From left to right: Isita Tripathi and Nisarg Shah

$100,000 Leadership Scholarships Awarded to Recent Grads

Currently in med school, Isita Tripathi ’20 and Nisarg Shah ’20 named inaugural Samvid Scholars

By Jonathan Riggs

From left to right: Isita Tripathi and Nisarg Shah

From left to right: Isita Tripathi and Nisarg Shah

In addition to enrolling at medical schools at their institutions of choice (Harvard and Yale, respectively), UCLA alumni Isita Tripathi ’20 and Nisarg Shah ’20 have another reason to celebrate. The two were recently selected from over 700 applicants to join the inaugural class of 20 Samvid Scholars. A new, merit-based graduate scholarship for future changemakers committed to effecting a positive change in society, the Samvid Scholars program offers two years of leadership development programming and supports up to $100,000 for graduate study.

“It’s a huge privilege and honor to be part of this community,” Tripathi says. “It has been really inspiring and thought-provoking to discuss the different approaches that each of us hopes to take to produce social change.”

“I’m excited to be working with everyone, sharing ideas, and figuring out how we can help each other achieve our goals,” adds Shah. “I feel very grateful to be part of this inaugural cohort.”

How did UCLA prepare you for medical school?

ISITA TRIPATHI: I really loved my education at UCLA. It was the first time I felt like I was educated about history and social inequities from the perspective of the oppressed, which motivated many of my community volunteering efforts. Those experiences helped me better understand the trauma and the systemic factors that play into someone’s experiences with the healthcare system, and made me passionate about helping people navigate it successfully.

NISARG SHAH: I think the most helpful part of my education was meeting people in classes and student groups who came from different backgrounds and learning from their diverse ways of thinking. It made me realize that the healthcare system needs to be able to accommodate many varied individual experiences. I felt motivated to pursue medicine in order to bridge those gaps, especially in terms of access to care and cost of services.

How did your minors complement your majors?

IT: Pairing my neuroscience major with a disability studies minor allowed me to understand both the biological and sociopolitical factors around neurodiversity, which shaped much of my work in the autism community. So much injustice and suffering have come from the medical field toward people with disabilities. Seeing that tension has really shaped my perspective on accessibility in healthcare, and allowed me to pursue research and advocacy that merges the social model of disability with existing medical interventions.

NS: The academically rigorous classes and invaluable research experiences in my Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics (MIMG) major helped me think about science more critically. But I wanted to understand medicine not just as a science, but also examine the critical social and personal components affecting health. With my public affairs minor, I felt challenged to think about how I could apply science to address issues in global health and public policy, which is something that I hope to continue at Yale.

How will you pay your Samvid Scholar experience forward?

IT: This program is about teaching people to play to their strengths and become visionaries in their fields, so I would love to cultivate that in future premeds, despite how rigid or prescribed the path to medicine can feel. In addition to mentorship, I want to fulfill the responsibility that has been given to me as a scholar by centering innovation for the good of society at the core of my work.

NS: Mentorship is very important to me — the mentors in my life are the reason that I was able to get to where I am and to keep moving toward my future goals. I hope to serve as a mentor for anyone who might need it. I also know how lucky I am to be getting such a great education, and I want to improve access to higher education and experiential training, especially for those in underserved communities.

What’s your advice for other Bruins to follow in your high-achieving footsteps?

IT: Being at UCLA can feel like you’re in a bit of a bubble, but it helps to get out in the community beyond campus and stay connected to the reason you wanted to pursue your major. If you are looking to take a creative route that is unusual for people in your field, don’t take “no” for an answer — find the faculty members who will nurture your growth and confidence while using criticism to understand the roadblocks you might face. In general, it can feel very tough to find your own opportunities without a lot of support at such a large institution, but that tenacity and self-starter mentality will help you so much in the future. Remember that you are valued and loved!

NS: UCLA is a great school, but also a big school. That means there are tons of opportunities, but it can be difficult to navigate. Be persistent — don’t give up even if what you’re working toward is hard to reach. Sometimes the most accessible resources are your peers, so make sure that you lean on them and ask for help. For example, I got great advice from students in classes above me just by asking what strategies they had used and what they would have done differently. And lastly, make sure that you are taking time to rest, and investing in your hobbies and health. Playing basketball and being around my friends helped me find the balance I needed to push forward.

What’s a special UCLA place for you?

IT: UCLA, hands down, has the most gorgeous campus. I was always a big fan of the Music Café in particular. Since I used to play flute in high school, it made me feel connected to a different part of myself, which was a nice escape from pre-med stress. Plus, when the doughnuts at Bombshelter sold out by 10 a.m., I could always find them at the Music Café.

NS: I met a lot of people in Dogwood and the dorms near De Neve who are still my friends today. It will always be a special place that reminds me of a fun freshman year and a lot of interesting people. I encourage everyone to make the most of their first-year experience —  those relationships will keep you grounded through all of the ups and downs of college.

