Dysmus Kisilu wins UCLA’s Pritzker Award for environmental innovators

Kenyan entrepreneur and his company, Solar Freeze, receive $100,000 prize for reducing food waste

Dysmus Kisilu speaking with Tony Pritzker in background

Dysmus Kisilu was honored for finding an environmentally friendly way to help small Kenyan farms preserve their produce in order to sell it during periods of peak demand. Tony Pritzker looked on while Kisilu spoke at the Nov. 10 award ceremony. | Damon Cirulli

David Colgan | November 11, 2022

Kenyan entrepreneur Dysmus Kisilu and his business, Solar Freeze, received the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Kisilu’s company rents solar-powered coolers to reduce waste, curb carbon emissions and improve the marketability of crops on small, rural farms in Kenya. He was honored during a ceremony at the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center on Nov. 10.

“To the smallholder farmers that I work with, this is for you,” Kisilu said.

The Pritzker Award, which is presented annually, carries a prize of $100,000 that is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Kisilu co-founded Solar Freeze in 2018, bringing solar-powered cold storage to small Kenyan farms — enabling them to reduce food waste without increasing carbon emissions. The storage units, which are made using old shipping containers, allow farmers to preserve perishable produce inexpensively, giving them leverage to sell harvests after times of peak production when they command higher prices, which can help maximize their profits.

The company aims to further its mission with a new mobile app and by expanding to other parts of Africa.

Kisilu was nominated by Jaime Carlson, a senior advisor in strategy and investment at Softbank Energy, a business that promotes the spread of renewable energy. Carlson said she was struck by how Kisilu “thinks deeply and thoughtfully” to create solutions that fit local communities and market conditions.

The Pritzker Award was launched in 2017, and for the first time since 2019, the presentation was held in person — the 2020 and 2021 events were streamed online due to the pandemic. The 2022 award celebration was kicked off earlier in the day by a series of discussions among UCLA experts and international environmental leaders.

Marilyn Raphael, director of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, saluted Kisilu, the other nominees, and the other innovators and scholars who attended the award ceremony.

“You have already touched many lives, and what you do every day will touch lives and inspire environmental heroes for generations to come,” she said.

The other two finalists for the award were Resson Kantai Duff, a conservationist who fosters understanding and stewardship of nature in communities that live among lions; and Tiana Williams-Clausen, director of the Wildlife Department of the Yurok Tribe, who is helping to restore wildlife to Yurok lands around the Klamath River.

From left, Dysmus Kisilu with Marilyn Raphael of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Pritzker Award finalist Tiana Williams-Clausen and Tony Pritzker at the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award ceremony.

From left, Dysmus Kisilu with Marilyn Raphael of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Pritzker Award finalist Tiana Williams-Clausen and Tony Pritzker at the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award ceremony. | Damon Cirulli

The distinguished panel of judges who chose Kisilu as this year’s winner was made up of Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon; Chanell Fletcher, deputy executive officer of environmental justice at the California Air Resources Board; Lori Garver, CEO of the Earthrise Media; and Ida Levine, lead expert on policy and regulation for the board of Impact Investing Institute.

Kisilu’s honor was presented by Tony Pritzker, who founded the award and is a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s advisory board.

“The objective of all this is to honor you at such a great point in your lives — giving you the opportunity to take it to the next level,” Pritzker said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Portraits of Marinza Marzouk - Monica Soliman - Samuel Zamora

3 UCLA undergrads receive prestigious NIH scholarships

Portraits of Marinza Marzouk - Monica Soliman - Samuel Zamora

Marinza Marzouk (left), Monica Soliman and Samuel Zamora will complete summer internships in NIH labs and have full-time jobs there upon graduation. | UCLA

Jonathan Riggs | November 3, 2022

Only 16 students nationally were chosen to receive prestigious National Institutes of Health undergraduate scholarships for 2022–23.

And three of them are Bruins.

Fourth-year students Marinza Marzouk of Covina, California, and Monica Soliman of Los Angeles, and third-year student Samuel Zamora of San Diego were chosen from a national pool of applicants. The scholarship is meant to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue education and career opportunities in biomedical research.

Each of the UCLA honorees will receive up to $20,000 per year for up to four years. In exchange, they will complete 10-week, paid summer internships in NIH laboratories and, after they graduate from UCLA, work as full-time employees in NIH labs for one year per year of scholarship support they receive.

“I am proud of these three remarkable students and all they have accomplished thus far,” said Adriana Galván, UCLA’s dean of undergraduate education. “This scholarship is an inspiring vote of confidence on the national stage for their future potential, and I have no doubt they will exceed all expectations.”

