Reimagining the scope and approach of the UCLA Center for Early Global Studies

Zrinka Stahuljak embraces the role of ‘fixer’ as she directs the center’s transformation

By Jonathan Riggs

Photo credit: Janja Ružić

Zrinka Stahuljak in front of a 15th-century relief of the winged lion of Venice. Each quarter, she guides students through explorations of paintings, sculptures and architecture, encouraging them to find deeper meaning about the people who created them. Photo credit: Janja Ružić

Journalists, businesspeople and politicians working in foreign countries often depend on fixers — resourceful, problem-solving guides with a sophisticated grasp of local languages, cultures and customs.

Zrinka Stahuljak has long considered herself a fixer, both literally — she was a wartime interpreter in her native Croatia during the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia — and metaphorically, in her role at UCLA.

“I’m fascinated and inspired by the transcultural work of fixers, who ultimately help people make transformative connections,” she says.

It’s in that spirit that Stahuljak has overseen the thoughtful transformation of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies into the UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies. As the center’s director since 2019, Stahuljak has aimed to honor the center’s illustrious past — founded in 1963, it’s one of the oldest such centers in North America — and ensure its dynamic future.

While the center’s purview will still span the third to the 17th centuries, its new name represents an expanded focus, which now takes a global perspective extending far beyond the Eurocentric view that once defined the field. As part of its new approach, research is centered around five axes: sustainability and repurposing, fluidity and permanence, bodies and performance, conversion and mobility, and communication and archive.

“This collaborative platform allows faculty studying various parts of the globe over almost 1,500 years to exchange effectively from within their fields or work together innovatively across them,” says Stahuljak, a professor of European languages and transcultural studies and of comparative literature.

The transformation makes UCLA’s center one of the first major entities in the field to adopt the new, more inclusive approach, and to employ the new methodologies and interdisciplinary orientations that come with it.

“The key to it all is recognizing and proceeding with the knowledge that none of us is alone in this world,” she says. “That’s something the study of the past can give us: an overwhelming sense of relationality to others who have lived and who will live.”

In the wake of its relaunch, the center already has begun to forge new collaborations with partners from across campus, including scholars at the departments of anthropology, Asian languages and cultures, Near Eastern languages and cultures, and world arts and cultures/dance, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Charles E. Young Research Library.

It’s work worthy of a world-class fixer like Stahuljak, who recently wrote two books on fixers: “Les Fixeurs au Moyen Age: Histoire et Littérature Connectées” (“Fixers in the Middle Ages: Connected History and Literature”), which was published in September by Éditions du Seuil, and “Medieval Fixers: Translation in the Mediterranean (1250–1500),” forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

Stahuljak researched and wrote both volumes in 2017 and 2018, when she was a Guggenheim fellow.

Staying connected to Europe and her own past richly informs all Stahuljak does. Born to musician parents who valued education, she grew up with a gift for learning multiple languages, including the two she would later adopt professionally, French and English.

Her time as a wartime interpreter — including a frightening night navigating mountain paths alone after the Croatian–Slovenian border closed — interrupted her college education for a year, but it also taught her much about injustice and the need for an international community of scholarship. Stahuljak went on to earn her master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from Emory University; after four years at Boston University, she joined UCLA in 2005.

To open her students’ eyes and intellects and perhaps inspire their empathy, Stahuljak starts each quarter by guiding them through explorations of paintings, sculptures and architecture, encouraging them to find deeper meaning about the people who created them and those who have absorbed them over centuries. Her goal: to help students connect with the subjects they’re studying, no matter the historical distance.

That thoughtful approach carries over to her vision for the Center for Early Global Studies. Even with the campus having resumed in-person instruction, Stahuljak plans to continue offering a range of programs online, too, to maintain the growing global audience it cultivated during the pandemic. She’s also investing in the next generation of scholars, for example by holding manuscript workshops to shepherd junior faculty through the often overwhelming process of producing their first books, and she is directing more funds to support graduate students in both traditional and underrepresented areas of study.

“As a fixer, I see my role as making this a community: a collective platform to empower UCLA’s extraordinary researchers, scholars and teachers,” she says. “My goal is to put myself out there and ask, ‘What do you want to do, and how can I help you make it happen?’”

Stahuljak sees her work relaunching the center as an opportunity to marry her rich understanding of the past with her hopeful view of a humane future for all.