Aomar Boum believes in the power of stories to unite

UCLA’s newly appointed Maurice Amado Professor of Sephardic Studies says sharing narratives is a key to understanding, tolerance

By Jonathan Riggs

Photo of Aomar Boum

Aomar Boum is an internationally respected socio-cultural anthropologist with expertise in Sephardic Jewish history and culture. Photo Credit: Joel Mason-Gaines/USHMM

Aomar Boum is convinced that we are all connected through our stories.

As a professor of anthropology and of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA, Boum takes a global perspective on the history of Jews from Morocco, including those who settled in Los Angeles, New York or Montreal, while also examining the larger context of minorities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Although he initially encountered some resistance as a Muslim scholar studying the traditions and history of a different faith, Boum has always believed in the importance of research to bridge conceptual gaps and bring together different communities.

“Stories, connections and communities are at the root of everything I do, and they inspire me deeply,” Boum said. “Beyond the research, beyond the books I write, what ultimately matters most is sharing these stories of how Jewish and Muslim families lived and continue their lives in Morocco, Iraq, Egypt —anywhere — so others can learn something from them, share it with someone else and so on.”

Raised on a subsistence farm in southeastern Morocco, Boum is an internationally respected socio-cultural anthropologist with expertise in Sephardic Jewish history and culture. An affiliated faculty member of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, Boum was recently newly appointed UCLA’s Maurice Amado Professor of Sephardic Studies.

“I see this appointment as an honor, opportunity and obligation,” he said. “It is an honor because this is one of the most important chairs of Sephardic Studies in the United States. It’s an opportunity because it will allow me to push the scope of research in this field to dig deeper from the perspective of Muslim–Jewish relations. And it’s an obligation to add to the incredibly rich work in this area by faculty and students both around the globe and here at UCLA.”

The author and co-editor of four books, including “Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco” and “The Holocaust and North Africa,” Boum sees great potential in what his appointment will mean for his work, both on campus and beyond — including the new Moroccan Jewish studies program he’s helping launch at the Leve Center. He is also excited for Los Angeles’ annual Morocco Day celebration on Nov. 19.

The key to spreading knowledge and ultimately tolerance and progress, Boum said, is sharing stories with one another. To that end, he’s writing a graphic novel with graphic artist Nadjib Berber, telling the true story of a German Jew who fled the Nazis during World War II and comes into contact with other refugees with their own powerful stories to share.

“Especially today, with antisemitism and Islamophobia and different kinds of group-based hatred so prevalent, it’s crucial to reach people however you can — in their own language — to tell these stories of our shared humanity,” Boum said. “Ultimately, I believe that’s our mission at the Leve Center and at UCLA, to keep creating and sharing exceptional scholarship to counter misinformation and ignorance.”

As a storyteller and a literature lover, Boum draws deep inspiration from the character studies and finely crafted plots of classic novels. Not surprisingly, he recognizes the same creative, shaping hand in the tale of his own life. His first grant came from the namesake of the chair he now holds, the Maurice Amado Foundation, and launched his research career.

“I am an anthropologist who believes in the power of historical narratives to bring us all together, no matter who we are,” Boum said. “My family still lives in the community in which I grew up, and I love taking my daughter to see them. Opening minds and hearts — whether you live in an affluent L.A. neighborhood or a poor place across the world with no drinkable household water — allows us to see that, without a doubt, all of our stories here on Earth are ultimately intertwined.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

For more of Our Stories at the College click here.

Kal Penn to discuss life and diversity in Hollywood at virtual UCLA Dean’s Salon

By Jonathan Riggs

Photo of Kal Penn by Maarten de Boer

Kal Penn by Maarten de Boer

Star returns to his alma mater upon publication of his autobiography, You Can’t Be Serious

Kal Penn (real name: Kalpen Modi) is as famous for his Hollywood big-screen performances as he is for stepping back from them to serve in Obama’s White House — and he is proud to have charted a life and career on his own terms. The 2000 UCLA graduate (who has spoken on campus and even co-taught a course) will return (virtually) to share his hard-earned wisdom in a Dean’s Salon conversation with Dean Darnell Hunt on Thursday, Nov. 11, from 5-6:30 p.m. (Register here.)

The talk will include discussion of both UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report and the actor’s new memoir, You Can’t Be Serious, which sheds new light on his journey from New Jersey to Los Angeles and beyond.

“My book is for everybody out there who’s been told that what they want to do might be a little too crazy, whether that’s a major or a class or a passion,” he says. “UCLA was obviously a big catalyst in what I was able to do as an artist and then as a public servant. I lived in Rieber, so big shout out to five south and six south!”

What’s your advice for aspiring actors of color?

