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FALL 2010

Independent thinkers

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Assistant Professor Derek Kimball and his physics students have been testing Einstein’s theory of gravity using lab equipment purchased through a National Science Foundation grant.


From gravity to Google, CSUEB scholars question convention

From its earliest days, Cal State East Bay has boasted a reputation as a place where professors know students by name and provide first-rate, firsthand instruction in the classroom. Increasingly, University faculty members also are earning recognition for conducting leading-edge research and publishing original findings in fields from the sciences to business and economics.

When Associate Professor Stevina Evuleocha stumbled upon her first Nollywood-produced movie, she wasn’t satisfied to sit back passively and enjoy the homegrown African films. She wanted to know more, a quest that made her one of the first academics to publish about an emerging film phenomenon. Associate Professor Jerry Liu also took action when the object of his research, Google stock, revealed a disturbing, potentially criminal pattern. He turned over his findings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which later made an arrest substantiating Liu’s study.

In the College of Science, colleagues laboring in neighboring laboratories in disciplines as divergent as physics and geology are making discoveries that could alter accepted wisdom about how the world works, potentially shaking up our understanding of Einstein’s theory of gravity and the origins of life.

In the following pages, meet a handful of faculty members whose thought leadership is pushing scholarship — and students’ minds — into compelling, previously undiscovered territory.

Experiments Delve Into Big Questions

CSUEB scientists explore edges of knowledge in neighboring labs


Two laboratories at Cal State East Bay, just a few meters apart, are exploring the far edges of human knowledge and demonstrating the breadth of scientific research at the University.

In North Science 247, Assistant Professor Derek Kimball is looking at how basic laws of physics apply to individual atoms. Three doors down in North Science 253, Professor Jeff Seitz, chair of the earth and environmental sciences department, is exploring perhaps the biggest question of all: how life arose in our universe. On the surface the two projects couldn’t be more different, but they share certain characteristics. Both are funded by outside grants; both rely heavily on student participation and collaboration with other institutions; both use relatively modest equipment; and both projects make their researchers justifiably proud — and even a bit giddy. 

Kimball’s experiment revolves around a steel drum about the size and shape of a trash can. The drum, surrounded by lasers, mirrors, and sensors, is a shield that reduces magnetic fields — most importantly, the field produced by the earth — by a factor of 10 million. Into this shield Kimball places delicate glass spheres—he calls them “Christmas ornaments” — containing two different isotopes of vaporized rubidium atoms. Laser light then spins the atoms at precise rates and measures the difference in spin of the atoms’ nuclei and their valence protons. 

The goal of Kimball’s experiment is to determine whether gravity alone causes those atoms to change the axis about which they spin. “Einstein said it would not,” Kimball explains. “We’re testing whether it could, and we’re doing so 100 times more precisely than it’s ever been tested before.” If the axis does change, Kimball says the theory of gravity will have to be radically revised. On a more practical level, the experiments could also contribute to development of extremely precise gyroscopes for navigation.

A three-year grant from the National Science Foundation supports Kimball’s project — in fact, his is the first externally funded experiment for the physics department. Since work started, more than 20 CSUEB students, mostly undergraduates, have assisted with the project — a fact Kimball says is vital to the University’s mission. “The interface between research and teaching at the university level is so important,” he says. “The students get hands-on experience, and it motivates the professors.”

Down the hall, Seitz is similarly motivated — but toward a goal that, at first glance, seems unusual for a geology expert: the study of the origins of life. 

For his research, Seitz applies his understanding of how substances behave in extreme conditions, a subject he previously studied at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There he studied gas molecules in water, which had applications for geothermal energy; at CSUEB, Seitz is looking at how a half-dozen organic molecules, including glucose, adenosine, and cysteine, behave at high pressures and temperatures. 

These organic molecules form the basis of energy-processing systems in living creatures. “This research supports the hypothesis that life arose in a high-pressure, high-temperature, aqueous environment, like the black smokers (chimney-like natural hot springs) on the ocean floor,” he says, adding, “There are lots of environments in the solar system that are very similar.”

Seitz’s experiment employs two shoebox-sized vibrating tube densimeters — devices originally developed to measure the alcohol content of beverages. Into these densimeters, organic molecules are injected, heated to 200° Celsius, pressurized to 500 bars — the equivalent of conditions several kilometers below the seafloor — and measured in volume.