“We cannot understand the present without the past — the contrast allows us to analyze differences, successes and failures and, ideally, to find innovation to build an informed and thoughtful future,” she says. “The CMRS Center for Early Global Studies has an investment in making the past contemporary. These lessons help us do what we fixers always seek to do: invent and make real change.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Illuminating their Empire State experience

Doctoral student Marissa Jenrich explores the lives of 19th-century Black women in New York City

By Jonathan Riggs

Image of UCLA doctoral student Marissa Jenrich

UCLA doctoral student Marissa Jenrich

We know quite a bit about the lives of some of America’s most famous Black women of the 19th century, including civil rights legends Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. But what about the lives of the millions of Black women who weren’t famous?

“When we look to the past, so often we are captivated by the stories of extraordinary individuals, who we want to serve as emblems of the period,” says Marissa Jenrich, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History whose work is supported by the Nickoll Family endowment. “But what I really love is when we focus on working class, everyday people — and when their stories make their way into the public imagination. History is the story of everyone, not just a remarkable few, and should be accessible to all.”

Narrowing her focus to 19th-century New York City, Jenrich seeks to give voice to the experience of these everyday women, especially how their lives were affected by the mechanisms of state power during one of the most turbulent eras in American history.

“It was a time of tremendous promise, but also tremendous constriction and fear before, during and after the Civil War. New York was not the bastion of liberty that we like to think of it today,” she says. “So much of New York’s economy was contingent on the slave trade that the mayor at the time, Fernando Wood, tried to get the city to secede. Obviously, Black New Yorkers had to walk a line between what rights they had in theory versus in reality.”

Guided by her advisor, Brenda E. Stevenson, the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History, Jenrich is particularly interested in exploring the tensions between Black women and the New York Police Department during an era of unprecedented systemic expansion as well as corruption.

“From the 1870s until 1894, the police force grew into an organization that many New Yorkers felt was abusive,” she says. “I agree with the assessment of one historian who described it as seeking to violently ‘over-control’ the population.”

Although this “over-control” affected all races, Jenrich found that Black women and men experienced excessive engagement with and harassment by police while being denied access to reform or rehabilitation programs frequently offered to their non-Black counterparts. This distinction echoed all the more in light of the 2020 murders by police of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the subsequent—and ongoing—protests.

“In some ways, it’s true that history is a conversation with the present, but we shouldn’t forget that today is not necessarily a carbon copy of the past, although there are similar undergirding impulses,” Jenrich says. “But until we understand the precedent of sentencing laws and the growth of the prison industrial complex and their roots in these earlier periods, we won’t be able to really reckon with some of the crises we see today, including the disproportionate numbers of women of color being incarcerated.”

Two deeply personal connections inspired Jenrich to focus on her specific area of research: a transformative Civil War course at California State University, Long Beach with her mentor, Jane Dabel, and Jenrich’s firsthand knowledge of her partner’s lived reality.

“My partner was born in Mexico but grew up in the U.S. with no legal standing here as an undocumented student. I saw parallels between his experience and the tenuous legal status of Black women in New York City during the 19th century,” she says. “Bridging these similar experiences across space and time really brought the struggle to life for me, of people who had to say, ‘This is the only country I know, but at the same time I don’t have any rights here, so how do I navigate these systems and make them work for me the best way I can?’”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

A meeting between citizens and members of the municipal police in Medellín, Colombia.

In developing countries, no quick fix for strengthening police–civilian relations

Study co-led by UCLA’s Graeme Blair finds community policing did little to improve citizens’ trust of law enforcement
A meeting between citizens and members of the municipal police in Medellín, Colombia.

As part of the study, residents of Medellín, Colombia, met with members of the municipal police to share concerns about law enforcement and discuss potential solutions. Photo credit: Evidence in Governance and Politics

By Jessica Wolf

In an international study co-led by UCLA political scientist Graeme Blair, community policing efforts in six developing countries were ineffective in reducing crime or restoring civilians’ trust in law enforcement.

The practice of community policing was developed in the U.S. in the early 1990s and has since gained popularity across the world. It typically involves collaboration between police and neighborhood watch groups and introduces new mechanisms for citizens to report crimes as well as abuses of power by police.

Along with Blair, the study’s lead authors are Jeremy Weinstein of Stanford University and Fotini Christia of MIT. They and 23 other authors from five universities studied new community policing efforts in Brazil, Colombia, Liberia, the Philippines, Uganda and Pakistan.