Every actor deals with being typecast, but for performers of color, there’s that added layer of you’re oftentimes just too brown or too ethnic or too whatever it is. It reminds me of a time on campus when I went to a moderated conversation with an actor who, I believe at the time, was the only Black actor on network television, period. Her advice was to always show up prepared, knowing that someone who looks like her is going to have to work a thousand times harder just to have the same consideration as someone who doesn’t. This blew my mind, because it was really her talking about the best places to channel your energy. I was this young aspiring actor who kept getting rejected because of the color of my skin, and I was expending a lot of anger in dealing with that. And here was this successful woman basically explaining, “Shouldn’t you put that energy toward working harder, even though it’s unfair you have to?”

You’ve seen firsthand the challenges of making progress, both in the White House and in Hollywood. What keeps you engaged and inspired to believe things can keep improving?

Seeing how much things can change if people participate. I mean, the system is designed to make us feel complacent, right? Government moves slowly on purpose, even as our actual real lives get faster and faster. It can be frustrating to know you’re never going to get 100 percent of the changes you want, but that doesn’t mean you don’t aim for 100 or even 1,000 percent. And if you only end up with 50 percent, that’s way better than nothing. In the White House, I worked on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which ultimately got repealed, but it was really messy and very tricky and took a long, long time. Unfortunately, the DREAM Act — which I also worked on — fell short by five Democratic votes. While that was a huge defeat, it was also the closest that the DREAM Act had ever come to getting passed. So there was this momentum that generations and generations of activists had put toward something that, hopefully, the next time around will move in the right direction. Progress is still only possible if we show up.

How does it feel when you return to UCLA’s campus?

Frustrated that the Taco Bell that used to be outside on Bruin Walk moved! Seriously, my years at UCLA were my most formative. When I come back to campus, I love it. It makes me feel boundless possibility, those Bruin values of giving back to your community and doing whatever it is that you want to do. UCLA helped me realize I can have one foot in two totally different things, and that’s really exciting. Also, a lot of my origin stories are from either friends making fun of me at UCLA or being supportive or both. My screen name, Kal Penn, came about because of a conversation at that Fatburger burger off of Gayley that I know is still there because it’s delicious.

What do you want the takeaway to be for people who read your book and attend your event?

There are times where you can be deeply serious and focus and talk about things that are really tough to talk about. And then there are other times when you can totally just make a sex joke and write about playing the drinking game Edward Fortyhands on Weyburn at somebody’s apartment. I love that my life is one where I can talk about those experiences at the same time that I can talk about what it’s like to write public policy or put an executive order through at the highest levels for the President of the United States. Life isn’t an either/or. We know that from being Bruins.

Click here to register for the Thursday, Nov. 11 UCLA Dean’s Salon from 5-6:30 p.m. featuring a conversation between Dean Darnell Hunt and Kal Penn on life and diversity on Hollywood.

Learn more about UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report here and view it in its entirety here.

 

A picture of two people plant an ebony sapling

UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute receives $1 million from Bob and Cindy Taylor

A picture of two people plant an ebony sapling

Two people plant an ebony sapling

By Jonathan Riggs

In line with his long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability, master guitar maker Bob Taylor and his wife, Cindy Taylor, have donated $1.05 million to support UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute and its ebony conservation research and restoration efforts in Cameroon.

“I can think of no better partner than UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute to help protect, enhance and better understand the population of ebony trees, a precious resource to both the Congo Basin and the world in general,” said Bob Taylor, a co-founder of Taylor Guitars. “The incredible work they have already accomplished and their vision for addressing critical environmental and development issues are deeply inspiring and directly align with my own values.”

Taylor has led efforts in Cameroon to lessen tree waste by encouraging makers of stringed instruments to use variegated rather than all-black ebony. He also purchased and revitalized Cameroon’s leading sawmill, where he has implemented efforts to better use natural resources, including by starting an onsite seedling nursery.

Through those and other efforts in Cameroon, Taylor crossed paths in the mid-2010s with UCLA professor Thomas Smith, the founder and co-director of the institute, who has conducted biodiversity and conservation research in the region for nearly four decades. Since then, Bob and Cindy Taylor have donated more than $1.3 million to support the institute’s progress on several fronts, including studies of the ecology of ebony, a massive community-driven replanting program, and a new strategy for community-based rainforest restoration in the Congo Basin.

“Bob and Cindy Taylor’s leadership and generosity have helped empower the Congo Basin Institute to fulfill the highest ideals of our mission,” said Smith, who is also founding director of the Center for Tropical Research at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “They appreciate the importance of furthering science and taking action that will benefit the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest.”

Bob Taylor also is respected for his work restoring koa trees in Hawaii and trees in urban areas of Southern California.

The Congo Basin Institute, founded in 2015, was UCLA’s first foreign affiliate; it is a joint initiative between UCLA and the nonprofit International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which is headquartered in Nigeria.

