UCLA scientists make strides toward an ‘off-the-shelf’ immune cell therapy for cancer

By Tiare Dunlap

Using stem cell engineering and organoid technology, researchers produce large quantities of powerful cancer-fighting iNKT cells

Image of an engineered HSC-iNKT cell (blue) attacking a human tumor cell. Photo Credit: Yang Lab/UCLA

An engineered HSC-iNKT cell (blue) attacking a human tumor cell. Photo Credit: Yang Lab/UCLA

Immunotherapies, which harness the body’s natural defenses to combat disease, have revolutionized the treatment of aggressive and deadly cancers. But often, these therapies — especially those based on immune cells — must be tailored to the individual patient, costing valuable time and pushing their price into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now, in a study published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, UCLA researchers report a critical step forward in the development of an “off-the-shelf” cancer immunotherapy using rare but powerful immune cells that could potentially be produced in large quantities, stored for extended periods and safely used to treat a wide range of patients with various cancers.

“In order to reach the most patients, we want cell therapies that can be mass-produced, frozen and shipped to hospitals around the world,” said Lili Yang, a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA and the study’s senior author. “That way, doses of these therapies can be ready and waiting for patients as soon as they are needed.”

For the study, Yang and her colleagues focused on invariant natural killer T cells, or iNKT cells, which are unique not only for their power and efficacy but also because they don’t carry the risk of graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when transplanted cells attack a recipient’s body and which is the reason most cell-based immunotherapies must be created on a patient-specific basis, Yang said.

The researchers developed a new method for producing large numbers of these iNKT cells using blood-forming stem cells, which can self-replicate and produce all kinds of blood and immune cells. The team used stem cells obtained from four donor cord-blood samples and eight donor peripheral blood samples.

“Our findings suggest that one cord blood donation could produce up to 5,000 doses of the therapy and one peripheral blood donation could produce up to 300,000 doses,” said Yang, who is also an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. ­­“At this yield, the cost of producing immune cell products could be dramatically reduced.”

The researchers first used genetic engineering to program the blood-forming stem cells to make them more likely to develop into iNKT cells. Next, these genetically engineered stem cells were placed into artificial thymic organoids, which mimic the environment of the thymus, a specialized organ in which T cells naturally mature in the body. After eight weeks in the organoids, each stem cell produced, on average, 100,000 iNKT cells.

Yang and her collaborators then tested the resulting cells, called hematopoietic stem cell-engineered iNKT cells, or HSC–iNKT cells, by comparing their cancer-fighting abilities with those of immune cells called natural killer cells, or NK cells. In a lab dish, the HSC–iNKT cells were significantly better at killing multiple types of human tumor cells — including leukemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma cells — than the NK cells, the researchers found.

Even more importantly, the HSC–iNKT cells sustained their tumor-killing efficacy after being frozen and thawed, an essential requirement for widespread distribution of an off-the-shelf cell therapy.

The researchers next equipped the HSC–iNKT cells with a chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR, a specialized molecule used in some immunotherapies to enable immune cells to recognize and kill a specific type of cancer. In this case, they added to the HSC–iNKT cells a CAR that targets a protein found on multiple myeloma cells and then tested the cells’ ability to fight human multiple myeloma tumors that had been transplanted into mice.

These CAR-equipped HSC–iNKT cells eliminated the multiple myeloma tumors, and the mice that underwent this treatment remained tumor-free and showed no signs of complications such as graft-versus-host disease throughout their lives.

The researchers are now working to improve their manufacturing methods by moving to a feeder-free system that eliminates the need for supportive cells — such as those used in the thymic organoids — to assist blood stem cells in producing iNKT cells. Yang says she hopes this advance will better enable mass-production of the therapy and, ultimately, its clinical and commercial development.

The paper’s co–first authors are UCLA doctoral students Yan-Ruide (Charlie) Li and Yang (Alice) Zhao. Additional authors include UCLA professors Dr. Sarah Larson, Dr. Joshua Sasine, Dr. Xiaoyan Wang, Matteo Pellegrini, Dr. Owen Witte and Dr. Antoni Ribas.

