A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Diagnosing Hidden Brain Injuries Drives Student Success

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Hana Abdirahman (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Hana Abdirahman has always focused hard on something: In high school it was sports. Later on, it was work. But she wasn’t ready for college when she tried, right out of high school, and she dropped out pretty quickly. A few years later – in her mid-20s – she decided to try focusing on higher education for real, on her own terms. Two years at a community college showed her she could succeed as an undergraduate; she just needed to find the next step if she was going to study the brain, a subject of longtime fascination, at a high level. She was looking for a large university, with a hospital and network of labs, to get deep into the subject.

That’s when she found UCLA’s highly regarded neuroscience program and the Division of Undergraduate Re-entry Scholarships, which allow students past the traditional undergraduate age to return to school when they’re better suited to a university’s rigor. Abdirahman was able to help support her own education as the recipient of several re-entry scholarships from donors to the division of Undergraduate Education.

“What’s expected of people is to go to college right after high school,” Abdirahman says. “The reentry scholarship gives older students an incentive to go back to school: at UCLA, there’s no one path to higher education.”

When Abdirahman enrolled at UCLA, she was able to take advantage of a university lab on brain injury. Brain injury had interested her ever since she’d heard about an athlete who’d had part of her brain removed because of seizures, and who went on to compete after the operation. Her work in the lab led to a research project, in which Abdirahman measures proteins in the bloodstream, a process that helps doctors diagnose injuries they can’t see in an MRI. Some of the findings will be part of a paper she and her colleagues expect to publish; and the research also became the basis of her senior honors thesis.

Abdirahman has made an impact at UCLA doing what she loves, and hopes to use her skills to help others. She couldn’t have done it without the Scholarship Resource Center, a no-charge support program established to provide scholarship information, resources, and support services to all UCLA students, regardless of financial aid eligibility.  “The Center connects you with a counselor; it really helps people like me who haven’t had the normal college experience. Every quarter I would go in and talk with them about how I was doing.”

Now, after graduating from UCLA this past June, Hana is still on track to succeed.  She’s pursuing her dream as a first-year medical student, hoping to specialize in neurology or surgery. Both the Re-entry Scholarship and the Scholarship Resource Center paved the way for her future success.

“The support I received helped me stay on course at UCLA as an undergraduate.”

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez wins 2020 Nobel Prize in physics

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics. Photo Credit: Elena Zhukova

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, today was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics.

Ghez shares half of the prize with Reinhard Genzel of UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The Nobel committee praised them for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” The other half of the prize was awarded to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

In July 2019, the journal Science published a study by Ghez and her research group that is the most comprehensive test of Albert Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy. Although she concluded that “Einstein’s right, at least for now,” the research group is continuing to test Einstein’s theory, which she says cannot fully explain gravity inside a black hole.

Ghez studies more than 3,000 stars that orbit the supermassive black hole. Black holes have such high density that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. The center of the vast majority of galaxies appears to have a supermassive black hole, she said.

“I’m thrilled and incredibly honored to receive a Nobel Prize in physics,” said Ghez, who is director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. “The research the Nobel committee is honoring today is the product of a wonderful collaboration among the scientists in the UCLA Galactic Center Orbits Initiative and the University of California’s wise investment in the W.M. Keck Observatory.

“We have cutting-edge tools and a world-class research team, and that combination makes discovery tremendous fun. Our understanding of how the universe works is still so incomplete. The Nobel Prize is fabulous, but we still have a lot to learn.”

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block lauded Ghez for her accomplishments.

“The UCLA community is exceedingly proud of Professor Ghez’s achievements, including this extraordinary honor,” Block said. “We are inspired by her research uncovering the secrets of our universe and its potential to help us better understand the cosmos.”

David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said: “The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole.”

Ghez and her team have made direct measurements of how gravity works near a supermassive black hole — research she describes as “extreme astrophysics.”

Einstein’s general theory of relativity is the best description of how gravity works. “However, his theory is definitely showing vulnerability,” Ghez said in 2019. “[A]t some point we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.”

Less than two months after her publication in Science, she and her research group reported in Astrophysical Journal Letters the surprising finding that the supermassive black hole is having an unusually large meal of interstellar gas and dust — and they do not yet understand why.

“We have never seen anything like this in the 24 years we have studied the supermassive black hole,” she said at the time. “It’s usually a pretty quiet, wimpy black hole on a diet. We don’t know what is driving this big feast.”

In January 2020, her team reported the discovery of a new class of bizarre objects — objects that look like gas and behave like stars — at the center of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole.

Ghez and her team conducted their research at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. They are able to see the impact of how space and time get comingled near the supermassive black hole, which is some 26,000 light-years away.

“Making a measurement of such fundamental importance has required years of patient observing, enabled by state-of-the-art technology,” Richard Green, director of the National Science Foundation’s division of astronomical sciences, said in 2019.

“Andrea is one of our most passionate and tenacious Keck users,” Keck Observatory director Hilton Lewis said, also in 2019. “Her latest groundbreaking research is the culmination of unwavering commitment over the past two decades to unlock the mysteries of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.”

The National Science Foundation funded Ghez’s research for the past 25 years. More recently, her research has also been funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In 1998, Ghez answered one of astronomy’s most important questions, helping to show that a supermassive black hole resides at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The question had been a subject of much debate among astronomers for more than a quarter of a century.

Ghez helped pioneer a powerful technology called adaptive optics, which corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time and opened the center of our galaxy as a laboratory for exploring black holes and their fundamental role in the evolution of the universe. With adaptive optics at the Keck Observatory, she and her colleagues have revealed many surprises about the environments surrounding supermassive black holes, discovering, for example, young stars where none were expected and a lack of old stars where many were anticipated.

In 2000, Ghez and her research team reported that for the first time, astronomers had seen stars accelerate around the supermassive black hole. In 2003, she and her team reported that the case for the Milky Way’s black hole had been strengthened substantially and that all of the proposed alternatives could be excluded.

In 2005, Ghez and her colleagues took the first clear picture of the center of the Milky Way, including the area surrounding the black hole, at the Keck Observatory.

Ghez has earned numerous honors for her research, including election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; she was the first woman to receive the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize, and she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008. In 2019, she was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT in 1987 and a doctorate from Caltech in 1992, and she has been a member of the UCLA faculty since 1994. When she was young, she wanted to be the first woman to walk on the moon.

Ghez is the eighth UCLA faculty member to be named a Nobel laureate, joining Willard Libby (chemistry, 1960), Julian Schwinger (physics, 1965), Donald Cram (chemistry, 1987), Paul Boyer (chemistry, 1997), Louis Ignarro (physiology or medicine, 1998), Lloyd Shapley (economics, 2012) and J. Fraser Stoddart (2016). Stoddart was a Northwestern University faculty member when he received the honor, but much of the work for which he was recognized was conducted at UCLA from 1997 to 2008.

In addition, seven UCLA alumni have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Ghez is also the fourth woman to receive the physics prize, following Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Guts and brains: How microbes in a mother’s intestines affect fetal neurodevelopment

The gut microbiota comprises the billions of bacteria and other microbes that live in the intestines. (Photo Credit: Alpha Tauri 3D Graphics/Shutterstock.com)

During pregnancy in mice, the billions of bacteria and other microbes that live in a mother’s intestines regulate key metabolites, small molecules that are important for healthy fetal brain development, UCLA biologists report Sept. 23 in the journal Nature.

While the maternal gut microbiota has been associated with abnormalities in the brain function and behavior of offspring — often in response to factors like infection, a high-fat diet or stress during pregnancy — scientists had not known until now whether it influenced brain development during critical prenatal periods and in the absence of such environmental challenges.

To test the impact the gut microbiata has on the metabolites and other biochemicals that circulate in maternal blood and nurture the rapidly developing fetal brain, the researchers raised mice that were treated with antibiotics to kill gut bacteria, as well as mice that were bred microbe-free in a laboratory.

“Depleting the maternal gut microbiota, using both methods, similarly disrupted fetal brain development,” said the study’s lead author, Helen Vuong, a postdoctoral scholar in laboratory of UCLA’s Elaine Hsiao.

Depleting the maternal gut microbiota altered which genes were turned on in the brains of developing offspring, including many genes involved in forming new axons within neurons, Vuong said. Axons are tiny fibers that link brain cells and enable them to communicate.

In particular, axons that connect the brain’s thalamus to its cortex were reduced in number and in length, the researchers found.

“These axons are particularly important for the ability to sense the environment,” Vuong said. “Consistent with this, offspring from mothers lacking a gut microbiota had impairments in particular sensory behaviors.”

The findings indicate that the maternal gut microbiota can promote healthy fetal brain development by regulating metabolites that enter the fetal brain itself, Vuong said.

“When we measured the types and levels of molecules in the maternal blood, fetal blood and fetal brain, we found that particular metabolites were commonly decreased or missing when the mother was lacking a gut microbiota during pregnancy,” she said.

The biologists then grew neurons in the presence of these key metabolites. They also introduced these metabolites into the microbiata-depleted pregnant mice.

“When we grew neurons in the presence of these metabolites, they developed longer axons and greater numbers of axons,” Vuong said. “And when we supplemented the pregnant mice with key metabolites that were decreased or missing when the microbiata was depleted, levels of those metabolites were restored in the fetal brain and the impairments in axon development and in offspring behavior were prevented.

“The gut microbiota has the incredible capability to regulate many biochemicals not only in the pregnant mother but also in the developing fetus and fetal brains,” Vuong said. “Our findings also pinpoint select metabolites that promote axon growth.”

The results suggest that interactions between the microbiota and nervous system begin prenatally through the influence of the maternal gut microbiota on the fetal brain, at least in mice.

The applicability of the findings to humans is still unclear, said the study’s senior author, Elaine Hsiao, a UCLA associate professor of integrative biology and physiology, and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College.

“We don’t know whether and how the findings may apply to humans,” said Hsiao, who is also an associate professor of digestive diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “However, there are many neurodevelopmental disorders that are believed to be caused by both genetic and environmental risk factors experienced during pregnancy. Our study suggests that maternal gut microbiota during pregnancy should also be considered and further studied as a factor that could potentially influence not only the health of the mother but the health of the developing offspring as well.”

Hsiao, Vuong and colleagues reported in 2019 that serotonin and drugs that target serotonin, such as antidepressants, can have a major effect on the gut’s microbiota. In 2018, Hsiao and her team established a causal link between seizure susceptibility and gut microbiota and identified specific gut bacteria that play an essential role in the anti-seizure effects of the ketogenic diet.

Co-authors of the current study are Geoffrey Pronovost and Elena Coley, UCLA doctoral students in Hsiao’s laboratory; Emily Siegler, Austin Qiu and Chantel Wilson, former UCLA undergraduate researchers in Hsiao’s laboratory; Maria Kazantsev, a former graduate student in Hsiao’s laboratory; Tomiko Rendon, a former germ-free facility manager in Hsiao’s laboratory; and Drake Williams, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health.

The Nature research was supported by funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, a Klingenstein–Simons Fellowship Award, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, and the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Vahagn Aldzhyan Selected as Second Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholar

While volunteering with the UCLA undergraduate-led International Collegiate Health Initiative (ICHI), which aims to provide healthcare to underserved communities in Los Angeles, UCLA senior Vahagn Aldzhyan and his coworkers completed a needs assessment survey on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. When they asked the people there if they had access to medical care and health insurance, most said no.

“I always knew about Skid Row, I always drove past South LA, but just being there in person, talking to the people and getting a glimpse of what these people have to go through every day made me want to do a lot of work to empower people who are living in those situations,” said Aldzhyan, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major and Los Angeles native.

A photo of Vahagn Aldzhyan.

A portrait of Vahagn Aldzhyan. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The desire to bridge healthcare gaps and disparities has been the driving force throughout Aldzhyan’s time as Bruin. And it’s also part of what landed him the 2020-21 Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholarship, an annual award that recognizes and supports students who exemplify the attributes, values, commitment to service and pioneering spirit of the legendary Arthur Ashe ’66.

In addition to working as a grant writer for the ICHI, Aldzhyan is a research assistant in the lab of Dr. Richard J. Pietras and Dr. Diana Marquez-Garban, developing therapeutics to treat triple-negative breast cancer. He presented his research about this aggressive form of cancer, which disproportionately affects young black women, at Undergraduate Research Week this year.

Aldzhyan works as an undergraduate learning assistant in the departments of chemistry and biochemistry and physics and astronomy and a board member of the Armenian Engineers and Scientists Association. He’s also an Emergency Medical Technician, and a Health Scholar at COPE Solutions, where he volunteers and rotates through different departments at a local hospital.

After graduation, his goal is to apply to medical school and complete dual degrees in medicine and business so that he can have a greater impact on underserved communities, including in Armenia where his parents both immigrated from.

“I feel like when I’m working directly with patients, I’m impacting one life, but with a business degree, I can do a lot more to implement community service programs and reach an audience at a much greater level,” he said.

Aldzhyan said he is inspired by Arthur Ashe’s commitment to helping people facing discrimination, racism and hatred even after he had already achieved astronomical success as an athlete. Although Ashe himself had experienced the same challenges, he didn’t let it stop him from succeeding as well as creating opportunities for others.

“He was able to reciprocate positive energy and help communities and people that were in the same kind of situation as he was growing up. So that was really inspiring.” Aldzhyan said.

And the advice he’s taken away from Ashe’s story?

“When you hit a roadblock, don’t stop, just go through it. And then when you get to a goal and achieve it, don’t forget who helped you and help them too,” he said.

Aldzhyan said that while he’s grateful that the scholarship will help him with his tuition this year, he’s even more humbled to be part of The Arthur Ashe Legacy at UCLA as a recipient of the scholarship named in Ashe’s honor. He’s already looking forward to aiding future students who find themselves on a similar path.

“I can come back 10, 15, or maybe even a couple years from now and give back to those students who are interested in embodying what Arthur Ashe stood for as a community leader and as a Bruin,” he said.

That’s a legacy worth leaving.

This article, written by Robin Migdol, originally appeared on The Arthur Ashe Legacy website

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

UCLA faculty couple leaves nearly $9 million for psychology and other programs

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel outside Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Andrews)

UCLA has received more than $8.7 million from the estate of the late Bernice Wenzel and Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey, UCLA professors who were well known for their longtime commitment to the university.

More than $4.5 million of their gift will support four faculty chairs, scholarships, fellowships and colloquia in the UCLA College’s psychology department. The couple had previously endowed the department’s annual Jeffrey Lecture series and the Wendell Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel Term Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“Bernice Wenzel and Wendell Jeffrey were incredible supporters of UCLA Psychology and firm believers in collaborative education and research among students and faculty alike,” said department chair Annette Stanton. “We are deeply grateful for their own contributions to science and society and for their continuing commitment to training talented students and retaining exceptional faculty.”

The rest of the funds will support the Hammer Museum at UCLA, the UCLA Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center and the UCLA Library, along with the annual Henry J. Bruman Chamber Music Festival in the UCLA College’s division of humanities. The range of benefiting areas highlights Wenzel’s and Jeffrey’s diverse interests. Lifelong learners, the two led distinguished careers as scientists but also enjoyed music, art and travel together, giving not only to UCLA but also to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Ojai Music Festival.

The couple maintained a unique connection with UCLA, where they spent significant portions of their careers. Wenzel was a professor in the department of physiology and the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and served as an assistant dean for educational research at the medical school from 1974 to 1989. Known for her groundbreaking discovery that pigeons smell and use sight and sound to guide themselves, she also helped break the glass ceiling as part of the first generation of female professors.

Jeffrey was a developmental psychologist in the psychology department, studying the learning processes of young children and mentoring graduate students by supervising research, facilitating collaboration and introducing them to well-known experts. Many of his protégés went on to become professors themselves.

The two hosted numerous student gatherings on campus and at their home, and they remained deeply engaged with UCLA after their retirement. They regularly visited campus, and Wenzel served as president of the emeriti association in 1994–95. She also was part of the Wednesday Group, a group of retired faculty and campus leaders that continued to meet weekly at the Faculty Center. Jeffrey died in 2015 and Wenzel in 2018.

“Bernice and Wendell were Bruins through and through, and their investment in education and the arts at UCLA will remain a fitting testament to their generosity and wisdom,” said Lynn Andrews, the couple’s niece, who recalls visiting her aunt and uncle on campus and benefiting from their philanthropic and artistic influences. “Having them in the family — whether my own or UCLA’s — was always an extra-special blessing.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Norma Mendoza-Dutton.

Q&A: Norma Mendoza-Denton on how Donald Trump weaponizes words

Norma Mendoza-Denton, professor of anthropology in the UCLA College, studies the language used by President Donald Trump and politicians of all stripes. She’s co-editor (with Janet McIntosh of Brandeis University) of a new book, “Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies,” which brings together 27 academics — including three other UCLA professors, H. Samy Alim, holder of the David O. Sears Presidential Endowed Chair in the Social Sciences and professor of Anthropology and African American Studies; Otto Santa Ana, professor emeritus of Chicana and Chicano studies, and Aomar Boum, associate professor of anthropology and Near Eastern languages and cultures — to analyze and understand the language of our current political moment. In this interview, Mendoza-Denton talks about how Trump uses words to manipulate reality, and how linguists can help us view politics through a more critical lens.

A photo of Norma Mendoza-Dutton.

Norma Mendoza-Dutton, professor of anthropology in the UCLA College. (Photo courtesy of Norma Mendoza-Dutton)

What did you set out to do with “Language in the Trump Era”? 

For me, the main purpose of this book has been to try to equip people to do their own analyses on the fly. So that when you hear something coming from a political figure or from somebody in authority, you have some tools to say, “Oh my gosh, I recognize this, it’s a discourse pattern that somebody is putting out there. And as a discourse pattern, I’m able to name it and I’m able to have it not take me in.” It’s a kind of tool set for people to make their own determination about what they believe.

As a linguistic anthropologist, how do you study Trump? Do you watch his rallies and read his tweets, just like the rest of us?

Yeah. He’s a very productive data source, you can just imagine. There’s a really excellent resource that you can get if you go to Factba.se. It’s a compendium of everything he’s ever said, tweeted and videoed out. And it’s searchable.

The introduction describes Trump as a “linguistic emergency.” What does that mean?

One of the ways that we mean “linguistic emergency” is that Trump is using language to shape reality. He’s able to say, “This agency can no longer talk about climate change.” When you’re able to legislate something in this way, it means that unless people are aware of the way that language is being regimented around them, their reality is changing right under their feet.

Another example is when he accuses someone of a crime, even though they’ve been exonerated. With Kamala Harris and the “Birther 2.0” thing, he says, “I don’t know, but somebody very highly qualified says that she’s not able to run.” When he keeps repeating it and the airways repeat it for him — because he’s news, he’s the president — it goes a long way toward creating the reality that all of us share. Even if it’s not true, it plants a little bit of a doubt in the average person’s mind: is she really not qualified? Or wait, I know that she is, but should she be? It creates a discourse, and that’s why it’s a linguistic emergency. We haven’t had somebody that holds so much power who so continuously changes the linguistic ground under our feet. That’s really a pressing thing for us to understand.

The book breaks down a lot of phrases that we’re all familiar with at this point. One chapter, written by co-editor Janet McIntosh, professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, discusses the terms “crybabies” and “snowflakes.” Why are politicians using these words?

McIntosh’s term “semiotic callusing” is really applicable here. It’s a way of saying to everybody else, “the people that have complaints about this are just weak.” It’s a continuation of a discourse that we have in the U.S., first identified by George Lakoff, which is that the Republicans are like the strict father and the Democrats are the indulgent, overprotective mother. By setting up the crybabies and snowflakes discourse, the Republicans have managed to continue the discourse of the strict father. And Trump is like the ultimate strict father in this way. He’s calling out the weaklings, showing his own power, but also demonstrating to people how they should be treating others. It’s setting the stage for us to not only understand ourselves as being subject to this kind of power, but to regard each other in this way. To regard somebody who needs help to make ends meet as a weakling or somebody who yells on the street as acceptable, because they’re not being a snowflake, or to see people who are trying to get redress for past wrongs as crybabies.

It’s also mimicked by the left, where they start calling out people on the right, saying, “Who’s the snowflake now?” It’s amplified on both sides.

Yeah, that’s a great point. Again, because the language is creating reality, you get swept up in the logic and you start reproducing that same idea, instead of challenging the premise of it to begin with.

The phrase “fake news” seems to be another major new feature of our discourse. Is this just a part of our politics now, referring to something as fake news?

I don’t think the strategy is new. This is a strategy that was used by Mao Zedong, it was used by Stalin, it was used by Hitler. Victor Klemperer has a book about the ways in which the Nazis crafted language and a big part of it was basically going against the press and questioning independent news. It’s not a new thing at all, but definitely “fake news” —that’s part of the genius of Trump. He’s able to come up with these incredibly audiogenic, pithy little sayings like “fake news” that just stick. Now people are using “fake news” in non-Trump contexts all the time. At first it starts as a joking thing, they’re kind of making fun of Trump. But now it’s just used in a kind of normal way. So, you can see he’s a source of linguistic innovation, and that’s really interesting.

Trump famously said that he was going to “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” Obviously, Mexico was not going to pay for it, and everybody knew this. What is he doing when he says things like that?

He’s basically creating a show. He’s creating a form of entertainment that we are supposed to participate in. By saying, “I have the biggest crowd. I have the most beautiful wall. It’s getting made,” — first of all, it doesn’t matter that half of the assertions that he makes are actually suspect, right? But they paint a particular picture. And frankly, when you’re one of his supporters, you’re in a mode of suspending disbelief as it is. So, once you’re in that suspension of disbelief, it paints the whole tableau so that you can get carried away in the illusion.

What can linguists do to help ordinary people understand and cope with Trump’s language on a daily basis? 

All of us are linguists in a way. All of us try to be critical when somebody makes an argument and they’re trying to pull a fast one on you, each one of us has to use our critical capacity, to try to figure out how reality is being constructed for us. And I think that that’s for me the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what spectrum of politics you’re coming from. As long as you’re equipping yourself to be able to understand when somebody is pulling a fast one or working against your interests, even though they claim to be working for your interests, when they reverse themselves, when they contradict themselves, when they’re calling someone names just to be memorable, instead of accurate.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a sleeping baby.

UCLA-led team of scientists discovers why we need sleep

A photo of a sleeping baby.

A UCLA-led team of scientists explains why sleep is so vital to our health and shows for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com)

Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to severe health problems in humans and other animals. But why is sleep so vital to our health? A UCLA-led team of scientists has made a major advance in answering this question and has shown for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half.

Before that age, the brain grows very rapidly. During REM sleep, when vivid dreams occur, the young brain is busy building and strengthening synapses — the structures that connect neurons to one another and allow them to communicate.

“Don’t wake babies up during REM sleep — important work is being done in their brains as they sleep,” said senior study author Gina Poe, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology who has conducted sleep research for more than 30 years.

After 2-and-a-half years, however, sleep’s primary purpose switches from brain building to brain maintenance and repair, a role it maintains for the rest of our lives, the scientists report Sept. 18 in the journal Science Advances. This transition, the researchers say, corresponds to changes in brain development.

All animals naturally experience a certain amount of neurological damage during waking hours, and the resulting debris, including damaged genes and proteins within neurons, can build up and cause brain disease. Sleep helps repair this damage and clear the debris — essentially decluttering the brain and taking out the trash that can lead to serious illness.

Nearly all of this brain repair occurs during sleep, according to senior author Van Savage, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of computational medicine, and his colleagues.

“I was shocked how huge a change this is over a short period of time, and that this switch occurs when we’re so young,” Savage said. “It’s a transition that is analogous to when water freezes to ice.”

The research team, which included scientists with expertise in neuroscience, biology, statistics and physics, conducted the most comprehensive statistical analysis of sleep to date, using data from more than 60 sleep studies involving humans and other mammals. They examined data on sleep throughout development — including total sleep time, REM sleep time, brain size and body size — and built and tested a mathematical model to explain how sleep changes with brain and body size.

The data were remarkably consistent: All species experienced a dramatic decline in REM sleep when they reached the human developmental equivalent of about 2-and-half years of age. The fraction of time spent in REM sleep before and after that point was roughly the same, whether the researchers studied rabbits, rats, pigs or humans.

REM sleep decreases with the growth in brain size throughout development, the scientists found. While newborns spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep, that falls to about 25% by the age of 10 and continues to decrease with age. Adults older than 50 spend approximately 15% of their time asleep in REM. The significant dropoff in REM sleep at about 2-and-a-half happens just as the major change in the function of sleep occurs, Poe said.

“Sleep is as important as food,” Poe said. “And it’s miraculous how well sleep matches the needs of our nervous system. From jellyfish to birds to whales, everyone sleeps. While we sleep, our brains are not resting.”

A chronic lack of sleep likely contributes to long-term health problems such as dementia and other cognitive disorders, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few, Poe said. When you start to feel tired, she said, don’t fight it — go to bed.

“I fought sleep and pulled all-nighters when I was in college, and now think that was a mistake,” Savage said. “I would have been better off with a good night’s sleep. Now when I feel tired, I don’t have any guilt about sleeping.”

For most adults, a regular seven-and-a-half hours of sleep a night is normal — and time lying awake doesn’t count, Poe says. While children need more sleep, babies need much more, roughly twice as much as adults. The large percentage of REM sleep in babies is in stark contrast to the amount of REM sleep observed in adult mammals across an enormous range of brain sizes and body sizes. Adult humans have five REM cycles during a full night of sleep and can have a few dreams in each cycle.

A good night’s sleep is excellent medicine, Poe says. And it’s free.

Co-authors of the study are Junyu Cao, who conducted research in Savage’s laboratory and is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Alexander Herman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Geoffrey West, a physicist who is the Shannan Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Funding sources included the National Science Foundation and the Eugene and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

What the wildfires tell us about the shortcomings of California’s electric grid

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

Powerlines along a road in Playa del Rey, California. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

In addition to the vast destruction they have caused, the wildfires that have engulfed California in recent weeks have laid bare serious concerns about the state’s electric grid.

In an email interview, UCLA’s Eric Fournier explains why the architecture of California’s grid isn’t well suited for such extreme conditions and what it would take to improve it. Fournier has been research director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability since 2018 — he joined UCLA as a postdoctoral researcher in 2016 — and his research involves analyzing energy systems and the mechanics of the electric power system.

What are the core issues that the wildfires have exposed about our power grid?

The wildfires are exposing some of the inherent weaknesses of the grid’s current architecture, which relies upon highly centralized sources of power generation.

The grid has historically been designed to support the unidirectional flow of power from a few large generator stations to many smaller consumers. That architecture seeks to take advantage of the economies of scale in power production that come from building generator stations as large as possible.

One thing that happens under this approach, however, is that these large generator stations tend to be built far away from the consumers. For fossil fuel–based generator plants, that’s because their operations produce large amounts of harmful air emissions that can negatively affect public health. For renewable generator plants, it’s because they need to be on sites with access to renewable energy flows — whether that’s wind, sun or hydraulic potential, for example — and those locations are typically remote.

As a result, the grid’s operations depend heavily on transmission infrastructure to move power around. If this infrastructure becomes compromised either due to age or some other external hazard — like extremely high heat or wildfire — grid operators have a difficult time maintaining reliable service.

The public safety power shut-offs in response to wildfires and other high-risk weather conditions are attempts to mitigate the grid’s exposure to these hazards. These measures are obviously not ideal, however, because power outages result in significant disruptions to the lives of large numbers of people.

Ideally, we should be taking a longer-term view on how we can mitigate both these underlying hazards as well as the extent of the grid’s exposure to them.

What are some ways California could realistically address those problems? 

Adopting distributed renewable energy generation and storage would have a number of potential benefits, in terms of both mitigating hazards and reducing exposures.

In the former case, generating energy renewably avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases. This would help slow the rate of climate change and reduce the likelihood of more severe wildfires occurring in the future. In the latter case, generating energy in a distributed way helps reduce our reliance upon transmission infrastructure, and it would provide some capacity to continue making power available to consumers in the event of a transmission infrastructure failure.

What would it take to make those things happen? 

There are a number of barriers to achieving a more renewable, more decentralized energy future. Some of them are technical and some are legal and administrative.

On the technical side, the grid will require extensive modernization upgrades to support higher levels of distributed energy resource penetration and, even further down the road, fully bi-directional power flows. These efforts will need to be supported by a dramatic expansion in the grid’s capacity to store and share the energy that is produced by renewable sources — such as with batteries. This will be necessary to address problems related to many types of renewables’ only intermittent ability to produce electric power.

On the legal and administrative side, there needs to be a recognition of the benefits associated with decentralized energy solutions. And these benefits should be considered during long-term energy system planning.

Utility companies have extensive experience building, operating and maintaining the grid as it currently exists. The proposed alternative represents a paradigm shift within this sector and will have to be supported with strong policy mandates. Otherwise, it is highly likely that in the future we will simply replace our existing, large-scale, remote, fossil fuel generation facilities with new, large-scale, remote, renewable generation facilities. That would mean that we would be retaining all of the same systemic vulnerabilities to climate change and wildfire that are inherent to the current system.

Finally, relative to this idea that we should promote greater decentralization: It is crucial that questions of equity be considered in the process. These solutions will fundamentally not work if they are only the provenance of the rich. Thus, we need to be forceful about ensuring that residents of disadvantaged communities are not left behind due to the cost or other difficulties associated with the adoption of these types of new technologies.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus

Faculty, students co-produce documentary on bipartisan environmental solutions

Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus

Earth Focus Collage
Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus. Top Left: “The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” image courtesy of KCET and LENS at UCLA; remaining images courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Photos Courtesy of KCET, LENS and Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Anew documentary exploring environmental politics, which was researched, reported and produced by UCLA faculty and students in conjunction with the Southern California public media channel KCET, is slated to air in September as part of the locally produced environmental series “Earth Focus.”

This is the third season of “Earth Focus” that UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies has worked on. LENS advised on three of the episodes in this year’s series and co-produced the fourth, a feature-length documentary. Launched in 2007, the series is the longest-running investigative environmental news program on U.S. television and features reports about the changing environment and how it affects people around the world.

The 90-minute documentary, “The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” focuses on Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s work on sustainability. The film looks at topics like bipartisan solutions to water wars and land conservation, compromises between progressive urban areas and conservative rural areas, and equitable energy transitions from coal to renewable energy.

LENS co-founder Jon Christensen, a UCLA adjunct assistant professor and member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, served as executive producer on the documentary. In collaboration with the filmmaking team at KCET, Christensen’s work included researching and shaping the story, interviewing subjects, and overseeing UCLA students working as researchers, reporters and writers on the series.

UCLA fourth-year political science student Lucas Holtz investigated environmental initiatives emerging in the western United States, while Spencer Robins, a graduate student in English, delved into Reid’s archived congressional papers, many of which were fortunately digitized before the pandemic quarantine.

Shouhei Tanaka, also a graduate student in English, researched the history of California’s reliance on coal and fossil fuels and turned it into an online article that will run with an “Earth Focus” episode about coal mining in South Africa. Geography grad student Alexandria Herr researched and wrote an article for the website about the environmental legacy of mercury used in the California gold rush, which will run as a companion piece to an episode about illegal gold mines in Peru.

“In a political season that’s as polarized as we’ve ever seen, we want to tell these stories showing that environmental politics are complicated and nuanced, and there are different paths being forged on the ground,” Christensen said. “Even among politicians who are opposed to funding climate change research, in the Midwest for example, there are many who care deeply about how changing weather patterns, drought and flooding affect farming.”

KCET partnered with the Thomson Reuters Foundation for the international filmmaking. While LENS’ work focused on the feature-length documentary, all the partners gathered for weekly calls on story development, providing Christensen and the UCLA students a voice in the development of the other three episodes in the series.

“Earth Focus” airs on KCET and Link TV beginning on Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. with “The Youth Climate Movement around the World,” and culminates with “The New West and the Politics of the Environment” on Sept. 29.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness (Photo Credit: Juliette Borda)

With so many people hurting in this turmoil-filled year — be it physically, economically, socially or psychologically — it’s hard to imagine a time when acts of kindness, both large and small, were in greater demand. For anyone resolving to contribute to a more compassionate and just planet, there’s good news: Kindness is contagious.

UCLA anthropology professor Daniel M.T. Fessler has led studies demonstrating that when we witness altruistic acts, the uplifting emotional experience motivates us to follow suit. Idealists are the most strongly affected, with cynics — those who tend to see others as self-interested — harder to move. What’s more, the effect appears to be cumulative. “We have good reason to believe not just that kindness is contagious in the moment,” Fessler says, “but that repeated experiences of kindness or unkindness shape people’s expectations, and those expectations in turn shape their behaviors.”

Fessler is the inaugural director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, established last fall as an effort to better understand kindness through evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. In addition to supporting research, the institute aims to translate findings in ways that promote kindness — which it defines as actions intended to benefit another party wherein the benefit is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

If kindness is contagious, fear of a different contagion poses barriers. The era of COVID-19 has placed constraints on physical contact and face-to-face interactions, often dulling the experience of giving and receiving kind acts. We wear masks that hide emotional expressions and veer away from strangers on sidewalks. On the other hand, Fessler points out that at no other time in human history could we communicate with anyone, instantly, and provide benefits so easily without leaving our homes. “Even as there are pragmatic constraints to the emotional experience that’s an important part of kindness, there is enormous opportunity for positive interactions,” he says. “People need to work together, recognizing that our common humanity is important not only in this moment, but in solving major challenges to come.”

Idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness.

For those of us contemplating how to help create a kinder world, Fessler offers the following advice:

Acknowledge strangers

Spreading kindness starts with the everyday encounters we have with people we don’t know. “There is research showing that positive small-talk interactions, like the chat you have with the cashier at the grocery store, enhance well-being,” Fessler notes. In the era of COVID-19, making such connections might require a little more effort. Exchanging smiles with the individual crossing your path isn’t possible if you’re both wearing masks, but a wave or a head nod can suffice. When no-contact food delivery was instituted as a safety precaution, the transaction became faceless, but “people can still leave a sign on the door saying, ‘I appreciate your making it possible for me to stay home,’ as a way of breaking down the anonymity,” Fessler says.

Make a connection

At a time when many are feeling socially isolated, among the kindest acts is to reach out to family, friends, neighbors and anyone else who might benefit from some company, even if it’s via phone, text or Zoom. Older adults in particular are at high risk for loneliness, especially during the pandemic. “Recording their experiences in a different kind of world can have inestimable value in the future, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an elderly person who didn’t like to tell stories from the past,” Fessler suggests. “It’s emotionally powerful for both interviewer and interviewee, and the technology affords it like never before.”

Watch your media consumption

The finding that idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness has led Fessler to examine the effects of media consumption in shaping our perceptions of those around us. “We know, for example, that people who consume a lot of local news overestimate the probability of being victimized by violence,” he says. “If you’re constantly hearing messages that people are bad, it’s probably going to affect not only your mental well-being and physical health, but also how you view other people.” In addition to curating a media diet that’s less focused on the darker aspects of human behavior, choosing to surround ourselves with kind people will likely increase our own kindness quotient.

Play to your strengths

With unlimited possibilities for kindness, determining how to act often involves thinking about people’s practical needs and matching them up with your own interests and talents. “Volunteering to deliver groceries to people who can’t get out because they’re at greater risk of the virus — that’s a beautiful thing,” Fessler says. Other pandemic-era examples: sewing masks for neighbors or offering virtual tutoring sessions for children whose parents are struggling to meet work/family obligations. “People need to look at their skill sets,” Fessler says. “Some are naturally garrulous, while others are not as comfortable interacting with people, but they’re good musicians and can entertain neighbors or people online playing guitar.” Of course, kindness can extend far beyond our immediate community. “One thing made clear by this pandemic is that everyone on the planet is connected,” Fessler asserts. “People can think creatively about ways to provide benefits to those they would otherwise never interact with.”

Start small

The universe of kind acts is infinite, and organizations such as the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have aggregated the possibilities. “Everyone needs to assess their own situation in terms of their health, obligations to other people, financial resources and so on, and decide what they’re able to do,” Fessler says. “If you can give money, obviously there are many causes that can benefit enormously. But if you’re not in a position to do that, maybe you have oranges or avocados from your yard that you can bring to a food pantry.” And those who are motivated to find new ways to practice kindness should feel free to start small. Fessler’s expectation is that the satisfaction we derive from making even small gestures will prompt us to increase our investments in altruistic actions. “The vast majority of people who try to do things that benefit others will find those things rewarding,” Fessler says. “That’s how we’re wired.”

Remember, it’s the thought that counts

Fessler is quick to point out that actions don’t have to be great to be kind. Is that fruit from your backyard bruised? It’s still a kind act to share it. You’re just a so-so musician? Your friends or neighbors might still enjoy listening to you perform. The bottom line, Fessler explains, is that kindness is defined in terms of the intended actions, not the results. “We are very attuned to discerning the genuineness of others’ actions,” he says. “If we see that someone’s emotions suggest they are genuinely motivated simply to help others, we admire them and are motivated to be kind ourselves. Not every well-intentioned action will succeed, but only some of them have to in order to make the world a better place.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.