Sonja Berggren ’69, French
Odd objects lurk in Sonja Berggren’s garage: a fake human leg, a giant bird mask, boxes of costumes. In recent years, the space has been transformed into a makeshift prop warehouse for Long Beach-based Panndora Productions, a small theater company that Berggren and a friend co-founded over coffee in 2002. A member of UCI’s pioneer freshman class (it was so long ago, she jokes, that her transcripts are “chiseled in stone in some cave”), the Ojai transplant worked as a high-powered labor lawyer and private school board president before catching the acting bug and taking classes at South Coast Repertory and Yale University. Today, in addition to directing plays and sponsoring an annual script competition and festival with Panndora, Berggren serves on advisory boards for Long Beach Opera, the New York Foundation for the Arts and two other Southern California theater groups.
Toshiki Tajima, Ph.D. ’75, physics
Michl Binderbauer, Ph.D. ’96, physics
Their holy grail holds a gaseous blob of super-hot plasma. In a nondescript building on the outskirts of Orange County, Toshiki Tajima, Michl Binderbauer and their colleagues at Tri Alpha Energy toil over an experimental fusion reactor that may someday upend the power industry. Unlike most fusion chambers, Tri Alpha’s reactor vessel uses nonradioactive fuel and relies on high-energy particle beams to shape and control the fiery plasma. The promising technology is based on concepts developed with the late Norman Rostoker, a pioneering UCI physicist who co-founded Tri Alpha. If successful on a larger scale, the maverick process could solve the riddle of how to harness fusion reactions to produce virtually limitless and pollution-free energy. Tajima, who is also a UCI physics professor, serves as Tri Alpha’s chief science officer. Binderbauer is the company’s chief technology officer.
Liza B. Krassner ’81, psychology
Deadly parasites, hula dancing and John Travolta’s older brother all figure into the life of Liza B. Krassner. When not on the job as an administrator for UCI’s Program in Public Health, the University Hills resident produces films, supports autistic youth and volunteers at a jazz radio station, among other sidelines. Originally from the Philippines, Krassner came to California in 1976 and soon enrolled at UCI, where she met her future husband, Stuart, a founding biology professor who studied microscopic parasites. More recently, after their son was diagnosed with autism, Krassner conceived and helped bankroll two documentaries for a film company led by former actor-singer Joey Travolta. “Through the Heart of Tango” and “Hula Is My Language” show the benefits of dance for autistic and special-needs children. Krassner’s next documentary, slated for release this year, focuses on an autism center she visited in the Czech Republic.
Jermaine Griggs ’05, social ecology
It all started with a piano that his grandma won on “The Price Is Right.” After learning to play the instrument at age 7, Jermaine Griggs was soon proficient enough that several parents at his Long Beach church began asking him to teach their children. That’s when inspiration struck. At 17, Griggs bought the domain name HearandPlay.com and launched a music instruction business. By the time he enrolled at UCI, nearly 200 orders a month were rolling in. Griggs hired people from his dorm to help, some of whom are still with the company. Fifteen years later, HearandPlay.com is a multimillion-dollar enterprise that teaches people to play piano and guitar by ear. Hundreds of thousands of aspiring musicians have downloaded Griggs’ free online lessons or enrolled in his premium courses, enabling him to fund various philanthropic efforts, including Operation Jump Start, which helps students from humble backgrounds get into and graduate from college.
Kaveh Azartash, Ph.D. ’10, biomedical engineering
Dhonam Pemba, Ph.D. ’13, biomedical engineering
Led by a cartoon penguin, Kaveh Azartash and Dhonam Pemba are infiltrating the turf of Rosetta Stone and Berlitz. They produce video games designed to wire preschoolers’ brains to more easily master foreign languages. Azartash and Pemba got the idea after struggling to learn Chinese as grad students and finding out that the brain’s ability to acquire languages is shaped at an early age. Working with animators, scientists and educators, the duo created Mochu the penguin and various game apps and e-books that expose young children to 4,000 sounds from 12 languages. Once those language seeds are planted, the brain becomes permanently more adept at grasping new tongues, says Azartash, an Iran native who came to the U.S. at 18. Pemba is a London-bred Tibetan born in Darjeeling, India. Through their company, Kadho Inc., the alums are also developing games to improve memory, creativity and athletic performance.
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