The institute operates under the auspices of the UCLA Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Creative Activities, and is supported by the divisions of life sciences and physical sciences in the UCLA College.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

‘I could be killed at any time’: The anguish of being wrongfully convicted of murder

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

Maurice Caldwell. Photo credit: David Greenwald/The People’s Vanguard of Davis

By Stuart Wolpert

Maurice Caldwell spent 20 years in prison before his wrongful conviction for a 1990 murder in San Francisco was finally overturned.

Paul Abramson, a UCLA professor of psychology who was hired as an expert by Caldwell’s legal team to assess the psychological harm Caldwell suffered, conducted 20 extensive interviews with Caldwell between 2015 and 2020, in addition to interviewing prison correctional officers and reviewing court hearings and decisions, depositions, psychological testing results and experts’ reports.

In a paper published in the peer-reviewed Wrongful Conviction Law Review, Abramson provides an overview of the case and a comprehensive psychological analysis detailing the devastating and ongoing effects of Caldwell’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment. He also examines the historically contentious relations between police and communities of color and asks why corrupt and abusive officers rarely face punishment for their actions.

Caldwell’s 1991 conviction was overturned on March 28, 2010. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case, and Caldwell was released from prison in 2011. He settled his decade-long civil suit against the county and city of San Francisco, the police department and one SFPD officer just weeks before the scheduled start of the trial, and this month, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved an $8 million payout to Caldwell, who was 23 at the time of his conviction.

‘Appalling injustice’: The wrongful conviction of Caldwell

In January 1990, San Francisco Police Sgt. Kitt Crenshaw was among several officers who chased a group of young Black men who had allegedly been firing weapons at streetlights in the city’s Alemany public housing project. Caldwell was apprehended but not arrested. Caldwell alleged that Crenshaw physically abused him and threatened to kill him, and he filed a complaint against the officer with the city’s police watchdog agency.

About five months later, a man was shot to death in the Alemany projects. Crenshaw, who was not assigned to the homicide division, volunteered to search the projects for offenders and made Caldwell his primary subject, write Abramson and his co-author, Sienna Bland-Abramson, a UCLA undergraduate psychology major (and Abramson’s daughter) who worked on the case as a senior research analyst at two civil rights law firms.

On the strength of a dubious eyewitness claim and Crenshaw’s investigation notes, Caldwell was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and two other charges and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. Another man eventually confessed to the murder. Bland-Abramson concluded that San Francisco police officers had committed racial profiling, harassment and acts of corruption.

► Watch a video and read more on Caldwell’s case (Northern California Innocence Project)

Crenshaw, who retired from the San Francisco Police Department in 2011 with the rank of commander, had 67 civilian complaints lodged against him over the course of his career but never faced repercussions for purportedly fabricating his notes to frame Caldwell for murder, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

Catastrophic suffering and profound distress

Caldwell endured catastrophic suffering, profound and overwhelming stress throughout his incarceration in various prisons, Abramson writes. How did Caldwell’s experiences affect him?

About 2 1/2 years after Caldwell entered the California prison system, he was brutally stabbed in the head, shoulder and chest by another inmate who used an improvised 6-inch-long knife made from a metal rod filed to a sharp point. At the time, he was an inmate at California State Prison, Sacramento, also known as New Folsom’s Level 4 Prison.

Caldwell said the stabbing changed his life. “I knew at that very moment I could be killed at any time, on any day,” he told Abramson.

Photo of Paul Abramson

Psychology professor Paul Abramson, who conducted 20 interviews with Caldwell over a five-year period, said the former inmate is suffering from complex PTSD.

A retired correctional officer, Chris Buckley, who knew and had supervised Caldwell while he was incarcerated in a Northern California maximum-security prison, told Abramson last year, “A Level 4 prison is like the worst neighborhood you could imagine. Something terrible always might happen. Besides all of the stabbings, there are so many sexual assaults. Fear of dying in prison is a legitimate concern.”

Caldwell routinely observed violent struggles and riots throughout his incarceration, and repeatedly saw lethal weapons in the possession of inmates. He never felt safe any time he walked outside his cell, always fearing for his life. His closest family members — his grandmother, mother and brother — all died while he was in prison. He was prohibited from attending their funerals and became suicidal, feeling he had nothing, and no one, to live for, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

“Being in prison was like going to war every day,” Caldwell told Abramson. “It’s only when I was in my cell at night that I felt I was safe. I was depressed every day in prison. I don’t sleep. I suffer every day. I can understand how someone would go postal. I wouldn’t do something like that, for my kids, for all kinds of reasons. But I can understand.”

Caldwell suffers from what is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder — a form of deeply entrenched severe psychological distress also experienced by Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war and victims of childhood abuse, domestic abuse and torture — the result of having experienced sustained and repetitive agonizing events, Abramson said. Complex PTSD is often marked by rage and an unyielding depression, as in Caldwell’s case, according to Abramson.

