Portrait of Julia Yarrington and Lindsay Meredith

The Power to Make a Difference

Rising scientific stars are recipients of the Pritzker Graduate Scholar Award

Portrait of Julia Yarrington and Lindsay Meredith

Julia Yarrington and Lindsay Meredith

Stephanie Yantz


By Jonathan Riggs 

According to the CDC, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by adolescents have risen during COVID-19. The organization also found that about 38 million adults in the U.S. consume too much alcohol. The desire to help people struggling with these issues inspired Julia Yarrington and Lindsay Meredith to pursue doctoral work in psychology at UCLA, where their incredible potential has been honored with the first two Pritzker Graduate Scholar Awards.

“Thanks to this recognition, I am more connected to the department, the academic community and my research than ever,” says Yarrington, who grew up in New York state and was named the inaugural Pritzker Scholar in 2021.

With Professor Michelle G. Craske as her mentor, Yarrington began looking into risk factors for depression, anxiety or suicide in adolescents and young adults. Seeing how rates of psychopathology have continued to increase, despite a large body of evidence that has clarified risk factors, she’s pivoted to studying protective factors in hopes of determining how to best leverage them to reduce the likelihood of developing clinical levels of depression or anxiety in the first place.

“It has been such a blessing to have more time to focus on research, mentoring undergraduates and exploring other clinical training opportunities,” says Meredith, who grew up in rural Ohio and was named the second Pritzker Scholar in 2022.

Mentored by Professor Lara A. Ray, Meredith hopes to develop and advance evidence-based treatments for addiction, specifically alcohol use disorder. Recently focusing on clinical trials testing ibudilast, a medication that may help reduce alcohol use, she seeks to better understand how this new class of therapy works on the psychological level.

The Pritzker Graduate Scholar Award, established as a result of a gift from long-time UCLA supporters Tony and Jeanne Pritzker, supports psychology graduate students who demonstrate excellence with the potential for high public impact.

“I‘m a first-generation college student, so I didn’t even know research was an option for me at first,” says Meredith. “It’s been so nice connecting with Julia and building a sense of community while being able to serve as mentors for others, as mentorship has been invaluable to my own growth.”

“Sometimes it feels very surreal to be here, with all of the opportunities at UCLA at our fingertips,” adds Yarrington. “We are both grateful to everyone who has supported us in this collaborative, inspiring environment.”

 


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Portrait of Alvine Kamaha

Searching for the Dark

She’s on the leading edge of solving one of the universe’s ultimate mysteries

Portrait of Alvine Kamaha

Stephanie Yantz


By Jonathan Riggs 

Alvine Kamaha, who became UCLA’s first Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences, always knew she wanted to teach.

“My preferred childhood game was to gather my friends on our porch and play school,” she says. “I have always been thrilled by the opportunity to share knowledge with someone and help them absorb it and grow.”

Choosing her field of study, however, proved more challenging.

“Then, there was no experimental particle physics in Cameroon. It was also difficult to major in physics in general due to gender bias in the educational system,” says Kamaha, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Douala. “While pursuing my second master’s degree (in high energy physics) in Italy, I fell in love with the field of physics beyond the standard model: neutrino and dark matter physics. After I graduated, I decided to switch from theoretical to experimental physics, and then went to Canada to earn my Ph.D. in astroparticle physics.”

After she completed her doctoral work on using bubble chamber detection technology to search for dark matter, Kamaha next joined several experiments to acquire additional expertise across multiple particle detection technologies, including spherical proportional counters, time projection chambers and superheated and supercooled fluids.

Still an active member of the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment, an international direct-detection dark matter project based in an underground facility in South Dakota, Kamaha arrived at UCLA last November as a leading force in the search to discover and explore the invisible matter of the universe. Although it is theorized to account for approximately 85% of the universe, dark matter has yet to be directly observed.

“When they look at the night sky, most people would say that they see stars. What I study — sort of — is the darkness between the stars. These stars are within galaxies that are surrounded by a halo of non-luminous matter (also called dark matter), that keeps them gravitationally bound,” Kamaha says. “This fascinating dark matter has been there from the very beginning of the universe, acting almost as a ‘glue’ that facilitated the formation of large-scale structures — galaxies — and it also has an impact on the way our universe evolves.”

In some ways, she believes her work building detectors for dark matter and analyzing their data is like digging for buried treasure. While the ultimate goal is to directly observe dark matter, every attempt yields invaluable data and narrows the search for future generations. The idea that there are scientific riches to be found in any search, no matter its success, is one of the key lessons she seeks to impart to her UCLA students.

“We’ve been searching for dark matter for more than 80 years. Although we haven’t found it yet, we have learned so much. Sometimes finding nothing isn’t bad, it’s just part of the scientific process,” Kamaha says. “I want my students to live by this lesson, that no matter what they do — whether they become a scientist or choose a different path — remaining open-minded, curious and resourceful are invaluable skills to possess.”

