Jonathan Riggs | July 28, 2022
“I believe in one thing,” goes the famous quote by Albert Einstein, “that only a life lived for others is a life worth living.” From one world-changing physicist to another — Einstein’s truism could also be the motto of Mani L. Bhaumik, who celebrated two milestones this year: his 91st birthday and the fifth anniversary of the Mani L. Bhaumik Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCLA.
“Mani’s generosity is truly amazing, matched only by his deep passion for fundamental physics,” says Zvi Bern, director of the Institute. “I am confident that 50 years from now, people will see that the creation of the Institute was a defining moment that changed everything, bringing UCLA’s physics department to the top global echelon.”
Beginning with a transformative $11 million gift in 2016 that was the largest in the history of both the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences and the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy, Bhaumik’s vision of a world-leading center to support foundational work in quantum field theory, unification of forces and, more recently, foundational issues in quantum mechanics, has surpassed all expectations. In fact, its success has allowed UCLA to compete head on with the best universities in theoretical physics.
“Just this past year, two of our students got great faculty offers one year out of graduate school — it is extremely rare even at top universities for a single student to accomplish this, but two students in one year is simply unprecedented,” says Bern. “I am also happy to report that the most-cited paper of 2021 on the hep-th physics arXiv — pushing the frontiers of precision general relativity by using ideas from the quantum field — is from the Bhaumik Institute. We are doing what we promised Mani.”
In addition, the Institute currently has 10 postdocs and is providing fellowships for 31 graduate students this summer; it has sparked more than 250 scientific papers — and counting; it is involved in efforts to diversify the field of nuclear physics; and it has attracted top-tier faculty to UCLA, including Mikhail Solon, who won a Sloan Research Fellowship, and Thomas Dumitrescu, who won the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Early Career Award as well as funding to establish multi-institute collaboration on symmetries.
“The Institute attracts the best people with different scientific backgrounds, and fosters an environment where they can freely exchange ideas and pursue bold new directions. The focus is on supporting young people such as postdocs and graduate students: the lifeblood of the field,” says Solon. “This density of people and ideas really elevates the day-to-day scientific interactions and provides the stimulus for creativity. We cherish the intellectual freedom the institute provides, and use it to pursue the best science.”
“For me personally, coming to UCLA as a faculty member was completely entwined with the promise of the Bhaumik Institute —I have the honor of being the inaugural holder of the Mani L. Bhaumik presidential term chair in theoretical physics,” says Dumitrescu. “I think the Institute has made amazing strides and this rapid progress has definitely been noticed and is appreciated at UCLA and far beyond.”
Of course, none of this would be possible without Bhaumik himself, the largest supporter to the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences. In addition to a 2018 gift of $3 million, he recently completed his pledges early ($15.26 million for current-use and endowed funds for the Bhaumik Institute and $1.175 million to support the construction of the UCLA Collaboratory, formerly the chemistry library in Young Hall).
Prior to his distinguished career as a laser physicist, Bhaumik’s love of theoretical physics originated as a student in India where he learned about Kaluza-Klein theories from S. N. Bose (of Bose-Einstein fame), igniting his passion for deep questions in theoretical physics.
“Mani’s vision for the Institute — to be a world-class center for theoretical physics, to plant the seeds for future Nobel prizes — can be intimidating, but I believe it can be realized and I am honored to be part of building this,” says Solon. “Mani’s vision for science is at the core of everything the institute is and does. His own quest to understand nature at a fundamental level inspires us all to pursue the deepest questions.”
“In addition to all the magnificent accomplishments of the Bhaumik Institute, I have immensely benefited from profound professional discussions with all the physics luminaries at UCLA,” says Bhaumik. “As a result, I have gained the intellectual satisfaction of confirming that non-relativistic quantum mechanics used by over 90% of the practitioners can be a real theory, and not just based on the collection of postulates.”
This June’s conference, Mani-Fest 2022: Directions in Theoretical Physics, celebrated the past while looking to the future, covering issues ranging from quantum field theory to black holes to string theory to gravitational waves and beyond as well as featuring several presentations highlighting research carried out at the Institute. Among the notable attendees were four Nobel Prize-winning physicists.
