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A Minor Revolution

By Anne Pautler

Published Oct 1, 2017 9:00 AM

Inventive, intriguing and interdisciplinary: how new minors are changing undergraduate education at UCLA.


Senior Munir Griffin majors in ethnomusicology (jazz studies) and minors in music industry. He performed at Spring Sing 2017 and was one of the first student musicians to record in Ostin Music Center. Photos by Stephanie Gonot.

Doors open. Perspectives shift. Career paths veer in new directions. Enrolling in a minor can rock an undergraduate's world.

Consider Ruthie Johnson, who ran an errand and ended up a genetics sleuth. Adam Dahl, who found the seed of a new business while standing in line. Megan Lonsinger, who’s devoting a year to a “kitchen and garden” primary school. Munir Griffin, who’s releasing his own EP. All these UCLA students chose minors that have transformed their undergraduate education.

Their stories, and those of their classmates, are drawn from a handful of the 31 new minors created in the past 10 years. Food Studies, Music Industry, Bioinformatics and Entrepreneurship are very different fields. Yet there are common threads among these four new minors. Each one attracts students — and faculty — across disciplines. Each one creates a small community of shared interests within the large research university that is UCLA. Each demands a research project, internship or other in-depth challenge as part of the required curriculum. And each one is capable of changing a student’s academic and career trajectory.

Good Taste: Food Studies

“Food is the perfect icebreaker,” says Joseph Nagy, emeritus professor of English and academic director of the Food Studies minor. “The minor gives students the chance to apply sophisticated theory and methods to something basic and universally shared.”

Like many of the academic directors, Nagy is the faculty member who created the original proposal for the minor. “With patience, you can make these things happen,” he says. Nagy has some important allies. UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative has drawn together a community of students interested in sustainability, urban agriculture and healthy eating. On the academic side, the UCLA College offers a general education “cluster” on the topic “Food: A Lens for Environment and Sustainability.” Together, the Healthy Campus Initiative and the food cluster have created a pool of students interested in food studies. Thanks to the help of academic counselors Brooke Wilkinson and Shahla Rahimzadeh, the minor attracts students from across campus, particularly the life sciences, social sciences and humanities. The 21 graduates of the Class of 2017 had 14 different majors.

Megan Lonsinger ’17 graduated summa cum laude in English. A transfer student from Bakersfield College, she was attracted to Food Studies because she’s interested in exploring the food system and using her critical thinking skills. Even in the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, “We’re detached from food,” Lonsinger says. The Food Studies minor opened doors for her. She became a Global Food Initiative Fellow for the University of California, traveling to events in Stockton and Davis and presenting a research project at a sustainability conference.


Michael Ly ’17 graduated with a major in physiological science and a minor in food studies. He did a capstone paper on creamy French desserts and plans a career in dentistry.

She also found ways to combine her interest in English literature with food studies. Her thesis project, “Farm to Table to Confessional,” examined the medieval food system as reflected in English literature. Graduate school may follow, but this year Lonsinger is teaching in a K-4 “kitchen and garden” program where children explore humanities in the kitchen and science in the garden.

Like Lonsinger, Michael Ly ’17 is part of the first graduating class in Food Studies. But he’s from the other end of campus, majoring in physiological science. All the graduates complete a capstone, either a research project or an internship. Ly researched French desserts and how we perceive “creaminess” as related to levels of fat and sugar. The Food Studies minor also pervaded his extracurricular activities. As director of the annual Vietnamese Culture Night in Royce Hall, he created a drama about a stubborn young woman who challenges the traditional gender roles imposed by her mother, such as refusing to learn to cook. The narrative provided an entertaining exploration of gender inequality, he says, and provoked thoughtful conversation among generations. Ly is traveling to Jamaica as a dental clinic volunteer; then he’ll study for the DAT and apply to dental school. “I feel like the minor solidified my passion for helping underserved communities. Issues like food insecurity and lack of health care are closely related,” he says. “It was really rewarding.”

Where the Attraction Lies

Faculty members find minors rewarding as well, says Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College and dean of undergraduate education. “Your research may take you across disciplines,” Turner says. “Often, faculty members find a kinship with like-minded faculty because they’re attracted by common interests.” Food studies electives, for instance, include courses in anthropology, Chinese, community health sciences, geography, Italian, physiological science and urban planning.

Since every student has a major, the minor on their records shows interests beyond the requirements, Turner says. Students use minors to document their expertise for potential employers and to signal that they’re well-rounded individuals. And, of course, the subject areas are attractive in themselves.

