Boosting research for the brain and planet

Alum and husband give to graduate fellowships in neuroengineering and sustainability

By Clémentine Sicard | April 30, 2024

Donors are advancing the College of Engineering’s Next Level strategic vision to create a better world for all through socially responsible engineering, inspiring education and transformative research. 

Alum Susan Ellis ’78 and her husband, Mark Linton, have given $1 million to the college to create graduate student fellowships at the Center for Neuroengineering and Medicine and for UC Davis’ Sustainable Cities, Sustainable Campuses initiative. 

“I’m a proud alum of the College of Engineering. It helped shape my career,” said Susan. “Engineering is all about solving problems — that’s one of the things that has always appealed to me about it.” 

A retired software engineer, Susan earned her B.S. in electrical engineering from UC Davis and a master’s degree in computer science from UC Berkeley. Donors to the College of Engineering for many years, Susan and her husband worked at several Silicon Valley start-ups and now live in Davis. 

“Graduate students are absolutely critical in producing research. The more grad students a group has, the bigger impact they can have,” said Susan. 

Richard L. Corsi, dean of the College of Engineering, noted his gratitude to Susan and Mark for their generosity and commitment to the college’s research enterprise. 

“Their gift will directly support our talented faculty and graduate students, as well as future generations of engineering leaders, in important efforts to advance human health and revolutionize energy systems,” he said. 

In addition to their support for several impact areas identified in the college’s strategic research vision, Susan and Mark have designated portions of their gift to the college’s annual fund, the Tahoe Environmental Research Center and the Arboretum’s Learning by Leading student program. 

Their gift supports UC Davis’ comprehensive fundraising campaign, Expect Greater: From UC Davis, For the World, the largest philanthropic endeavor in university history. Together, donors and UC Davis are advancing work to prepare future leaders, sustain healthier communities and bring innovative solutions to today's most urgent challenges. 

Neuroengineering puts UC Davis ‘on the map’

The Center for Neuroengineering and Medicine, opened in 2020, brings together experts from UC Davis’ top-ranked engineering and neuroscience programs, medical and veterinary schools to repair, restore and augment human capacity to benefit society.

“I’m excited to contribute to a center that will put UC Davis’ name on the map,” said Susan. “The Center for Neuroengineering and Medicine is a new concept, making fascinating advancements in research and becoming a leader in its field.”

The center develops technologies such as prosthetics, human-machine interfaces, cognitive neuroengineering and post-neural injury rehabilitation tools.

“UC Davis is unique for its collaborative environment. Having so many of the university’s strengths in one place allows us to work together and do things that are going to have a big impact on people’s lives,” said Karen Moxon, professor of biomedical engineering and founding director emeritus of the center.

“This gift is going to have an important impact for the center and especially for our students. The impact is not just here at UC Davis, but also for the world as our students go and become leaders throughout the world,” she added.

Erkin Şeker, professor of electrical and computer engineering, co-director of the center, and inaugural chair of the new Designated Emphasis in Neuroengineering program, conducts research on the gut–brain axis and develops tools and technologies to study and engineer the gut microbiome to improve neurological health. Susan and Mark’s gift will award some fellowships to graduate students who are working in this burgeoning research direction. 
“Engineers are tool developers,” said Şeker. “It’s essential for engineers to be able to create the tools to enable both fundamental and translational research in neuroscience and neurobiology.”

Moxon and Şeker expressed their appreciation that a distinguished College of Engineering graduate is giving back to the university and “paying it forward” for the next generation.

“We are heartened that Susan has chosen to reinvest in the very institution that played a pivotal role in shaping her life,” they wrote in a letter. 

A model for sustainability

The Sustainable Campuses, Sustainable Cities initiative develops solutions for universities and cities to make sustainable changes on a large scale by using UC Davis as a “living lab” to test and implement new strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Other institutions are looking to UC Davis for this work. We are one of the top campuses in this effort,” said Kurt Kornbluth, assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and leader of the initiative. 

Susan and Mark’s gift will support graduate students working on this initiative with Kornbluth.

“We really liked the concept of starting with the university and seeing what we can do to make it more sustainable, then working those same ideas into the city of Davis and beyond,” said Susan.

With partnerships in Denmark, as well as Taiwan and Germany, Kornbluth travels the world with staff and students to strengthen UC Davis’ partnerships with international institutions and bring sustainable change on a global level.

“We’re incredibly grateful for Susan and Mark’s gift. The fellowships from their gift will help us engage more students and more people in the initiative,” he said. “The beauty of their gift is that it also creates a multiplier effect: With every new student involved, more research is created.”