The researchers’ genetic engineering of blood-forming stem cells utilized methods developed by Dr. Donald Kohn, and the artificial thymic organoids were developed by Dr. Gay Crooks, Dr. Chris Seet and Amélie Montel-Hagen, all of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center.

The methods and products described in this study are covered by patent applications filed by the UCLA Technology Development Group on behalf of the Regents of the University of California, with Yang, Li, Yu Jeong Kim, Jiaji Yu, Pin Wang, Yanni Zhu, Crooks, Montel-Hagen and Seet listed as co-inventors. The treatment strategy was used in preclinical tests only; it has not been tested in humans or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective for use in humans.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Concern Foundation, the STOP CANCER Foundation, a UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center Rose Hills Foundation Innovator Grant and the Ablon Scholars Program.

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

A picture of two people plant an ebony sapling

UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute receives $1 million from Bob and Cindy Taylor

A picture of two people plant an ebony sapling

Two people plant an ebony sapling

By Jonathan Riggs

In line with his long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability, master guitar maker Bob Taylor and his wife, Cindy Taylor, have donated $1.05 million to support UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute and its ebony conservation research and restoration efforts in Cameroon.

“I can think of no better partner than UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute to help protect, enhance and better understand the population of ebony trees, a precious resource to both the Congo Basin and the world in general,” said Bob Taylor, a co-founder of Taylor Guitars. “The incredible work they have already accomplished and their vision for addressing critical environmental and development issues are deeply inspiring and directly align with my own values.”

Taylor has led efforts in Cameroon to lessen tree waste by encouraging makers of stringed instruments to use variegated rather than all-black ebony. He also purchased and revitalized Cameroon’s leading sawmill, where he has implemented efforts to better use natural resources, including by starting an onsite seedling nursery.

Through those and other efforts in Cameroon, Taylor crossed paths in the mid-2010s with UCLA professor Thomas Smith, the founder and co-director of the institute, who has conducted biodiversity and conservation research in the region for nearly four decades. Since then, Bob and Cindy Taylor have donated more than $1.3 million to support the institute’s progress on several fronts, including studies of the ecology of ebony, a massive community-driven replanting program, and a new strategy for community-based rainforest restoration in the Congo Basin.

“Bob and Cindy Taylor’s leadership and generosity have helped empower the Congo Basin Institute to fulfill the highest ideals of our mission,” said Smith, who is also founding director of the Center for Tropical Research at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “They appreciate the importance of furthering science and taking action that will benefit the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest.”

Bob Taylor also is respected for his work restoring koa trees in Hawaii and trees in urban areas of Southern California.

The Congo Basin Institute, founded in 2015, was UCLA’s first foreign affiliate; it is a joint initiative between UCLA and the nonprofit International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which is headquartered in Nigeria.

The institute operates under the auspices of the UCLA Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Creative Activities, and is supported by the divisions of life sciences and physical sciences in the UCLA College.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

‘I could be killed at any time’: The anguish of being wrongfully convicted of murder

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

Maurice Caldwell. Photo credit: David Greenwald/The People’s Vanguard of Davis

By Stuart Wolpert

Maurice Caldwell spent 20 years in prison before his wrongful conviction for a 1990 murder in San Francisco was finally overturned.

Paul Abramson, a UCLA professor of psychology who was hired as an expert by Caldwell’s legal team to assess the psychological harm Caldwell suffered, conducted 20 extensive interviews with Caldwell between 2015 and 2020, in addition to interviewing prison correctional officers and reviewing court hearings and decisions, depositions, psychological testing results and experts’ reports.

In a paper published in the peer-reviewed Wrongful Conviction Law Review, Abramson provides an overview of the case and a comprehensive psychological analysis detailing the devastating and ongoing effects of Caldwell’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment. He also examines the historically contentious relations between police and communities of color and asks why corrupt and abusive officers rarely face punishment for their actions.

Caldwell’s 1991 conviction was overturned on March 28, 2010. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case, and Caldwell was released from prison in 2011. He settled his decade-long civil suit against the county and city of San Francisco, the police department and one SFPD officer just weeks before the scheduled start of the trial, and this month, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved an $8 million payout to Caldwell, who was 23 at the time of his conviction.