Marzouk is a neuroscience major who transferred to UCLA from Pasadena City College. She moved with her family to the U.S. from Egypt when she was 13.

“It was very overwhelming, especially with the language barrier, and I had a lot of self-doubt — I never even thought I could dream of going to UCLA,” Marzouk said. “But I kept challenging myself to get here.”

Marzouk volunteers in the research lab of Professor Edythe London, a UCLA psychiatrist and biobehavioral scientist. She hopes to continue her studies in medical school, with the goal of becoming a psychologist or neurologist.

“It means a lot to me to have gotten this scholarship,” she said. “I still cannot process that I am where I am, and doing what I am doing, but I am just so happy to be making my parents and myself proud. My parents sacrificed a lot for me, and this scholarship shows them that their efforts were not in vain and that I am taking advantage of all the opportunities available to me here in America.”

Soliman is majoring in human biology and society and minoring in Arabic studies. Like Marzouk, she came to the U.S. from Egypt at a young age; Soliman was 10, and her family was seeking religious asylum after the 2011 revolution there.

“Coming from a country where women do not always have the opportunity to pursue higher education, I was determined to become one of the first in my family to receive a college degree,” she said. “Coming to UCLA helped me find community and a sense of belonging.”

Soliman hopes to enroll in an M.D.–Ph.D. program in sports medicine. An intern with the UCLA Athletics sports medicine staff, Soliman has also served as a field research assistant for the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program and an NIH-funded project to improve concussion assessment and treatment in children and teens.

“I feel honored to have been selected to earn such a competitive scholarship and to have the opportunity to work at the NIH and develop skills that are necessary for my journey,” Soliman said. “UCLA provided an environment that has allowed me to grow, and I’m grateful.”

Zamora, who’s majoring in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, moved to California with his family from Tijuana, Mexico, when he was 10.

“Like many other first-generation students, my parents didn’t attend college and knew nothing about the process, which meant I had no sense of direction and struggled to find resources,” he said.

Key to helping him adjust to campus life and find his path, Zamora said, was his involvement with Hermanos Unidos de UCLA, a student organization that helps male Latino and Chicano students bond over their academic successes, community service and personal growth.

Zamora has gained experience in multiple research labs on campus. He’s currently a research intern in the lab of Professor Xiaojiang Cui, where he’s studying the implications of RNA splicing on breast cancer development. Although he hasn’t ruled out medical school, he also has an interest in continuing his clinical laboratory research.

“Earning this scholarship gives me a feeling of victory,” Zamora said. “Aspiring to make a change in this world through the beauty of science is the reason I push myself.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Miguel García-Garibay in the Royce Hall portico

Miguel García-Garibay appointed senior dean of UCLA College

The longtime faculty member will continue to lead the division of physical sciences

Miguel García-Garibay

UCLA Newsroom | November 1, 2022

Miguel García-Garibay, dean of physical sciences, has been appointed senior dean of the UCLA College, UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt announced. García-Garibay’s two-year term begins today, as current senior dean David Schaberg steps down.

The five deans of the UCLA College lead their respective divisions — physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, humanities and undergraduate education — and share responsibility for college-wide issues and functions. García-Garibay will continue in his role as physical sciences dean, and as senior dean will be responsible for coordinating planning, budgeting, activities and decisions related to staffing, policies and development across the college. He will also represent the college at meetings and events on campus, systemwide and externally.

García-Garibay joined the UCLA chemistry and biochemistry faculty in 1992 and became dean of physical sciences in 2016. As dean, he has provided thoughtful and strategic leadership and developed a culture of cooperation and inclusion. Over the past six years, he has expanded the division’s academic offerings, led multiple collaborations in research and inclusive teaching, invested in the student experience, and had great success in recruiting and retaining exceptional faculty.

“Chancellor Block and I look forward to working with Dean García-Garibay in this additional role for the benefit of the college and UCLA as a whole,” Hunt said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Inaugural faculty recipients of Mellon Foundation “Data, Justice and Society” grants

Collage image of UCLA professors David MacFadyen, Davide Panagia, Miriam Posner, Nick Shapiro and Veronica Terriquez, recipients of the inaugural “Data, Justice and Society” course development grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

From left to right: UCLA professors David MacFadyen, Davide Panagia, Miriam Posner, Nick Shapiro and Veronica Terriquez, recipients of the inaugural “Data, Justice and Society” course development grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

By Munia Bhaumik

The following UCLA faculty members are the inaugural recipients of “Data, Justice and Society” course development grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation:

This remarkable cohort of innovative UCLA faculty proposed to develop courses across the humanities, social sciences and life sciences to enhance teaching at the intersection of data, justice and society and to augment curricular offerings engaged with data ethics and justice, community-engaged teaching and digital humanities. These courses will be offered either this academic year or next.