“Minors provide the students the opportunity to explore in depth,” Turner says. “The small scale of minors means the classes aren’t tied to lectures and tests — they tend to be experiential.” The scale also means that faculty members and students can get to know each other and create a small community around their shared subject.

Genetic Sleuths: Bioinformatics

The Bioinformatics minor attracts majors from life sciences, physical sciences, engineering and math. Eleazar Eskin, the academic director, is himself interdisciplinary. In engineering, he’s a professor of computer science. In the medical school, he’s a professor of human genetics. Like Nagy, he wrote the proposal for the minor he directs. Eskin’s research focuses on developing techniques to solve the computational problems that arise from the effort to understand the genetic basis of human disease. “The minor is only one small part of a larger genomics and genetics ecosystem at UCLA,” he says. UCLA, with its strengths in medicine, life sciences, mathematics and computer science, is uniquely positioned to be a leader in bioinformatics. “The minor allows students even as undergraduates to be part of the genome revolution, with its potential for breakthroughs in autism, cancer and other complex diseases,” he says.

An unusual aspect of the minor is that many of the core classes are combined courses for undergraduate and graduate students. The graduate students may get different assignments and tests, but all students hear the same lectures. The courses are also available as electives, so the impact of the minor goes beyond the students enrolled in the program.


Ruthie Johnson ’17 combined a major in mathematics of computation with a minor in bioinformatics. In pursuit of a Ph.D. in computer science, she’ll tease out information on complex traits and diseases encoded in genes.

Ruthie Johnson ’17 discovered the Bioinformatics minor almost by chance. Her journey began when she offered to return a laptop adapter one of her instructors had borrowed. While dropping off the piece of equipment, she spotted a faculty mailbox labeled “biomathematics.” Math in service to biology? It was a new idea to Johnson. “In high school, it’s just ‘math,’” she says. But at UCLA, mathematics and statistics have their specialties and subspecialties. Johnson ended up with a major in the mathematics of computation. The Bioinformatics minor added the “more tangible” skills of computer science and a focus on computation genetics.

Working in a bioinformatics lab in the David Geffen School of Medicine was a revelation. “Detecting genetic variants that contribute to diseases is the best kind of problem solving, because you’re working on real-life problems in an impactful way,” she says. With two years of undergraduate research on campus and a summer at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, Johnson decided to pursue a Ph.D. At first, she wasn’t sure how to go about even applying to graduate school. “The thing that encouraged me most was the mentorship in the lab,” she says. Now Johnson is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in computer science here at UCLA. About half the 2017 Bioinformatics minors are grad-school bound.

Sound Practice: Music Industry

Robert Fink, professor of musicology and academic director of the Music Industry minor, is proud that his program is responsive to the desires of students. Before the minor was introduced, there was no bridge, no pipeline to the industry. Now, both students and industry practitioners benefit from their interaction. Fink often works directly with practitioners to craft courses. “I’m the guy who figures out how expertise can fit into a syllabus,” he says.

Initially, the minor was open only to students in the Herb Alpert School of Music. But now it’s open to “students with a passion for any aspect of music-making,” as Fink puts it. Roughly half the students in the minor are from the School of Music; the rest are primarily from the humanities and social sciences, with a sprinkling of other majors such as neuroscience and cognitive science. All Music Industry minors do community or corporate internships.

“Students use minors to sculpt their curriculum to fit their passions,” says Gigi Johnson M.B.A. ’88, director of the UCLA Center for Music Innovation. “They’re figuring out how to blend a great life.” Johnson taught digital media and disruptive technologies at the UCLA Anderson School from 2004 to 2010. She then moved to the School of Music to teach Internet marketing and branding for musicians. She’s had YouTube stars, luthiers, opera singers and bands in her class. Two of the current students in the minor performed at Spring Sing 2017: one as a solo act, the other as part of a duo. “Students take the minor and hook it to everything else,” Johnson says.

Munir Griffin is a senior in ethnomusicology, with a concentration in jazz studies. He’s been performing since he was 5 or 6 years old. “I want to make a living out of my music, inspire, impact and be helpful,” he says. Ethnomusicology has exposed him to new ideas and cultures. For instance, professor and flutist James Newton integrates musicians from the jazz, world and classical disciplines, encouraging students to combine cultures. Besides playing saxophone in a Spring Sing duo, Griffin has performed for an alphabet soup of student organizations: CAC, CEC, CPO, Afrikan Student Union. The minor has given him “more insight into the business side,” with specific skills in burnishing his resume and website, understanding music licensing, and using analytical techniques to hone his marketing and branding. “I see myself doing what I love — making music, performing music, helping others as a producer and songwriter.” His current project is an EP recording of some of his original music.