‘Appalling injustice’: The wrongful conviction of Caldwell

In January 1990, San Francisco Police Sgt. Kitt Crenshaw was among several officers who chased a group of young Black men who had allegedly been firing weapons at streetlights in the city’s Alemany public housing project. Caldwell was apprehended but not arrested. Caldwell alleged that Crenshaw physically abused him and threatened to kill him, and he filed a complaint against the officer with the city’s police watchdog agency.

About five months later, a man was shot to death in the Alemany projects. Crenshaw, who was not assigned to the homicide division, volunteered to search the projects for offenders and made Caldwell his primary subject, write Abramson and his co-author, Sienna Bland-Abramson, a UCLA undergraduate psychology major (and Abramson’s daughter) who worked on the case as a senior research analyst at two civil rights law firms.

On the strength of a dubious eyewitness claim and Crenshaw’s investigation notes, Caldwell was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and two other charges and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. Another man eventually confessed to the murder. Bland-Abramson concluded that San Francisco police officers had committed racial profiling, harassment and acts of corruption.

► Watch a video and read more on Caldwell’s case (Northern California Innocence Project)

Crenshaw, who retired from the San Francisco Police Department in 2011 with the rank of commander, had 67 civilian complaints lodged against him over the course of his career but never faced repercussions for purportedly fabricating his notes to frame Caldwell for murder, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

Catastrophic suffering and profound distress

Caldwell endured catastrophic suffering, profound and overwhelming stress throughout his incarceration in various prisons, Abramson writes. How did Caldwell’s experiences affect him?

About 2 1/2 years after Caldwell entered the California prison system, he was brutally stabbed in the head, shoulder and chest by another inmate who used an improvised 6-inch-long knife made from a metal rod filed to a sharp point. At the time, he was an inmate at California State Prison, Sacramento, also known as New Folsom’s Level 4 Prison.

Caldwell said the stabbing changed his life. “I knew at that very moment I could be killed at any time, on any day,” he told Abramson.

Photo of Paul Abramson

Psychology professor Paul Abramson, who conducted 20 interviews with Caldwell over a five-year period, said the former inmate is suffering from complex PTSD.

A retired correctional officer, Chris Buckley, who knew and had supervised Caldwell while he was incarcerated in a Northern California maximum-security prison, told Abramson last year, “A Level 4 prison is like the worst neighborhood you could imagine. Something terrible always might happen. Besides all of the stabbings, there are so many sexual assaults. Fear of dying in prison is a legitimate concern.”

Caldwell routinely observed violent struggles and riots throughout his incarceration, and repeatedly saw lethal weapons in the possession of inmates. He never felt safe any time he walked outside his cell, always fearing for his life. His closest family members — his grandmother, mother and brother — all died while he was in prison. He was prohibited from attending their funerals and became suicidal, feeling he had nothing, and no one, to live for, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

“Being in prison was like going to war every day,” Caldwell told Abramson. “It’s only when I was in my cell at night that I felt I was safe. I was depressed every day in prison. I don’t sleep. I suffer every day. I can understand how someone would go postal. I wouldn’t do something like that, for my kids, for all kinds of reasons. But I can understand.”

Caldwell suffers from what is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder — a form of deeply entrenched severe psychological distress also experienced by Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war and victims of childhood abuse, domestic abuse and torture — the result of having experienced sustained and repetitive agonizing events, Abramson said. Complex PTSD is often marked by rage and an unyielding depression, as in Caldwell’s case, according to Abramson.

“Mr. Caldwell could very well be an archetype for complex PTSD,” Abramson writes. “Maximum-security prisons maintain complete coercive control through 24-hour armed surveillance, locked cell blocks, 24-hour visibility of every aspect of a prisoner’s life, routine strip searches and thoroughly structured daily routines; all of which is encompassed within a fortress that is distinguished by outside perimeter barriers, and surrounded by razor wire with lethal electric fences designed to eliminate the possibility of escape.”

The many traumas Caldwell, now 54, experienced while in captivity imposed such an emotional burden on him that he disintegrated psychologically, Abramson writes, and the recent civil settlement provides no measure of relief from the deep and lasting anguish and rage that consume him — and likely will for the rest of his life.