Related story: How UCLA’s Alvine Kamaha helped build the world’s most sensitive dark matter detector


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Portrait of nine members of the Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at standing in front of Royce Hall

Equity and Empowerment

They saw the change they wanted and created the organization to deliver it

Portrait of nine members of the Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at standing in front of Royce Hall

Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at UCLA members, from left to right: Zoe Pierrat, she/her (AOS, 4th year); Sarah Worden, she/her (AOS, 3rd year); Nique Stumbaugh, she/her (AOS, 2nd year); Cat Banach, she/her (AOS, 2nd year); Aly Fritzmann, she/her (AOS, 2nd year); Sarah Johnson, she/they (AOS, 3rd year); Jordan Bretzfelder, she/her (EPSS, 3rd year); Elisha Jhoti, she/her (EPSS, 3rd year); Laura Thapa, she/her (AOS, 3rd year). © Stephanie Yantz


By Jonathan Riggs 

The laboratory notebooks containing work from Marie Curie, the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two sciences thus far, remain so radioactive that they must be stored in lead-lined boxes for the next 1,500 years. That the scientific legacy of a brilliant woman is literally untouchable is a powerful metaphor for today.

Women remain underrepresented in scientific fields and must contend with additional higher education barriers. For example, in geosciences today, women represent about 42% of the graduate student population, a 5% decline over the past 10 years. At the faculty level, the numbers are worse — and significantly more so for women of color.

Inspired to tackle these issues in 2018, UCLA Physical Sciences doctoral students Alexandrea Arnold, Emily Hawkins, Jordyn Moscoso, Zoe Pierrat and Katie Tuite launched the Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at UCLA.

“The initiative, vision and energy SGEG brings to outreach, community building, institutional reform and career development make a difference and fill a need that has been there for decades,” says Professor Suzanne Paulson, SGEG faculty advisor and the first woman to chair UCLA’s department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. “We desperately need the talent and passion of the many young people SGEG encourages and makes more welcome.”

Another one of the group’s important priorities has been to identify issues of and advocate for solutions to the gender imbalance within their depart­ments across the division of physical sciences. Working with a receptive faculty, they have raised awareness of unintentional biases when recruiting and admitting graduate students.

The group has been able to offer a stronger support network, and their efforts have paid off, with an increase in female-identifying graduate students entering these disciplines at UCLA.

“SGEG has also brought the physical sciences departments closer together,” adds Pierrat. “I’ve gained new friends I wouldn’t necessarily have met without the benefit of this group, and we’ve also been able to have more serious discussions about supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in our respective departments.”

“Imposter syndrome and isolation can be especially challenging, so having a network of mentors, peers and role models can be critical for those who don’t see themselves well represented in the geosciences,” says Jordan Bretzfelder, SGEG’s current co-chief communications officer. “Plus, the importance of having effective allies cannot be overstated. We invite anyone interested in our mission
to reach out to us.”


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Portrait of Asma Sayeed

Connections and Conversations

She’s strengthening the Islamic studies program and its connection to L.A. and beyond

Portrait of Asma Sayeed

© Stephanie Yantz


 

By Jonathan Riggs 

While looking through boxes from her youth, Asma Sayeed was surprised as she retraced her path from a child newly moved from India to the South Bronx, too shy to speak English, to a dedicated associate professor and director of Islamic studies at UCLA.

“I had always seen my life as a straight line to academia, but I noticed there are threads running through my zigzagging,” Sayeed says. “The first is grappling with my own difference and connecting that to my community; the second is the art of thinking about words and how they convey meaning; and the third is service, which I credit to my parents, who embodied it in every sense.”

When she arrived in 2012, Sayeed relished the challenge and opportunity to chart a course for UCLA’s Islamic studies program, the oldest in the country. She launched the “Islam in the West” course and the freshman cluster “Global Islam,” which offer opportunities for undergrads to gain core literacy on both Islam and Muslims — something that will help them be better informed citizens of the world going forward, no matter their major.“I’m so excited about what we’ve been able to do in terms of augmenting our curriculum and making real strides in public outreach,” Sayeed says. “These vibrant, important conversations about contemporary global Islam and the fascinating histories of Muslims should never be limited just to academics.”

As part of outreach efforts, Sayeed and the program have partnered with Amy Landau, director of education and interpretation at the Fowler Museum, to launch the new Community Bridges Residency, where civic leaders engaged with the Muslim community can connect with UCLA students and faculty, and benefit from research resources. As part of this partnership, they are collaborating on an exhibit at the Fowler to represent a fuller diversity of Muslim experiences in Los Angeles as well as developing online exhibits and K–12 workshops.

Sayeed’s current research focuses on Islamic higher education. In particular, she examines the ways in which universities teaching the Islamic sciences grapple with issues of integrating Western academic disciplines alongside classical Islamic ones, the impact of increasing numbers of female students and faculty, and how the digital revolution has transformed teaching and research.

“Where I conduct fieldwork in Morocco, there is still some suspicion that Western academia is a space to undermine Islam, but I see so many wonderful opportunities for international collaborations that can shift that perception,” says Sayeed. “My dream is that my next book will serve as a template for research in other countries like Indonesia, Egypt and even Syria and Iraq: war-torn areas where Islamic education is as alive as it is vigorous in spite of sustained and profound upheavals.”


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