Faculty, staff and students welcomed former slugs back to campus in the best way they knew how: by showcasing the research of current students.

“Launch!,” the kickoff event for UC Santa Cruz’s Alumni Weekend, highlighted student research on various projects from infant development to Okinawan-American relations. Held at the University Center above the College Nine and Ten dining hall, the event also served as an area for students to share their discoveries and voice the importance of research in a university setting.

Keynote speaker and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta congratulated UCSC students on their research while suggesting that education is the key link to building a successful future.

“In many ways our democracy is being tested by political gridlock at home and by the impact of global crises,” Panetta said via phone interview prior to the event. “Seeing that, we can have an America in renaissance that can respond to these issues and be creative and innovative and provide an educated, skilled workforce to deal with our problems, or we can have a country with America in decline.”

Kingsley Odigie, a graduate student in the microbiology and toxicology department researches the contaminants in organic, vegetative matter after forest fires. Odigie said it is necessary to share discoveries with others.

“My reason for being here is so we can all interact,” Odigie said. “That’s what science is all about. Scientists will tell you if science is not shared, it is not done.”

For other students like fourth-year biology major Sindy Ramirez, whose research focuses on stomach ulcer and cancer-causing bacterium, Launch! presented an opportunity to champion research in the face of reduced funding.

“I’m from Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), an initiative for minority students to do research,” Ramirez said. “[IMSD] helped me to get in a lab and these programs are getting cut. IMSD funds me and my lab, so I’m here to show people this needs funding. People like me — minorities in science — it’s already hard enough.”

Conducting research serves an essential function in the educational development of students, Panetta said. The time spent with professors gives students necessary skills and opens doors for involved students.

“Giving students the experience of being in the professions ­— in the areas they are interested in, that real life experience — is really important,” Panetta said. “An important part is in the classroom, but an important part is outside that gives students those opportunities.”

Lynne Stoops, UCSC’s executive director of development, said events like Launch! are a great way to make alumni continually feel at home on campus.

“It serves as an opportunity for them to see the campus, meet new students, see old friends and see the current research,” Stoops said.

Panetta added that, just like Athens, our democracy can fall if it is not nurtured by intelligent leadership. Panetta expressed concern that today’s youth don’t have the will to lead.

“It’s really important to try to provide that inspiration,” Panetta said. “What we’re finding out is young people are turned off by what’s happening in Washington. That’s understandable, but we need to make sure young people understand they’ve got to be involved. The key to our democracy is the willingness of our people to engage in our process.”

Panetta applauded the event and alumni weekend as a whole for its ability to establish relationships between students from the past and present and said these relationships have the potential to prevent educational decline.

“What I’m concerned about is the growing national narrative that education is not important,” Panetta said. “Education is not a luxury — it is indispensable to the future of our democracy.”