“It was nice to see physics outside of the classroom; I was especially interested in listening and talking to people in the field that I’m moving into, high energy theoretical physics,” says attendee Anna Wolz, a first-year physics doctoral student at UCLA. “It was inspiring to see who are so passionate about their research and their new ideas. Honestly, it reminds me why I’m here and what I have to look forward to.”
“We are so grateful to Mani L. Bhaumik for launching this visionary Institute, and to everyone who has contributed to making his dream an incredible reality,” says Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences. “Its remarkable success benefits so many, from faculty to students to the field of science itself, and this is only the beginning.”
Jonathan Riggs | July 21, 2022
• Late siblings George and Alice Kachigian were longtime supporters of Armenian scholarship at UCLA.
• The inaugural lectureship holder, Hagop Kouloujian, seeks to revive Western Armenian by having students compose creative works in the endangered language.
The UCLA Division of Humanities has received a $1.2 million bequest from the estate of siblings George and Alice Kachigian to support the Armenian studies program in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures. As part of the gift, the department created the Kachigian Family Lectureship in Armenian Language and Culture.
The inaugural holder of the lectureship will be Hagop Kouloujian, a UCLA scholar and instructor who specializes in Western Armenian, a language that since the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century has been spoken almost exclusively by people in the diaspora. Kouloujian was instrumental in having it designated an endangered language by UNESCO in 2010.
“We are grateful for the kindness and visionary support of the Kachigian family,” said David Schaberg, dean of humanities and senior dean of the UCLA College. “Their generosity will contribute to the vitality of this endangered language and culture.”
Los Angeles, with the largest Armenian-speaking population outside Armenia itself, and UCLA are natural settings for such scholarship. Since the launch of the Armenian studies program in 1969, UCLA has been a destination for students interested in the field, and the creation of the UCLA Promise Armenian Institute in 2019 cemented the university’s leadership role in Armenian research and public impact programs.
Kouloujian’s ongoing Language in Action project at UCLA, funded by the Portugal-based Calouse Gulbenkian Foundation, exemplifies his “creative literacy” approach, which focuses on teaching students by encouraging their own creative output. His students have produced hundreds of pieces, ranging from creative works to nonfiction, with the goal of contributing to the vitality of Western Armenian language and culture.
In May 2022, for example, the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures held an event to celebrate the publication of “Girkov useloo, inchoo hos em?” (“To Say With Passion, Why Am I Here?”), a full-length volume of poetry written in Western Armenian by the late Tenny Arlen, a 2013 UCLA comparative literature graduate who learned the language and wrote most of the collection in Kouloujian’s courses.
Donors George and Alice Kachigian, for whom the lectureship is named, were active members and generous supporters of the Los Angeles Armenian community. Although they moved to Oregon 30 years ago following the deaths of their parents and brother Harold, they continued to support UCLA’s Armenian studies program throughout their lives, providing research funding for faculty in the divisions of social sciences and humanities.
Alice died in 2017, and after George’s death in 2019, the siblings’ estate left generous funding to the Armenian studies program and the department of neurology at UCLA.
“The Kachigian family were friends to all, donated to many causes and counseled anyone who requested their help. They lived lives of goodness and kindness,” said Rafe Aharonian, trustee of the Kachigian Living Trust. “George, Alice and Harold wanted to help the youth learn more about Armenian heritage, and courses like Dr. Kouloujian’s encourage connections between UCLA students of Armenian heritage who might otherwise not have met.”
The Kachigians’ legacy will live on in all those at UCLA and elsewhere who, through the family’s generosity, have developed a deep connection to and appreciation for Armenian culture and language, said Kouloujian, who will hold the lectureship for five years.
“My aspiration for this lectureship is to continue to enhance UCLA’s Armenian work with forward-looking activities and community impact projects that will help invigorate the future of this language and culture,” he said. “I want to share the enduring, evolving beauty and power of Armenian with as many people as possible.”