Caldwell and Buckley, the former correctional officer, spoke with UCLA undergraduates in late September in an “Art and Trauma” honors collegium course that Abramson co-teaches.

Abramson and Bland-Abramson conclude that Caldwell was a victim of appalling injustice, which continues to disproportionately affect people of color in the United States. Recent research has shown that Black people in the U.S. are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder.

“Our hope,” the authors write, “is that by presenting this material, we can facilitate an understanding for, and empathy with, the trials and tribulations of victims of color who have suffered tremendously from police corruption and wrongful convictions. Until equal protection under the law is sustained unequivocally, restorative justice for people of color will be grievously foreshortened.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Barbra Streisand to fund forward-looking institute at UCLA focused on solving societal challenges

Picture of Barbra Streisand

Courtesy of Barbra Streisand

“Building upon her decades of work as an artist and activist, Barbra Streisand’s visionary act of generosity will enable UCLA scholars from many different fields to collaborate on research that will move society forward,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said.

The Barbra Streisand Institute includes 4 research centers that address her concerns:

the Center for Truth in the Public Sphere
the Center for the Impact of Climate Change
the Center for the Dynamics of Intimacy & Power Between Women & Men
the Center for the Impact of Art on the Culture

These centers will be housed in UCLA’s Division of Social Sciences.

Widely recognized as an icon in multiple entertainment fields, Streisand has attained unprecedented success as a recording artist, actor, director, producer, screenwriter, author and songwriter. She is the first woman to direct, produce, write and star in a major motion picture, the first woman composer to receive an Academy Award, the only recording artist who has achieved No. 1 albums in six consecutive decades, and the first woman to receive a Golden Globe Award for Best Director.

Alongside these achievements, Streisand has long been a staunch supporter of civil rights, gender equality, and upholding democracy. She has also been a leading environmental activist, funding some of the earliest climate change research at the Environmental Defense Fund beginning in 1989.

“It is my great pleasure to be able to fund an institute at UCLA, one of the world’s premier universities,” Streisand said. “This will be a place where future scholars can discuss, engage and argue about the most important issues of the day; where innovators will speak truth to power, help save our planet, and make glass ceilings for women an anachronism; and in the process give us a chance to have a brighter, more promising future.”

Streisand has been awarded two Oscars, five Emmys, 10 Grammys including the Legend Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award, a Tony Award, 11 Golden Globes including the Cecil B. DeMille Award and two Best Picture Awards for “Yentl” and “A Star Is Born,” three Peabody Awards, and the Director’s Guild Award for her concert special — the only artist to receive honors in all of those areas. Streisand also received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists by the U.S. government, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

A devoted philanthropist, Streisand has supported cardiovascular research and education at Cedars-Sinai since 2007, and in 2012, the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai was renamed in her honor.

Streisand also established the Streisand Chair in Cardiology at UCLA in 1984. In 2014, the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Health Program was established at the university, where the latest research examines stress and the connection between the heart and the mind.

“The future Barbra Streisand Institute will bring to bear the full range of UCLA’s social sciences expertise on the most pressing societal issues of the day, guiding policy and informing solutions to benefit all,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences in the UCLA College.

Ahead of the formal establishment of the institute, which will occur when the full gift amount is received, the work will be housed at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. The center is internationally renowned for research in areas including women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, women’s health, public policy and politics, and arts, culture and narrative storytelling. Streisand’s gift extends the center’s robust research on critical issues that affect women and society overall.

“This incredible gift will have an impact on our university for generations, and it is an auspicious moment for us to mark the second century for UCLA,” said Dr. Eric Esrailian, UCLA faculty member, co-chair of the UCLA Second Century Council and longtime friend of Streisand who will be collaborating on programming for the Barbra Streisand Institute.

The first area of study and advocacy will focus on truth in the public sphere, a subject which Streisand is especially passionate about. Speakers and research will delve into urgent and existential threats to democracy, and examine how lies and the proliferation of disinformation can destroy a civic sense of decency, as well as entire countries.