“Mr. Caldwell could very well be an archetype for complex PTSD,” Abramson writes. “Maximum-security prisons maintain complete coercive control through 24-hour armed surveillance, locked cell blocks, 24-hour visibility of every aspect of a prisoner’s life, routine strip searches and thoroughly structured daily routines; all of which is encompassed within a fortress that is distinguished by outside perimeter barriers, and surrounded by razor wire with lethal electric fences designed to eliminate the possibility of escape.”

The many traumas Caldwell, now 54, experienced while in captivity imposed such an emotional burden on him that he disintegrated psychologically, Abramson writes, and the recent civil settlement provides no measure of relief from the deep and lasting anguish and rage that consume him — and likely will for the rest of his life.

Caldwell and Buckley, the former correctional officer, spoke with UCLA undergraduates in late September in an “Art and Trauma” honors collegium course that Abramson co-teaches.

Abramson and Bland-Abramson conclude that Caldwell was a victim of appalling injustice, which continues to disproportionately affect people of color in the United States. Recent research has shown that Black people in the U.S. are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder.

“Our hope,” the authors write, “is that by presenting this material, we can facilitate an understanding for, and empathy with, the trials and tribulations of victims of color who have suffered tremendously from police corruption and wrongful convictions. Until equal protection under the law is sustained unequivocally, restorative justice for people of color will be grievously foreshortened.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Reconstructing What Was

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

By Jonathan Riggs

Founded early in the sixth century, rebuilt in the twelfth and dismantled in the nineteenth after the French Revolution, the glorious Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture, but exists now only in legend.

In her dissertation, UCLA art history doctoral student Tori Schmitt hopes to shed more light on this medieval church, named after the patron saint of Paris and originally located where the neoclassical Panthèon now stands on the Left Bank.

“There’s not a building to work with, just sculptural fragments, drawings, watercolors and accounts by people. So that mystery intrigued me the more I read and learned about it,” says Tori Schmitt, a UCLA doctoral student in art history. “I’ve always loved 3-D modeling, drafting and trying to imagine what might have been, so I found it an exciting puzzle.”

Photo of Tori Schmitt

Tori Schmitt

Schmitt’s interest in historical reconstructions was first piqued when she served as an undergraduate research assistant to Professor Meredith Cohen on the digital humanities project Paris Past & Present. After earning her master’s at Columbia University, Schmitt returned to UCLA to once again work closely with her mentor, earning the inaugural Diane C. Brouillette Graduate Fellowship in Art History along the way.

“Diane C. Brouillette also worked on early Gothic architecture and sculpture; she wrote her dissertation on Senlis Cathedral,” says Schmitt. “I am honored to hold a fellowship in her name and add to the field.”

The fellowship will allow Schmitt to conduct research abroad in France, scouring Parisian archives and libraries in addition to viewing sculptural fragments of the abbey in the collections of Musée de Cluny, Musée Carnavalet and the Louvre. Crucially, she will be able to travel to other significant French sites of early Gothic architecture and sculpture, such as Chartres, Sens and Senlis, as well as museum collections throughout the country, and to gain a deeper understanding of the abbey’s enduring power across French culture and history.

This opportunity means everything to the Southern California native, who has long drawn inspiration from the architecture of Los Angeles and of UCLA’s campus. During the pandemic, Schmitt took up amateur photography, snapping images of interesting and surprising buildings she encountered on her bike rides, including quite a few L.A. Gothic-inspired, 1930s-era ‘storybook’ bungalows. For Schmitt, it’s a reminder that architecture doesn’t just belong to history or scholarship, but to everyone.

“Whenever I’m teaching undergrads, I try to remind them that they shouldn’t be intimidated by the study of architecture, because they’ve been interacting with it their entire lives,” she says. “They don’t have to become Gothic art historians like me, but I want them to be interested and engaged and to have open eyes for all the spaces they’ll enter throughout their lives. Ultimately, architecture is about people.”

Looking at history through this hands-on lens of wonder and curiosity is key to Schmitt’s approach in both her research and her teaching. After all, it’s one thing to ask a question of Google and receive thousands of results; it’s quite another to travel in person to a historical site and view a single document preserved for thousands of years. It helps bring the past—and most importantly its people—alive, and in a broader, more vivid context that connects us all. This is something Schmitt thinks about frequently, especially when she’s in the physical presence of the architectural creations that deserve to be thought of as much more than just buildings.

“When I went to Notre-Dame for the first time and climbed to the top, I was overwhelmed. It was so big, so beautiful it blew my mind,” Schmitt says. “They built it with no power tools—it was all relational math, highly complex geometry—and the skill on display is beyond belief. Gothic cathedrals were constructed to be awe-inspiring, and when you think about the people behind the place, that power is multiplied.”

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

A decade after gene therapy, children born with deadly immune disorder remain healthy

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

By Sarah C.P. Williams

Over a decade ago, UCLA physician-scientists began using a pioneering gene therapy they developed to treat children born with a rare and deadly immune system disorder. They now report that the effects of the therapy appear to be long-lasting, with 90% of patients who received the treatment eight to 11 years ago still disease-free.

ADA-SCID, or adenosine deaminase–deficient severe combined immunodeficiency, is caused by mutations in the gene that creates the ADA enzyme, which is essential to a functioning immune system. For babies with the disease, exposure to everyday germs can be fatal, and if untreated, most will die within the first two years of life.

In the gene therapy approach detailed in the new paper, Dr. Donald Kohn of UCLA and his colleagues removed blood-forming stem cells from each child’s bone marrow, then used a specially modified virus, originally isolated from mice, to guide healthy copies of the ADA gene into the stem cells’ DNA. Finally, they transplanted the cells back into the children’s bone marrow. The therapy, when successful, prompts the body to produce a continuous supply of healthy immune cells capable of fighting infections. Because the transplanted stem cells are the baby’s own, there is no risk of rejection.

Kohn and his team report in the journal Blood that of the 10 children who received the one-time treatment between 2009 and 2012 as part of a phase 2 clinical trial, nine have continued to remain stable. The study follows a 2017 paper, also published in Blood, on the initial success of the treatment in those nine children.

“What we saw in the first few years was that this therapy worked, and now we’re able to say that it not only works, but it works for more than 10 years,” said Kohn, senior author of the study and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “We hope someday we’ll be able to say that these results last for 80 years.”

While not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, gene therapy for ADA-SCID represents a potentially life-changing option for children who otherwise must undergo twice-weekly injections of the ADA enzyme — an expensive and time-consuming treatment — or find a matched bone marrow donor who can provide a transplant of healthy stem cells.

10 years after: Assessing and refining gene therapy for ADA-SCID

Of the 10 children who received the therapy between 2009 and 2012, most were babies; the one older child, who was 15 at the time, was the only participant whose immune function was not restored by the treatment, suggesting the therapy is most effective in younger children, Kohn said.

The other nine children were successfully treated and have remained healthy enough that none have needed enzyme replacement or a bone marrow transplant to support their immune systems in the years since.

However, the researchers did find significant immune system differences among the successfully treated children roughly a decade on. In particular, they observed that some had a nearly hundred times more blood-forming stem cells containing the corrected ADA gene than others, as well as more copies of the gene in each cell.

Those with more copies of the ADA gene in more cells had the best immune function, Kohn noted, while some of those with lower levels of the gene replacement required regular infusions of immunoglobulins, a type of immune protein, to keep their systems fully functional. More work is needed, he said, to understand the best way of achieving high levels of the gene in all patients.

“What these results tell us is that there’s a formula for optimal success for ADA-SCID, and it involves correcting more than 5 to 10% of each patient’s blood-forming stem cells,” said Kohn, who is also a distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “The relationship between the levels of gene-corrected cells and immune system function has never been shown so clearly before.”

The researchers also found that in some children’s stem cells, the treatment disturbed genes involved in cell growth — a phenomenon seen in other studies of similar gene therapies. While over time this could potentially lead to the improper activation of the growth genes, turning the cells cancerous, Kohn noted that none of the patients in the clinical trial had this problem.

Still, that safety concern is one of the reasons Kohn and his colleagues are developing a new ADA-SCID gene therapy using a different type of virus to deliver the corrected ADA gene that is much less likely to affect growth genes. This newer approach successfully treated 48 of 50 babies who received the therapy in clinical trials at UCLA, University College London and the National Institutes of Health. And while the approach used a decade ago may no longer remain the top candidate for FDA approval going forward, Kohn says its enduring success is encouraging for the field in general.

“Knowing that a gene therapy can have this lasting effect in ADA-SCID for more than a decade is important for our path forward as we develop new gene therapies for this and other diseases,” he said.

The research was supported by an FDA Office of Orphan Products Development award, the National Gene Vector Biorepository, the National Human Genome Research Institute intramural program, the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

TV shows with diverse writers rooms, casts resonated with pandemic audiences

By Jessica Wolf

The latest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, published today, reveals that television viewers during the COVID-19 pandemic leaned into content that came out of diverse writers rooms and that featured diverse casts.

“We have seen this appetite for diverse content repeated over the history of our analyses,” said Darnell Hunt, co-author of the report and UCLA’s dean of social sciences. “The fact that shows with diverse writers rooms did well last year also illustrates that audiences are looking for authentic portrayals.”

The report, which covers statistics for the 2019–20 TV season, tracks racial and gender diversity among key job categories, as well as ratings and social media engagement for 461 scripted shows across 50 broadcast, cable and streaming providers.

The new study found a continued correlation between the racial makeup of shows’ writers and TV ratings. For example, among households of all races in 2019–20, the scripted broadcast shows that earned the highest ratings were those in which people of color made up between 31% and 40% of the credited writers.

Overall, racial diversity improved in almost every job category tracked by the report, and representation among women improved in about half of the job titles.

And for the first time in the report’s history, people of color had a higher percentage of scripted broadcast TV acting roles, 43.4%, than their overall percentage of the U.S. population.

Across all three platform types, there were more people of color credited as writers than in the previous report. Overall, people of color made up 26.4% of the credited writers for broadcast series last season (up from 23.4%), 28.6% of credited writers for cable (up from 25.8%) and 24.2% of credited writers for streaming (up from 22.8%). Most of those modest gains were recorded by women, according to the study.

But people of color are still largely underrepresented among TV writers, given that 42.7% of Americans are nonwhite.

Lagging representation among Latino actors, directors

Latino representation in all job categories remained flat from the previous year, and Latinos hold far fewer TV jobs than their share of the U.S. population overall would predict. Latino actors held just 6.3% of broadcast TV roles, 5.7% in cable and 5.5% in streaming. Meanwhile, Latino directors were responsible for only 5.4% of broadcast TV episodes, 3.5% of cable episodes and 3.0% of streaming episodes.

“This UCLA report clearly demonstrates that more work is necessary to achieve more accurate representation and truly authentic portrayals in American television,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas. ”I hope this report encourages entertainment executives to reevaluate their systems for recruiting, retaining, and promoting Latinx talent, work in earnest to make changes, and create a more inclusive culture.”

According to the report, a significant proportion of 2019–20 TV content — 35% of broadcast shows, 22.9% of cable and 25.7% of streaming — was made in Los Angeles, where census data shows that 48.6% of the population is Hispanic or Latino.

“Diversifying the workforce means bringing equity to the economy and ensuring inclusionary practices in Hollywood,” said California State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo. “As Latinos make up the largest population in the state of California, yet only a dismal percentage in Hollywood, I’m looking forward to ensuring the Latinx community is not subsidizing its own exclusion via California’s Film Tax Credit Program, which the legislature oversees.”

The Hollywood Diversity Report recently received funding from the state of California that will enable UCLA researchers to continue to support such progress.

Diversity in acting

Over the decade since the Hollywood Diversity Report began, diversity has improved the most among acting jobs, especially in TV, compared with all other TV and movie job types. In 2019–20, television shows with majority-nonwhite casts were more prevalent than ever.

For the first time since the researchers began tracking data, a plurality of shows on cable (28.1%) and streaming platforms (26.8%) featured casts in which the majority of actors were nonwhite. And 32.1% of broadcast shows had majority-nonwhite casts, up from just 2.0% in the first report, which covered the 2011–12 season.

Photo of Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón

Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón. Photo: Mike Baker

The new report provides further support for the fact that audiences favor shows with diverse casts. During 2019–20, among white households, ratings for scripted broadcast shows were highest for shows whose actors were 31% to 40% nonwhite. Among Black households, scripted broadcast shows with the highest ratings where those in which casts were more than 50% nonwhite.

For streaming programming, which is dominated by Netflix, ratings among white, Black and Asian households were highest for shows with casts that were from 31% to 40% nonwhite.

The report’s authors also analyze audiences’ interaction with TV programs on social media, and how those trends correspond with cast diversity. For scripted cable shows during 2019–20, for example, they found that programs with majority nonwhite casts had the highest engagement on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for streaming shows, audience engagement on Twitter specifically was highest for programs with majority nonwhite casts.

Mixed progress among show creators

Another area in which diversity improved was among show creators. That’s an important datapoint because show creators have influence over which stories are developed, whose stories they represent and how they’re told, said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the report and the director of research and civic engagement in the UCLA Division of Social Sciences.

Women made up 29.0% of the creators of scripted cable shows, up nearly 7 percentage points over the prior season, marking the largest one-year gain for women in that job category since the report began. And people of color made up 20.6% of scripted cable show creators in 2019–20, up from 14.5% the previous season and nearly triple the share (7.4%) from 2011–12.

However, women held creator positions for fewer broadcast shows in 2019–20 (24.1%) than they did the prior year (28.1%) — and even fewer than women held in 2011–12 (26.5%).

“We also see that when women and people of color hold high-level creative positions, there is greater diversity down the line in casting and likely for crew hiring,” Ramón said. “Women and people of color are still very underrepresented in these and other behind-the-camera jobs, which is why this report continues to exist.”

Other takeaways:

  • The number of acting roles for women in 2019–20 was nearly equal to those of men across all three platform types. Women made up 46.3% of total cast in scripted broadcast shows, 45.3% in cable and 46.9% in streaming.
  • Trans and nonbinary actors were virtually absent across all platforms.
  • Out of a total 2,932 credited actors, just 13 were Native people, including just three Native women.
  • People of color directed 25.8% of broadcast episodes, 27.2% of cable and 21.4% of streaming, up from 24.3% and, 22.9% and 18.2% in the 2018–19 season.
  • Women directed 30.6% of broadcast episodes, 31.3% of cable and 33.4% of streaming, up from 29.3%, 29.7% and 29.1% the prior season.
  • Latinos made up just 4.8% of the credited writers for broadcast programs, 4.7% in cable and 4.3% in streaming.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

New scholarship supports undergraduate internships at community organizations

Image collage of Destiny Clark, Victoria Liu, Maya Desai

Destiny Clark, Victoria Liu, Maya Desai

An unpaid summer internship is practically a rite of passage for most college students. But a new scholarship awarded this year by the UCLA Center for Community Engagement enabled four undergraduates to turn their unpaid internships at nonprofits and other community-centered organizations into paid ones.

  • Destiny Clark, junior physiological science major and public health minor, interned with Building Blocks for Kids, which promotes financial literacy and career development in low-income high school students. For her internship, she helped with curriculum development and outreach to local organizations to recruit volunteers.
  • Khushi Desai, senior sociology major and labor studies minor, interned with 826 Valencia, a nonprofit that supports under-resourced students from elementary through high school with their creative and expository writing.
  • Maya Desai, senior public affairs major and urban and regional studies minor, interned with the City of Santa Cruz’s Parks and Recreation department. She helped create a centralized database of information about all the parks, beaches and coastal access points that are run by the Santa Cruz County Parks and Planning department.
  • Victoria Liu, senior psychobiology major and global health minor, interned with South African epidemiologist Dr. White Ndwanya, who works with UNAIDS. Liu was part of a project to investigate how local NGOs provide holistic services to people with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and she also helped create a COVID-19 epidemiological profile for the Western Cape province showing the progression of infection levels and the effectiveness of lockdowns. This internship was part of the UCLA Global Internship Program.

The four scholarship recipients noted how valuable their internships’ hands-on experience is to their overall education and career preparation. Maya Desai said working with permits, development plans and other logistical aspects of urban planning gave her a new perspective on paperwork.

“I hadn’t learned about that in any of my urban planning classes, but through this process I realized nothing gets done without it,” said Desai, who seeks a future career in transportation planning. “It was definitely a reality check for me to understand this is what a large part of being an urban planner is going to be like on a day to day basis.”

Clark said it’s important to her to include community service in her college experience. Working with Building Blocks for Kids was especially meaningful since she went through the program as a high school student.

“I remember how challenging it was for me going through my high school education, trying to come to UCLA,” Clark said, “so I want to really give tips and advice to those students just so they won’t have to go through those hard times.”

The scholarships were funded by a gift from Wendy Liberko and other generous donors. Liberko said her experience volunteering for nonprofits and serving on nonprofit boards makes the impact of her gift even more meaningful.

“You’re not living if you’re not giving. I hope this scholarship can have a lasting impact, not only with the students but with programs that they end up supporting,” Liberko said. “If working for a nonprofit or community organization is someone’s passion, then helping them be efficient and well-rounded makes such a difference.”

“The scholarship allowed me an additional avenue to pursue a nonprofit internship,” Liu said. “That sector is definitely something that I’m very interested in, especially in ways that they uplift marginalized communities and bridge a lot of the equity issues that we’re seeing in our society, specifically in healthcare.”

Shalom Staub, director of the Center for Community Engagement, said internships can be enormously impactful on a student’s development, enriching their academic learning and affording them a real-world taste of working in a prospective field of professional interest.

“I am so grateful to our donors for supporting these scholarships,” he said. “They made unpaid nonprofit internships accessible to students who might not otherwise have this opportunity at this critical moment in their education and pre-professional development.”

Photo of Karen McKinnon

Karen McKinnon receives Packard fellowship

Photo of Karen McKinnon

Karen McKinnon

UCLA climate statistician Karen McKinnon was selected to the 2021 class of Packard Fellows for Science and Engineering. The honor is given annually to 20 innovative early-career scientists and engineers, and it comes with an award of $875,000 over five years.

McKinnon’s research uses climate dynamics, statistics and machine learning to understand and predict climate variability and change. Her goals include informing policymakers’ and planners’ ability to respond to the effects of climate change, particularly in vulnerable regions that are susceptible to wildfires, major storms and other extreme events.

“At a time when we are confronting so many difficult, intertwined challenges, including climate change, a global pandemic, and racial injustice, I am buoyed by the determination and energy of these 20 scientists and engineers,” said Nancy Lindborg, Packard Foundation president and CEO.

The award was introduced by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation in 1988 to give early career scientists and researchers more freedom to pursue their own research with few restrictions. Fellows meet annually to discuss their research and explore possibilities for collaboration.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.