studies. (Katherine Esau Papers, UC Santa Barbara Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration)

Those who know Aggie lore know that UC Davis was the birthplace of the mechanized tomato harvester that revolutionized agriculture across the nation and around the world. But who were the people behind this innovation that changed the face of modern agriculture?

That would be Gordie “Jack” Hanna, Coby Lorenzen and Steven Sluka. They are the who behind the what, though their faces — and names — aren’t nearly as recognizable as their invention. But more about them later.

The trio of trailblazers is representative of the creative thinkers who throughout UC Davis’ history have launched many innovations — big and small — that make our lives healthier, safer and, frankly, more fun and enjoyable. While many of these innovations and their connection to the campus are fairly well known, that’s not the case for the identities and tales of the pioneers and trailblazers who did all the work.

“That’s a common problem in the history of innovation — the people responsible for some of the most lasting contributions get almost no attention,” said Andrew Hargadon, professor of technology management and the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Management. “Sometimes it’s their own humility, sometimes it’s a competitor’s showmanship, and sometimes it’s just the nature of the work. As the scientist Jean Henri Fabre once said, ‘History records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat.’ . . . [I]t’s always worth taking time to appreciate who did what work, as well as how and why.”

We introduce you to a handful of the many faculty, staff and alumni who changed society for the better, many with their Aggie Pride cloaked in traditional Aggie humility.

‘The grande dame of botany’

The New York Times described Katherine Esau as “a world authority on botany” when it published her obituary in June 1997, “an international leader in studying plant structure who laid the foundation for much current research into plant function.”

Esau, in turn, laid the foundation for much of her research and teaching during her years at Davis working on her doctorate, beginning in the late 1920s. At the time, the Davis campus was the farm extension of UC Berkeley and did not register its own graduate students, so Esau registered at Berkeley. While Berkeley awarded her doctorate in 1931, her research was done on the Davis campus, and she then joined the faculty.

She studied plant development and the effects of viruses on plant tissues, and she did much work on phloem tissue, which transports food produced in a plant’s leaves to other plant parts. Much of what she did pointed the way for molecular studies by others.

“She absolutely dominated the field of plant anatomy and morphology for several decades,” Peter Raven, longtime director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, told the Times when Esau died at age 99. “She set the stage for all kinds of modern advances in plant physiology and molecular biology. You have to understand the structure of plants first before you can unravel the questions of molecular biology.”

In 1957, she became the sixth woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1989, President George Bush awarded Esau — at the time a professor emerita at UC Santa Barbara — the National Medal of Science. According to the Times, Ray F. Evert, the Katherine Esau Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who accepted the medal on her behalf, pointed out that she was the first full-fledged botanist to win that award.

In its obituary, the Times said that Esau’s long career, which began in czarist Russia and ended with the publication of her last research paper in 1990, “reflected the methodological changes of this century. She started with techniques of agricultural research, plant selection and hybridization, then moved into light-microscope studies of plant anatomy and the damage caused by viruses.”

For many decades, the Times reported, Esau’s Plant Anatomy, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1953 and updated in 1965, was the leading text on plant structure in the nation and was widely adopted abroad. Now a classic, it was revised in 2006 by Evert, who had been a graduate student of Esau’s.

“She was the grande dame of American botany,” Evert told the Times, “and probably worldwide botany as well.”

College preparation advocate

Mary Catherine Swanson, Cred. ’67, was studying journalism at UC Berkeley when she took a trip to Davis to attend a senior prom with her now-husband Tom Swanson ’67, M.S. ’69. The opportunity to be closer to Tom, not to mention doing the “Bossy Cow-Cow” cheer in the barn, helped win her over to the slower pace at Davis. Though she received a fellowship to continue her journalism studies at Columbia University, she chose instead to enter the teaching credential program at UC Davis. She taught full time in Woodland while working on her credential. She loved teaching so much, she told Tom at the time, that she would teach for free. He asked her to please remember to pick up her paycheck anyway.

Early in her career, Swanson couldn’t help but notice that many of her students were being left behind, placed in remedial courses with no pathway to college. It was 1980, Swanson was then head of the English department at San Diego’s Clairemont High School and the federal courts had issued an order to desegregate the city’s schools.

The court order brought large numbers of inner-city students to suburban schools. Swanson supported the decision but was concerned that these new, underserved students would struggle in the academically rigorous Clairemont High. She had a brainstorm.

Rather than feed her students remedial coursework, she raised the bar, creating a new program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, for 32 students that would provide them with extra time and the skills they needed to succeed academically. Nearly all of those first AVID students went on to college. And today, more than 30 years later, AVID is an international phenomenon, helping more than 700,000 students in more than 4,900 schools and 28 postsecondary institutions in 46 states, the District of Columbia and across 16 other countries/territories.

Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, has called AVID “arguably the most successful college preparation program in the world,” with 95 percent of AVID graduates enrolling in college.

Today, Swanson serves as a member of the School of Education’s Board of Advisors. She received the Cal Aggie Alumni Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 2010. And she continues to question the status quo in education, insisting on taking AVID further, with the newest focus on post-secondary programs and community colleges.