A NASA astrobiology grant supports Seitz’s research, which is conducted in collaboration with a colleague at the University of Missouri. That scientist is collecting data on the heat capacity properties of the same organic molecules, and when his data and Seitz’s are combined, a complete chemical description of the molecules and their behavior can be calculated. “If we want to be able to describe life, and the origin of life, we have to have a chemical model,” Seitz explains. “And that chemical model is only as good as our ability to predict chemical behavior.” 

His collaboration, Seitz says, sets the research apart. “My background is as an experimentalist, and his background is as a theorist,” he says of his collaborator. “The novel thing is that we actually have an experimentalist and a theorist talking with one another.”

Assistant professor alleges Google share price manipulation


It didn’t take long for Assistant Professor of Finance Jerry Liu to figure out that something fishy was going on with Google’s stock after the company’s initial public offering.

Eight months after he posted a paper online about investor manipulation of Google stock during 2006 and 2007, Liu received some validating news. The Securities and Exchange Commission and FBI arrested Raj Rajaratnam, founder of New York hedge fund management firm Galleon Group, in part for allegedly participating in Google-related insider trading. 

While Liu takes no credit for Rajaratnam’s October 2009 arrest, he says the charges completely aligned with his research about Google stock manipulation. Liu’s research was published online in February 2009 and his findings later reported by Forbes. 

“My results were confirmed by the arrest,” Liu says.

The SEC alleges Rajaratnam received information about Google weeks in advance of the company’s earnings release that allowed him to trade at an advantage. Rajaratnam, who has a net worth of $1.3 billion, was among six defendants charged with using insider information in schemes to trade in shares of companies including Google, Hilton Hotels Corp., and Advanced Micro Devices, according to Bloomberg News. The six allegedly earned more than $20 million from the trades.

Liu studied the market for options written to buy or sell Google, tracking it for the first 34 months that Google publicly traded. He specifically examined the stock’s movement near the search giant’s earnings release dates. 

What he found, and published in his report, was that “both news leaks and price control may have occurred during Google’s eight earnings release events in 2006 and 2007.”

“It is obvious that the smart traders know, at least one week in advance, the direction of earning results before the official release,” he wrote in his report, “Has Google Stock Price Been Manipulated?” “These leaks consistently occurred in all the eight earnings releases between 2006 and 2007.”

The advance information helped some traders write so-called put and call options that paid off when the stocks moved near the strike price, Liu says. (The strike price is the price at which an investor who owns options to purchase a specific stock at a specific price may purchase that stock, potentially making a profit.) Liu also noted high incidences of “clustering,” which is when a stock’s closing price matches the strike price of one of its options on the day the option expires. This lets the writer of the option collect premiums and pay out virtually nothing, Forbes’s Asher Hawkins reported in a June 2009 article published in the magazine. Liu says Google “clustered” during the time of his study more than any other optionable stock.

Liu, a former trader, says once he started tracking Google, it became “common sense” to him that its shares were being controlled. He says he sent a copy of his report to the SEC. 

Like many SEC critics, Liu believes the agency doesn’t hire enough math whizzes to stop insider trading and fraud as it’s happening. Part of the problem, he says, is that the SEC and Wall Street remain too tight-knit, which can contribute to fraud.

Liu continues to track Google and says he suspects its shares are probably still being manipulated.

Meantime, he says, he’ll also resume his research into how easy it is for big investors to manipulate the market and will keep sending his reports to the SEC. Given Liu’s unique perspective and inquiring mind, unscrupulous investors have a new reason to reconsider the temptations of ill-gotten profits.

Nollywood know-how

Africa’s emerging film industry seeks professors’ marketing advice


Think you know what country’s film industry churns out the most movies each year? Honors don’t go to Hollywood. If you named Bollywood — India’s filmmaking giant known for upbeat musicals drenched in color and mass dance scenes — guess again.

Envelope, please.

The winner is Nollywood, Nigeria’s up-and-coming film mecca, say marketing and entrepreneurship scholars Associate Professor Stevina Evuleocha and Professor Steve Ugbah.

“Nollywood is an emerging phenomenon in the film industry, not just in Nigeria but the world,” Ugbah says. “It’s the No. 1 producer of films. Nollywood is first, Bollywood is No. 2, then Hollywood. In terms of income (generated), it’s Hollywood, then Bollywood. Nollywood doesn’t even rank.”

Evuleocha and Ugbah are working to change Nollywood’s poor step-child status by advising the Minister of Information and film industry leaders in Nigeria about how to more profitably market, brand, and sell their pictures — predominantly low-budget B-movies made in less than a month — to audiences at home and around the world.

The academic team of Evuleocha and Ugbah, who also are spouses, presented their recommendations at the Nollywood North America Film Festival in Toronto last fall. The conference focused on preventing film piracy and sharing tips for helping the homespun industry flourish through improved marketing practices. Most films run as serials on Nigerian television, which generates few royalties and little ad revenue for filmmakers, casts, and crew. 

“The actors aren’t getting paid as much as they could be,” Ugbah says. “The industry is struggling. Our overall message is: First in terms of marketing, they have to improve the quality of the movies. Then, the people who are actually charged with marketing the movies need to be taught some basic marketing principles.”

Evuleocha published her proposals for professionalizing Nigerian cinema in the International Journal of Emerging Markets’ 2008 special edition devoted to third world markets. (At the time, she observes: “There was no body of literature in this area of business.”) A major missing factor, she argues, is government support. Creating higher quality movies would serve the nation as a whole, she says. It would help diversify Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy and offer a chance to re-brand the country by offering more desirable export products. Government, however, can’t act alone, she warns.

“Industry has to figure out what kind of structure they want to put in place,” Evuleocha says.

Film companies and distributors operate without an inventory tracking system, so they have no effective way to trace sales and revenue. Piracy also hinders industry efforts to earn a fair profit. The typical family doesn’t purchase VCDs or video compact discs — the Nigerian equivalent of a DVD — in a big chain store or online. 

“They’re hawking (bootleg copies) on the street,” Evuleocha explains. “You could be in your car, and someone could walk up and sell you a VCD. Distribution has not been properly instituted.”

When VCDs sell cheap on the street, reproduction quality suffers, and profits go to the black market. Evuleocha compares the loss of control of Nollywood’s intellectual property to the early days of online music and the recording industry’s crackdown on public file sharing sites, such as Napster.

“It’s almost like what happened when people were downloading music for free,” she says. “How do you curtail that? Do you charge a fee? It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.”

Evuleocha and Ugbah’s Nollywood research also preserves and pays tribute to cultural contributions made by the industry, which emerged in the late 1980s and has made celebrities of African actors, including Genevieve and Nkem Owoh.

Owoh, a popular comedic actor, starred in the Nollywood hit “Osuofia in London” about a poor villager, Osuofia, who inherits his late, London-dwelling brother’s fortune. But his deceased brother’s big-city wife plots to swindle the money from Osuofia. He in turn plays a bumpkin, eliciting laughs from viewers as he cons his sister-in-law into marrying him and living in an African village, while he wriggles out of her scheme.

Nollywood films reach an audience of some 15 million in Nigeria and about 5 million on the African continent and throughout the global diaspora, although the estimates likely are conservative considering Nigeria’s population of approximately 152 million.

“They are mostly based on African experiences, Nigerian experiences, everyday experiences,” Ugbah says. “Sometimes they have a political twist to them.”

While some Nollywood movies revolve around epic themes, more often they boast soap opera-style plots that Evuleocha calls “The Young and the Hopeless.” Most run from two to three hours in length and are presented in two parts or more.

“If you get hooked on them, good luck,” she says. “You can’t go anywhere in a hurry.”

Next, Evuleocha is planning a book project with a colleague she met at the Nollywood film conference in which they’ll profile about 50 early, notable contributors to Nigerian cinema.

“Things are quite in flux now,” she says. “A lot of it is oral history that will be lost, if you don’t document it.”

Ugbah and Evuleocha also are investigating untapped methods for increasing Nollywood profitability. “One of the things we’re considering is going online, but we have to explore how that can be controlled,” Ugbah says. 

“We’re really committed and involved in this (research),” he says. “We want to see how much value we can add to the industry.”

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