Isabel Whelan is a senior in communication studies, but she too is in the Music Industry minor. While her major has been very important to her, she likes the faculty mentorship in the minor and “the peers you meet — making connections, collaborating.” Like Griffin, she has performed at Royce Hall, Kerckhoff Coffee House and Pauley Pavilion, where she won the Spring Sing 2017 solo category. “I want to know that I can help myself,” she says of her experience in audio engineering. Her summer internship was with the synchronization department of a music publishing group, analyzing artists’ catalogs for suitability as soundtracks for film, TV, commercials and video games. The minor has “forced me to bring the best possible material to the market,” she says.

Idea Merchants: Entrepreneurship

“A student who wants to major in history or English or biology should not have to worry about a job,” says Al Osborne, professor of global economics, management and entrepreneurship, senior associate dean of UCLA Anderson and academic director of the undergraduate minor in Entrepreneurship. That belief, combined with the opportunity to collaborate with the UCLA College, motivated his involvement in the minor. In Entrepreneurship, the capstone experience can be an apprenticeship in an entrepreneurial company or the opportunity to develop the student’s own business idea. Key management courses cover venture initiation and development of a business plan. Students have to answer the question, “Where do I want to make a dent in the world?” Osborne says. “They take an idea and make something out of nothing. They learn a sense of responsibility and ownership of their education.”

Another sign of the program’s interdisciplinary nature is the staffing. While the academic director is in the management school, the adviser, Janel Munguia M.A. ’85, works out of the English department. The minor “sets students thinking creatively about marketplace needs where their ideas, nterests and skills might fill a need,” Munguia says. “It gives students a way to open doors for themselves.”

Sofia Demay ’17 combined the Entrepreneurship minor with a major in International Development Studies. She explains her attraction to the minor this way: “I wanted something hands-on, interesting and applicable to me.” Sofia’s business idea is a community carpool app for students traveling to campus together or attending an event — spring break or an away game, for example. The minor gave her the information and confidence she needed to apply to the Anderson Venture Accelerator and, more recently, the Startup UCLA accelerator. The app she worked on, Swifte, keeps her working full time. But she’s not ruling out an M.B.A. in the future.

Jared Neutel ’16 also started out with an idea for an app. In his case, it was going to be an app for “organizing organizations,” including fraternities and sororities. Neutel, a biology major, decided to take classes to learn how to code. Along the way, “I did a complete 180,” he says. His new business, Teaching Tech Services, offers technology problem-solving and tutoring — and he even makes house calls. The skills he learned in the minor — from how he keeps his books to structuring his business plan — are all in play in the new venture. He keeps in touch with Osborne and his classmates, and he calls the minor “the most important education I got out of UCLA.”

Adam Dahl ’17 went to Torrance High School and El Camino College. He transferred to UCLA as a sociology major, but he noticed that Forbes magazine ranked UCLA among the nation’s “most entrepreneurial” universities. Finding out about entrepreneurship at UCLA led him to the minor. “It was exactly what I was looking for. You’re surrounded by people with the same interests,” he says. He started the minor the summer before his senior year. It was while standing in line at Diddy Riese Cookies in Westwood Village, thinking about a vacant storefront in Torrance that a property manager had alerted him to, that Dahl had his big idea. Torrance needed an ice cream parlor. Dahlicious Creamery, which opened on July 1, specializes in distinctive, brightly colored treats such as rolled ice cream and ice cream tacos. In the store’s first two weeks, the brilliant treats led to lines out the door and attracted 10,000 Instagram followers. “It changed my life entirely,” Dahl says of the minor. “The whole program motivated me to take a risk.”

The Next Decade

What’s next? The newest minor — International Migration Studies — gets under way this fall. Its academic director is Roger Waldinger, distinguished professor of sociology and author of The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands, from Harvard University Press.

“Many students have a direct connection to [international migration], either as immigrants or as descendants of immigrants,” Waldinger told the Daily Bruin when the new minor opened for enrollment in spring 2017. “Studying this phenomenon will help them understand their own experience and the experience of their families.” International Migration Studies will join Global Studies and Global Health as interdisciplinary minors offered by the International Institute.

New minors often begin as faculty conversations, Dean Turner says. Somewhere on campus right now, faculty members are sharing ideas that will turn into the next decade’s new minors.