Streisand says, “While it’s easy to reflect on the past, I can’t stop thinking about the future and what it holds for our children, our planet and our society. The Barbra Streisand Institute at UCLA will be an exploration into vital issues that affect us all…and the fact that my father, Emanuel Streisand, was an educator makes this Institute even more meaningful to me.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA internet studies and race scholar Safiya Noble awarded MacArthur Fellowship

Picture of Safiya Noble

Safiya Noble, an associate professor of gender studies and African American studies, and co-founder of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.

Professor Safiya Noble, director of an interdisciplinary research center at UCLA focused on the intersection of human rights, social justice, democracy, and technology — was announced today as a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In 2019, Noble, an associate professor of gender studies and African American studies, co-founded the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, with Sarah T. Roberts, associate professor of gender studies and information studies.

Noble’s scholarship focuses on digital media and its impact on society, as well as how digital technology and artificial intelligence converge with questions of race, gender, culture and power. She is the author of the bestselling book “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” which examines racist and sexist bias in the algorithms used by commercial search engines.

“Noble’s work deepens our understanding of the technologies that shape the modern world and facilitates critical conversations regarding their potential harms,” the MacArthur Foundation said in a statement.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to people the foundation deems “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals.” Fellows are chosen based on three criteria: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of accomplishments, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. Noble is one of 25 individuals the foundation selected for fellowships in 2021.

In addition to recognizing and supporting exceptional creativity, the fellowship is intended to inspire people to pursue their own creative interests.

For Noble, who is also affiliated faculty in UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies, that means launching her nonprofit EquityEngine.org, a leadership and empowerment initiative for women of color.

“The MacArthur Fellowship will have a transformative impact on the work I do to abolish the harmful and discriminatory effects of digital technologies,” Noble said. “It’s a great and unexpected honor, and I’m grateful to the selection committee and all my colleagues who made this possible. I plan to use this award to accelerate and amplify the work of other Black women and women of color.”

In addition to her research, Noble works with engineers, executives, artists and policymakers to think through the broader ramifications of how technology is built, deployed and used in unfair ways. She challenges them to examine the harms algorithmic architectures cause and shows the necessity of addressing the civil and human rights that are violated through their technologies.

With Noble’s award, seven current faculty in the social sciences are MacArthur Fellows, including historian Kelly Lytle- Hernández (2019), anthropologist Jason De León (2017), linguistic anthropologist Elinor Ochs (1998), sociologist Rogers Brubaker (1994), anthropologist Sherry Ortner (1990) and geographer Jared Diamond (1985).

“As social scientists, it is increasingly important for us to interrogate the power that technology holds over our social structures, cultures, behavior and potential for progress,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College. “Safiya’s work has done just that. We are deeply gratified and proud that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized Safiya for her ongoing commitment to engaging community, inspiring action and her efforts to build a more equitable world for all.”

Along with Roberts, Noble also serves as co-faculty director of the interdisciplinary Minderoo Initiative for Technology and Power held within the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.

“This recognition of Dr. Noble by MacArthur Foundation is so timely, and rightly recognizes her indefatigable efforts, her incredible scope of vision, and her ability to hold fast to her convictions in the name of justice and equity, often years before the rest of the world catches up,” Roberts said. “Time and again, I have watched her fearlessly, boldly and assuredly lead the vanguard, push the boundaries of the possible, demand and then pave the way for something better. This world is a better place for the work of Safiya Noble. I am so proud to see her recognized as the iconoclastic genius that she is.”

Noble joins 13 other UCLA faculty as MacArthur fellows in total, a list that also includes mathematician Terence Tao, director Peter Sellars, astrophysicist Andrea Ghez and historian of religion Gregory Schopen.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Anastassia Alexandrova

Chemist Anastassia Alexandrova receives Max Planck-Humboldt Medal

Picture of Anastassia Alexandrova

Anastassia Alexandrova. Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Anastassia Alexandrova, UCLA professor and vice chair of chemistry and biochemistry, has been selected to receive the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal, which honors extraordinary scientists outside Germany with outstanding future potential.

The medal, awarded jointly by Germany’s Max Planck Gesellschaft and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, will be presented to Alexandrova in a ceremony in Berlin in November 2022 (delayed one year because of COVID).

Alexandrova and her research team design new materials and develop new algorithms, guided by insights into electronic structure and chemical bonding, using a wide range of methods, including artificial intelligence and machine learning. She and her research team design new catalysts, building up from detailed understanding of their electronic structure, to the shapes, stability and catalytic properties.

She is being honored for her research in theoretical chemistry, in particular her studies on the catalysis of chemical reactions and materials science. Alexandrova has developed methods that simulate how a catalyst behaves during a chemical reaction, which structures mediate between the reaction partners in detail and how the reaction conditions — such as temperature, pressure and concentration of the starting materials — influence the states of the catalyst and this interaction states the press release announcing the medal.

“I am deeply honored to receive the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal,” said Alexandrova, a member of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute. “My laboratory is a warm home for students of many different backgrounds, from chemistry and biochemistry to physics, material science and engineering, computer science and applied mathematics.”

Alexandrova is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the American Chemical Society’s 2016 Rising Star Award, which recognizes exceptional women chemists on a national level; a J. William Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant; a 2020 Early Career Award in theoretical chemistry by the physical chemistry division of the American Chemical Society; a 2019 UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award and 2018 UCLA Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor Award.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Richard Kaner

Richard Kaner wins award from American Chemical Society


Picture of Richard Kaner

Richard Kaner, distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering at UCLA.

Richard Kaner, the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Professor of Materials Innovation at UCLA, was selected to receive the 2022 American Chemical Society’s Award in Applied Polymer Science. The award, sponsored by Eastman Chemical Company, recognizes “outstanding achievements in the science or technology of plastics, coatings, polymer composites, adhesives and related fields.” He will be presented the award at the society’s national meeting in San Diego, California, in March.

Kaner, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, is among the world’s most influential and highly cited scientific researchers. Among his many awards and honors, he was elected a 2020 fellow of the American Physical Society and selected as the recipient of the American Institute of Chemists 2019 Chemical Pioneer Award, which honors chemists and chemical engineers who have made outstanding contributions that advance the science of chemistry or greatly impact the chemical profession. He is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA.

Kaner and his research team have designed a series of materials. These include creating a membrane that separates oil from water and cleans up the debris left by oil fracking and scaling up a single layer of carbon known as graphene for use in energy storage devices. His research spans a wide range of topics within materials science and inorganic chemistry.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Aradhna Tripati

Climate scientist Aradhna Tripati receives honors from two science organizations

Picture of Aradhna Tripati

Aradhna Tripati. Courtesy of Aradhna Tripati

Aradhna Tripati, an associate professor affiliated with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, has been named recipient of the Willi Dansgaard award from the American Geophysical Union.

Tripati, who is the founder and director of the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science at UCLA, has also recently been elected as a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. Fellows of the academy are a group of distinguished scientists nominated and appointed in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the natural sciences.

She has been a mentor and advisor to many and has established a number of laboratories. Tripati’s research is focused on using the chemistry of natural compounds as well as models as tools to understand how the Earth works. Her work is relevant to understanding climate change, the oceans, and the transfer of carbon between the biosphere, atmosphere and oceans.

The Dansgaard Award is presented annually and recognizes significant contributions to the fields of paleoceanography or paleoclimatology from a mid-career scientist within eight to 20 years of receiving their doctorate. Named in honor of Willi Dansgaard, a paleoclimate pioneer, this award is presented at the union’s fall meeting.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Terence Tao in his UCLA office

Terence Tao named to President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Terence Tao in his UCLA office

Terence Tao in his UCLA office. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Terence Tao, UCLA professor of mathematics, has been selected by President Joe Biden as one 30 of America’s most-distinguished leaders in science and technology who will serve on his President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

A direct descendant of the scientific advisory committee established by President Eisenhower in 1957 in the weeks after the launch of Sputnik, the council is the sole body of external advisers charged with making science, technology and innovation policy recommendations to the president and the White House to address the country’s most pressing challenges.

Tao, who holds the James and Carol Collins Chair in the UCLA College, became the first mathematics professor in UCLA history to be awarded the Fields Medal in 2006, often described as the “Nobel Prize in mathematics.” He has earned many other honors, including the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, Royal Society’s 2014 Royal Medal for physical sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize and the first Riemann Prize in Mathematics, established by Italy’s Riemann International School of Mathematics. National Geographic magazine featured him in its “What makes a genius?” May 2017 issue.

The new council includes two Nobel laureates, 20 elected members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, five MacArthur Foundation Fellows and two former cabinet secretaries.

The council advises the president “on matters involving policy affecting science, technology, and innovation, as well as on matters involving scientific and technological information that is needed to inform public policy relating to the economy, worker empowerment, education, energy, the environment, public health, national and homeland security, racial equity, and other topics,” the White House said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Military vehicles traveling through a flooded street in Minnesota. Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson/U.S. Air Force

Climate change definitively linked to increases in extreme rain and snow, UCLA research finds

Study uses machine learning to analyze decades’ worth of data from around the world

Military vehicles traveling through a flooded street in Minnesota. Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson/U.S. Air Force

Military vehicles traveling through a flooded street in Minnesota. Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson/U.S. Air Force


A UCLA study published in Nature Communications shows definitively that abnormally heavy rain and snowfall events around the world are becoming more severe due to human-driven climate change.

While climate change is widely understood to cause higher temperatures and more devastating droughts, it is also linked to heavier precipitation. That’s mainly because the warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which can lead to more dramatic wet seasons, said Gavin Madakumbura, the study’s lead author, a UCLA doctoral candidate studying climate modeling.

The study clearly shows that human activity is causing the intensification of heavy rain and snow events, which can lead to problems like floods, soil erosion, crop damage and problems with water resource management.

“These findings further elevate the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent even larger impacts down the road,” said senior author Alex Hall, director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science, which is a part of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “We can now say that extreme precipitation is increasing globally due to human-induced climate change.”

For more than a decade, scientists have been able to demonstrate in climate models and smaller, regional studies what they could not yet detect globally from data gathered from real-world observations: that human-induced, or anthropogenic, climate change had already begun causing more intense extreme precipitation events worldwide.

But that changed when the UCLA researchers applied machine learning, in which a computer can, without being explicitly programmed, produce conclusions as it “learns” by analyzing data. For the first time, the researchers were able to present clear evidence that human activities have already caused extreme precipitation globally.

The UCLA researchers compared 11 global datasets of land precipitation records taken from 1982 to 2015. In every dataset they reviewed, they found a link between human activity and precipitation patterns.

Scientists have long sought to understand and explain the phenomenon on a worldwide scale. But those efforts were hampered in large part because of the challenges of reconciling climate information from around the world.

In addition, the amount of precipitation considered “extreme” in one region can differ from one area to the next — unusually heavy rain in an otherwise arid desert might appear mild compared to the same rainfall in a monsoon region — making it even more difficult to evaluate the planet as a whole. As a result, most previous studies on the topic have been regional, rather than global, Hall said.

Analyzing data using machine learning changed that.

“This is the first time anyone has taken into account these deep uncertainties to detect a human influence on extreme precipitation over the whole globe,” Hall said.

The UCLA scientists used climate models to create yearly global maps to display each area’s largest single-day precipitation. They fed that data into the machine learning program, which was trained to review world maps displaying the precipitation data and then “guess” which year each map represented.

After the machine learning program was trained on the computer-modeled data, the researchers put it to work analyzing actual observed precipitation data from 1982 to 2015.

Tellingly, in climate models, the system struggled to accurately infer which year it was reviewing when it was prompted to analyze data from the 1920s through the 1970s, when the signs of human activity were not strong enough to identify separately from natural climate variations.

But for climate model data beginning in the 1970s, thanks to the strength of unnatural precipitation events that were being caused by human activities, the system became increasingly accurate in its predictions.

“We know that the signs of human influence started in the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, but it takes some time for the signal to be strong enough to recognize compared to natural variations,” Madakumbura said. “We used this new methodology to build on the work that came before, and it means we can look at these disparate datasets from different regions around the world and still detect the human influence.

“Greater precipitation extremes will not be detectable yet in every individual location on the globe, but we do see them in the global pattern.”

The paper’s other authors are Chad Thackeray, Jesse Norris and Naomi Goldenson, all researchers at the Center for Climate Science.

This article, written by Alison Hewitt, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.