2020 was a year of advancements
This past year, it seemed as though ever-changing technology managed to achieve the impossible on multiple fronts.
Practically every in-person event or gathering transformed into an online Zoom event.
A vaccination was created and started to be distributed in less than a year — faster than any vaccination before, with the mumps vaccine second to the COVID-19 vaccine at four years.
However, many discoveries and achievements were actually made out of this world.
For the first time in American history, a pair of NASA astronauts were launched in a commercially built spacecraft en route to the International Space Station.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronaut Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off May 30 on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — marking the first time astronauts had launched from American soil for nine years. Falcon 9 is the reusable rocket that was tested at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc.
Earlier in 2020, on Feb. 5, a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launched during a test from Vandenberg, which was the first launch since the creation of the Space Force. Some 150 base personnel convened at the Ronald Reagan Memorial Viewing Site to watch the missile burst through the sky.
Later on in early August, another missile was launched during a test at Vandenberg, reportedly traveling more than 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. That signified that Vandenberg’s nuclear enterprise is safe, secure, reliable, effective and ready to defend the U.S. and its allies, according to Col. Anthony Mastalir, the 30th Space Wing commander.
Around the same time, the U.S. Air Force announced that 2nd Lt. Olivia Gillingham, a Thousand Oaks native, was the first member of the U.S. Space Force assigned to Vandenberg.
In November, a joint U.S.-European satellite built to monitor global sea levels lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg, and jolts were felt throughout Santa Barbara County from the launch. The satellite will observe sea levels for at least the next decade.
But Vandenberg was not selected as a finalist for the U.S. Space Command headquarters after a large effort from the Regional Economic Action Coalition and other local organizations and politicians, who said it would cause an economic boom for the Central Coast.
However, the space milestones continued in July at UCSB, where UCSB professor and cosmologist Joseph Hennawi was part of a team that released a publication detailing the discovery of the second most distant quasar.
A quasar is a galaxy by definition, but the massive amount of light emitted from it is matter falling into a supermassive black hole.
This quasar, named “Pōniuā’ena” after a Hawaiian name meaning “unseen spinning source of creation, surrounded with brilliance,” is powered by a supermassive balck hole twice as massive as the current quasar redshift record holder, and about a billion times the mass of the sun.
During COVID-19, astronomers in the astronomy and astrophysics programs at UCSB set up a virtual desktop to utilize the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, allowing them to run all the instrumentation from a room on campus and continue to research stellar evolution, galaxy feedback, supernovae and pulsars.
In addition to making larger-than-life discoveries in outer space thousands of lightyears away, professors and researchers at UCSB also made scientific discoveries of some of the tiniest parts of human life that make up all living and breathing things.
In July, UCSB physicist, materials scientist and professor Omar Saleh, with the help of a team of scientists, discovered a strange bubbling phenomenon in human DNA and proteins. The scientists described it as like a “pot of water that started boiling even though they forgot to turn on the stove.”
The reason behind the bubbling was explained by the researchers as enzymes that were able to penetrate droplets of DNA, enhancing the degradation rate and causing internal bubbling.
This discovery helps scientists understand not only how DNA acts in cells, but also how droplet formation controls genes and turns them on and off.
In late August, biologists, including UCSB professor Scott Hodges, discovered a new gene in plants that will lead them to new insights on evolution: floral nectar spurs. These are small tubes that increase the distance between floral reward and the reproductive parts of the flower, leading to greater biodiversity.
They identified these spurs as a “key innovation” causing more species to evolve, and it will help them learn more about how the flowers evolved and how they went from not having that key innovation, to having it.
Aside from crucial aspects of biology and human life, a team of researchers began exploring artificial life too.
Dr. William Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at UCSB, and his team received a $1 million grant over three years in December from Google to study how to improve the reasoning capabilities of dialogue agents to better understand user requests. Their main goal is to figure out how to help online recommender systems (Google, Amazon, Netflix, etc.) understand user’s requests better and suggest things users will actually choose.
The concept is measured by the Turing test — a method of inquiry in artificial intelligence for determining whether a computer is capable of thinking like a human being.
And during the rapid worldwide push by medical experts to get a COVID-19 vaccine to the human population, UCSB was doing its own research, finding ways to help.
Back in early April, UCSB professors from the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology donated essential supplies to Cottage Health to aid in coronavirus testing. Professors Max Wilson, Carolina Arias, Kenneth Kosik and Diego Acosta-Alvear donated reagents necessary to detect signs of COVID-19 in a given patient sample.
The supply chain for the reagents was broken due to the insanely high demand, so professors were happy to donate reagents that would help Cottage detect SARS-CoV-2 genes, meaning positive COVID-19 cases.
Another UCSB professor, Glenn Fredrickson, played a key role in the vaccine push by advising SiO2 in developing new state-of-the-art patented materials coating for vials and syringes. He’s one of roughly eight experts advising the advanced materials science corporation, and SiO2 received a grant of $143 million in June to increase production of the company’s patented “primary packaging platform for storing novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) vaccines and therapeutics.”
In July, researchers at the Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center in UCSB’s College of Engineering used their expertise to develop Light Emitting Diode lights that emit ultraviolet wavelengths of 200-280 nanometers, which helped them decontaminate shared surfaces and neutralize the virus in recirculated air. It also helped them answer questions about the actual cleanliness of N95 masks that were being cleaned and reused.
Eventually, in mid-December, UCSB researchers found that UV exposure had a significant correlation to a decrease in COVID-19’s spread, meaning COVID-19 may be sensitive to UV light.
Lastly, only a few days ago, UCSB established its own Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified laboratory to enable speedy, clinical-level testing and medical diagnosis.
Now testing is available to students, faculty and staff members who live in campus housing or are working or conducting research on campus as part of a surveillance screening program, where scientists can now monitor asymptomatic testing. The lab can turn around tests in a matter of hours to a day.
This year was a year of many hardships and challenges, but scientists and researchers stepped up to the plate and accomplished feats that were previously only dreamed about.
While the vaccine is perhaps the most impressive of them all, discoveries of all kinds represented hope and positivity during 2020.
2021 likely will come with even more breakthroughs.