UCLA College Magazine 2021 Issue

2021 UCLA College Magazine

Welcome to the latest issue of the UCLA College Magazine, highlighting our remarkable faculty, students and alumni.

In the central feature, we celebrate five Black Bruins — scientists, professors, activists and students — driven by their experience of community and passion for justice to help to build a more equitable world.

In this issue, you can also read about new insights into Venus and Mars, studies on maternal stress, an award-winning documentary on migration, and much more.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue of the magazine! Go Bruins!

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Journeys in Precollege Summer Institutes

By Robin Migdol

The summer before their senior year in high school, Ryan Vuong and Alysa Kataoka each spent a week on campus participating in UCLA’s Precollege Summer Institutes, but that was only the beginning of their Bruin journeys. Both went on to attend UCLA as undergraduates.

A photo of Alysa Kataoka

Photo courtesy of Alysa Kataoka.

Precollege Summer Institutes are residential and commuter programs for high school students taught by UCLA instructors. Students can earn academic credit and take part in field trips and laboratory research. With nearly two dozen subjects as diverse as Game Lab and Mock Trial, Precollege Institutes offer students the opportunity to delve deeply into an area they’re passionate about.

Engineering a path forward

Kataoka participated in the Nanoscience Lab Summer Institute, offered by UCLA College’s California Nanosystems Institute (CNSI), in 2016. Already planning to apply to UCLA, she chose nanoscience to gain hands-on experience in engineering and applied science.

During the program Kataoka explored a variety of topics in nanoscience and gained a mentor in program coordinator Elaine Morita, who advised Kataoka on internship and other opportunities after her acceptance to UCLA.

Kataoka graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2021 and will begin a master’s in mechanical engineering at UCLA in the fall. She said the Nanoscience Summer Institute taught her skills that she still uses today.

“The most important skill I learned was to be able to explain science or scientific concepts to people who aren’t familiar with chemistry or engineering,” she said. “I also learned to be comfortable with public speaking. People have this idea that engineers kind of keep to themselves and they don’t have to interact that much with other people, but I realized that that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

A photo of Ryan Vuong

Photo courtesy of Ryan Vuong (far left, back row) with friends at the Sci I Art Lab Summer Institute.

A head start on life skills

In 2018, Vuong participated in the Sci | Art Lab Summer Institute, which bridges science and art to encourage creative thinking and innovation. Apart from enjoying the coursework, he caught an early glimpse of life on campus.

“What I enjoyed most was the ability to interact and connect with other students my age, especially in such a close-knit setting with everyone living in the same dorm,” said Vuong, now a UCLA Regents Scholar entering his junior year as a com-puter science major. “It helped me get a sense of living on my own, doing my own laundry, keeping track of meals, and not having a parent with me at all times.”

Both Vuong and Kataoka were also recipients of UCLA Summer Sessions’ Summer Scholars Support, a need- and merit-based scholarship for California high school students.

Learn more

www.summer.ucla.edu

Camille Gaynus

Camille Gaynus: Marine Scientist on a Mission

A photo of Camille Gaynus

Camille Gaynus. Ph.D. ‘19 Biology, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

By Bekah Wright

This belief led Camille Gaynus to earn her Ph.D. in biology from UCLA in 2019. There was an equally important mission to tackle: diversity in the sciences. “When I think about science, it’s not just about the methodology; it’s about getting it to the populations where it’s needed.”

A lifelong swimmer, Gaynus has always been in her element in water. During a high school summer internship, the Philadelphia native learned about Marine and Environmental Science (MES) and knew she’d found her calling. Enrolling in the MES program at Virginia’s Hampton University, a Historically Black College or University (HCBU), sealed the deal.

The summer after junior year, Gaynus jumped at the chance to get SCUBA-certified in Indonesia through a UCLA-HCBU program called The Diversity Project/Pathways to Ph.D.s in Marine Science.