The courses enrich our understanding of how data technologies are increasingly a part of our everyday lives. When you buy something on Amazon, friend someone on Facebook or search on Google, data is being gathered about your choices. These courses mobilize the space of the classroom at the nation’s top public university to invite conversation and thought about social consequences and the need for justice in our data-saturated world.

Thanks to the generous contribution of the Mellon Foundation, these grants are increasing the number of course offerings across the UCLA campus for both graduate and undergraduate students to learn from professors who are working at the intersection of multiple fields. Many of the new courses will also allow students to engage with and learn from community organizations across Southern California.

The faculty grant recipients are not only world-renowned scholars in their respective fields, but also committed instructors eager to engage students around issues of academic and social relevance. They were selected by the Mellon Social Justice Curricular Initiatives steering committee, comprised of Todd Presner, professor and chair of the department of European languages and transcultural studies; Shalom Staub, director of the Center for Community Engagement; Juliet Williams, professor and chair of the social science interdepartmental program; and Munia Bhaumik, program director of Mellon Social Justice Curricular Initiatives.

Course Descriptions

David MacFadyen
“Freedom of Speech in Russia: Decentralized Tools for Musicians and Journalists”
Goal: To create a blockchain-based and anonymized publishing platform, using NFTs to protect the rights of both journalists and musicians, currently under significant pressure from state censorship during the war with Ukraine.

Davide Panagia
#datapolitik: or, the Political Theory of Data”
This course looks to the changing nature of political thinking and judgment given the emergence of data and algorithms as the principal media in contemporary democratic life. The course introduces students to developments of new forms of critical thinking for the study of data and society by interrogating familiar concepts in the history of political thought (freedom, justice, equality, race, ethnicity, gender) in relationship to new and emerging media, and the expectations and claims these media place on users. The learning objective of the course is to study political ideas in relationship to, and embedded with, the specific medium of data.

Miriam Posner
“Data from the Margins”
Data has a long tradition as a weapon of discrimination — but oppressed communities have an equally long tradition of reconceiving, reworking and remaking data in order to fight back. We’ll consult with and hear from activists and scholars who are making change for their communities as they challenge everyone to rethink what data can do.

Nick Shapiro
“Science, Mass Incarceration and Accountability”
The course will be split into two complementary halves. First, an introduction to the extractive data practices of science that have both advanced and profited off of mass incarceration. This half of the course will facilitate the subject matter expertise needed to understand the context and critiques that the work of the second half of the course is attempting to overcome or counteract. The topics of the first half will include a general introduction to mass incarceration and what data can and can’t tell us about this archipelago of nearly 7,000 carceral facilities as well as the unethical scientific knowledge extraction from incarcerated people.

Veronica Terriquez
“Community-Engaged Research Methods:  Surveying Racially Diverse Youth and Workers”
This course will train students in designing, drafting, piloting, and administering a new survey focused on transitions to adulthood. Written in collaboration with community partners, this survey will gather data on the workforce development, labor rights, education, health, mental health, and civic engagement of young people residing in BIPOC communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The course will expose students to the historical development of racial statistics, the role of racial statistics in contemporary life, and critical quantitative science. It will also include testing questions on racial identity and attitudes; gender identity; workforce development; labor rights; healing and wellness; and other topics determined by community partners serving Latinx, AAPI, Black, and Indigenous youth. Additionally, students will learn about the strengths and weaknesses of different survey sampling methodologies aimed at gathering data from BIPOC youth, low-wage workers, and students.

Bridgerton cast photo

Women and people of color still less likely to helm big-budget TV shows

Latest Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA signals potential challenges ahead in writers’ rooms

Bridgerton cast photo

Netflix’s period romance “Bridgerton” enjoyed broad appeal among Asian, Black, Latino and white households in 2020–21; it also generated plenty of buzz on Instagram and Twitter. | Image credit: Netflix

Jessica Wolf | October 27, 2022

UCLA researchers see signs that could foretell a retreat in the industry’s gender and racial diversity — especially on big-budget shows and in writing positions.

That’s among the conclusions of a study of the 2020–21 TV season in the new Hollywood Diversity Report, which is produced by the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA.

“The next few years may be a true test of whether Hollywood is truly committed to the changes they promised during the nation’s reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, director of the initiative.

The report did also find that shows with diverse casts — such as “FBI” on CBS, “Snowpiercer” on TNT and “Bridgerton” on Netflix — continued to draw large, diverse audiences.

But with programmers increasingly shelling out big bucks for high-concept shows, the UCLA report reveals that those opportunities weren’t equal for women and people of color — despite the fact there were more minority and women show creators across all distribution platforms than there were during the 2019–20 season.

“We saw an uptick in opportunity for people of color and women having their shows greenlit, which should be a marker of progress,” Ramón said. “However, when we examined the episodic budgets of all the TV series, we see a strong pattern indicating that shows created by people of color and women tended to receive smaller budgets than those created by white men, particularly in the digital arena.”

Nearly 1 in 2 shows for which white men were credited as show creators enjoyed a budget of more than $3 million per episode, but far fewer women or people of color reached that level.

In broadcast, 71.4% of show creators of color (both men and women) had per-episode budgets of less than $3 million; among white women creators, 86.9% did so; and among white men, just 58.5% worked with less than $3 million per-episode budgets. The discrepancies were similar for streaming and cable series.

Netflix’s “The Crown” and other high-profile projects continued to make streaming services the industry’s biggest-budget playground. There, too, white men show creators received the biggest sums for their projects.

Among streaming series, 21% of those created by white men enjoyed per-episode budgets of $7 million or more. Just 11.1% of streaming shows created by people of color had budgets in that range, and only 2.9% of shows created by white women did. (Disney+’s “WandaVision” was the lone member of that group.)

Overall, in the digital arena, a plurality of white women (42.9%) show creators had budgets between $3 million and $4.99 million; among people of color, the greatest number of show creators (66.6%) had budgets below $3 million per episode.

The report also tracks the gender and racial profile for those who held key jobs for 107 broadcast, 109 cable and 191 digital scripted shows from the 2020–21 season. Women made up 31.8% of show creators in broadcast, 31.2% in cable and 36.1% in digital. People of color held 13.1% percent of those roles in broadcast, 26.6% in cable, and 25.6% in digital. All six of those figures were improvements over the prior year, but they still fall short of proportionate representation for either group.

Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, and co-founder of the Hollywood Diversity Report, said there are ominous signs for the future of the industry’s diversity efforts.

“Diversity initiatives traditionally are the first to be sacrificed when there are economic downturns,” Hunt said. “We’re already seeing it start with cutbacks at Warner and HBO. But rolling back efforts before equity has been truly achieved for women and people of color would be a major miscalculation.

“Any cost-savings studios realize now will come at the expense of alienating increasingly diverse viewers who expect increased representation in their TV shows, and do not make good business sense in the long term.”

Over the course of 11 TV seasons, the report has repeatedly drawn correlations between shows’ ratings and the diversity of their casts and writers. For example, ratings in 2020–21 were highest for cable scripted shows with casts made up of at least 41% minority actors. In digital, ratings were highest for shows with casts that were 21% to 30% minorities.

Representation in writers’ rooms for both women and people of color improved in 2020–21. Women made up about 45% of writers, and minorities made up more than 30% of writers, both small increases from previous TV seasons.

But that progress could be tenuous given the TV industry’s continued shift to releasing more content on digital platforms, which typically have shorter seasons — and therefore fewer slots for all writers.

“Like other industry watchers, we are closely monitoring these trends and exploring what impact they might have on opportunities for women and people of color to tell authentic stories,” said Michael Tran, a UCLA graduate student studying sociology and a co-author of the report. “The racial and gender dynamics in a collaborative writers’ room have an enormous impact on the types of stories that are told.”

The Hollywood Diversity Report uses independently gathered information about the race, ethnicity and gender identity of actors, writers, directors and show creators. The Entertainment and Media Research Initiative, which was formed in September, is under the auspices of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. The initiative will expand UCLA’s study of the entertainment industry to explore equity and access issues affecting industry workers with other underrepresented identities — based on their disability status, sexual orientation and religion, and how those identities intersect with race, ethnicity and gender.

“With a continued focus on workers’ rights, we are currently working with partners to examine ways to gather information and uncover the experiences of those from other underrepresented communities that are often overlooked,” Ramón said.