The researchers collaborated with local police agencies to implement some common elements of community policing, including town hall meetings and so-called problem-oriented policing, which entails police and civilians identifying specific areas where specific types of crime are occurring, and working together to define solutions. The projects ran for periods ranging from six months (in Pakistan) to 17 months (in the Philippines), and researchers judged the programs’ success based on crime reports and surveys of community members and police officers.

The results, published in the journal Science, showed no evidence that the reforms reduced crime or increased civilians’ trust in police.

Blair said the findings were surprising given the increasing attention being paid to community policing in recent years. Advocates say the approach can help reduce crime while also rebuilding trust between citizens and police.

“Previous evidence from the U.S., U.K. and Australia suggested these policies were effective, and their wide adoption was driven in part by prominent success stories in Boston and Chicago,” Blair said. “But when we studied these locally adapted community policing practices in developing countries we just didn’t see any changes.”

The data showed no improvements in terms of trust in law enforcement, crime reduction or cooperation between civilians and police — the three primary benefits touted by advocates of community policing.

“There were some improvements in citizens’ attitudes toward the police in a couple of cases, but those were inconsistent across the countries we studied,” Blair said.

The study is one of the largest ever to study policy reform in partnership with governments. Researchers worked with six police agencies in six countries, implementing reforms in more than 700 localities and testing them against police beats where the reforms were not instituted. Data collection included interviews with more than 18,000 citizens and 800 officers.

MIT’s Christia said the findings suggest there is no one-size-fits-all approach to police reform.

The researchers have several theories as to why the community policing tactics were ineffective. Among them:

• Insufficient encouragement from senior law enforcement officials, who are responsible for shaping police officers’ understanding of whether and how to implement new policing practices.

• Officers’ reluctance to respond to issues concerning so-called minor crimes — including domestic abuse, harassment and fraud — raised by citizens during community meetings. Researchers observed that police leadership demanded that officers focus on higher-profile crimes, which are more likely to influence their departments’ success metrics and job promotions.

• Police officers being frequently rotated in and out of test locations, which interrupted their training in new policing practices and hampered their ability to create rapport with community members.

“While community policing strategies didn’t deliver the anticipated results on their own, the challenges in implementation point to the need for more systemic reforms that provide the necessary resources and align incentives for police to respond to citizens’ primary concerns,” said Stanford’s Weinstein.

The researchers write that the future success of community policing in developing countries might require support from each level of authority, from senior law enforcement leaders down to station commanders, in order to engender widespread adoption among police officers. Police agencies also might need to change how they measure their success, giving more attention to issues community members care about, and to rethink training and staffing practices.

“It is possible that there is a version of community policing that works in these kinds of settings, but we didn’t find it.” Blair said. “One explanation could be that it takes a long time to build trust between citizens and the police. In some places, it is being thought of as a policy that can reap quick benefits in creating a symbiotic relationship between citizens and the police, but our study shows that doesn’t seem to be broadly true.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu.

How a COVID-19 vaccine arrived quickly and without compromise

Bruin Carly Daniels, who leads the Pfizer scientists developing vaccines for pneumonia and the coronavirus, always remembers that patients are waiting.

Image of Carly Daniels

Courtesy of Carly Daniels

By Dan Gordon ’85

As senior principal scientist and group leader at Pfizer in St. Louis, Carly Daniels Ph.D. ’14 leads teams of scientists who develop methods for Pfizer biotherapeutics, particularly vaccines, and then test them for quality throughout the manufacturing process. Her team worked intensively on the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and in addition to overseeing those efforts, Daniels participated in assembling and organizing data sent to regulatory agencies in more than 100 countries toward the vaccine’s authorization for use. Daniels, who earned her doctorate at UCLA in biochemistry and molecular biology, also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before joining Pfizer in 2015.

When Pfizer and BioNTech agreed to work together on the COVID-19 vaccine in March 2020, as the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic, how did your life change?

Things changed pretty quickly. It became clear that a lot of the work would be done in St. Louis, where my team and I are based. And a huge part of the Pfizer–St. Louis population raised their hands and said, “I’m in. I’ll do whatever is needed.” We weren’t able to push aside other projects, but we pivoted to prioritizing the COVID vaccine, working longer hours to get things done.

No one expected a vaccine to be ready in less than a year — vaccine development usually takes a decade or more. To what do you attribute the speed?