That experience, coupled with meeting Professors Paul Barber and Peggy Fong, led her to apply to UCLA’s Ph.D. program and work in Fong’s research lab. While at UCLA, her field research took Gaynus to the coral reefs of Moorea, French Polynesia. Closer to home, she tutored youth at Inglewood’s Social Justice Learning Institute. “I remember talking to the students about nature and the ocean. With the ocean being in their backyard, I naively thought they must visit all the time.”

To introduce the kids to the world outside their neighborhoods, Gaynus raised a grant and organized a field trip to the UCLA Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. After a tour of the campus, Bruin graduate students joined the high schoolers for lunch to share their college experiences. Determined to get the word out even farther, Gaynus gave talks at K-12 schools throughout Los Angeles, scuba gear in tow.

Gaynus was awarded the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2019 and joined the University of Pennsylvania’s post-doctoral program. This summer, she’ll be stepping into the role of lecturer at Penn State Brandywine. Her other mission is still going strong, too.

Over a conversation with Dr. Tiara Moore, Ph.D. ’19, a fellow classmate from Hampton and UCLA, the duo shared frustration over being two of only a few people of color in their field. “It started off as, ‘We want our colleagues to know we’re here, and we want a space where we can just exist as Black marine scientists.” Black in Marine Science (BIMS) was born.

Initially, BIMS was slated as a week of events featuring Black marine scientists. BIMS success saw Gaynus and Moore using the leftover funds to establish it as a nonprofit. Budgeted, too, was money to pay honoraria to minority academics asked to speak on panels. And then there was the launch of BIMS Bites, a YouTube channel where Black marine scientists share nuggets of marine science knowledge. On the horizon… “We want to create a BIMS Institute,” Gaynus says. “A marine research space for Black marine scientists, along with a large citizen-science program for people in the community.”

Gaynus and Moore also created A WOC (pronounced A Woke) Space, a place for women of color to support one another and address areas such as the workplace where they’d like to see change. “One thing that unites us is seeing a problem and trying to be a part of the solution,” Gaynus says. “We really want to help women of color, and Black marine scientists, to survive and thrive.”

Reflecting on her journey, Gaynus can’t help but notice a theme. “When I look at the things I’ve done — like Black in Marine Science and A WOC Space — I feel they’re all about one thing: uniting.” Mission accomplished.

 

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In Conversation with Bradley Burnam ’01

By Bekah Wright


A photo of Bradley Burnam.

Bradley Burnam ’01, founding member of the recently formed UCLA Social Sciences Dean’s Advisory Board, says that delivering UCLA’s Department of Sociology’s 2019 commencement address was “the most amazing day of my life.” The theme: “Know Your Why.”

One might assume to know Burnam’s “why” from the story behind Turn Therapeutics, the biotechnology company he founded that specializes in advanced wound care and infection control. A severe skin and cartilage infection born of antibiotic resistant bacteria led to 19 surgeries on his scalp and ear. The technology he invented in his home-built laboratory ended up saving his own life and helping many others.

Q. What was your “why” when you headed to UCLA?

A. I really wasn’t certain what I was interested in when I started. And with UCLA being a big place, it was hard to find that in the first couple of years. While there, I became entrenched in a program through which students got to teach seminars on public speaking, study skills and speed-reading. It made me realize I really love to teach. I also was extremely interested in how to teach people with learning differences. When I left UCLA, all I wanted to do was teach.

I got my master’s in education at Stanford, and my thesis was on how to address ADHD without chemicals. After graduation, I worked with kids with learning disabilities. My life took several random turns after that, but my “why” never changed. Today, my company is my teaching platform and the subject is very personal, having been a victim of a recurring, antibiotic resistant infection.

Q. Who inspired your path?

A. My dad, who was a cardiologist, would go to the emergency room where someone was dying of a heart attack. An hour later, he’d be back home and that person would be alive. His having that kind of impact on people’s lives blew me away. Because of him, I wanted to be a healer.

Q. You’ve since worked with cardiology patients?

A. I was a medical device rep for two big pacemaker companies, a job that let me experience a little of what I dreamt about growing up. I’d be in the operating room tuning up what was controlling patients’ hearts and making sure they were beating properly. There were occasions where I’d notice the programming was wrong and could make a change that would allow that person to walk out an entirely different person

Q. What is success to you?

A. When I see photos and studies of patients whose limbs my company has saved from amputation or whose severe eczema outbreaks we have halted, that keeps me going. It’s a crazy thing to wake up and think, “My dad got to help a few people at a time. I get to help thousands at a time.”

Q. What does your future look like?

A. My immediate future is decidedly Turn’s future. I plan to grow this company as a major disruptor in the medtech and pharmaceutical space. Eventually, I want to go back and get my Ph.D. in social sciences with an emphasis in public health, then join the professor ranks while continuing to innovate in biotech.

Q. What advice would you give to others?

A. Figure out what you’re amazing at and then perfect it, rather than trying to be good at everything. Even if you have to take smaller wins over time and reduce instant gratification, don’t sacrifice the identity of your “why” over quick money. You’ll never forgive yourself.

Early on, there were people who wanted to take my technology and apply it to minimally impactful, but highly profitable indications. While it probably would have made a ton of money, I wouldn’t have received a single photo from a patient whose limb was saved thanks to this technology.

 

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The Uneven Impact of Remote Learning

 

By Robin Migdol  |  Illustration by Jeannie Phan

 

Among the classes in UCLA’s vast course catalog, “Health Disparities and the Environment” might not stand out, but undergraduates who enroll in it have a remarkable opportunity: They get to do research under the guidance of senior faculty in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

A yearlong research course series with biology professor Paul Barber, the class is geared toward sophomore pre-med students from underrepresented groups to support their success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors and maintain their path to medical school.

When UCLA transitioned to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Barber and his students were faced with a question: How do we continue the research component of the class?

They had been preparing to research food-insecure communities of color in Los Angeles by interviewing people fishing at local piers and testing fish samples for chemical and microbial contaminants. But with the rise of COVID-19 and UCLA’s switch to remote learning, interviewing people in the community became impossible.

The students could easily have put all their research projects on hold until they could return to campus. Instead, they embarked on a new project to research disparities in how they and their peers were adjusting to remote learning.

RESEARCH IN REAL TIME

“The students decided they wanted to develop a survey to under-stand the experiences of UCLA students during remote instruction and try to understand whether the challenges that they were facing were unique to them,” Barber said.

Soon after UCLA had transitioned to remote learning, the campus launched several initiatives to help students. The Bruin Tech Grant provided laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and tablets to students who needed them. The Administrative Vice Chancellor, UCLA Student Affairs and UCLA Library also published guides to help students stay organized, access digital resources, and manage their health and wellness.

Yet despite UCLA’s efforts to support students as they began learning remotely, the students in Barber’s class knew there were gaps in how they and their peers were managing.

“Our students realized that the experience they were having with remote learning was not necessarily the same experience that other students were having,” said Barber, who also directs the Undergraduate Research Center’s Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences (PEERS).

With the support of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Center for Educational Assessment, the Academic Advancement Program, the registrar’s office, and then-Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia Turner, the students created a survey that was distributed to a random sampling of 20% of the undergraduate student body.

The survey included questions about student satisfaction with remote learning, technological barriers, ability to focus, student time demands, living situation, added responsibilities, financial issues, food insecurity and other COVID-19 related obstacles. The results showed that first-generation students and students from underrepresented communities, as well as STEM students, found the transition to remote learning more difficult than other students.

“One staggering statistic found was that technology limited the ability to engage in remote instruction for 42% of first-generation and 36.6% of underrepresented minority students,” said Jennifer Navarez, one of the student researchers who is now a senior majoring in human biology and society. “In addition, STEM students were less satisfied than non-STEM students with remote instruction.”

Student researcher and junior psychobiology major Alison Menjivar said, “All three groups experienced technological challenges such as Wi-Fi problems because they didn’t really have any access to a computer at home; they always relied on the technology at school. And then, this probably interfered with their participation in the classroom. So some people might not have been able to participate in discussions or attend lectures.”

INSIGHTS INFLUENCING CHANGE

Barber and the students organized their data in a report that was shared with Turner and others in the UCLA administration, including the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT) and the COVID-19 continuity task force. Barber said there was “tremendous” interest in the survey’s findings, and while the campus had already enacted initiatives to support students during the pandemic, simply raising awareness of students’ experiences made a difference.

“Just by understanding the challenges students are facing, it increases faculty empathy for what students are going through,” Barber said. “Having that data and seeing the results is quite sobering. It’s made me think a lot more about the welfare of my students, and I checked in with them more to see how they’re doing.”

Marc Levis-Fitzgerald, director of CAT’s Center for Educational Assessment, said for him the report’s most important takeaway is that challenges faced by underrepresented and first-generation students are the result of disparities that existed long before remote learning began.

“Given that feedback from quarterly surveys of our students during COVID remote learning was generally positive, minus challenges with feeling a sense of community, this deeper look at different groups was enlightening,” he said.

The resulting paper was accepted for publication in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. Levis-Fitzgerald pointed out that completing and publishing a research paper in less than a year is a rare achievement, especially for undergraduates.

Doing research about their own challenges, then presenting that research to campus leaders who have the power to positively influence the students themselves, was a significant opportunity, Barber and the students said.

“I think the most significant outcome of this paper is that it will be used to influence change at UCLA and help assist professors in making equity-minded decisions to support all UCLA students,” Navarez said.

 

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Changemakers for Justice and Equity

By Brittany King  |  Illustrations by Johnalynn Holland

 

Their peers recognize them for their contributions to their respective fields, but these five Black Bruins say they do it all for their community. 

Community is defined as a group of people living in the same place, or having a particular characteristic in common. But it’s so much more than that. Community is family, it’s safety, it’s family reunions in the summertime and soulful sounds on a Sunday morning. 

Since the arrival of the first slave ship to America in 1619, the history of Black Americans has often been marked by devastation, brutality and inequities in health, wealth and education. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with
the movement for Black lives, has highlighted these inequities in ways that are impossible to ignore. 

Still, the Black community does not mark itself by these attributes. During this same time period, Black people have bonded over Verzuz battles on Twitter and collectively mourned and celebrated the giant creative talents lost in the last year like Chadwick Boseman, DMX and Cicely Tyson.

Even during an unprecedented pandemic, where the need for distance was crucial, Black people still made space to (safely) connect as a community in person, whether at Black Lives Matter protests or waiting in hourslong lines to vote last fall. 

Pandemic or not, community is central to the Black experience in America. That’s why for these five Bruins, community has been essential to their work. Their communities serve as their North Star, the reason they do what they do. 

Whether they were the only Black face in their classes, experiencing daily microaggressions or explaining to their peers how their Blackness makes their work richer, these individuals have found and even created a space for themselves and other members of the Black community by being intentional, showing up and asking hard questions, creating online hashtags that lead to in-person connections, and sharing parts of their personal journeys in a way that encourages and invites others to do the same. 

These individuals have risen to incredible heights not just because of who they are, but also because of who the people around them are: excellent. 

Read article >> 

 

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Advancing Equality with Better Data

 

By Elizabeth Kivowitz  |  Photo by Matika Wilbur

 

A proud Northern Cheyenne Indian and Chicana, Desi Small-Rodriguez says that she’s a relative first, then a researcher and teacher, and thus considers herself a bit of an anomaly in academia.

“I need to remain accountable to my community,” said Small-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of sociology and Amer-ican Indian studies in the UCLA College and the first Indigenous woman to be jointly hired by the sociology department and the American Indian studies program. “That’s how many Indig-enous faculty feel. Academia can take you far away from the communities, lands and waters that ground you. I’m consistently reminded by mentors, ‘Always lift as you climb,’ because this is such a lonely path.”

In her research Small-Rodriguez examines those on the periph-ery of mainstream data collection efforts like government surveys and the U.S. Census, to understand the ways people in these groups are or are not being counted. She says these efforts often do a poor job of collecting data on Indigenous peoples, undocu-mented migrants, those experiencing homelessness, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups, which causes harm and perpetuates inequality.

“The U.S. is the most unequal country of any of the developed countries in the world,” said Small-Rodriguez, who joined the UCLA faculty last fall. “I’m interested in how systems amplify suf-fering and why suffering is being disproportionately experienced by certain populations, and also systems of erasure and how erasure perpetuates inequality. If your literal presence is com-pletely erased, that is a unique form of inequality and injustice.”

MAKING DATA WORK TO BUILD EQUITY

Small-Rodriguez sees wide-ranging applications for her work that could drive systemic change in how data collection efforts are organized and operated – leading to better government decision-making and policy.

“Ultimately, I’m an optimist. I believe that just as structures of inequality were built and maintained, so too can they be dismantled and replaced,” Small-Rodriguez said. “And like most Indigenous scholars, I am called upon to work, advocate and serve in different directions. Being a professor is simply one of my dream jobs. I have many paths that will sustain me, and I believe that eventually all roads lead home.

“This means that part of my work in academia includes making myself literally obsolete. I want to train enough young scholars to take over this work, so that one day I can be back full-time on my homelands living the Cheyenne way of life in good relation with all that is seen and unseen.”

With her move to Los Angeles delayed due to the pandemic, Small-Rodriguez resides on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana where she grew up. Over the past few months, she has been encouraging people in her community to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially given the disproportionate impact of the virus on Indigenous peoples early in the pandemic.

“I’m thankful for all the brave and amazing frontline medical workers and our tribal leaders who continue to exercise tribal sovereignty so that we can get all of our people vaccinated regardless of age or health status,” she said.

Small-Rodriguez also co-hosts “All My Relations,” the mostpopular podcast in the Indigenous world with more than 1 million downloads.

A LEAP OF FAITH INTO DEMOGRAPHY

As a student, Small-Rodriguez became interested in demography and social science because her sociology professor, one of the only Indigenous sociologists and demographers in the world, noticed her abilities in the field. He offered her a job with a Māori doctoral student he was advising who was doing research in New Zealand. She learned how to be a researcher and demographer working for tribes in New Zealand for many years, and then con-ducting the same type of work for tribes in the U.S.

“My time in New Zealand was life changing,” she said. While there, Small-Rodriguez worked on tribal census projects, community surveys, and social determinants of health and policy research. “It’s where I learned how to do research and build data by Indigenous Peoples for Indigenous Peoples. I also learned about the boundaries of indigeneity and tribal belonging in ways that are far different than for Indigenous Peoples in North America. In New Zealand, Māori kinship is affirmed in very inclusive ways as compared to minimum blood quantum policies that we use here. That led to another area of my research understand-ing the boundaries of belonging for Indigenous peoples.”

Small-Rodriguez points out that the word data comes from the Latin “datum,” meaning something given. For Indigenous Peoples, the term more often means “something taken” – and that data has been used as another method by which others extract some-thing from the Indigenous, leaving behind very broken systems to rebuild and repair. She references everything from Indigenous bodies, to language, to knowledge of the important connections with lands, water and animals as having become disrupted. She calls that “data erasure” an ongoing effort of genocide.

Amid all the loss, the recent vaccination effort illustrates an area of hope. “The only reason that Indigenous Peoples now have some of the highest rates of vaccination uptake is because of tribal sovereignty,” Small-Rodriguez said. “Tribes exercised sovereignty and have been able to protect their people in ways federal, state and local governments have not. Tribal sovereigns know how to get their people onboard because of their deep commitment to collective survival. In Indigenous communities, we are born and raised with a collective survival strategy, and we’ve been doing this since we were invaded 500 years ago. This is something that we have seen shine through in the middle of this pandemic — something positive amidst so much negative.”

LEARN MORE

Listen to the “All My Relations” podcast co-hosted by professor Small-Rodriguez.

 

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A photo of Mars and Venus.

New Insights into Mars and Venus

 

By Christopher Crockett and Stuart Wolpert

 

David Paige is deputy principal investigator of Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX, one of seven instruments on NASA’s Perseverance rover.

About the size of a car, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18. Over the next two years it will explore Jezero Crater in Mars’ northern hemisphere for signs of ancient life and new clues about the planet’s climate and geology.

Among other tasks, Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples in tubes that a later spacecraft will bring back to Earth. The experiments will lay the groundwork for future human and robotic exploration of Mars. RIMFAX will probe beneath the planet’s surface to study its geology in detail.

“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,” Paige said. “We plan to explore the delta 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 sup-porting life, he said.

Paige emphasized that RIMFAX is 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.”

Is he 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,” Paige said. “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.”

UCLA College graduate students Max Parks and Tyler Powell in Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences are part of the science team, and Mark Nasielski, a UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering, is part of the operations team.

VENUS IS AN ENIGMA

Venus is the planet next door yet reveals little about itself. An opaque blanket of clouds smothers a harsh landscape pelted by acid rain and baked at temperatures that can liquify lead.

Now, new observations from the safety of Earth are lifting the veil on some of Venus’ most basic properties. By repeatedly bouncing radar off the planet’s surface over the last 15 years, a UCLA-led team has pinned down the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis and the size of its core — findings published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“Venus is our sister planet, and yet these fundamental properties have remained unknown,” said professor Jean-Luc Margot, who led the research.

Earth and Venus have a lot in common: Both are rocky planets and have nearly the same size, mass and density. And yet they evolved along wildly different paths. Fundamentals such as how many hours are in a Venusian day provide critical data for understanding the divergent histories of these neighboring worlds.

Changes in Venus’ spin and orientation reveal how mass is spread out within. Knowledge of its internal structure, in turn, fuels insight into the planet’s formation, its volcanic history and how time has altered the surface. Plus, without precise data on how the planet spins, any future landing attempts could be off by as much as 30 kilometers.

The new radar measurements show that an average day on Venus lasts 243.0226 Earth days — roughly two-thirds of an Earth year. What’s more, the rotation rate of Venus is always changing: A value measured at one time will be a bit larger or smaller than a previous value. The team estimated the length of a day from each of the individual measurements, and they observed differences of at least 20 minutes.

Venus’ heavy atmosphere is likely to blame for the variation.

The UCLA-led team also reports that Venus tips to one side by precisely 2.6392 degrees (Earth is tilted by about 23 degrees), an improvement on the precision of previous estimates by a factor of 10. The repeated radar measurements further revealed the glacial rate at which the orientation of Venus’ spin axis changes, much like a spinning top. On Earth, this “precession” takes about 26,000 years to cycle around once. Venus needs a little longer: about 29,000 years.

The team has turned its sights on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. Many researchers strongly suspect that Europa hides a liquid water ocean beneath a thick shell of ice. Ground-based radar measurements could fortify the case for an ocean and reveal the thickness of the ice shell.

And the team will continue bouncing radar off Venus. With each radio echo, the veil over Venus lifts a little bit more, bringing our sister planet into ever sharper view.

This research was supported by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Science Foundation.

 

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Studying Maternal Stress

By Stuart Wolpert

 

Through their research with women and children, UCLA scientists are homing in on some of the great mysteries of life and some of society’s most pressing concerns.

One example: the question of why some people age faster than others.

A potential answer, a recent study indicates, is that a mother’s stress prior to giving birth may accelerate her child’s biological aging.

Researchers found evidence that maternal stress adversely affects the length of a baby’s telomeres — the small pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that act as protective caps, like the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres have been linked to a higher risk of cancers, cardiovascular and other diseases, and earlier death. The findings are reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Research on aging is beginning to identify some factors that might put a person on an accelerated aging path, potentially leading to diseases of aging such as metabolic disorder and cardiovascular disease much earlier in life than would be expected,” said the study’s lead author, Judith Carroll, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

While several studies have reported that telomere length is shorter in newborns whose mothers reported high stress during pregnancy, this study also measured maternal stress prior to conception and then, once women were pregnant, the researchers followed up in the second and third trimesters. Their analyses identified the third trimester as an especially important period — but not earlier — during which children are at higher risk for shortened telomeres.

Christine Dunkel Schetter, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry and senior author of the study, said the findings support the case for devoting more resources to screening and treatment programs for preconception health and well-being.

The research team followed 111 mothers living in North Carolina, Illinois and Washington, D.C., from preconception until their children reached early childhood. Between the ages of 3 and 5, the children provided cell samples from inside their cheeks, from which the researchers extracted DNA that was used to measure telomeres. They were then able to test for associations of childhood telomere length with the mothers’ stress levels when the children were in utero.

Carroll said, “We see evidence into childhood that telomere length continues to be shorter in those children exposed in utero to maternal stress.

“How does maternal stress alter cellular aging?”

We know that stress can activate inflammation and metabolic activity, both of which, in high amounts, can damage DNA,” Carroll said. “Telomeres are vulnerable to damage and, if unrepaired before cell division, they can become shortened by this damage. During in utero development, we know there is rapid cell replication, and we suspect there is increased vulnerability to damage during this time.”

High maternal stress oftenleads to preterm births

A second UCLA-led study from the same research group found that women suffering from high stress — defined as feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope — during the months and even years before conception had shorter pregnancies than other women. Women who experienced the highest levels of stress gave birth to infants whose time in utero was shorter by one week or more.

“Every day in the womb is important to fetal growth and development,” said Dunkel Schetter. “Premature infants have higher risk of adverse outcomes at birth and later in life than babies born later, including developmental disabilities and physical health problems.”

Dunkel Schetter, who heads the Stress Processes and Pregnancy Lab, which conducted the studies, noted premature birth rates are unusually high in the U.S., compared with other nations with similar resources, and low-income and African American women have higher rates of preterm birth.

“Preventing preterm birth, with its adverse consequences for mothers and children worldwide and in the U.S., is a top priority,” she said.

These results, published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, are based on extensive in-home interviews with 360 mothers, many of whom live near or below the poverty level. In addition to collecting data on these women’s general stress levels, the interviewers obtained information about various types of environmental stress, including financial worries, job loss, a lack of food, chronic relationship troubles, parenting challenges, interpersonal vi0lence and discrimination.

The researchers found that women who were exposed to the lowest or highest amounts of stress in their environment had the shortest pregnancies, while women who had a moderate level of environmental stress before conception had the longest pregnancies.

“Women exposed to moderate stressors in their environment may have developed coping strategies that serve them well both before and during pregnancy, while exposure to more severe stress challenges even women who normally cope very effectively,” said lead author Nicole Mahrer, who conducted the research as a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in health psychology and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne. She is also a co-author of the other study.

A moderate amount of stress prior to the pregnancy may also help prepare the developing fetus for the environment to come, Mahrer said.

“What we have not known until now,” Dunkel Schetter said, “is whether a mother’s psychosocial health before conception matters for her birth out-comes. This study is among the first to point out that, yes, it does matter. It may even be more influential than prenatal health because some of what is put in motion before conception may be hard to stop during pregnancy. For example, a mother with dysregulated immune function due to stress may be at risk when she becomes pregnant.”

 

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A photo of a member of the humanitarian search-and-rescue group Águilas del Desierto.

Professor’s Award-Winning Documentary on Migration

 

By Alison Hewitt

 

When UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre decided to make a documentary about volunteers who search for the remains of migrants in the desert spanning the U.S.-Mexico border, she wanted people to see what she believes has become invisible: not just the deaths, but how ignoring them enables policies that lead to even more deaths.

Now she’s helped bring that hidden reality to light. Her 14-minute film Águilas, co-directed with Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, won the SXSW Documentary Short Jury Award and the Best Mini-Doc award at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The film garnering all this interest took shape when Zubiaurre, a professor of European languages and transcultural studies, and of Spanish and Portuguese, approached Guevara-Flanagan with the idea of highlighting the work of Águilas del Desierto (Desert Eagles), a humanitarian search-and-rescue group that scours the Arizona desert on weekends, looking for those reported missing. The documentary follows the volunteers on one of their searches.

Zubiaurre, who also co-leads the College’s Urban Humanities Initiative, spoke with UCLA College Magazine about the film and her concept of “forensic empathy,” which centers on consciousness-raising activism and compassion-triggering artistic practices around migrant suffering and death. Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: It’s clear that you are very moved and inspired by the work of Águilas del Desierto. Who are they?

A: They’re a group of volunteers from San Diego. At least once a month, they search for missing migrants to bring families some sort of closure. The weekend that we filmed the documentary, we found six bodies, all skeletal remains.

Most of the volunteers are migrants themselves, and they’re all workers — construction workers, domestic workers, gardeners, laborers, you name it. They finish work around 7 on Friday night, drive their trucks seven hours to Arizona, sleep for maybe three hours and then walk for hours through that harsh and harrowing landscape. I have volunteered with them since 2016, and it’s truly very hard. They sleep in a tent on Saturday night and search on Sunday until they have to drive home. Then they get up early Monday morning and go back to work.

Needless to say, they don’t have any steady funding. They have a website and a Facebook page, and they set up stands in swap meets, where they talk about their work and collect donations. Those are also ways they hear about the missing.

What the Águilas do, their heroic efforts and altruism, deserves recognition. Their work needs to be made visible. This short documentary isn’t looking at all the pieces of the issue, but it looks at one specific piece to raise awareness about what is happening at the border and hopefully help change it.

Q: You’ve said this documentary is a humanitarian plea. What action do you hope it will inspire?

A: People don’t want to deal with the fact that migration is creating this humanitarian crisis. In 2020, Arizona’s Pima County morgue recovered 227 mi-grants’ bodies. In the 1990s, they would find 10 or 20 bodies. The numbers have skyrocketed because of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a set of U.S. government policies that militarily fortify urban crossing points, forcing migrants to cross through unforgiving desert terrain. The loose estimate is that for each body they find, there are five that the desert never gives back.

This has become invisible, despite its radical visibility: The bones are liter-ally laying exposed in the sun. I want to raise awareness, and most importantly, effect policy change.

This documentary, and a feature documentary in the making, are part of a larger, three-pronged interdisciplinary and collaborative endeavor called forensic empathy that I initiated and lead. The other participants are the Tijuana-based filmic and artistic collective Dignicraft — José Luis Figueroa, Ana Paola Rodríguez and Omar Foglio — and Jonathan Crisman, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

We are also writing a scholarly monograph and leading the creation of a digital map of the border. There’s the imaginary border you see on most maps — a criminally simplified version that our map wants to complicate. It’s not all bad guys trying to get into a perfect country. We’re complicating the map with prisons, migrant assistance groups, artist studios. We’re thickening the map so students can learn about the complexity of the border.

If you teach students complexity, they will pause and reflect. If you oversimplify, they will not reflect, and they will believe in fallacies.

Q: How does forensic empathy shine a light on this topic in a new way?

A: We have to look at this grim reality through the eyes of empathy, not just through the cold statistics. Forensic empathy is a direct response to the tragedy of the horrifyingly high number of undocumented immigrants who perish year after year while crossing the U.S.–Mexico border. It studies the forensic efforts, archival practices and art interventions that take place around border casualties and looks at the personal belongings found on the deceased immigrants through the eyes of chief examiners, consular agencies, policymakers, nonprofit organizations and artist-activists.

The personal belongings recovered in the desert tell a story. Belongings like camouflaged clothes, carpet-soled shoes and matte water bottles are all designed to help the migrants truly disappear into the landscape. But hundreds of bodies are found, not just by the Águilas, but by day-trippers, hunters, even dog walkers. The migrants die of dehydration, hypothermia, hyperthermia. Yet because we don’t want to look at our failure as a society, the bodies become invisible and so does the apparatus around it that increases the deaths.

This is a key role of the humanities, to apply critical thinking in dealing with the crucial issues of our times and to spearhead initiatives that connect with the community and fully invest in social justice.

LEARN MORE

Watch the documentary, available for a year through The New Yorker’s website. Visit the Águilas del Desierto website.

 

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