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UC Merced Commencement Keynote Speakers Ready to Inspire

May 10, 2023


A teacher who has touched the stars and a professor who was the first star in the UC Merced doctoral firmament will serve as keynote speakers at the university’s spring Commencement ceremonies May 12-14.

NASA astronaut Joseph Acaba will address ceremonies for undergraduates from UC Merced’s three academic schools Saturday and Sunday. Ricardo Cisneros, a UC Merced professor who earned the young university’s first Ph.D. in 2008, will inspire graduate students Friday.

The three ceremonies will be held at the university’s Recreation Field. Friday’s ceremony begins at 6 p.m. and the weekend ceremonies at 9 a.m.

Acaba, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is the first person of Hispanic heritage to hold the position.

He was born in Inglewood and raised in Anaheim, where his parents still reside.

As chief of the Astronaut Office, Acaba is responsible for managing astronaut resources and operations. He helps develop flight crew operation concepts and make crew assignments for future missions, including astronauts assigned to the new Artemis program.

Before joining the space program in 2004, Acaba taught high school and middle school math and science in Florida and worked as a hydrogeologist. He attended UC Santa Barbara, earning a bachelor’s degree in geology. He earned a master’s degree in geology from the University of Arizona and a master’s in education curriculum and instruction from Texas Tech University. Acaba also served in the Marine Corps Reserves and for the Peace Corps.

Acaba has logged 306 days in space on three missions. In 2009, Acaba flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station to deliver a pair of power-generating solar array wings and a truss element. During this mission, he conducted two spacewalks. In 2012, he flew aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the space station, where he worked as flight engineer and helped facilitate deliveries from the first commercial resupply spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon. In 2018, he returned to the space station in a Soyuz, serving again as flight engineer and conducting one spacewalk to install new cameras outside the ISS. 

Cisneros is a member of UC Merced’s Department of Public Health, specializing in environmental public health and exposure science. He joined the faculty in 2013, five years after earning the first doctoral degree conferred at UC Merced – a Ph.D. in environmental systems under the mentorship of then-Professor Sam Traina. Worth noting: This fall marks 20 years since UC Merced began graduate education and postdoctoral training.

Cisneros, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health at Fresno State before enrolling at UC Merced, worked for the U.S. Forest Service before and after completing his graduate studies.

His research at UC Merced recognizes the interdependence of ecological and human health with special interests in air pollution and assessing exposure. He has conducted several environmental studies, including determining the impacts of forest fires on air quality. He was the first scientist to determine the current PM2.5 background in the Sierra Nevada and mountain communities.

Cisneros’ findings have been used to stimulate policy suggestions and changes by nonprofit groups as well as government agencies at state and federal levels. He is considered an authority on forest fires and their impact on air quality.

*The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. Research reported on this website was supported by the Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award number T32GM141862.