A photo of Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas

Linguistics student fulfills dream at UCLA

A photo of Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas

Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas, a third-year graduate student, says, “By going to America to get my Ph.D., I would have better opportunities to expand my learning, my cultural awareness and my life.” (Courtesy of Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas)

In honor of International Women’s Day 2021 on March 8, the UCLA International Institute is publishing a series of profiles of female Bruins.

Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas, a UCLA graduate student in linguistics who hails from Saudi Arabia, grew up in the Farasan Islands, a group of coral islands in the Red Sea. A star student throughout her school years, Abeer set her sights on a college education as a young girl with her mother’s strong support.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Abeer had to move to mainland Saudi Arabia to attend college. She chose linguistics among the majors open to her because she felt it would help her learn foreign languages. She began her studies at Jeddah University, but received her bachelor’s degree at Jazan University in 2011.

She soon found a job at her alma mater as a linguistics lecturer, but she was required to continue her higher education. “I had heard how the United States had the biggest and greatest universities in the world, and I felt that my place was there,” Abeer says.

In 2018, Abeer completed her master of arts degree at Cal State Long Beach. She was accepted into a number of doctoral programs in linguistics, including UCLA. Now in her third year of study at UCLA, the Bruin graduate student is on the cusp of submitting her thesis to become an official Ph.D. candidate and hopes to become a teaching assistant this spring or fall.

“I’ve gained something bigger than just an education by studying in America,” she says. “It’s made me more open to the world. I value that people from other cultures and religions are now my close friends — that was the greatest thing I learned here,” she says.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Office of International Studies and Global Engagement’s website. Click to read the full article.

 

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

UCLA-led study reveals ‘hidden costs’ of being Black in the U.S.

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

The study’s findings may help explain why increased income levels among Black men aren’t accompanied by improved physical and mental health outcomes, as they are for whites, researchers say. (Photo Credit: iStock.com/FlamingoImages)

A woman grips her purse tightly as you approach. A store manager follows you because you look “suspicious.” You enter a high-end restaurant, and the staff assume you’re applying for a job. You’re called on in work meetings only when they’re talking about diversity.

The indignities and humiliations Black men — even those who have “made it” — regularly endure have long been seen as part and parcel of life in the United States among the Black community, a sort of “Black tax” that takes a heavy toll on physical and mental health.

Now, a new UCLA-led study reveals these “hidden costs” of being Black in America. Researchers who analyzed a national sample of the views of Black men and white men found that Black men of all income levels reported experiencing higher levels of discrimination than their white counterparts.

“Black men face constant experiences of discrimination and disappointment when they try to contribute. They are treated like criminals in a society where they often are not allowed to achieve their full potential,” said the study’s co-senior author, Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

“Successful Black men,” she said, “hope their hard work will pay off and instead are tormented to find their education and income often do not protect them from racial discrimination. The ‘return on achievement’ is reduced for Blacks in the U.S. It’s a disturbing wake-up call.”

The study, “Money protects white but not African American men against discrimination,” is published today in the peer-reviewed open-access International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

To measure perceived discrimination, the researchers analyzed data from the National Survey of American Life that assessed the mental health of 1,271 Black and 372 non-Hispanic white adults who live in the same areas across the U.S. Survey questions inquired about chronic, daily experiences over the past year. For example, respondents were asked how often in their day-to-day lives any of the following had occurred: “being followed around in stores,” “people acting as if they think you are dishonest,” “receiving poorer service than other people at restaurants” and “being called names or insulted.” Scaled response options ranged from 1 (“never”) to 6 (“almost every day”).

The results indicate that many Black men face discriminatory indignities on a nearly daily basis, year after year — and the experience is exhausting, said Mays, who directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is a special advisor to UCLA’s chancellor on Black life. “It takes a toll on your physical and mental health. You get depleted.”

The daily discrimination measured by the survey did not include other frequently cited injustices, such as being pulled over and questioned by police officers without cause and facing discrimination in housing, education, jobs and health care, said Mays. She noted that while the study’s results were distressing, they were not particularly surprising.

“We’ve known this,” she said, “but now it’s documented. This is evidence.”

Higher incomes and achievement offer Black men little relief

While the study found that for white men, increases in household income were inversely associated with perceived discrimination, this did not hold true for Black men, who continued to report high levels of discrimination regardless of any boost in income level.

The findings may explain why Black men, even as they attain greater financial and educational success on average, don’t gain much protection against negative physical and mental health outcomes the way white men generally do, said co-senior author Susan Cochran, a professor of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health.

“In the United States, many people believe that higher levels of income and education provide relief against being treated differently, badly or unfairly,” Cochran said. “The results of our study show that is truer for white men, but it’s clearly not the case for many Black men. Structural barriers limit the benefits of Black men’s economic achievements, and perceived discrimination increases the risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes.”

For Black men, increases in income at all financial levels actually lead to more perceived discrimination, perhaps because they come into increased contact with whites, according to lead author Shervin Assari, who conducted the analysis as a researcher with the BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is currently an associate professor of urban public health and family medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

“It was upsetting to write this study,” Assari said. “Successful Blacks expect better treatment and think they deserve it but often do not get it.”

Discrimination, the authors say, is embedded in the fabric of U.S. institutions and harms Black men in their daily lives. For Mays, the damage this does to equal opportunity brings to mind the 1951 Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” in which the poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”

“Change has to come faster,” Mays said. “Change has to be permanent. We are tired of hearing ‘wait your turn.’ Black men’s dreams have been deferred for far too long.”

The research was supported by the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

$1.3 million grant will help UCLA advance workforce equity and empowerment

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

The new initiative will seek ways to help build a more equitable economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels)

The UCLA Labor Center has received a $1.3 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation to establish the California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative with the National Skills Coalition.

Leading the effort for UCLA are Betty Hung, project director at the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, and Ana Luz Gonzalez-Vasquez, a project manager at the Labor Center. The National Skills Coalition is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for policies and skills training to benefit workers and businesses.

The Worker Equity Initiative will collaborate with the state of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency to explore how government agencies and their partners help workers thrive in quality careers, particularly as California recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

“The California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative will shed light on how to improve public sector supports and systems while specifically centering the needs and career aspirations of those who have been hit hardest by COVID-19 and racism and other discrimination,” Hung said.

The effort has already begun: The initiative is in the midst of 18 months of community engagement, planning and research, with representatives collecting input from local workers and community leaders. The initiative will then recommend state-level policy changes and highlight opportunities for Californians to push for similar improvements at the federal level.

The initiative also will engage Californians who have been most affected by the recession and those who have been excluded, underserved or marginalized by longstanding structural barriers of discrimination. By soliciting their voices, the initiative aims to increase racial and worker equity in the state’s public workforce development efforts.

“We are extremely grateful for this generous and very timely grant from the James Irvine Foundation,” Gonzalez-Vasquez said. “These funds will help us build upon our partnership with the National Skills Coalition and enable us to focus on ways our society can recover from COVID-19 to build a more equitable economy.”

In addition to the leadership of the UCLA Labor Center and National Skills Coalition, the initiative will benefit from the expertise of a statewide steering committee representing worker centers, nonprofit training providers, labor unions and local workforce boards. The committee members are:

  • Janel Bailey, Los Angeles Black Worker Center
  • John Brauer, California Labor Federation
  • Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, Jewish Vocational Services (San Francisco Bay Area)
  • Rebecca Hanson, SEIU UHW and Joint Employer Education Fund/Shirley Ware Education Center
  • Sheheryar Kaoosji, Warehouse Worker Resource Center
  • Cesar Lara, MILPA Collective and Monterey Bay Central Labor Council
  • Sam Lewis, Anti-Recidivism Coalition
  • Arcenio Lopez, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project
  • Simon Lopez, Goodwill Southern California
  • Laura Medina, Building Skills Partnership
  • Pedro Ramirez, Central Valley Worker Center
  • Rebecca Rolfe, San Francisco LGBT Center
  • Aquilina Soriano, Pilipino Workers Center
  • Brooke Valle, San Diego Workforce Partnership

The James Irvine Foundation is a private, nonprofit grantmaking foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California. The foundation’s focus is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. Since 1937 the foundation has provided more than $2.09 billion in grants to organizations throughout California, and it has contributed to UCLA since 1970.

This article, written by Ariel Okamoto, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of people sleeping at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles

The history of homelessness in Los Angeles points to new approaches

A photo of people sleeping at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles

Among the recommendations in the new report: Officials must stop treating homelessness as a criminal act. (Photo Credit: Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons)

Homelessness in Los Angeles was already on the rise before COVID-19 struck. But the health and economic fallout of the pandemic has left many more low-income residents on the brink of housing insecurity.

While recent statewide legislation prevents evictions through June and creates options to help Angelenos pay back rent, the homelessness problem could worsen significantly as the pandemic and business closures continue.

A new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy offers recommendations for policies that the authors say could help tackle the crisis. The suggestions are based on a wealth of insights about the history of homelessness in Los Angeles County.

The report (PDF) details a complex web of causes to this crisis, whose economic, racial, social and political roots date back to the Great Depression — many other studies on the issue go back only to the 1970s. The authors write that those factors converged to disproportionately affect people of color, particularly African Americans. While white, single, older men made up a majority of Los Angeles’s homeless population prior to the 1980s, Black and Latino people began to make up a majority of the homeless population after that.

Among the report’s chief recommendations: Officials should stop treating homelessness as a criminal act, address rental and land use policies— for example, by expanding renter protection and landlord regulations and converting unused or underused property into supportive housing — and improve residents’ access to mental health and other social services.

“The report offers deep historical analysis in centering the long-term structural causes of racial and economic inequality in Los Angeles,” said David Myers, a UCLA professor of history and director of the Luskin Center. “In doing so, it calls for a new policy approach, one that recognizes the repeated failure of piecemeal, short-term and color-blind approaches. It insists that access to adequate housing is a basic human right, not a societal luxury.”

The report reveals that a lack of meaningful coordination among city and county agencies has hampered structural changes. After years of political battling on how to handle homelessness, the city and county in 1993 jointly created the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. But, the report contends, even that has not led to a long-term coordinated strategy. Solutions like permanent supportive housing have yet to take hold. A 2007 permanent supportive housing program called Project 50 was largely successful but ultimately not supported by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

According to the report, the Los Angeles homelessness crisis largely began during World War II, when housing development could not keep up with the city’s population growth. A rush of federal housing development and widespread rent control was enacted in 1942 in response. But redlining and exclusionary zoning practices excluded most people of color from the postwar housing boom, setting the stage for racial disparities that continue today.

Another factor was California’s shutting down of mental health care institutions beginning in the 1950s, which left few options for indigent people with mental health challenges. Many of them ended up on the streets, in jail or cycling between the two, according to the report.

And many residents with mental health struggles continue to fall through the cracks, the analysis found, as a result of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s reliance on a patchwork of agencies to provide mental health and drug use treatment.

In addition, a focus on criminalizing people who live on the street — a trend that intensified nationally since the 1970s and still informs Los Angeles’ approach today — has not helped mitigate homelessness. A 1976 plan to prevent the expansion of Skid Row’s homeless population relocated homeless services to a 50-block “containment zone” and selective policing was used to discourage residents from leaving the zone. The plan was unsuccessful and the policy was formally reversed in 2016.

And, the authors write, the city’s 2006 zero-tolerance policy on crime on Skid Row had the effect of putting poor and mentally ill people into the criminal justice system and then back onto the streets.

The report also examines demographic trends and real estate policies that contributed to the issue. For example:

– While the Los Angeles population boomed again in the late 1990s, housing development did not. In 1998 and 1999, the city’s population increased by 65,000 people, but the net increase in housing units was just 1,940.

– Some real estate developers and businesses have lobbied against policies that would produce low-cost housing or establish broader rent control policies that would keep housing more affordable.

Myers said future policies must take into account the desires of homeless people themselves.