Certainly at the beginning, a lot of us thought, my gosh, we can’t do this so quickly. But a huge part of why it went so much faster is that with traditional vaccine and medicine development, everything is done in sequence. As you scale up, the manufacturing changes, and you invest in increasingly larger equipment and infrastructure. And you wait to see how a clinical trial goes before moving on to the next stage. In this case, our leadership said we’re going to do everything at once, in parallel, and accept the risk. We were not resource-limited, which was very helpful. We had thousands of people working on this across Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as through various partners. Everyone worked longer hours and weekends, knowing how critical this was. My understanding is that it was also all hands on deck at the regulatory agencies. They get tons of submissions, which can take time to work through. But with the COVID-focused filings, they could prioritize those.

Pie chart showing Number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the United States as of November 7, 2021, by vaccine manufacturer.

Number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the United States as of November 7, 2021, by vaccine manufacturer. 251,090,534 Pfizer-BioNTech (58.5% of total); 161,390,613 Moderna (37.6%); 15,917,693 J&J/Janssen (3.7%); 528,784 not identified (0.01%). Source: Statista

Much misinformation surrounds the COVID-19 vaccines. What’s a misconception you would like to correct?

One of the biggest ones I have heard is that the speed with which we were able to do things meant cutting corners. The reasons we could go at the pace we did were the changes we made to how we would do typical development and the prioritizing by the regulators. We still had to hit all of the same high quality standards internally, and with the regulatory agencies, those standards did not change at all.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were first to use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which has been heralded as a faster way to develop vaccines and other therapeutics. Did that play a role in the speed?

That definitely helped. It’s easier and faster to make, and a huge part of getting to that final commercial process is to be at a scale where you can produce the supply you need. We’ve already seen announcements from companies starting to look at clinical trials for mRNA vaccines to address other types of infectious diseases as well as other therapeutic areas, including different types of cancer. Our motivator is always that the patients are waiting, and it does seem like mRNA is going to cut down on the time it takes to get medicines and vaccines to patients.

 

“Working on these molecules that prevent disease can impact millions of people.” 

— Carly Daniels

 

Your team has received FDA approval for another blockbuster vaccine, Prevnar20, to prevent invasive pneumococcal disease and pneumonia. What impact do you expect to see?

I have worked on that for several years, and that approval was great cause for celebration. We should see a huge impact. We’ve seen it from prior iterations of Prevnar and other vaccines that address other infectious diseases. It’s incredible when you can essentially pinpoint the decline in the prevalence of some of these invasive or infectious diseases lining up with when these vaccines started to be introduced into the population.

Graphic showing Vaccination rankings, as reported by countries

Vaccination rankings, as reported by countries (Last Updated Nov. 7). U.S. 57.21% of population fully vaccinated, 74th in the world, behind 73 other countries and territories, such as UAE 87.51% in 3rd, Portugal 87.39% (4th), Spain 79.96% (8th), South Korea 76.66% (14th), Canada 74.79% (21st), Japan 74.07% (22nd), Australia 67.02% (38th), El Salvador 59.53% (63rd), Morocco 59.30% (64th) and Brazil 57.79% (72nd). Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


How did you become interested in science, and vaccines in particular?

I’ve been interested in science from a pretty young age, mostly thanks to my dad. He is an entomologist, so he works with bugs, which is not my area of interest. As a grad student at UCLA, I became interested in medicine development. I worked in the laboratory of Professor Joseph Loo in the biochemistry department. He had experience in industry, and was really encouraging and open to helping me explore different career paths. We collaborated with Amgen, and after getting a look at some of the work they did, I started to see that a lot of the techniques we were using in grad school were being used in industry and could be a part of developing medicines that would help tons of people. After joining Pfizer, I quickly got involved in one of our other vaccines and gained the perspective that working on these molecules that prevent disease can impact millions of people. This was before the pandemic; now, I guess it’s in the billions.

How did your Ph.D. experience prepare you for the work you’re doing now?

One of the things that drew me to UCLA was that all of the professors in the department were super approachable. When I went there to interview, it just felt different from other places. You could tell how much collaboration there was, both among the labs within the department and across the medical campus. Getting to collaborate with different groups on campus, as well as with Amgen, City of Hope and UC Riverside, prepared me for Pfizer, where you’re constantly working on cross-functional project teams, communicating with people about your work and trying to understand theirs.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu.