Other findings from the new report:

Diversity of TV casts continued to improve, extending a longstanding trend. In the 2020–21 season, 34.9% of broadcast, 35.8% of cable and 30.7% of digital featured majority-minority casts.
Women were well represented in lead acting roles on scripted shows on cable, as well as on digital platforms.
Actors of color were underrepresented in lead roles on broadcast TV (just 27.4%), but were nearly proportionally represented — relative to the U.S. population overall — in lead roles on cable (39.6%) and digital (37.6%).
Women of color made gains as writers for broadcast shows, holding 17.8% in 2020-21, up from 13.6% in 2019-20.
A higher percentage of TV directors were women of color than in the previous year, across all three platform types.
Social media engagement was highest for digital shows that had diverse casts. Netflix’s “The Chair,” Disney+’s “Loki” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and HBO Max’s “Hacks” all generated major buzz on Instagram and Twitter.
Transgender and nonbinary actors had nominal representation. The report tracked five transgender and two nonbinary actors in broadcast shows; three transgender and five nonbinary actors among cable TV casts. In digital, just one transgender and seven nonbinary actors appeared across all shows tracked.

Budget per episode of digital TV programs, segmented by race and gender of show creator; click each image for full description and download:

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Alexandra Stern and Abel Valenzuela

UCLA College welcomes new deans Alexandra Minna Stern and Abel Valenzuela

Person wiping sweat off brow

Are extreme heat waves happening more than expected? UCLA research says not yet.

The temperatures that baked the Pacific Northwest in 2021 should happen roughly once in 10,000 years

Person wiping sweat off brow

“The 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave appears to be the result of climate change and extraordinarily bad luck with natural variability,” says UCLA’s Karen McKinnon. | Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Alison Hewitt | September 28, 2022

Key takeaways:
• A freak heat wave. Climate modeling suggests the extreme 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave was roughly a once-in-10,000-years event.
• Climate change link. The heat wave was warmer, and more likely to happen, because of climate change.
• Bad luck. This was an unfortunate combination of nature and climate change, not a sign that extreme heat waves are happening more than predicted.

When the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave peaked at 121 degrees Fahrenheit, it buckled roads, melted power lines, killed hundreds and led to a devastating wildfire. Climate scientists were shocked to see heat so severe.

New research by climate scientist and statistician Karen McKinnon shows the scientific community was right to be stunned. The 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave was roughly a once-in-10,000-years­­ kind of event, the UCLA study found.

“It was outrageous how extreme and severe that heat wave was,” said McKinnon, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, who is also part of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Climate models struggle to capture events this extreme, and most early research puts the chances of it occurring at zero.”

The study appears in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters. McKinnon, who is also an assistant professor of statistics in the UCLA College, set out to determine two things:

  • whether climate models could establish the probability of such an extraordinary heat wave;
  • whether the extreme heat was a sign that the probability of extreme heat waves is increasing faster than expected.

To find the answers, the researchers analyzed historical trends at weather stations in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia and reviewed climate model simulations. By grouping together international locations that are climatologically similar to the Pacific Northwest, the study found that climate models could simulate heat waves comparable to the 2021 event with a probability of them occurring roughly once every 10,000 years. In cities that experienced the most extreme temperatures during the heat wave, the probability plunged to once every 100,000 years.

Washington state high temperatures map June 28, 21

Temperatures from June 28, 2021, were extremely unusual for the area around Seattle, Washington. | United States National Weather Service

They also found that climate change is increasing heat waves and average summer temperatures at the same pace – so far.

“We don’t see historical evidence of hot temperatures increasing faster than average temperatures during the early summertime when the heatwave occurred,” said McKinnon said. “The 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave appears to be the result of climate change and extraordinarily bad luck with natural variability.”

The researchers used similar regions to expand their data set, including places like coastal Alaska, all of British Columbia, Canada, and Nordic countries. The regions are in the same northern latitude, generally on the western coasts of continents. They also form heat waves in response to stagnant high-pressure systems, and have similar local climate profiles of positive “skewness” — a lopsided temperature distribution curve with generally mild weather but a history of rare but higher-temperature heat waves.

The researchers analyzed 50 climate model simulations from 1850 through 2100 using a climate model known as Community Earth System Model 2, or CESM2, maintained by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The simulations assume greenhouse gasses double from current levels by 2100, a plausible emissions future developed by the United Nations’ climate committee and known as SSP3-7.0.

In the simulations, events on par with the Pacific Northwest heat wave were the largest event in 10,000 years of data.

“The good news is that we don’t find evidence that events this extreme should start happening regularly,” McKinnon said. “The bad news is the summer of 2022 brought record-breaking heat waves everywhere from the United Kingdom to China to California. We need to continue evaluating whether these very extreme events are telling us something new about how the climate is changing, and whether they confirm or refute our latest findings.”