“One thing we found while looking back was the consistency with which unhoused people, across the 20th century, have proposed solutions to the problem centered on repurposing vacant land and unused or underutilized public property,” he said. “The report suggests that any policy response that doesn’t take into account the desires, demands and visions of houseless people — particularly regarding the right to autonomy and self-determination — are doomed to fail.”

Kirsten Moore-Sheeley, a visiting assistant professor of history at UCLA and co-author of the report, said the authors hope the research helps reframe housing as a basic human right.

“Looking back at almost a century of history, we indicate how intractable the problem has been and still is,” she said. “We are suggesting a need to rethink core assumptions about property and tenancy rights and, more fundamentally, who has a right to the city.”

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A rendering of the NASA Perseverance rover as it would appear on Mars.

Q&A: David Paige on the Mars Perseverance landing

A rendering of the NASA Perseverance rover as it would appear on Mars.

Rendering of the NASA Perseverance. The rover’s RIMFAX technology will use radar waves to probe the unexplored world that lies beneath the Martian surface. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/FFI)

NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18 after a six-and-a-half month flight. Over the next two years, it will explore Jezero Crater, which is in Mars’ northern hemisphere, for signs of ancient life and for new clues about the planet’s climate and geology.

Among other tasks, it will collect rock and soil samples in tubes that a later spacecraft will bring back to Earth, and the experiments will lay the groundwork for future human and robotic exploration of Mars.

Perseverance, which is about the size of a car, is outfitted with seven different instruments, including the Radar Imager for Mars‘ Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX. RIMFAX will probe beneath the planet’s surface to study its geology in detail, and its deputy principal investigator is David Paige, a UCLA professor of planetary science.

In an email interview with UCLA Newsroom, Paige discussed his hopes for the mission. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why do you want to study Jezero Crater’s geologic history?

Jezero Crater is a very interesting location on Mars because it looks like there was once a lake inside the crater, and that a river flowed into the lake and deposited sediments in a delta. We plan to land near the delta and then explore it to learn more about Mars’ climate history, and maybe something about ancient Martian life. What we’ll be able to see once we start roving and what we will actually learn is anybody’s guess.

RIMFAX will provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures and help find clues to past environments on Mars, including those that may have provided the conditions necessary for supporting life.

A photo of David Paige.

David Paige (Courtesy of David Paige)

What are you hoping to discover?

Well, the first thing to know about RIMFAX is that it’s an experiment. We’ve never tried using a ground-penetrating radar on Mars before, so we can’t really predict what types of subsurface structures we might be able to see.

But we have done some fairly extensive field testing of RIMFAX on Earth to learn how to use it and how to interpret the data. Here, ground-penetrating radars can be very useful for clarifying subsurface geology, but with any kind of imaging system, the science of ground-penetrating radar comes from the interpretation of the images, and interpretation relies on context.

Frankly, if we are able to usefully interpret anything we see in the RIMFAX data, the experiment will be a success. Any discoveries we make beyond that will be icing on the cake.

Are you hopeful of finding water, or evidence of water, beneath the planet’s surface?

There are all kinds of evidence for past liquid water all over Mars. At Jezero, there must have been a lot of water at some point, but we don’t expect that the ground beneath the rover will still be wet.

Mars today is a very cold place, and any water in the shallow subsurface should be frozen at Jezero. What we’re interested in finding are geologic features that wouldn’t be expected to form under present climatic conditions, as those would be especially interesting targets to search for signs of past life.

However, searching for past life on Mars may be very difficult, and we should not expect instant success. After all, we know the Earth was literally crawling with life, but definitive evidence for past life on Earth, especially ancient life, is very rare.

What is your role in the research? 

My role is to help plan the observations and analyze the results. Since the rover will be working on Mars time, in which the days are 24.5 hours long, responsibility for the operation of RIMFAX will pingpong between Norway and UCLA every two weeks. Having operations centers on two continents will make it easier to keep up with the mission and stay on a reasonably normal schedule.

In fact, RIMFAX was designed, paid for and built by our colleagues in Norway. I teamed up with my colleague, Svein-Erik Hamran of the University of Oslo, to propose the instrument to NASA, and it has been a rewarding experience to work with the international RIMFAX team.

Are UCLA students involved?

Yes. Mark Nasielski, a UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering, is part of our operations team. And Max Parks and Tyler Powell, graduate students in Earth, planetary and space sciences, are part of our science team.

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

Nandita Garud named a distinguished investigator by Paul Allen Frontiers Group

Nandita Garud, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.

Nandita Garud (Photo courtesy of Nandita Garud)

The award will provide Garud and two faculty colleagues — Aida Habtezion at Stanford University and Carolina Tropini at University of British Columbia — with $1.5 million in research funding over three years to study the role of gut microbiota and other factors in patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Patients with IBD, a disease that stems from chronic inflammation in the intestines, have widely varied symptoms and responses to treatment, which cannot be fully explained by human genetics.

Garud and her colleagues are leading a project to explore how patients’ immune responses, metabolism, gut microbiota and environments may contribute to that variability. The research has the potential to lead to better, more tailored treatments for this class of immune diseases.

Despite the close links between human health — including our immunity — and how our bodies process what we eat, the intersection of immunology and metabolism remains a poorly understood area of human biology, Garud said.

“It is uncharted territory as to how the microbes inside of us contribute to the inflammation phenotype,” she said. “We are excited to explore these questions using a combination of techniques, ranging from metabolomics to imaging to statistical development that leverage the team’s diverse expertise.”

“In so many diseases, a tipping point is reached where entire systems in our bodies are thrown off balance,” said Frontiers Group Director Kathy Richmond. “Studying the complex and fascinating interactions between the immune system and energy metabolism will give us a better understanding of what it means to be healthy and how it might be possible to return those systems to balance after damage or disease.”

The Frontiers Group was founded by the late philanthropist Paul G. Allen in 2016.

Read more about Garud’s research on her website.

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

Hosea Nelson receives award for pioneering research in organic chemistry

Hosea Nelson, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has received the 2020 Novartis Early Career Award in organic chemistry for his scientific achievements in the field. He will receive an unrestricted research grant as part of the award.

A photo of Hosea Nelson, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Hosea Nelson (Photo Credit: UCLA)

Nelson’s research is focused on the development of enabling technologies for chemical synthesis and biology. His research team, the Nelson Group, uses organic synthesis and organic catalyst development to develop small molecules and new methodologies that will be widely used by practitioners of medicine and biology.

Nelson earned his doctorate in 2013 from the California Institute of Technology. After postdoctoral training at UC Berkeley, he joined the UCLA faculty in 2015. In October, he received the 2020 Eli Lilly Grantee Award for organic chemistry.

Novartis, a Switzerland-based multinational pharmaceutical company, gives the Early Career Award annually to outstanding scientists within 10 years of having established an independent academic research career in the areas of organic or bioorganic chemistry.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of the Sloan winners: Ravi Netravali, Pavel Galashin, Kai-Wei Chang and Harold Pimentel.

Pavel Galashin awarded 2021 Sloan Research Fellowship

A photo of the Sloan winners: Ravi Netravali, Pavel Galashin, Kai-Wei Chang and Harold Pimentel.

Clockwise from top left: Ravi Netravali, Pavel Galashin, Kai-Wei Chang and Harold Pimentel. Photo Credit: UCLA and Alison Yin/HHMI (Pimentel)

Four young UCLA professors are among 128 scientists and scholars from 58 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada selected today to receive 2021 Sloan Research Fellowships.

“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple” said Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “To receive a fellowship is to be told by the scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”

UCLA College’s 2021 recipient is:

Pavel Galashin
Galashin, an assistant professor of mathematics, conducts research in algebraic combinatorics. He is particularly interested in its unexpected applications to other areas of math and physics, such as magnetism, knot theory and the physics of scattering amplitudes. He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and recently received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Other UCLA 2021 recipients are:

Kai-Wei Chang
Chang, an assistant professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, conducts research broadly in artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing. With the exponential growth of text data available in various domains, language-processing techniques have been incorporated into many real-world applications used by billions around the world. Chang’s research group develops fundamental statistical approaches to enhancing the efficiency, robustness, inclusion and fairness of human language–processing technology. His research tackles problems of major technical and social relevance.