Activist, advocate and artist Christopher Ikonomou looks ahead to his UCLA senior year
Jonathan Riggs | July 18, 2022
Scroll through most UCLA students’ TikToks and you’ll find similar content: summer adventures, pet videos, comedic musings. That’s all there on Christopher Ikonomou’s TikTok, plus updates on the open-heart surgery he had June 13.
Diagnosed with Marfan syndrome at 18 months old, Ikonomou (who uses he/xe pronouns) posted regularly before and after the surgery, which often becomes necessary for those with the syndrome to avoid potentially fatal aortic dissections. (Ikonomou must rest frequently on his way to class, take elevators in lieu of stairs and avoid strenuous activities: a challenge on UCLA’s hilly campus.)
Unflappable with a kind, wry sense of humor — Ikonomou posted a post-surgical TikTok dancing in his hospital bed under the caption, “didn’t think I’d get to check off ‘hallucinations after open heart surgery’ this year” — he has built an impressive social media following. Even more so, however, is his reputation as an activist. An outspoken member of the Disabled Student Union at UCLA who participated in this February’s successful sit-in, Ikonomou is a communication major and disability studies minor who hopes to make a career and a difference at the intersection of these fields.
“Knowing what I do about my community and the power of entertainment, I want to change disabled representation within media,” Ikonomou says. “When I started making TikToks and being very open about my disability, I saw firsthand what people’s first reactions could be.”
In one instance, he spoofed these reactions by participating in a popular TikTok challenge where users reveal their celebrity doppelganger; Ikonomou jokingly discovers his is the horror character Slenderman.
“The majority of comments I get like that compare me to things that aren’t human — our bodies are made to be the villains,” Ikonomou says. “The actor Javier Botet, who also has Marfan syndrome, has had a lot of success playing monsters in Hollywood. It’s cool he’s rich and gets lots of villain roles, but I think we should have the opportunity to play heroes as well. And I want to be a part of that.”
Ikonomou knows all about speaking truth to power — he’s a longtime debater who grew his high school team from six to 60, served as captain for two years and led them to a national No. 1 ranking. He’s also the Editor-in-Chief of UCLA’s official queer newsmagazine, OutWrite, and a popular Etsy creator specializing in queer and disability stickers, buttons, pins, apparel and prints. (Proceeds of up to 100% of the sales from his various collections are donated to related charities, including his Pride-themed CASETiFY phone cases.)
As he eyes his senior year and his goal of revamping the entertainment industry from the inside, Ikonomou draws strength from the knowledge that he’s already overcome formidable challenges.
“I was good at math in high school, but the college level wasn’t for me. Announcing that I wasn’t going to be a math major anymore was the best and the hardest decision I’ve made in college,” he says. “I make a joke that it was easier for me to come out as trans than it was to say I didn’t want to be in STEM anymore to immigrant parents.”
Underpinning all Ikonomou’s learned so far in his college experience is having the courage to decide what he wants to do, putting himself out there to try and learning from the results. For example, Ikonomou wasn’t accepted into the UCLA design media arts major, but considers some of the classes he took in the area among his favorites, including a typography course that has helped immensely with magazine layout work. It’s this resilient, optimistic outlook that’s helped Ikonomou find like-minded allies — and himself.
“My number one inspiration is the community I have found, both online and in person at UCLA. My illness is very rare, but quite literally millions of people across the U.S. and world experience systemic barriers,” he says. “My disability studies minor has shown me how I can use what I’m learning to advocate for a better world for all. That gasses me up and keeps me moving forward.”
Raising awareness of Marfan syndrome is the main goal of Ikonomou’s educational TikToks, like this one. For more information, he recommends visiting the Marfan Foundation and its Instagram, where you might see a familiar face.
Darnell Hunt, the dean of the division of social sciences and a professor of sociology and African American studies, has been appointed UCLA’s next executive vice chancellor and provost.
“A longtime campus leader widely respected for his vision, diligence, fairness and commitment to inclusive excellence, Dean Hunt will bring considerable skills, knowledge and experience to his new role as UCLA’s chief academic officer,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to campus. “I am certain that his service will continue to elevate our great institution.”
Hunt, who will begin in his new role on Sept. 1, has been a leading figure on campus for more than two decades. After beginning his academic career on the sociology faculty at USC, he joined UCLA in 2001 as a professor of sociology and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. He led the Bunche Center from 2001 to 2017, and additionally served as chair of the sociology department from 2015 to 2017, before being named dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College.
As dean for the past five years, he has focused on supporting and elevating the social sciences and extending their reach across the academy and into the community.
Under his leadership, the social sciences division:
• expanded and continued to diversify its world-class faculty;
• established the Barbra Streisand Center for the Future of Women;
• created the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute;
• renamed the Downtown Labor Center after UCLA lecturer, civil rights icon and UCLA Medal recipient Rev. James Lawson Jr.;
• launched the “Big Data” and Society initiative and LA Social Science, an interactive forum designed to showcase research and engaged scholarship;
• secured a multi-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to support hiring and curricula with a focus on social justice, which was accomplished in conjunction with the division of humanities.
“Inclusive excellence and engaged scholarship are more than mere buzzwords,” Hunt said. “As EVCP, I look forward to working with campus leadership and our broader intellectual community to elevate these longstanding ideals at UCLA in concrete ways. By doing so, I know we can build on UCLA’s extraordinary contributions as one of the world’s great public research universities.”
Hunt earned his A.B. in journalism at the University of Southern California, his M.B.A. at Georgetown University, and his master of arts and doctorate in sociology at UCLA.
He has written extensively about issues related to race, media and culture, including four books and numerous articles for academic journals and news outlets. While his research expertise is wide ranging, he has developed a particular focus on issues of access and diversity in the entertainment industry. Since 2014, he has been the lead author of UCLA’s influential Hollywood Diversity Report, providing comprehensive analyses of the employment of women and people of color in front of and behind the camera in film and television.
A sought-after commentator in news media on questions of media and race, he has also served on panel discussions sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the United Nations, the Congressional Black Caucus, numerous colleges and universities and other organizations. The findings of his research studies have been reported in thousands of print, radio, broadcast and online media outlets throughout the United States and abroad. In 2010, he was listed among Ebony magazine’s “Power 150 Academia” for his community-engaged scholarship.
Hunt is a member of the American Sociological Association, the Association of Black Sociologists and the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences. He has served as a member of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations Academic Advisory Board and as a staff researcher for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ hearings on the 1992 Los Angeles civil disturbances.
He currently serves as a member of the Chancellor’s Council on the Arts, the campus IT steering committee and the Faculty Forward Initiative task force at UCLA, and is also a member of the UC Press board of directors. In addition, he has served on numerous campus and UC committees including the committee on diversity and equal opportunity, the committee on undergraduate admissions and relations with schools, the classroom advisory committee, the civic engagement task force, and the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, and was the recipient of the UCLA Academic Senate’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award in 2011.
In his announcement, Block thanked the committee members who conducted the search and he also shared his appreciation for Michael Levine for serving as the interim executive vice chancellor and provost since last October.
“Interim EVCP Levine took up this position during a challenging period, and through it all he has remained a dedicated steward of our academic enterprise,” Block said. Levine will return to his role as vice chancellor for academic personnel in September.
In closing Block expressed his optimism about UCLA’s future as Hunt prepares to become executive vice chancellor and provost.
“Given Dean Hunt’s UCLA roots, coupled with his administrative experience and compelling vision for UCLA, I am confident that he will provide extraordinary leadership in this new role,” Block said. “I greatly look forward to working with him and the campus community to advance our shared goals.”
Marine scientist Kelsi Rutledge explores new possibilities for bioinspired design
UC Grad Slam finalist Kelsi Rutledge holds a preserved museum specimen of Pseudobatos buthi, a new ray species she discovered.
Lucy Berbeo |
Kelsi Rutledge wants you to understand the world from a fish’s perspective — a stingray’s, to be exact — and for good reason: this fascinating creature and its relatives may help lead the way to a more sustainable future.
Swimming the seas since prehistoric times, the ray is famed for its flat body, wing-like fins and venomous barb. But it has something else that the casual observer can’t see: a curiously shaped, powerful nose that can track a scent like a bloodhound. Rutledge, a doctoral student in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is shedding new light on this sensory superpower and what we can learn from it.
“There are all kinds of rays — huge, pelagic manta rays, deep-sea thorny skates, blind electric rays — and they all have different types of noses,” she says. “Some are circular, some are slit-like, others protrude from their heads. Why do they look so different, and how do they work? It’s not a simple question to answer. Unlike humans, their noses aren’t involved in breathing; they evolved only for smell. Without a pump-like system to bring odors in, how do their noses still smell so efficiently?”
Rooted in these questions, Rutledge’s research earned her a spot as a finalist in this year’s statewide UC Grad Slam competition. She’s interested in how the rays’ sniffers may influence bioinspired design, where technical innovations take a cue from nature’s systems and processes. Her findings are already being used by U.S. Navy engineers to improve underwater technology.
Rutledge’s research journey started at L.A.’s Natural History Museum — where, she says, scientists can check out animals “like books.” After borrowing a number of ray specimens, she worked with staff at UCLA Radiology to CT-scan the fishes’ heads, including their noses of varying shapes and sizes, then used a 3D printer to construct anatomically accurate models. Back at the lab, she used powerful lasers to illuminate water movement and compare the noses in action.
“We tracked individual water parcels to find out how the different nose shapes harnessed odors, which was fastest and most effective, and then tied that back to their ecology,” she says. “We wanted to understand why they evolved this system: do some species rely on sense of smell more than others? For example, deep-sea fishes with limited vision might need an odor-harnessing system that’s quicker and more efficient.”
“Through thousands of years of evolution, nature often provides innovative solutions to complex problems. If we can try to mimic what animals do so elegantly, we have the opportunity to advance our own technology.”
Learning to imitate the rays’ evolutionary “design” may be a game-changer in the era of climate change. Odors are chemicals, and monitoring chemical content in the ocean is vital in tracking the health of our seas, which provide nearly three-quarters of our oxygen. Chemicals like phosphorous, silicate and nitrogen also form the basis of the ocean’s food web, giving nutrients to phytoplankton and algae. And while current chemical detection methods are expensive and tech-heavy, the form and function of ray noses may inspire simple, energy-conscious solutions.
“There’s so much we can learn from animals. I have another paper that looked at the crushing power of stingray jaws — they can actually crush material that’s harder than their own skeleton,” Rutledge says. “Through thousands of years of evolution, nature often provides innovative solutions to complex problems. If we can try to mimic what animals do so elegantly, we have the opportunity to advance our own technology.”
Rutledge has long been curious about nature’s hidden, yet complex and fascinating worlds. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, she was drawn to ocean life and to the study of fishes in particular because of their incredible biodiversity, which led her down endless “research rabbit holes.” As a master’s student, she discovered a new species of guitarfish, a lesser-known and threatened ray relative. The news was covered by Forbes, Smithsonian Magazine and more — hardly typical in the old-school world of taxonomy.
Rutledge named the new species Pseudobatos buthi in honor of her supportive graduate advisor at UCLA, the late Don Buth.
“I staged a photoshoot with my professional photographer friend where I took silly photos with one of the museum specimens of my new species, similar in style to a birth announcement,” she shared on her website. “With a bit of apprehension, I then took to Twitter to post the photos. My hope was to engage scientists and non-scientists alike and highlight the importance of museum collections and this understudied and endangered group of fishes.”
After graduating this year, Rutledge will go on to Caltech’s Dabiri Lab to shine the spotlight on another odd but fascinating creature, the jellyfish — which, like the stingray, has managed to outlive the dinosaurs. “I’m really excited about this new project. Jellyfish are one of the most efficient swimmers in the ocean,” she says. “They’re so simple and complex at the same time.”
And in a field with endless possibilities, Rutledge continues to find wonder and inspiration in fishes, our strange evolutionary ancestors. “There’s so much we can learn about them,” she says. “There’s still so much to be discovered.”
Learn more about Kelsi Rutledge’s research and teaching at her website, fishandfreckles.com.
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