McKinnon said that she doesn’t anticipate finding that extreme events are warming faster than average temperatures, but noted that “if 10,000-year events keep happening, that suggests there may be something missing in the climate model we used.” But even if the probability of extreme events keeps perfect pace with average climate change, that’s not good news, McKinnon said.

“If everything’s moving with mean climate change, that can sound like it’s not so bad,” she said, “but look at the severe impacts of the climate change we’re already experiencing.”

That’s part of what drives McKinnon to continue studying large-scale climate variability and climate extremes, as she seeks to understand what’s in store.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Packard Foundation.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Photo illustration of Oleg Itskhoki surrounded by floating currencies

Oleg Itskhoki is a rising star in economics

Professor earlier this year won the John Bates Clark Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in his field

Oleg Itskhoki, UCLA’s Venu and Ana Kotamraju Professor of Economics, surrounded by floating currencies.

The John Bates Clark Medal committee honored Oleg Itskhoki for “his masterful application of empirical and theoretical tools” that offering insights into important phenomena in international economics. | UCLA

Jonathan Riggs | October 13, 2022

Why do nearly 80 countries choose to fully or partially peg their exchange rates against the U.S. dollar, and how much independence of their monetary policy do they give up by doing so?

Answers to queries like these can be elusive, whether you’re someone who feels like conversations about macroeconomics on the nightly news go over their head, or even an academic economist.

“Without having an empirically relevant model of exchange rates, it is impossible to credibly answer questions that concern, for example, the costs and benefits of common currency areas, such as the Euro Zone, which eliminate exchange rate fluctuations between their country-members,” said Oleg Itskhoki, UCLA’s Venu and Ana Kotamraju Professor of Economics. “Similarly, questions about the optimal exchange rate policy and the costs and benefits of partially managed exchange rates require such a theoretical framework as well.”

In new research, Itskhoki has developed new frameworks that will drive considerable thought in the field going forward. For these ideas, the 39-year-old whose research focuses on macroeconomics and international economics won the John Bates Clark Medal from the American Economic Association. The award is given to an economist under age 40 who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.

“This is the first time a UCLA faculty member has won this prestigious award,” said Jinyong Hahn, chair of the economics department. “Oleg Itskhoki is a star in the field of international economics who solved important puzzles in exchange rates and made it possible to understand the relationship between foreign trade and income inequality.”

Although he hailed from a family of physicists and inherited the family interest in the field, Itskhoki was born in the Soviet Union and grew up during the turbulence of transition-era Russia, during which the legacy of government control over science cast a long shadow. Seeing his older sister’s success in the more stable field of economics, Itskhoki followed in her footsteps.

He appreciated the opportunity to delve into scientific work that left his professional options open, giving him the security of knowing his economics research qualified him for a broader scope of work outside of academia than high-level physics specialization might have. And the puzzles and problems inherent in international economics policies fascinated him more and more the deeper he got into exploring them — especially since the field granted him more independence to follow his curiosity than he might have as part of a lab with rigidly established priorities.

“I truly enjoyed the work and as I went through school, I found myself more and more absorbed by it,” said Itskhoki, who came from Princeton University to UCLA in 2019. “I still am today — I feel so lucky having made what feels like a hobby I love into my life.”

In the official award citation listing Itskhoki’s research highlights, the association emphasized his key insight that financial market noise, rather than economic fundamentals, may be the main driver of exchange rates. This idea offers a unifying theory that solves five of the field’s major exchange-rate puzzles and provides a framework that many believe will serve as the definitive lens through which economists examine these issues going forward.

“Through his masterful application of empirical and theoretical tools, Itskhoki has revisited classic questions in both international finance and international trade, resolving long-standing puzzles and offering new economic insights into important phenomena in international economics,” the committee concluded.

Although the Clark Medal does not include a monetary award, it reflects an enormous vote of confidence from the entire field of economics. The Clark Medal is considered second only to the Nobel Prize in terms of prestige and it has long served as a precursor to winning that honor as well. Earning such a visible sign of respect from his peers means a lot to Itskhoki.

“It’s completely crazy — these things don’t happen. Well, they happen to somebody, but you never expect it to be you,” Itskhoki said. “The biggest, most pleasant part of it all is hearing from so many people that they were teaching my papers — and enjoying teaching them! I am so grateful to hear my work is influential in some ways.”

Crediting his mentors, colleagues and predecessors in the field, Itskhoki chooses to view his victory as a communal rather than personal victory. (His family, including his sister who inspired his professional journey with her own, couldn’t be prouder, he said.) Itskhoki is especially delighted to see “UCLA” now appear among the home institutions of Clark Medal winners, a list which has long been dominated by schools like Harvard and MIT.

“UCLA is a very special place, where public service, research and teaching are deeply valued,” Itskhoki said. “I find that so inspiring, and I couldn’t be prouder to see schools like us and UC Berkeley coming into their own as top national institutions for economics.”

Teaching remains a passion for Itskhoki — in addition to doctoral courses in macroeconomics at both the national and international level, Itskhoki also teaches an international finance course for third- and fourth-year undergraduates.

“Economics are in the news every day — for example, they were a big part of the COVID crisis conversation — and we discuss it all: the trade war with China, tax reform, inflation, food prices and the best way for governments to respond to it all,” he said. “The models we created cited by the American Economic Association has answers to some of these questions, and I try to keep everything grounded in real-world events. Whether or not we know it, economics affects us all so it’s important to see the state of thinking on these topics.”

As he looks to the future, Itskhoki doesn’t think in terms of awards or honors; he focuses on the next challenges he wants to tackle in his research.

“There is still a lot of work to be done on exchange rates; in particular we are now studying optimal exchange rate policies for the government using the insights from our earlier work,” Itskhoki said. “I am also fascinated by the topic of the new high-tech industries and AI technologies and the associated questions of productivity and welfare measurement in the world with proliferation of AI.”

Economists with UCLA ties have a history of top honors

Lloyd Shapley, professor emeritus of economics and mathematics, received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in October 2012. Shapley, who joined UCLA in 1981, was honored for his research on “matching theory,” which aims to improve the performance of markets by, for example, connecting prospective students with schools or aligning patients who need organ transplants with donors.

Guido Imbens, a Stanford University professor who was a UCLA faculty member from 1997 to 2001, won the 2021 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Two alumni have won the Nobel in economics: William Sharpe in 1990 and Elinor Ostrom in 2009.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Alex Stern

Humanities for the 21st century: A conversation with incoming dean Alex Stern

Alexandra Minna Stern

Alexandra Minna Stern | Photo by Yeidy Rivero

Jonathan Riggs | October 11, 2022

Alexandra Minna Stern will become UCLA’s dean of humanities on Nov. 1, succeeding David Schaberg, who has helmed the division since 2011 and will return to teaching and research full time after a sabbatical.

For Stern, who was most recently the associate dean for the humanities and the Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, the move is a homecoming — she grew up in California, earned her master’s degree in Latin American studies from UC San Diego and was an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz.

In her two decades at Michigan, Stern held academic appointments in history, women’s and gender studies, and obstetrics and gynecology. She is widely recognized as an expert on the history of eugenics, genetics, society and justice in the United States and Latin America.

As she prepares to begin her tenure, Stern spoke with us about this new chapter for her and for the division.

What does it mean to you to lead the UCLA Division of Humanities?

It is a great honor to follow in the footsteps of David Schaberg, who has managed this division with a steady hand and inspiring vision of the humanities. I’m excited to join my counterpart deans in the UCLA College and the leadership team at the university.

For me, this is both a return home to California, where lived many years before my two decades in the Midwest, and a new adventure in Los Angeles, a city where I’ve never resided but am eager to explore. I’m deeply committed to public higher education, and I can’t imagine a better place to pursue transformational work than UCLA.

I look forward to getting to know the university community as I represent and advocate for the humanities on campus and beyond. Coming from Michigan, it will be quite an experience to morph from Wolverine to Bruin!

What qualities of the division do you feel make it unique and impactful?

UCLA Humanities is an extraordinary division with a talented, diverse faculty whose research encompasses a wide range of topics, chronologies, regions and approaches. The division is very interdisciplinary, which has allowed it to lead in many areas, including urban humanities and digital humanities. By virtue of being located in a vibrant and polyphonic city, humanities at UCLA has been public-facing, contributing to and benefiting from an amazing artistic, cultural and creative milieu. The full breadth of UCLA’s humanities appeals greatly to me and resonates with my vision of engaged humanities in the 21st century.

What are your top priorities as dean?

My priorities will evolve over time as I familiarize myself with the humanities community and the university as a whole. Generally speaking, I’ll seek to maintain strength in longstanding areas and energize new initiatives. For example, I want to ensure the viability of global languages, including less commonly taught languages, and build capacity for experimental programs such as health humanities and disability studies.

As a fierce advocate for the humanities, I welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their relevance to the pressing questions of humanity, society, democracy and culture today. I’m keen to support the entire humanities community — students, staff, faculty and alumni — and to work together toward shared goals, retaining my signature optimism without overlooking the serious challenges faced by the humanities in academia in our current moment.

What keeps you inspired and passionate about your work and field?

Much of my research has focused on the history and legacy of eugenics, especially in California, and I’m actively involved in projects related to reproductive justice and injustice, reparations and memory today. The lab I founded, the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab — which will now most likely be based at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics — works with California state agencies to help verify sterilization survivors who are eligible for monetary compensation through a recently approved program, and it collaborates with activists and scholars on anti-eugenics projects that are community-based and guided by the tenets and goals of social justice. I remain passionate about my research; it is rewarding when it contributes to addressing past historical harms and contemporary social inequities.

Is there a little-known fact about yourself we could share?

I spent much of my early 20s living in San Francisco and reading poetry at the Cafe Babar at 22nd and Guerrero, and that kind of creative energy sustains me to this day. Unfortunately, I have lost most of the poems I wrote during that raucous and heady period of my life. I frequently turn to poetry, in English and Spanish, for intellectual and emotional nourishment because of my love of language, metaphor, cadence and its irresistible sublimity.

What’s your favorite advice to share with students and others?

I believe active listening and humility can go a long way. Wherever or however we step into academia, we should strive to be lifelong learners. For me, leadership is less about giving advice and more about modeling and enacting empathy and advocacy within an interdependent and generative community.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Members of UCLA LPPI pictured at CHCI Conference

UCLA LPPI shines at Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Leadership Conference

Members of UCLA LPPI pictured at CHCI Conference

Left to right: Jessie Hernandez-Reyes, Paul Barragan-Monge, Rodrigo Domínguez-Villegas, Nick González, Bryanna Ruiz Fernandez

Alise Brillault | October 5, 2022

UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute (LPPI) experts and policy fellows were well represented at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. on September 12-15, 2022. CHCI is a leading national organization that convenes members of Congress and other public officials, corporate executives, nonprofit advocates, and thought leaders to discuss issues facing the nation and the Latino community. Taking place at the onset of Hispanic Heritage Month, the conference sought to highlight Latino excellence through an offering of 26 sessions featuring over 200 thought leaders and elected officials – including remarks from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Paul Barragan-Monge, director of mobilization at UCLA LPPI, and Rodrigo Domínguez-Villegas, UCLA LPPI director of research, were featured panelists in two different sessions during the week. Barragan-Monge spoke in a breakout session sponsored by UCLA LPPI centered on criminal justice reform. With Latinos accounting for increasingly higher percentages of people in U.S. prisons, the conversation focused on how policymakers and community leaders can pursue comprehensive justice reforms and support formerly incarcerated Latinos in successfully reintegrating back into their communities.

In a breakout session sponsored by Casey Family Programs, Domínguez-Villegas spoke on how to strengthen communities to reduce Latino family separation. From acute crises such as family separation at the border, to longstanding socioeconomic inequities, Domínguez-Villegas discussed with other panelists about the innovative policies and interventions needed to protect Latino families’ holistic safety and well-being.

UCLA LPPI was able to sponsor the attendance of three alumni policy fellows, Bryanna Ruiz Fernandez, Jessie Hernandez-Reyes and Nick González, as well as current policy fellow Rocio Perez.

Ruiz Fernandez had a powerful experience reconnecting with her former UCLA LPPI colleagues in the nation’s capital. Having recently graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in political science and chicana/o studies, Ruiz Fernández is now working as a financial analyst at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in Washington, D.C.

“Sharing a space filled with Latina/o trailblazers in public policy, as a UCLA LPPI alumni, highlighted the abundance of opportunities I have been granted as a result of mentors like Sonja Diaz and Rodrigo Domínguez-Villegas, who are dedicated to opening doors for young Latinos hoping to enact meaningful change across our communities,” Ruiz Fernández remarked.

González, now a second-year Master of Public Policy student at Georgetown University and intern for U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, was inspired by Latino leaders he met at the conference and the diverse fields they work in.

“Aside from reconnecting with my UCLA LPPI colleagues, my favorite aspect of the conference was networking with so many Latinos in public policy from a broad range of issues and sectors,” said González. “Hearing about the diversity of their work felt like a reminder of LPPI’s mantra that every issue really is a Latino issue.”

Perez, currently a Master of Public Policy student at UCLA, was likewise inspired by the community of Latino leaders with whom she was able to network – and some of the high-profile speakers.

“It was incredible to learn about the journeys of Latinos in different industries and network with empowering individuals, as well as reconnect with friends and mentors,” Perez shared. “One of the highlights was witnessing remarks by both the Vice President and President of the United States – who would have thought I would be there!”