Ravi Netravali
Netravali, an assistant professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, conducts research broadly in computer systems and networking. His recent focus has been on building practical systems to improve the performance and debugging of large-scale, distributed applications for both end users and developers. His research has been recognized with a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a Google Faculty Research Award, an Association for Computing Machinery Symposium on Cloud Computing Best Paper Award and an Internet Research Task Force Applied Networking Research Prize.

Harold Pimentel
Pimentel, an assistant professor of computational medicine and human genetics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA — the department of computational medicine is also affiliated with the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering — and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna H. Gray Fellow, conducts research on gene regulation by building broadly applicable computational tools. His laboratory develops data-driven models using computer science and high-dimensional statistics to advance biomedical discovery.

Winners of Sloan Research Fellowships receive a two-year, $75,000 award to support their research. The fellowships are intended to enhance the careers of exceptional young scientists and scholars in chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, earth science and physics. The philanthropic, New York–based foundation was established in 1934.

Fifty-one Sloan Research Fellows have won Nobel Prizes, including Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, in 2020, and 17 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics.

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

A photo of students in a lecture hall.

UCLA to launch new social justice curriculum with $5 million grant from Mellon Foundation

A photo of students in a lecture hall.

The curriculum will pair social justice teaching with community engagement and instruction in data literacy, statistics and computational research methods. (Photo Credit: Ann Johansson/UCLA College)

A $5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will enable UCLA to further its commitment to social change and public service by establishing the UCLA Mellon Social Justice Curriculum in the divisions of humanities and social sciences of the UCLA College.

The funding will lay the foundation for a publicly engaged, data-driven approach to teaching and research on social justice issues, positioning more UCLA graduates to become social change leaders in their chosen professions.

“We are deeply grateful to the Mellon Foundation for enabling us to create new opportunities for our students to grow intellectually while obtaining the skills required to succeed in a host of professional careers,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the College and dean of humanities. “The social justice curriculum will empower our students to put their humanistic vision to work in the service of social change.”

The five-and-a-half-year grant will support wide-ranging curricular initiatives, new degree programs and community-engaged research. It will also allow UCLA to hire faculty whose research, teaching and service will strengthen diversity and equal opportunity on campus, in particular scholars with expertise in the field of experimental humanities, which includes digital, urban, environmental and health humanities.

The curriculum will focus on four intertwined social justice issues at the core of the experimental humanities: racial and spatial justice, data justice, environmental and economic justice, and health justice.

“Addressing complex social problems requires the interpretative methods, critical knowledge, historical perspectives and values infrastructure informed by engagement with the humanities, culture, arts and society,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences. “With this generous grant, the Mellon Foundation has given UCLA the means to transform what and how we teach by centering social justice, community engagement and the critical tools and methods for knowledge creation.”

UCLA’s strong community connections will be leveraged, in partnership with the UCLA Center for Community Engagement, through academic courses that mutually benefit students and community partners, student internships, and summer institutes and workshops. Courses tailored to the curriculum will offer instruction in data literacy, statistics and computational research methods, linked with the study of narrative and media-making.

An introductory course for freshmen titled “Data, Society, and Social Justice” — co-taught by interdisciplinary faculty teams with expertise on the environment, cities, health and racial disparities in Los Angeles — will focus on humanistic frameworks for understanding social inequalities and train students to assess the practical and ethical implications of data-driven approaches to social change.

The new curriculum is expected to attract the rising numbers of UCLA students who are committed to social justice issues but have been underrepresented in courses and majors that provide critical training in statistics, computation and quantitative research methods. These include students from low-income households, first-generation college students and those from historically underrepresented groups.

Schaberg and Hunt are co–principal investigators on the project. The faculty leads are Todd Presner, chair of UCLA’s digital humanities program and the Ross Professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature, and Juliet Williams, professor of gender studies and chair of the UCLA social science interdepartmental program. Co-chairs of the faculty advisory committee are Safiya Noble, associate professor of information studies and African American studies, and Sarah Roberts, associate professor of information studies with affiliate appointments in labor studies and gender studies. Roberts and Noble also co-direct the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, which will play a key role in programming.

This latest Mellon grant to the College follows a five-year grant awarded in 2015 that supported innovative and more inclusive methods of humanities teaching and brings the foundation’s total support for UCLA to approximately $60 million.

This article, written by Margaret MacDonald, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

A UCLA researcher prepares to lower a specialized bottle into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Cruz Island to capture samples of eDNA. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

Researchers used to need to scuba dive to find out which fish live in any given area of the ocean. Now, a new UCLA study has found that environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be used to identify marine organisms living in a certain space.

Environmental DNA is the term for the DNA from cells that are constantly released by organisms into their environments — much like the hair and skin people normally shed in the shower. In the past decade eDNA technology has advanced rapidly, making it a competitive tool for assessing ecosystem biodiversity.

The findings, which were published in PLOS One, could have major implications for monitoring of marine protected areas, sections of ocean where fishing and other activities are prohibited to conserve marine life and habitat.

In 2012, California established 124 marine protected areas covering about 16% of state waters. Regular monitoring of those areas is critical for understanding if marine life is being protected successfully, said UCLA ecologist Paul Barber, the study’s senior author. Before eDNA, the only way to tell if marine protected areas were working was for scuba divers to count and identify every fish they saw, a method known as visual surveying.

“These surveys typically require experienced divers with specific training to spend hours and hours underwater,” said Barber, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Now we can simply lower a bottle into the ocean from the side of a boat.”

The researchers compared which species were detected using eDNA and which were counted using visual surveying during summer 2017 at three sites inside and outside of the State Marine Reserve near Santa Cruz Island. Using eDNA, they identified nearly all of the same species as the visual surveys.

The only fish that did not show up using the technique were five species of rockfish — an issue the researchers said could be easily fixed by tweaking the genetic test to recognize that specific DNA when it appears in water samples.

A photo of a garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California's marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island.

A garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California’s marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

The eDNA also revealed an additional 30 species that had been seen in the same areas in previous years but that were not spotted during the 2017 visual surveys.

“We demonstrated that that we can use eDNA as a tool to monitor these ecosystems,” said Zachary Gold, the study’s lead author, a former UCLA doctoral student who is now a researcher at the University of Washington and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an opportunity going forward to expand the scope and scale of monitoring marine protected areas.”

Wider use of eDNA could help scientists overcome some of the challenges of visual surveying as a technique for monitoring marine species. For one, the new method could be far less expensive than the current one: Each eDNA sample costs around $50, while the National Park Service spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to survey 33 sites in the Channel Islands.

And in part because of those costs, visual surveys are conducted only once a year, which means seasonal variations in fish species have rarely been studied.

Another current challenge is that visual surveying is only performed in waters up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep, which means the technique cannot be used in more than 99% of California’s marine protected areas.

To analyze eDNA, researchers run the water they collect through a filter that captures the cells and DNA of marine organisms. Those filters are frozen on the boat and taken to a lab, where researchers extract DNA from the cells, sequence it and identify which species the DNA belongs to using a reference database.

For the PLOS One study, Gold used a reference database called the Anacapa Toolkit, which was developed previously by UCLA scientists.

The authors acknowledge that eDNA surveys won’t completely replace visual surveys, because the newer method can’t reveal the sex, size, abundance or behavior of the fish being studied — all of which are important elements of a complete assessment. “There will always be value to having eyes in the water,” Barber said.

But the simplicity of eDNA could create opportunities for community science — research in which nonscientist members of the public can participate. For example, Gold set up a program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Heal the Bay that teaches volunteers how to collect water samples. The combination of eDNA tools and a wider network of people collecting samples could dramatically improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom