Seeking the universal in the specific

Doctoral student Rebecca Glasberg blazes new trails in the study of North African postcolonial French-language literature

Image of UCLA doctoral student Rebecca Glasberg

UCLA doctoral student Rebecca Glasberg

By Jonathan Riggs

As if earning your doctorate weren’t intense enough, try adding in the worldwide changes brought on by COVID.

“I defended the prospectus for my dissertation the day before UCLA shut down,” says Rebecca Glasberg, a Ph.D. student in the French Section of the Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies. “Now I’m working on writing my dissertation, but all my experiences doing this are during a pandemic.”

The fact that Glasberg’s dissertation charts new academic waters compounds the challenges she faces as she moves closer to completing her doctorate. Glasberg draws on interdisciplinary sources to examine representations of Jews and Jewishness in North African postcolonial French-language literature. In doing this, she investigates how authors of Muslim background have challenged dominant narratives of interreligious conflict in the area.

“The field of Jewish Studies is generally dominated by narratives of European Jewishness, so my focus on Jews from North Africa—and in particular authors writing about them who are non-Jewish—puts me in an unbelievably specific niche,” Glasberg says. “I’m very lucky to be at UCLA and have the support of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies to explore really interesting questions.”

Born and raised in Virginia, Glasberg grew up knowing she wanted to be an educator. Although she loved her seven years as a middle and high school French teacher, she was deeply inspired by the intellectual rigor and emphasis on curiosity she found while earning her master’s in an immersive French-language program at Vermont’s Middlebury College. The decision to proceed to UCLA, where she was impressed by faculty innovators and student collaborators, was easy—even if her subsequent research hasn’t always been.

“There’s no database of the authors who fit my criteria, so it’s a lot of reading to discover what could work, searching used bookstores, talking to other scholars and following seemingly unrelated tangents in search of stumbling onto something that could go into my dissertation,” Glasberg says. “It can be slow going, but the exploration and the questions it raises keep me going. It’s a fascinating knot to unravel.”

After earning the Fritz, Jenny & Gustav Berger Fellowship in Holocaust Studies, Glasberg has been able to add another layer to her research by studying Arabic to enrich her linguistic and cultural access to these texts. She hopes, too, to be able to conduct firsthand research in France and North Africa, but first there’s COVID to navigate—as well as the round-the-clock demands of teaching, research and, of course, actually writing her dissertation.

“It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to set boundaries on my academic work while I’m facing this huge, monstrous project with the world outside so uncertain,” she says. “What I’ve found is if I set a schedule and stick to it, I chug along steadily and keep my sanity. I love doing my nerdy academic thing, but it’s also important for me to get out of my head and go hiking, eat delicious doughnuts and talk to my friends and family about things beyond what it means to be a “French” or “Francophone” author.”

Keeping those real-life connections so alive helps her stay a sensitive, curious reader—after all, the universal aspects of the human experience are what all the authors she studies are writing about. Their books and words have power because they speak to greater truths that affect us all, especially those wise and willing enough to listen.

“One of the questions I keep thinking through is, ‘What does it mean when we talk about a text being authentic?’ It’s an important question, but we need to keep an open mind,” she says. “For example, you might not expect a contemporary Algerian author to write about the Holocaust, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t. So it’s important to remember to keep looking even in unexpected places to find value, significance and poignant understanding.”

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

Professor’s invention is a kid-friendly introduction to the chemistry of light

Ellen Sletten’s Photonbooth gives L.A. students a picture-perfect lesson in fluorescence

Image of students in the Photonbooth

Students from El Marino Language School in Culver City, California, in the Photonbooth. The exhibit has inspired hundreds of budding scientists to recognize that there is more to the world than what their eyes typically see. Photo credit: Courtesy of Ellen Sletten


By Jonathan Riggs

If you know how to look, our world can be wildly colorful. Under an ultraviolet light, once-familiar objects can take on dreamlike brilliance: Think neon green scorpions, hot pink flying squirrels and electric blue diamond rings.

Known as fluorescence, this ability of certain molecules to absorb light in one colored wavelength and emit it in another is a phenomenon many scientists, including UCLA professor Ellen Sletten, are still exploring.

And a few years ago, Sletten devised a clever way to make her research into fluorescence more accessible to non-scientists: the Photonbooth. A clever twist on the traditional photo booth that’s a staple of carnivals, arcades and parties, Photonbooth — the pun in its name a reference to the fundamental particle of light — has inspired hundreds of budding scientists to recognize that there is more to the world than what our eyes typically see, and that key scientific principles underpin everyone’s daily existence.

“It’s very clear right now, with the pandemic, that misinformation about science is dangerous for us all,” says Sletten, a chemical biologist. “Younger generations especially need us to focus on accurate, responsible scientific communication. Besides, everyone loves a photo booth, right?”

Image of Ellen Sletten

Ellen Sletten. Photo credit: Penny Jennings/UCLA

The concept evolved out of an attraction from her 2015 wedding reception. To echo her engagement ring, which her fiancé chose for its fluorescence (caused by a defect in the diamond’s lattice structure), Sletten envisioned black lights installed in a standard photo booth with fluorescent props for guests to pose with. Her party-phobic father, an engineer, jumped at the chance to pay tribute to his daughter’s life work and to help turn her plans into a reality.The Photonbooth was born.

“It was such a huge hit, even with the non-scientists,” Sletten says. “I realized it was very synergistic with many of my lab’s research goals and could be a perfect avenue for science outreach.”

When Sletten discussed the booth with members of her UCLA research team, her then-graduate student Rachael Day — now a biochemistry professor at Drury University in Missouri — was so inspired that she took it upon herself to build a version of the booth, and they immediately began using it at local parties and educational events, including Exploring Your Universe, UCLA’s annual hands-on science fair.

A typical Photonbooth presentation begins with a quick science lesson demonstrating the fluorescent properties of common household items such as tonic water or detergent, followed by a discussion of the biomedical uses of fluorescence. Attendees next create their own glowsticks, enter the booth with whimsical props they choose and pose for photos, first under normal light and then, to best show off their fluorescent items, under a black light.

“A lot of science — especially chemistry, where everything is nanoscale or smaller — can be difficult to comprehend,” Sletten says. “I really like using fluorescence because it’s so easy for kids to see. I also love how we can take something kids are familiar with, like a highlighter, and then help them realize there is this whole other side to it if they are curious enough to look and question.”

Image of a family in the Photonbooth at Exploring Your Universe

An adult and two children in the Photonbooth at UCLA’s Exploring Your Universe science festival. Photo credit: Courtesy of Ellen Sletten

Science education outreach is especially important to Sletten because it highlights the human connection that she says is so crucial to scientific progress. As she looks back on her lab’s first five years, she cites her relationship with her students and their growth among her most important accomplishments.

“My students are amazing, and I try hard to be an effective mentor who gets to know each of them well,” Sletten says. “In many ways, starting a lab is like starting a small company. You go through all the challenges and problem-solving together, which makes for strong bonds. It has been incredibly rewarding to be a part of my students’ journeys to becoming excellent scientists and communicators.”

At the same time, Sletten has attracted attention for the lab’s impressive progress toward developing diagnostic and therapeutic technologies. In 2020, she earned the Young Chemical Biologist Award from the International Chemical Biology Society, and in 2021, she received a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for her work on deep tissue imaging.

Sletten says the experience of children delighting in the Photonbooth experience mirrors the optimism she and her team share for the future of their own research.

“When I think about the videos of molecules flowing within mice which our lab has been able to produce with previously unattainable speeds, colors and resolutions, I can relate to how those kids feel stepping in the Photonbooth,” Sletten says. “The opportunity to see something new, the feeling of discovery and fun — I hope it inspires those kids to become science-savvy citizens or even future scientists.”

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

Days with hazardous levels of air pollutants are more common due to increase in wildfires

In Western U.S., health risks from ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter continue to grow, study shows

Image of smoke from a wildfire turning the sky orange-brown in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood.

In October 2017, smoke from a nearby wildfire turned the sky orange-brown in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood. Photo credit: Sean Brenner

By David Colgan

After decades of air quality improvement due to the Clean Air Act of 1970 and other regulations since, the Western U.S. is experiencing an increase in the number of days with extremely high levels of two key types of air pollutants due to climate change.

From 2000 to 2020, the growing number of wildfires — made more intense by climate change — and the increasingly common presence of stagnant, hot weather patterns combined to increase the number of days with hazardous levels of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. Those conditions are creating health risks for people throughout the region, according to a paper published in Science Advances.

Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist and co-author of the paper, said the increased pollution affects densely populated regions across a broad swath of the West, including the Los Angeles basin, Salt Lake City, Denver and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The study found that the number of days when both pollutant levels were extremely high increased in nearly every major city from the Pacific Coast to the eastern Rocky Mountains. (The scientists judged pollution levels to be “extremely high” on days when they were in the 90th percentile of their daily average for the study’s 20-year span.)

Smoke from wildfires can travel thousands of miles, harming people who don’t live directly in wildfire-prone areas.

“When we looked at satellite imagery of the whole country this past summer, we could see smoke from Western wildfires making it all the way to New York City,” Swain said. “There could be a connection with air pollution as far away as the East Coast.”

Wildfires and stagnant, hot weather patterns increase the presence of pollution classified as PM 2.5 — particles that measure less than 2.5 microns in width, the equivalent of about three one-hundredths the width of a human hair — which can make its way deep into lungs and can cross into the bloodstream. Scientific studies have linked PM 2.5 pollution to health problems such as decreased lung function, irregular heartbeat and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

The combination of weather patterns and wildfires also increases the formation of ground-level ozone, another threat to respiratory health. Ground level ozone forms due to chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (such as nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) and volatile organic compounds, both of which can come from vehicles, power plants, industrial facilities and other sources.

The researchers found that the increase in extreme levels of PM 2.5 due to climate factors increased hazardous air quality conditions by an average of 25 million person-days each year of the past two decades in the Western U.S. and adjacent areas of the Great Plains, Mexico and Canada. (A person-day refers to a single day of exposure by a single person.)

The analysis is based on pollution data from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitoring sites, as well as atmospheric observations and data on atmospheric pressure and temperatures.

The poor air quality conditions highlighted in the paper are likely to get worse for at least the next few decades, even if drastic climate change mitigation measures are implemented, Swain said.

“It has gotten hotter, wildfire conditions have gotten worse and we’re seeing more persistent periods of high atmospheric pressure,” he said. “Each of those factors is projected to increase in the coming years.”

While mitigating emissions from wildfires and climate change will take decades, cities could still enact regulations and other programs to that would help reduce the presence of oxides of nitrogen and volatile ogranic compounds — so-called ozone precursor emissions — in the near term. Although the benefits of those changes would take years to accrue, it could be practical for cities to implement emissions-reduction measures during periods of hazardous air quality, and it would likely help reduce the dangers to human health, Swain said.

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

UCLA food studies institute to tackle global food challenges

The institute will collaborate with a community of chefs and scholars in pursuit of a healthier population and planet
Image of students in the UCLA Teaching Kitchen

The chef-in-residence program that will begin this spring will expand the offerings of the UCLA Teaching Kitchen, which launched in 2019. Photo credit: UCLA

By Elizabeth Kivowitz

Increasingly, scholars are studying food — its production, preparation, sharing, consumption and disposal — to better understand and tackle global challenges such as climate change, health and social disparities and labor conditions, and to improve access to information.

Already a leader in the emerging field of food studies, UCLA has created an interdisciplinary institute devoted to research, teaching and policy about food, made possible by an anonymous $13.5 million gift.

The UCLA Rothman Family Institute for Food Studies will bring together faculty, staff, students, chefs and members of the community and house UCLA’s popular food studies minor and graduate certificate program. The gift will provide ongoing funding for research, curriculum and library resources, including the first endowed food studies librarian at a university, as well as hands-on experiential learning opportunities such as a new chef-in-residence program that would begin in spring 2022. It will expand the offerings of the UCLA Teaching Kitchen, launched in 2019, which helps students learn to cook healthy and affordable meals and which has operated remotely during the pandemic.

“Food is central to the human experience, and this new institute will play a leading role in examining aspects of our relationship with food as well as the ways in which food systems tie into larger issues like public health, sustainability and economic well-being,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “The institute exemplifies what UCLA does so well, which is bring communities together alongside experts from across the disciplines to address some of society’s most complex challenges.”

The institute bolsters the UC Office of the President’s Global Food Initiative, created in 2014 and focused on how to feed a world population expected to reach 8 billion by 2025.

“UCLA is uniquely positioned as a leader in food studies,” said biophysicist Amy Rowat, the inaugural holder of the Marcie H. Rothman Presidential Term Chair for Food Studies. “We are known for our strengths in the sciences and the arts, and have strong partnerships with community organizations dedicated to equal food access. We will also capitalize on UCLA’s location in one of the most diverse cities in the world, which is home to so many innovative chefs.”

Rowat, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College, is a pioneer in using food to introduce complex concepts in science to non-scientists. She is co-director of the UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative EatWell pod and the founder and director of the Science and Food organization at UCLA. Rowat will spearhead many of the institute’s activities, including expanding her long-running science and food course and developing the chef-in-residence program, a 10-week interdisciplinary course in which chefs are paired with faculty to engage students on topics from food equity to the microbiome. Rowat’s lab will continue to develop sustainable options for food production.

Helping to advance the institute’s vision and Rowat’s work is UCLA Library’s new Rothman Family Food Studies Librarian. Alexandra Solodkaya is the first person to hold the position and she will curate a broad scope of food-related research and teaching services, materials and collections. Given the speed with which social media can amplify incorrect information, the food studies librarian will challenge students to think critically about sources.

“We are grateful for this gift — the largest in the division’s history — which will allow more of our students and faculty to delve into this growing area of inquiry,” said Adriana Galván, dean of the division of undergraduate education, who emphasized how the institute’s interdisciplinary approach would benefit students.

“Food can heal. The institute is looking at food from a system-based, interdisciplinary perspective to contribute to the health and well-being of the individual, community and the planet,” said Dr. Wendelin Slusser, associate vice provost of Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, whose work across campus and in Los Angeles helped build the foundation for the institute.

Food studies spans disciplines as disparate as anthropology, community health, life and physical sciences, genetics, and world arts and cultures. Popular courses include “Food and Health in Global Perspective,” “Food Studies & Food Justice in Los Angeles” and “Food Politics: Cultural Solutions to Political Problems.” In 2020, students in the course “Making Films About Food” documented the impacts of the pandemic on the lives of people involved in food supply chains, including mill operators, farm workers and truck drivers, as well as the paradox of food waste and global hunger. Capstone projects for the food studies minor include working with local organizations such as the Venice Family Clinic, the American Diabetes Association and the Garden School Foundation, or with policy centers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

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

UCLA-led team refines ‘kick and kill’ strategy aimed at eliminating HIV-infected cells

Study in mice could point toward method for clearing virus from people who would otherwise depend on medication
A microscope image of HIV particles

A microscope image of HIV particles. The “kick and kill” approach uses cells that are naturally produced by the immune system to kill HIV-infected cells that hide in the body. Photo credit: A. Harrison and Dr. P. Feorino/CDC

By Enrique Rivero

In a study using mice, a UCLA-led team of researchers have improved upon a method they developed in 2017 that was designed to kill HIV-infected cells. The advance could move scientists a step closer to being able to reduce the amount of virus, or even eliminate it, from infected people who are dependent on lifesaving medications to keep the virus from multiplying and illness at bay.

The strategy, described in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, uses cells that are naturally produced by the immune system to kill infected cells that hide in the body, potentially eradicating them, said Dr. Jocelyn Kim, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“These findings show proof-of-concept for a therapeutic strategy to potentially eliminate HIV from the body, a task that had been nearly insurmountable for many years,” said Kim, the study’s lead author. “The study opens a new paradigm for a possible HIV cure in the future.”

Worldwide, there are currently 38 million people living with HIV, and an estimated 36 million have died of HIV-related diseases in the decades since HIV began circulating, according to UNAIDS.

People with HIV take antiretroviral medication to keep the virus at bay. But HIV has the ability to elude antiretrovirals by lying dormant in cells called CD4+ T cells, which signal another type of T cell, the CD8, to destroy HIV-infected cells. When a person with HIV stops treatment, the virus emerges from those reservoirs and replicates in the body, weakening the immune system and raising the likelihood of opportunistic infections or cancers that can lead to illness or death.

The UCLA-led study continues research on a strategy called “kick and kill,” which many of the same scientists first described in a 2017 paper. The approach coaxes the dormant virus to reveal itself in infected cells, so it can then be targeted and killed. In the earlier study, the researchers gave antiretroviral drugs to mice whose immune systems had been altered to mimic those of humans, and then infected with HIV. They then administered a synthetic compound called SUW133, which was developed at Stanford University, to activate the mice’s dormant HIV. Up to 25% of the previously dormant cells that began expressing HIV died within 24 hours.

But a more effective way to kill those cells was needed.

In the new study, while the mice were receiving antiretrovirals, the researchers used SUW133 to flush HIV infected cells out of hiding. They then injected healthy natural killer cells into the mice’s blood to kill the infected cells. The combination of SUW133 and injections of healthy natural killer immune cells completely cleared the HIV in 40% of the HIV-infected mice.

The researchers also analyzed the mice’s spleens — because the spleen harbors immune cells, it’s a good place to look for latent HIV-infected cells — and did not detect the virus there, suggesting that cells harboring HIV were eliminated. In addition, the combination approach performed better than either the administration of the latency reversing agent alone or the natural killer cells alone.

Kim said the researchers’ next objective is to further refine the approach to eliminate HIV in 100% of the mice they test in future experiments. “We will also be moving this research toward preclinical studies in nonhuman primates with the ultimate goal of testing the same approach in humans,” she said.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the National Science Foundation, a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences UCLA CTSI Grant and the McCarthy Family Foundation.

The study’s co-authors are Tian-Hao Zhang, Camille Carmona, Bryanna Lee, Dr. Christopher Seet, Matthew Kostelny, Nisarg Shah, Hongying Chen, Kylie Farrell, Dr. Mohamed Soliman, Melanie Dimapasoc, Michelle Sinani, Dr. Kenia Yazmin, Reyna Blanco, David Bojorquez, Hong Jiang, Yuan Shi, Yushen Du, Ren Sun and Jerome Zack of UCLA; Natalia Komarova, Dominik Wodarz and Matthew Marsden of UC Irvine; and Paul Wender of Stanford University. Sun is also a member of the faculty of the University of Hong Kong.

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

UCLA nonviolence class connects students to Martin Luther King Jr.’s enduring legacy

The class taught by Rev. James Lawson Jr. has motivated students to carry on the fight for justice
Graphic depicting an image of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Rev. James Lawson and UCLA students
By Citlalli Chávez-Nava

Though it’s been more than 50 years since he was killed, the teachings of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. live on at UCLA, as they’re passed along from one of King’s contemporaries to today’s undergraduates.

For the past two decades, Rev. James Lawson Jr. — one of King’s close friends and fellow civil and labor rights leader, who King once referred to as “the leading strategist of nonviolence in the world” — has taught a UCLA course on King’s signature method for social reform.

Lawson, who received campus’s highest honor, the UCLA Medal, in recognition of his life’s work, co-teaches the class with Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. “Labor Studies M173: Nonviolence and Social Movements” is part of the labor studies academic program and offered jointly with the African American studies department and the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano and Central American Studies.

During the civil rights movement, King and Lawson embraced the philosophy of nonviolence as the most effective force to advance social, racial and economic equity in U.S. society. Together, they taught nonviolent resistance tactics to young activists, catalyzing lunch counter sit-ins, the 1961 Freedom Rides, and worker and student demonstrations that helped desegregate the South and inspired far-reaching voter mobilization efforts. In 1968, Lawson invited King to support the renowned Memphis Sanitation Strike where King was assassinated.

The class has motivated students to embrace King’s enduring legacy, while carrying on the fight for justice on campus and in the community.

“UCLA students have been inspired by Dr. King and Rev. Lawson’s teachings,” Wong said. “Many undocumented students of UCLA, in particular, have embraced the philosophy of nonviolence to win historic victories for immigrant rights, including DACA, the California Dream Act and health care access for undocumented young people.”

Students in the course examine nonviolent theory and its impact on social movements in the United States and around the globe while applying these concepts to present-day social challenges through service learning activities.

“We share a common commitment to getting the nonviolent history and theory into the public coffers where social change, personal change and the change towards equality can be made directly,” said Lawson said during a lecture last year.

Leticia Bustamante, who graduated from UCLA in 2017, said taking the class strongly influenced her academic journey and her activism. Among her most memorable class lectures was learning about King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which King wrote a powerful defense of a 1963 massive direct action campaign to pressure Birmingham merchants to desegregate the city during a busy shopping season. The letter is regarded as one of the most influential texts of the civil rights movement.

“For me, this letter serves as a blueprint and reference on the essentials of nonviolent action. Whether I am organizing for labor or immigration, I always keep the four [nonviolence] principles in the back of my mind,” Bustamante said. “I remind myself that the tensions we are creating are necessary. People should be made to feel uncomfortable, because progress and growth are never easy.”

Bustamante is now a master’s candidate in public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and has returned to the class as a guest speaker to share her immigrant rights organizing experiences.

Last spring, when the course was moved to an online platform because of COVID-19 restrictions, Lawson and Wong identified an opportunity to share the class with a wider audience. The weekly lectures and conversations were made available in real-time and were also archived on the Labor Center’s YouTube channel.

“Rev. Lawson has deep relationships with union activists, the faith community and social justice leaders throughout the country. We thought this would be an excellent opportunity to spread his teachings on nonviolence far and wide,” Wong said.

Among other distinguished guests, the class featured labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles co-founder Melina Abdullah, California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo and anti-apartheid leader Rev. Allan Boesak who addressed the class from his home in South Africa. Lectures offered viewers perspectives on the Delano grape strikes, the Nashville sit-ins and nonviolence movements in other countries. Students and viewers also had the opportunities to discuss Los Angeles-based movements in support of hotel worker rights and Black Lives Matter.

“Our labor studies program is proud to offer a curriculum that connects students to King’s legacy and the teachings of Rev. Lawson,” said Tobias Higbie, professor of history and labor studies faculty chair. “Lawson not only inspires our students by his long career, he also challenges each of us to live up to our potential as agents of positive social change.”

This coming spring 2022, the class will explore similar themes and students will also learn about Lawson’s teachings in a new book, “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom,” to be published by UC Press next month. Lawson and Wong hope to teach the course in-person but are prepared to offer the course virtually once again if public health restrictions persist.

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

The transformative power of travel

On and off the page, UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia seeks to span great distances

Image of UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia

UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia

By Jonathan Riggs

The lure of the open road, the adventure of travel have long inspired and defined American writers who took “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country” to heart. In addition to being one of these journeymen himself, Thomas Ray Garcia, a UCLA doctoral student in the English Department, studies them, too.

“My dissertation focuses on literary representations of travel through the works of five 20th-century American writers I consider a chronological arc: Jack London, Jack Black, Carlos Bulosan, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac,” he says. “All of them wrote some sort of fictionalized memoir, so I’m analyzing how the genre helped them craft their travels as journeys — not only throughout the country, but also to the professional class.”

According to Garcia, these individuals show how the idea of American authorship transformed during the early 20th-century, from deskbound typists to vigorous vagabonds writing about and taking agency over their lived experiences. All five of these authors paint larger-than-life uniquely American self-portraits, from Jack London’s tales of survival to Jack Kerouac’s free-flowing Beat Generation politics.

Writing with bravado and a scope as vast as the idealized, untamed American West, all of these authors — including Jack Black’s criminal memoirs to Carlos Bulosan’s perspective as a Filipino immigrant to John Steinbeck’s empathetic wisdom — unsurprisingly turned their attention to California.

“California was always this mecca for them; they wanted to reach what they called ‘the end of the road,’” Garcia says. “Going to the Santa Monica Pier and seeing the symbolic end of Route 66 spoke to me, too. Knowing I’m at UCLA focusing on writers who have a special relationship to this place enables me to see their work and mine through a unique lens.”

Garcia’s own travels have been just as life-changing as those of the authors he studies. Growing up 10 miles from Mexico in the border town of Pharr, Texas, Garcia was the first in his family to go to college. His experiences at Princeton — including gaining a new understanding of his Latino identity — helped inspire him to found the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP), a thriving Rio Grande Valley-based nonprofit that helps students reach and navigate higher education.

“I’m able to share my stories and my experiences with students, so they don’t have to struggle as much as I did,” Garcia says. “Several of the students I’m now helping apply to graduate school are the same ones I helped apply to undergrad. Helping my community like this lets me come full circle.”

A recipient of UCLA’s Carolyn See Graduate Fellowship in Southern California & Los Angeles Literature, Garcia is an accomplished creative writer, working on short stories and poetry about the U.S./Mexico border as well as co-authoring Speak with Style, a book series that helps children and young adults improve their public speaking. A project of particular importance to him is the historical memoir of Chicano activist Aurelio Montemayor he co-wrote, which has been peer-reviewed and approved by the faculty committee of Texas A&M University Press and is currently undergoing copyediting.

Now back in Texas, Garcia divides his time among academic work, creative writing and his nonprofit. He’s also a long-distance runner and likes to sneak in some nighttime miles whenever possible. His time spent under those endless Texas skies gives him the opportunity to think deeply about travel and distance — but also the importance of remembering where you’re from.

“People like me who were born and raised around this area recognize that it means something special to us. It informs who we are and all that we do,” he says. “This is a meaningful place for me to be and is definitely influencing how I’m approaching my dissertation – and everything that comes next.”

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

Living life like Brazilian poetry

Doctoral student Isaac Gimenez finds wisdom and whimsy in the exploration, analysis and joy of art and poetry

Image of Doctoral student Isaac Gimenez

UCLA Doctoral student Isaac Gimenez

By Jonathan Riggs

Literary translation is an art form that requires attention to detail, creativity and daring — after all, the challenges can be immense. But for doctoral student Isaac Gimenez, an adventurous artist with a bachelor’s degree in translation and interpreting and applied foreign languages, it can also be a lot of fun.

“You get to know the work really closely, and you can even take a playful approach, almost like a creative writing exercise,” says Gimenez, who was born in Spain. “It’s a dance between reproducing the original text with capturing the spirit of it in another language. You have to have a sense of humor about it all.”

After completing his undergraduate education at the University of Granada in Spain, Gimenez took various jobs in the service sector to save money and to improve his proficiency in English and French. He also worked as a freelance translator and interpreter, translating legal, technical, audiovisual and academic documents. He came to the U.S. with the goal of going to graduate school, landing a job teaching foreign language conversation at Pomona College, leading daily language labs and organizing student cultural activities. Already captivated by the arts and culture of Latin America, Gimenez was thrilled to enroll at UCLA to pursue his Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literatures with a focus on Brazil.

Today, he’s working on his dissertation on 20th– and 21st-century Brazilian poetry, tracing the country’s changing notions of authorship back to the first Modernist phase in the 1920s. Gimenez explores how these writers created what he calls “a poetry of errors” — a playful form of artistic civil disobedience embraced by both experimental and “marginal” poets.

“I am interested in poetic expressions in general and, arguably, Brazilian literary tradition is very rich in humoristic, experimental, transdisciplinary and politically engaged approaches to poetry. A lot of people have a misconception that poems has to be dense and solemn, and, consequently, inaccessible, for many” Gimenez says. “I am fascinated by poets who embody what they write about too. It’s a good lesson for all of us to engage with more poetry and live our lives poetically.”

Deeply inspired by the poetry he’s studying, Gimenez is also creating artistic works of his own. He created a video-poem titled “desterro/desmadre,” which he presented for the first time at the 2020 conference Letras Expandidas (2020), organized by PUC-Rio (Br). This video-poem served two purposes: it complemented his analysis of Camila Assad’s 2019 anthology Desterro (which inspired him to write an article published in the Portuguese literary magazine eLyra) and was also a personal reflection of what it meant to live in a global hub like Los Angeles while restricted to a smaller, screen-based scope of existence during the lockdown. “desterro/desmadre” will also be published in 2022 in Párrafo, the literary, artistic and cultural magazine of the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

“A professor of mine, Patrícia Lino, reminded me that academic writing is, in fact, a creative practice as well,” he says. “In that sense, critical readings and interpretations of literary works can be inspired by and in dialogue with other art forms and mediums.”

Supplementing his academic and creative work is Gimenez’s role as Editor-in-Chief of Mester, the journal of UCLA’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese graduate students. (Click here for Mester’s open access.) As he works on his dissertation, Gimenez is grateful for the support he earned from the Lorrine Rona Lydeen Fund since it has allowed him to devote considerable time and energy to this additional work — as well as to expanding his professional skills and nurturing new collaborations, both at UCLA (participating in two Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC) seminars) and through Mester, working closely with fellow scholars from Latin America and Europe. In fact, the journal will release its 50th issue later this year.

“I think it is quite remarkable that this issue builds bridges between scholars engaging with the Hispanic and Lusophone traditions from different continents and in different languages: English, Spanish and Portuguese,” says Gimenez.

It all adds up to why UCLA is such a special place for someone like Gimenez, who has traveled the globe.

“It means so much to be living in Los Angeles, a vibrant city that supports and is in continuous dialogue with artists, authors, intellectuals and cultural producers from Latin America and all over the world,” he says. “And most of all, being part of the UCLA community enhances those opportunities to access resources and meet scholars and professionals who inspire our work.”

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

UCLA dedicates labor center building to Rev. James Lawson Jr., champion of civil and worker rights

The building, which is now named in his honor, will house labor research, teaching and service for decades to come

Image of the The Rev. James Lawson Jr. at building dedication

Addressing the crowd at the ceremony, Lawson said, “Economic justice for every boy and girl of our 331 million people in the United States is perhaps the most daunting, complex issue we face.” Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

By Citlalli Chávez-Nava

For a building dedicated to ensuring fair treatment and opportunities for workers and that is located in the heart of one of Los Angeles’ working-class immigrant neighborhoods, naming it after iconic civil and workers’ rights leader Rev. James Lawson Jr. was perfect.

On Dec. 11, the UCLA Labor Center’s historic MacArthur Park building was officially named the UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center in honor Lawson, one of the civil rights movement’s most-prominent leaders of non-violent protest and a UCLA labor studies faculty member.

“Throughout history, many of our greatest leaders have urged us to look inward,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said to the audience of 300 attendees at a ceremony hosted by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in partnership with the Labor Center. “They ask: Who are we as people? What do we value? What kind of society do we want, and what are we willing to do to build it?

“For over 60 years, James Lawson has invited Americans to consider such pressing questions. He has insisted that humanity’s salvation lies in reason and compassion, not violence or exploitation. His vision and valor have mobilized Americans, changed this nation, and inspired activists around the globe.”

Once referred to as “the mind of the movement” and “the leading strategist of nonviolence in the world” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson, now 93, is known internationally for teaching nonviolent resistance tactics to young activists. In the course of his life, Lawson and his colleagues and students led lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and worker strikes including the historic 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike during the civil rights movement.

Lawson said he was humbled by UCLA naming a building in his honor.

“I had no idea how to prepare for this moment. For this extraordinary experience of all of you and the coalition that came together, to make this possible,” Lawson said. “On behalf of my wife, Dorothy, and her parents, and my parents and our great grandparents, and all on behalf of our sons, our grandchildren … we thank you very much, absolutely astonishing — I could never have imagined anything like this at all.”

Image of Chancellor Gene Block speaking at the ceremony naming the building that houses the UCLA Labor Center in honor of the Rev. James Lawson Jr.

Chancellor Gene Block speaks at the ceremony naming the building that houses the UCLA Labor Center in honor of the Rev. James Lawson Jr.
Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Local Emmy-nominated R&B and gospel artist Ashly Williams sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to kick off the ceremony, which took place in front of the building, just a couple of miles away from the downtown Los Angeles skyline.

“I am proud to say that the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor signed on immediately in support of the $15 million allocation to establish a home for the UCLA Labor Center and to rename this building in your honor,” said Los Angeles County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera. “This investment, this building, will help energize the future of the Los Angeles labor movement.”

Guests included members of Lawson’s family, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles County supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchell, state senators María Elena Durazo and Steven Bradford, State Controller Betty Yee, California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, assemblymembers Reggie Jones-Sawyer and Miguel Santiago, and Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, were among other community leaders, who spoke of Lawson’s unwavering commitment to advancing racial justice and worker rights.

“On behalf of this City of Angels, thank you to this angel,” Garcetti said. “Whether it’s in a sermon at Holman [United Methodist Church] or whether it’s in a private small conversation that I’ve had with [Rev. Lawson] at UCLA — and thank you to UCLA, Chancellor Block for having this center here — this man has shown us what it means to live in a city of angels in a world fighting for justice and in a city of belonging.”

UCLA faculty and administrators including Block, Dean of Social Sciences Darnell Hunt, Labor Center Director Kent Wong, labor studies students, clergy, members of Holman United Methodist Church and union members also attended.

A third generation Methodist minister, Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and earned his local pastor’s license in 1949 during his senior year of high school. Shortly after graduating, he was drafted into the U.S. military but refused to enlist. As a conscientious objector, Lawson received a three-year sentence, and served 13 months in prison.

Following release from prison, Lawson traveled to India as a missionary where he studied the nonviolence teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. Upon returning to the United States in 1956, Lawson began to train and inspire a new generation of civil rights leaders including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, also a recipient of the UCLA Medal, campus’s highest honor. Lawson received the UCLA Medal in 2018.

Image of California State Sen. María Elena Durazo was a student of the Rev. James Lawson Jr.

California State Sen. María Elena Durazo was a student of the Rev. James Lawson Jr. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

In 1974, Lawson moved to Los Angeles and became pastor of Holman United Methodist Church where he led his congregation to mobilize for peace and social justice while contributing to the transformation of the Los Angeles labor movement. His work with the UNITE HERE Local 11 helped hotel workers achieve higher wages and improved working conditions by orchestrating nonviolent sit-ins, hunger strikes and civil disobedience protests. Soon after, Los Angeles labor organizers embraced similar tactics, which inspired a national movement for immigrant worker justice.

Durazo strategized with Lawson directly as a young leader at UNITE HERE Local 11 and has maintained her friendship with Lawson for more than 30 years. Inspired by his teachings, she led the effort to name the Labor Center building in his honor and unveiled the building’s signage bearing Lawson’s name to a standing ovation.

“Reverend Lawson’s lifelong advocacy, for social justice, for civil rights, for workers’ rights, for breaking down racist institutions will be honored through all the great organizing that I know is going to be done at this center over decades to come,” she said.

Wong, who has led the work of the UCLA Labor Center for the past 30 years and has co-taught alongside Lawson for the past 20 years, welcomed Lawson to the podium.

“Reverend Lawson has been our moral and our spiritual compass,” Wong said. “I’ve watched the transformation each year, as our students sit in awe and learn from Reverend Lawson, learn about his life, his teachings … how he has lived his life with principles and justice, and determination.”

In his address, Lawson recognized the unprecedented challenges facing the nation and how this moment would serve as a reminder of the urgent need to achieve economic dignity for all.

“Economic justice for every boy and girl of our 331 million people in the United States is perhaps the most daunting, complex issue we face,” he said. “But if we do not achieve it, if we cannot achieve it, we as the people, will have failed this extraordinary vision and mission that I personally have loved.”

Yet, he expressed hope in our human capacity to overcome our present challenges.

“If we can tap the great forces of life itself, and use those powers in the solving of the issues we face, we will discover the power of life itself in the power of the universe.”

Naming the building in honor of Lawson forms part of a $15 million effort to renovate the Labor Center funded by a one-time allocation in California’s 2021-22 state budget. The Labor Center was originally established in 1964 within the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, now the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, through a statewide joint labor-university committee. Since its inception, the center has been dedicated to research, education and service in the interest of California workers.

In 2002, the Labor Center leased the building overlooking MacArthur Park to connect UCLA students and faculty to the broader Los Angeles worker community. Since then, it has focused on cutting-edge worker research, investigating topics such as wage theft, Black unemployment, immigrant workers, young workers and the gig economy. The center is also recognized for its innovative worker education and popular education programs and community-engaged learning within the economic justice movement and promoting a global workers’ rights agenda.

“We’re thrilled to help build a community asset that bears Reverend Lawson’s name. It will be a profound reminder of our obligation to advance research and policy solutions that advance worker and economic justice,” said Abel Valenzuela Jr., director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. “The UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center will place Los Angeles and [the University of California] at the forefront of community engagement, academic research and a push for a worker centered economy.”

In honor of Lawson’s life and enduring legacy, early next year, UC Press will also release a book titled, “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom” featuring Lawson’s teachings on nonviolence.

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

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