UCLA astronomers discover more than 300 possible new exoplanets

Findings also include a distinctive planetary system with two gas giants
Rendering of the Kepler-444 planetary system.

UCLA researchers identified 366 new exoplanets using data from the Kepler Space Telescope, including 18 planetary systems similar to the one illustrated here, Kepler-444, which was previously identified using the telescope. Photo credit: Tiago Campante/Peter Devine via NASA

 

 

By Briley Lewis

UCLA astronomers have identified 366 new exoplanets, thanks in large part to an algorithm developed by a UCLA postdoctoral scholar. Among their most noteworthy findings is a planetary system that comprises a star and at least two gas giant planets, each roughly the size of Saturn and located unusually close to one another.

The discoveries are described in a paper published today in the Astronomical Journal.

The term “exoplanets” is used to describe planets outside of our own solar system. The number of exoplanets that have been identified by astronomers numbers fewer than 5,000 in all, so the identification of hundreds of new ones is a significant advance. Studying such a large new group of bodies could help scientists better understand how planets form and orbits evolve, and it could provide new insights about how unusual our solar system is.

“Discovering hundreds of new exoplanets is a significant accomplishment by itself, but what sets this work apart is how it will illuminate features of the exoplanet population as a whole,” said Erik Petigura, a UCLA astronomy professor and co-author of the research.

The paper’s lead author is Jon Zink, who earned his doctorate from UCLA in June and is currently a UCLA postdoctoral scholar. He and Petigura, as well as an international team of astronomers called the Scaling K2 project, identified the exoplanets using data from the NASA Kepler Space Telescope’s K2 mission.

The discovery was made possible by a new planet detection algorithm that Zink developed. One challenge in identifying new planets is that reductions in staller brightness may originate from the instrument or from an alternative astrophysical source that mimics a planetary signature. Teasing out which ones are which requires extra investigation, which traditionally has been extremely time consuming and can only be accomplished through visual inspection. Zink’s algorithm is able to separate which signals indicate planets and which are merely noise.

“The catalog and planet detection algorithm that Jon and the Scaling K2 team came devised is a major breakthrough in understanding the population of planets,” Petigura said. “I have no doubt they will sharpen our understanding of the physical processes by which planets form and evolve.”

Kepler’s original mission came to an unexpected end in 2013 when a mechanical failure left the spacecraft unable to precisely point at the patch of sky it had been observing for years.

But astronomers repurposed the telescope for a new mission known as K2, whose objective is to identify exoplanets near distant stars. Data from K2 is helping scientists understand how stars’ location in the galaxy influences what kind of planets are able to form around them. Unfortunately, the software used by the original Kepler mission to identify possible planets was unable to handle the complexities of the K2 mission, including the ability to determine the planets’ size and their location relative to their star.

Previous work by Zink and collaborators introduced the first fully automated pipeline for K2, with software to identify likely planets in the processed data.

For the new study, the researchers used the new software to analyze the entire dataset from K2 — about 500 terabytes of data encompassing more than 800 million images of stars — to create a “catalog” that will soon be incorporated into NASA’s master exoplanet archive. The researchers used UCLA’s Hoffman2 Cluster to process the data.

In addition to the 366 new planets the researchers identified, the catalog lists 381 other planets that had been previously identified.

Zink said the findings could be a significant step toward helping astronomers understand which types of stars are most likely to have planets orbiting them and what that indicates about the building blocks needed for successful planet formation.

“We need to look at a wide range of stars, not just ones like our sun, to understand that,” he said.

The discovery of the planetary system with two gas giant planets was also significant because it’s rare to find gas giants — like Saturn in our own solar system — as close to their host star as they were in this case. The researchers cannot yet explain why it occurred there, but Zink said that makes the finding especially useful because it could help scientists form a more accurate understanding of the parameters for how planets and planetary systems develop.

“The discovery of each new world provides a unique glimpse into the physics that play a role in planet formation,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu.

Increasingly frequent wildfires linked to human-caused climate change, UCLA-led study finds

Image of smoke from a 2019 Northern California wildfire, seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Smoke from a 2019 Northern California wildfire could be seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

By Stuart Wolpert

Research by scientists from UCLA and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory strengthens the case that climate change has been the main cause of the growing amount of land in the western U.S. that has been destroyed by large wildfires over the past two decades.