All of her hard work has caught the eye of Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who wrote: “I don’t know any single person in the country who has done more for our schoolchildren than AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson.”

Disney animator and director


Ben Sharpsteen

Walt Disney’s vision, films, television productions and theme parks have shaped and continue to shape the childhoods of generation after generation. Considerably less well known are the men and women who animated and directed the many memorable and timeless Disney classics. Ben Sharpsteen ’16 was one of these men. The late Disney animator helped shape and directed — among other classics — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo. But what helped shape Sharpsteen? His three years earning an agriculture certificate at the University Farm.

“He didn’t care much for school until he enrolled at the ag school at Davis. He loved it,” his son, Tom, recalled in a 2004 email to UC Davis Magazine. As a youngster, Ben enjoyed drawing, his son wrote: “He never had any art lessons. He loved cartooning and contributed much to the Davis [yearbook].”

Sharpsteen joined Walt Disney Studios in 1929, after several years working in cartoon studios on both coasts. Based on Sharpsteen’s experience, Walt Disney paid his new animator $125 a week, more than anyone else in the studio, according to David R. Smith’s article, “Ben Sharpsteen … 33 Years with Disney,” published in the April 1975 issue of Millimeter Magazine. At the time, Walt Disney himself was taking home only $50 a week.

Disney eventually coaxed Sharpsteen into directing and producing short films, according to Smith, and Sharpsteen was one of several directors who worked on the seminal full-length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He then worked in a variety of key roles on several other big Disney hits, including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.

Indeed, Disney made his respect for Sharpsteen clear in a 1966 letter to then-UC Davis Chancellor Emil Mrak. At the time, Sharpsteen had been nominated for an honorary degree. In his letter, Disney praised Sharpsteen as key to the development of the Disney organization: “I want to say he was one of our valuable men. He played a very important part. He came with us in 1929 as an animator. As time went on, he became one of my good right hands in production. . . . If anyone is worthy of an honorary degree certainly Ben Sharpsteen is.”

Sure enough, on June 14, 1967, then-Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Chester McCorkle Jr. presented an honorary degree to Sharpsteen, a “distinguished alumnus of the university, pioneer in the development of the animated feature-length film, award-winning director of numerous motion pictures notable for their high artistic quality and educational merit.”

Women’s athletics pioneer

Marya Welch guided UC Davis toward gender equity in athletics a quarter-century before anyone had ever heard of Title IX. When she was hired in 1947, Welch became only the ninth female faculty member on the Davis campus and the very first in the Department of Physical Education. Her assignment? Not much, really. All she had on her to-do list was create a women’s athletics program from scratch, with little or no guidance, precedents or resources to help. So she proceeded to establish teams and clubs in volleyball, archery, tennis, basketball, swimming, track and field, softball, equestrian and rifle — and then coached them all.

When she wasn’t coaching, she was officiating — or, in classes that she established, teaching others how to be officials. In fact, she organized all of the classes in the PE department for women and taught many of them herself. She also founded intramural and extramural sports programs for women, and established the Women’s Athletic Association.

“There were about 1,200 students, and only about 100 of them were women,” she recalled in a speech at the 2006 Fall Convocation. “But those women wanted the same thing that the male students wanted — athletic programs that would challenge and interest them.

“I wonder sometimes why I chose this particular field. . . . I never had to plan any exercise on my own because I was constantly running from class to class! But the fact is, I did choose this field, and I fought against many obstacles. Why? Partly because I am a competitor myself. I want women athletes to be able to compete on the very highest level.”

She was inducted into the Cal Aggie Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991, and served as a grand marshal of the Picnic Day Parade eight years later. She received further honors in the naming of the Marya Welch Tennis Center and a section of The Colleges at La Rue student housing complex.

Pam Gill-Fisher, former senior associate athletics director, said of her friend: “She opened doors for those of us who followed her. Women had opportunities to participate and excel. Her spirit and enthusiasm will always be a part of the character of UC Davis athletics.”

Tomato industry saviors

On Oct. 7, 2005, as temperatures hit the mid-80s, a group of engineers, Aggies and others gathered on campus to witness history: The legendary UC-Blackwelder tomato harvester was formally being designated a historic landmark by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. On that warm autumn day, the harvester became the society’s 45th historic landmark, joining such icons as John Deere’s steel moldboard plow, the McCormick Reaper, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the row-crop tractor and the self-propelled combine. In California, it was the sixth such landmark, along with the Holt track-type tractor and steep-slope combine, the Rainbird sprinkler, FMC’s continuous rotary sterilizer for canned goods and the roll-over protective structure for tractors — which also was developed, in part, at UC Davis.

The historic designation was a momentous occasion for three men who — while not as well known as their innovation — arguably saved California’s processed tomato industry in the 1960s. For those men — Jack Hanna, Coby Lorenzen and Steven Sluka — their story dates back to the 1940s.

In 1942, UC Davis vegetable crops researcher Hanna started breeding new tomato varieties that would ripen uniformly and could withstand mechanical harvesting. Seven years later, agricultural engineer Lorenzen joined Hanna in working to develop a mechanical tomato harvester. Parallel efforts by others, including a team led by an agricultural engineer and horticulturist at Michigan State University, eventually resulted in several different harvesting mechanisms. Engineering the equipment was no small challenge because tomato harvesting requires multiple functions, including cutting and lifting the vines, then separating the tomatoes from the vines. But in the late 1950s, another UC Davis agricultural engineer, Sluka, developed a key improvement — a vine separator — for Lorenzen’s machine.

The UC Davis team successfully tested their newly modified harvester on the Lester Heringer farm in Chico. Heringer was so impressed that he convinced the Blackwelder Manufacturing Co. of Rio Vista to commercialize the design. According to the plaque unveiled in 2005, the resulting machine “became the dominant tomato harvester in the world and revolutionized the industry.” In only a five-year-period, 1963–68, the methods for harvesting processing tomatoes in the U.S. changed from essentially all manual to primarily mechanical.

“Mechanical harvesting was controversial because it seemingly displaced human labor,” Bruce Hartsough, then-chair of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, said in an October 2005 interview. But by reducing harvesting costs by nearly one half, Hartsough said, the harvester eliminated an economic constraint on the U.S. processing tomato industry, resulting in large increases in tomato acreage and yield. Those increases, in turn, provided additional employment in field work, transportation and processing that more than offset the displaced harvesting jobs.

“The tomato harvester is a perfect example of the shared history of agricultural engineering and biology,” Hartsough said. “It required the parallel collaborative development of tomato varieties that were resistant to mechanical damage, were easily detached from the vine and ripened uniformly.”

‘The father of American wine’

As a young doctoral student at UC Berkeley in 1935, Maynard Amerine ’32 was hired by his alma mater, UC Davis, as the first faculty researcher in its new Department of Viticulture and Enology. His first assignment would forever alter the course of California’s wine industry.

When he died in March 1998 at the age 87, an obituary in the The New York Times said he “was widely acclaimed as the father of American wine.”

Born in San José, Amerine grew up on farms near the Central Valley town of Modesto. He attended Modesto high school and junior college, earned his bachelor’s degree in plant science at UC Davis and received a doctorate in plant physiology from UC Berkeley in 1936.

His first task as a viticulture and enology faculty member was to study the relationship of grape variety, climate and location to the quality of wines. Prohibition had just been repealed, and the California wine industry was aching for scientific studies to direct its effort to resurrect the vineyards. Amerine’s research would eventually lead to the adoption of recommended grape varieties for specific regions, significantly boosting the quality of California wines.

In collaboration with fellow researcher Albert J. Winkler, Amerine developed the system of classifying the climate of wine-growing regions. In the system, introduced in 1944, geographical areas are divided into five climate regions based on temperature, with each region identified as offering the best climate for growing specific varieties of grapes.

Amerine’s research invigorated the California wine industry. The grafting and replanting that he and Winkler recommended “eventually helped California move beyond jug wines to become one of the world’s premier wine-producing areas,” according to the Times obituary.

For his part, Amerine took his fame in stride. Grape science was not exactly glamorous, he told a reporter in 1994, saying, “Nobody, after all, was handing out Nobel prizes in viticulture or enology”

But none other than famed vintner Robert Mondavi sang Amerine’s praises, telling the Times when Amerine died: “If you did what he told you, you couldn’t help but make outstanding wine. He was my mentor, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for him.”

Intramural innovator

If you think inner tube water polo is just a wacky, no-holds-barred splash fest that pits one team of knuckleheads against another, thrashing around in a pool and bumping into and off of each other, then think again. Campus Recreation has nine — count them — nine pages of rules for this wildly popular intramural activity, all updated for the spring 2013 season. These pages include 23 clearly defined infractions, 14 clearly defined personal fouls and, of course, a rule for players who begin to bleed (outta the pool!) and a rule that governs any instances of “accident, injury, extenuating circumstances” (game stopped, at referee’s discretion, and no time out charged to injured player’s team). Oh, and one other minor point: You need to know how to swim and you need to prove it at the beginning of the season by “successfully” swimming 25 meters.

Inner tube water polo, listed as one of Campus Recreation’s “nontraditional activities,” is in its 44th season at UC Davis, where the sport originated. And who is the James Naismith of this great Aggie pastime?

The inventor is Gary Colberg, who was associated with intramurals at UC Davis for 40 years, from the day he arrived in 1966 to the day he retired as associate athletic director of intramural sports and sport clubs in 2006.

In 1969, Colberg noticed how much fun — but hard — it was to play water polo. So he gave inner tubes to some students to try it out his way. Instant success! The game has since caught on nationally, partly because it can be played by people with disabilities. This from the man who is also credited with having introduced as intramural sports on American college campuses women’s flag football (1967, called powder puff back then) and co-ed flag football (1969) and who brought back controversial favorites like dodgeball (with “foam” balls, not the “killer” variety of yore).

What was Colberg’s motivation for all these innovative ideas?

“It was the students,” he told facutly-staff newspaper Dateline UC Davis in 2002, explaining his attraction to intramurals and club sports, “and the opportunity to program whatever activity I wanted. It was like destiny.”