Rong Fu, a UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and the study’s corresponding author, said the trend is likely to worsen in the years ahead. “I am afraid that the record fire seasons in recent years are only the beginning of what will come, due to climate change, and our society is not prepared for the rapid increase of weather contributing to wildfires in the American West.”

The dramatic increase in destruction caused by wildfires is borne out by U.S. Geological Survey data. In the 17 years from 1984 to 2000, the average burned area in 11 western states was 1.69 million acres per year. For the next 17 years, through 2018, the average burned area was approximately 3.35 million acres per year. And in 2020, according to a National Interagency Coordination Center report, the amount of land burned by wildfires in the West reached 8.8 million acres — an area larger than the state of Maryland.

But the factors that have caused that massive increase have been the subject of debate: How much of the trend was caused by human-induced climate change and how much could be explained by changing weather patterns, natural climate variation, forest management, earlier springtime snowmelt and reduced summer rain?

Image of Rong Fu, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences

Rong Fu, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Photo courtesy of Rong Fu

For the study, published in the Nov. 9 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers applied artificial intelligence to climate and fire data in order to estimate the roles that climate change and other factors play in determining the key climate variable tied to wildfire risk: vapor pressure deficit.

Vapor pressure deficit measures the amount of moisture the air can hold when it is saturated minus the amount of moisture in the air. When vapor pressure deficit, or VPD, is higher, the air can draw more moisture from soil and plants. Large wildfire-burned areas, especially those not located near urban areas, tend to have high vapor pressure deficits, conditions that are associated with warm, dry air.

The study found that the 68% of the increase in vapor pressure deficit across the western U.S. between 1979 and 2020 was likely due to human-caused global warming. The remaining 32% change, the authors concluded, was likely caused by naturally occurring changes in weather patterns.

The findings suggest that human-induced climate change is the main cause for increasing fire weather in the western United States.

“And our estimates of the human-induced influence on the increase in fire weather risk are likely to be conservative,” said Fu, director of UCLA’s Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering, a collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The researchers analyzed the so-called August Complex wildfire of 2020, which burned more than a million acres in Northern California. They concluded that human-induced warming likely explains 50% of the unprecedentedly high VPD in the region during the month the fire began.

Fu said she expects wildfires to continue to become more intense and more frequent in the western states overall, even though wetter and cooler conditions could offer brief respites. And areas where vast swaths of plant life have already been lost to fires, drought, heatwaves and the building of roads likely would not see increases in wildfires despite the increase of the vapor pressure deficit.

“Our results suggest that the western United States appears to have passed a critical threshold — that human-induced warming is now more responsible for the increase of vapor pressure deficit than natural variations in atmospheric circulation,” Fu said. “Our analysis shows this change has occurred since the beginning of the 21st century, much earlier than we anticipated.”

The paper’s lead author is Yizhou Zhuang, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar; co-authors are Alex Hall, a UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science; Benjamin Santer, a former atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and Robert Dickinson, a UCLA distinguished professor in residence of atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

The research was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of California.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu.

Pamela Yeh, Van Savage contribute to book about lessons from the pandemic

Image of Pamela Yeh and Van Savage

Pamela Yeh and Van Savage. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA (2)

By Sean Brenner

UCLA professors Pamela Yeh and Van Savage are among the contributors to a new book about lessons that can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic and society’s response to the crisis.

“The Complex Alternative: Complexity Scientists on the COVID-19 Pandemic” (2021, SFI Press Compass Series) includes articles by 60 leading scholars.

Yeh, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, writes about the unique opportunity to study wildlife in empty cities. Savage, a professor of ecology and of evolutionary biology and of biomathematics, explores the informational pitfalls of selective testing.

Written for a general audience, the text also delves into the wide-ranging science, public health and medical challenges and implications of the pandemic, with lessons about how to prepare for possible future pandemics.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu.

The power of two: collaboration empowered groundbreaking sleep research

Life scientists from different fields inspired each other and pushed science forward

By Jonathan Riggs

Gina Poe and Van Savage

It can be easy for even the best ideas to get lost in a busy professor’s email inbox — the amount of correspondence, requests and paperwork that continually vie for attention is staggering.

But when Gina Poe, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology who has conducted sleep research for more than 30 years, noticed a message in her inbox from Van Savage, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of computational medicine, it immediately caught her eye.

“Van contacted me about a paper he was co-authoring, specifically about some feedback from the peer review process,” she says. “One of the reviewers had responded that there was no REM sleep except in human adults—I wrote Van back immediately and said, ‘That’s crazy.’”

“It was terrific talking to Gina, not just because she knows way, way more about sleep than the rest of us, but because she was so open-minded about her expertise and willing to explore our theories,” Savage says. “It was a huge turning point to get someone like her aboard.”

That conversation — and their subsequent research — led to them developing the most comprehensive, mechanistic and mathematical analysis of sleep to date, showing that mammals (including humans) depend on REM sleep to build their brain’s infrastructure in infanthood, and to heal and “declutter” it throughout life.

As exciting as their findings were, Poe and Savage found it even more inspiring to work together across interdisciplinary lines, an opportunity they wish more of their colleagues could experience.

“It really teaches you that you can be a global expert in your field, but you can’t be an expert in everything — there is so much we all can learn from one another,” Savage says. “You have to be patient and brave as you basically learn a new language from your collaborator and teach them one, too. Building that groundwork alone teaches you so much about your own work before you ever get to the real questions.”

“It’s also wonderful fuel to keep you curious and passionate, which is how you become distinguished in your field in the first place,” says Poe. “I love to learn new things every day, and projects like this are an incredible way to keep yourself refreshed, engaged and excited to go to tackle challenge questions every day.”

The two are continuing their research collaboration, expanding on their previous project by focusing on the effect of temperature on sleep. The effect of temperature isn’t very pronounced on warm-blooded creatures like mammals and birds, but it’s hugely impactful on cold-blooded animals, like amphibians, reptiles, fish and insects — so Savage and Poe’s theory is that temperature affects the latter group’s sleep.

“Fortunately, in the past few years, people have been studying the sleep of more diverse organisms. One of these getting a lot of attention is fruit flies,” Savage says. “And we do see a pattern where more sleep is needed at higher temperatures. So now we’re trying to mathematically look at and quantify that, and what modifications we need in order to ask more and bigger questions.”

According to Poe, UCLA is perhaps the most qualified place possible to foster these breakthroughs.

“UCLA has been a world leader in sleep research for 50 years, for as long as the field has existed. Whenever I see a picture of our team in 1988, I laugh because that was basically everyone on earth doing sleep research at the time,” Poe says. “It means a lot that today, we are actively still pushing the envelope for the field, so much so that we can now theorize so knowledgeably about sleep across almost all animals.”

Both Savage and Poe remain incredibly ambitious, thinking ahead in terms of not just one step, but dozens…or more.

“Gina’s and my expertise and skills have been so complementary that our work has been strengthened more than we could have hoped. Our collaboration has been a huge boon both to science and to us personally,” says Savage. “And there’s so much more we can do. What we want to tackle could take us to the ends of careers and beyond — and that’s how we like it.”

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Renowned Egyptologist says it’s time to stop romanticizing ancient Egypt

By Alison Hewitt

In ‘The Good Kings,’ UCLA’s Kara Cooney draws parallels between pharaohs and present-day authoritarians
Image of UCLA's Kara Cooney alongside the cover of her book, ‘The Good Kings’

In her latest book, Kara Cooney draws parallels between the rulers of 3,000 years ago and the authoritarian leaders of today. Photo credit: Mikel Healey (Cooney)/National Geographic

Pyramids, pharaohs and ancient Egyptian gods have entranced many, but it’s time we stopped romanticizing the trappings of authoritarianism, according to UCLA’s Kara Cooney.

Cooney is a UCLA professor of Egyptology and archaeology and already a bestselling author (“The Woman Who Would Be King,” 2014, and “When Women Ruled the World,” 2019). In her latest book, she admits that her fascination with ancient Egypt has soured — so much so that she now describes herself as a “recovering Egyptologist.” The uncritical admiration of the pharaohs that has continued to the present day, she writes, is a legacy of the ancient rulers’ efforts to manipulate how they were perceived, and has even served as a narrative and cultural foundation propping up modern authoritarianism.

“How many of us have had deep obsessions with the ancient world — I just love Egyptian temples! I adore Greek mythology! — that are really symptoms of an ongoing addiction to male power that we just can’t kick?” Cooney writes.

“The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World,” published by National Geographic, draws direct parallels between the rulers of 3,000 years ago and modern tyrants. In it, Cooney describes how the pharaohs created a compelling moral argument for power that continues to mislead people today, and which is linked directly to the current rise of authoritarianism.

Cooney explores the pitfalls of patriarchal systems that harm women and men alike, and she convincingly argues that society is duplicating the historical patterns that have repeatedly led to power collapses. Only this time, she notes, climate change has altered the rules of recovery.

Cooney is chair of UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. In an interview with UCLA Newsroom, she talks about what lessons ancient Egyptian narratives might offer in light of the societal and social challenges the world faces in 2021.

Why are the pharaohs of ancient Egypt still so relevant thousands of years later?

Pharaohs open themselves up to social justice discussions. The hard thing is that the pharaohs were arguably the best ever at presenting an authoritarian regime as good and pure and moral. That’s the underlying idea that needs to be popped first, because we still buy into it today. Concepts of patriarchal society, extraction of natural resources for profit, exploitation, overwork, misogyny and more all came pouring out of the Egyptian narrative.

Image of Kara Cooney examining an artifact

Kara Cooney at work. “Pharaohs were arguably the best ever at presenting an authoritarian regime as good and pure and moral. That’s the underlying idea that needs to be popped first, because we still buy into it today.” Photo Courtesy of Kara Cooney

We’re still living in those narratives. We may tell ourselves we’re too smart to be fooled, but the idea of modern exceptionalism is a fake-out. We’re still just as prone to the fears of an early death or a lack of prosperity. We’re just as superstitious and god fearing.

All those vulnerabilities make us very, very easy marks for authoritarian regimes if we don’t think critically and understand the tools they are wielding over us.

What do you hope people take away from the book?

I wanted to give readers a playbook, in a sense, for what could come next from a historian’s perspective, and why the patriarchy is not the only way of running a system. The patriarchy is destroying itself. It’s happening. And we need to be there, anti-patriarchically, to rebuild something that better protects us all from the abuses of power.

You write that you see signs that the patriarchy is leading society toward a collapse, repeating a pattern that has occurred throughout history. But you also note that climate change will interrupt the cycle in a big way. What can we learn about what comes next by studying the rise and fall of ancient Egyptian regimes?

The patriarchy rises and falls in cycles, collapsing and rebuilding. But the thing that’s haunting authoritarian regimes now is that the Earth is not allowing that cycle anymore. The Earth is not allowing the ongoing extractive, consumptive, unequal hoarding that defines those regimes, because it’s unsustainable, and that unsustainability is now the undoing of the patriarchy.

We’ve had smaller-scale climate change for thousands of years; think of cities wiped away by deforestation that led to mudslides. The difference now is the scale. Now it’s global. The patriarchy sows the seeds for its own destruction again and again before coming back in a vicious cycle, but the difference this time is global climate change threatens to make this the final cycle.

I’m not a soothsayer, but from my 10,000-year view of history, I see two paths. It could be more patriarchy for another 500 years until the planet is truly dead, and then that’s it; that’s the end of the story. But I think we will flirt with patriarchy and mess with it for another 200-some years, and then we will find our way through to something sustainable and different.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu.

Mathematician Michael Hill honored for helping solve 50-year old geometry problem

Image of Michael Hill

Michael Hill. Photo credit: UCLA

By Max Gordy

Michael Hill, professor of mathematics in the UCLA College, has received the 2022 American Mathematical Society Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry for his paper, “On the nonexistence of elements of Kervaire invariant one,” along with his co-authors Michael Hopkins and Douglas Ravenel.

This paper solved a 50-year-old problem in geometric topology by showing that framed manifolds with Kervaire invariant one can only exist in finitely many dimensions, introducing deeply influential new ideas and techniques in algebraic topology.

“I feel profoundly honored and grateful to the AMS for this award,” Hill said. “This is the award that as a graduate student, I dreamed of someday receiving, and I am all the more delighted that it is for the theorem that I had dreamed of someday proving, working with mathematicians I so admired.

Hill is a member of the topology group, and his research focuses on algebraic topology. He co-founded the Talbot workshop series for early career researchers as well as Spectra: the Association for LGBTQ Mathematicians. Spectra works to make math more inclusive for LGBTQ people, allowing them to bring their whole selves to their mathematical lives. He received a Sloan Research Fellowship in 2010, was an invited speaker at the 2014 ICM in Seoul, South Korea, and was elected a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society in 2021.

The Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry is awarded every three years for a notable research work in geometry or topology that has appeared in the last six years. The work must be published in a recognized, peer-reviewed venue. The 2022 prize will be presented Jan. 5 at the 2022 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu.