A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa

A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa (Photo Credit: Andrea Ucini)

By the end of this century, 1 in 4 people in the world could be African, says Thomas Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, quoting United Nations data. He believes this massive demographic shift will prompt countries to rethink partnerships with Africa, a youth-dominated continent that’s larger than the United States, China, India and most of Europe combined.

And UCLA is ahead of the game, as hundreds of Bruin students, scientists, doctors and administrators work hand in hand with local colleagues across the 54 incredibly varied countries that make up Africa today.

Unlike past “parachute doctors” — who would jump into a crisis, often perform heroically and then go home — UCLA people are deeply embedded in African communities, helping to prevent the next medical, economic or environmental calamity.

In January 2020, Chancellor Gene Block and his team of UCLA administrators attended the Diversity in Higher Education Colloquium in Bloemfontein, South Africa — co-hosted by the University of the Free State in South Africa, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and UCLA — to promote diversity and equality in global education. They met tireless and passionate advocates for change, many of whom work through malaria and deprivations unthinkable to many colleagues.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that their roles are vital to the future of the world. “UCLA’s partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa have been incredibly successful in helping tackle regional issues to improve the quality of life,” Block said upon his return. “It is important for UCLA, as a public research university, both to share our expertise and to learn from and collaborate with colleagues around the world for the advancement of society.”

It’s a paradigm shift away from previous efforts to help Africa through “aid with strings” packages or infrastructure investments that have bred monstrous civil wars and ugly kleptocracies.

Smith, who has been working in Cameroon for three decades, agrees that there are still widespread corruption and brutal struggles, which create mass displacements — 750,000 people were driven from their homes in Burkina Faso last year. But there are also extraordinary reasons for optimism. These include the global legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the promise of peaceful nations such as Ivory Coast, whose gross domestic product has nearly doubled over the past decade, challenging gloomy stereotypes.

Among a wave of fresh-thinking UCLA scholars who might have never expected to be working in Africa, three inspirational leaders spoke with UCLA Magazine.

Unexpected Journeys

Smith started out as an evolutionary biologist chasing an unusual finch, which led him to the jungles of Cameroon in West Africa. Anne Rimoin M.P.H. ’96, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, might have become a Hollywood lawyer if the Peace Corps had not offered her a position to track 30-inch-long worms in West Africa. And Sundeep Gupta was an epidemic intelligence officer working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before UCLA and Malawi came calling.

From Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, it’s 600 miles of rough road and river south to Rimoin’s bare-bones offices in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And it’s another 1,500 miles south to Gupta’s desk at the Partners in Hope offices in Malawi. The UCLA trio face very different challenges, but they’re united in their deep commitment to working with African partners.

When Smith got started, he recalls, “I was in Central Africa studying a fascinating species [of bird] called the black-bellied seedcracker, which shows unique variations in the size of its bill. I went to the rainforests in Central Africa, where my passion for biodiversity, sustainability and people was reinforced.

“In those days, I was living in a tent. But decades later [in 2015], we developed the Congo Basin Institute [CBI] to host scholars studying topics ranging from the rainforest’s enormous capacity to sequester carbon to zoonotic [species-jumping] diseases such as Ebola.” Located in Cameroon, the CBI is UCLA’s first foreign affiliate.

Smith adds: “In 2011, my colleagues and I discovered that the swine flu, [which was] first identified in Mexico, had taken a U-turn. It had moved from people back to swine, and no one — including the World Health Organization — knew it had reached Africa. Swine are the mixing vessels for influenza. This is how new pandemics start — there are no borders anymore.”

Smith saw something like the coronavirus coming. He remembers a prescient research paper from 13 years ago that referred to “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats that, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

Smith adds, “Even more than China, Central Africa is ground zero for infectious diseases that spill over from animals to humans. These include the ones we know — Ebola and SIV [the origin of HIV/AIDS] — but many we don’t. It turns out there are varieties of coronavirus circulating in African bats. Motivated by the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, our lab has launched a new study to assess the risk of these potentially dangerous, yet undescribed coronaviruses — both now and under future climate change.”

A photo of Thomas Smith (center) with friends.

Thomas Smith (center) with friends. (Photo Credit: Congo Basin Initiative)

Losing and Learning Skills

As an investigator, Smith works closely with the Baka people, seminomadic hunter-gatherers who intimately know the rainforests of Cameroon and Gabon. He pays tribute to his friend Augustin Siec, a Baka chief who could hear a rustle in the canopy and identify not only the species of the animal but also its gender and role in the forest’s ecology.

Smith has been worried that the younger among the 30,000-strong Baka community — under pressure from urban officials to settle in villages — have been losing this indigenous knowledge. But the CBI, which employs Baka research assistants, has created opportunities for them to relearn the skills of the “professors of the forest,” including herbal medicines that could unlock future cures for diseases. Siec’s recent death from misdiagnosed tuberculosis reminds Smith that health projects across Africa still have a long way to go.

Smith’s dream is that one day Africans themselves will run the CBI, including its labs. But first, Cameroonians will have to become more economically self-sustaining. To help achieve that, Smith partnered with San Diego–based Taylor Guitars on The Ebony Project, which is planting 15,000 ebony trees, interspersed with high-value fruit saplings, in Cameroon. According to Taylor Guitars, ebony wood creates richly ringing overtones with a clear lineal quality across the spectrum — and guitarists can hear the African difference.

The Congo Basin Institute provides a center for science in Africa for Africans, says Smith, offering facilities to young Africans who otherwise might have taken their skills abroad.

In a 2017 TED Talk, Cameroonian Kevin Njabo — the Africa director and an assistant adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Center for Tropical Research — mourns the wholesale exportation of “the best and the brightest” from Africa.

Njabo says he was drawn to UCLA not only because of its ability to develop programs that could save lives — like the 1 million people, mostly children, who die from malaria each year — but also by its ability to encourage expatriates to return home. “For every African who returns home, nine new jobs are created,” Njabo says. At the Congo Basin Initiative, he says, “we are building a one-stop shop for logistics, housing and development of collaborative projects, empowering Africans to find their own solutions. If this had existed when I was 18, I would have never left home — but I am coming back.”

A Joyful Day

The brain drain is a dilemma that haunts Rimoin, a popular voice across media who urged for calm during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Raised in Los Angeles, she credits a “brilliant” French language teacher for opening her eyes to Francophone Africa.

“My father [David Rimoin, who was famed for his work on inheritable diseases] was in medicine, but I was considering becoming an entertainment lawyer. [Then] the Peace Corps offered to send me to Benin [in West Africa] to track and eradicate Guinea worm infections. Who could resist? And my French made all the difference,” she says. Rimoin remembers a joyful day when a Benin woman said to her: “You have found who you are.” And she was right.

Since 2002, Rimoin has worked in the DRC, the troubled country once known as Zaire, and her research has revealed the zoonotic secrets of monkeypox and other emerging pathogens in remote areas along the Congo River.

Every day brings light and dark, she says. For example, in 2019, 50,000 Congolese died from measles, a disease that was thought to have been eradicated from the world.

But there’s also hope: In February 2020, after the latest Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, the last few patients were safely released from the hospital. Even more good news: Rimoin’s team tracked down survivors of the first-recorded Ebola outbreak in 1976 — people living in remote areas of the Congolese forest — and discovered that they still had lifesaving antibodies in their systems. This precious data could help prevent or treat future outbreaks.

“It’s incredible and hopeful, but we still have to raise more funds to protect those workers on the front line,” Rimoin says, with her characteristic blend of enthusiasm and practicality.

The sources of many such outbreaks have been tracked back to “wet markets,” where trapped wild animals are sold as food — as in Wuhan, China, which was ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s complicated,” Rimoin says. Wet markets “are built into the culture, and the people need the protein in areas where it’s difficult to find alternatives.”

A photo of hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi.

Hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi. (Photo Credit: Anne Rimoin)

Mama Étêté

“Right from the start, I was not interested in parachute medicine,” Rimoin says. “I was there for the long term — to build trust and my understanding of the issues. And I love it.”

As director of the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for Global and Immigrant Health, Rimoin appreciates the colleagues who have relocated to the DRC, such as Nicole Hoff Ph.D. ’14, the UCLA-DRC Research Program’s country director and senior administrative analyst, and Kirstin Chickering M.P.H. ’95, the program’s associate director. “Kirstin and I were together at elementary school in Palos Verdes, but did not know each other,” Rimoin says. “Kirstin came to Kinshasa to help me set up a project for three months, and that was 11 years ago. Kirstin, Nicole and I are three tough UCLA sisters!”

Rimoin is well-known around Kinshasa, fighting for causes such as protecting the bonobo ape from being hunted as bush meat. Although her knowledge has been in demand during the COVID-19 crisis, and she has appeared frequently on NPR, HBO and MSNBC, she has no plans to walk away from the DRC — even if its bloody spasms of civil war continue to displace 5 million people. After all, she and UCLA have work to do. Plus, she jokes, “phone reception is better than in Benedict Canyon.”

When a Fielding colleague described Rimoin as “just so boss,” the epidemiologist admits, “I am very persistent. When I go see a local official, he will say, ‘Oh, it’s you. I will just say yes, yes, yes now, to save time!’ In [the Bantu language] Lingala, I am called ‘Mama Étêté,’ or ‘the woman who never gives up.’”

Malawi Miracle

Gupta takes a low-key approach to his clinical work in the AIDS wards in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi — one of the Central African countries most severely weakened by the HIV pandemic. He says that what he has witnessed over the past decade is a miracle of modern medicine and thinking about flexible approaches to diseases.

In 2000, Perry Jansen, a doctor who had completed his residency at UCLA in 1994, established the nonprofit Partners in Hope, Malawi, to bring antiviral drugs to the country. At that time, the life expectancy at birth was 45 years; today, it’s 64 and rising. The number of HIV treatment clinics has increased from one to around 20, with UCLA contributing funding and personnel on the ground. So far, around 200 UCLA students and staff have worked in Malawi.

Gupta wears many hats: He is an epidemiologist, a family physician, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and programs director at Partners in Hope. “You go where the need is greatest,” says Gupta, speaking from Lilongwe. He says the stable UCLA presence in Malawi is key, allowing recently arrived doctors, such as Faysal Saab ’07, M.D. ’12, to focus on improving medical practices, using both textbook theory and evidence-based medicine.

One diagnostic issue was that many young men were embarrassed to go to an HIV clinic. But UCLA doctors introduced self-testing kits, and this experimental switch increased the number of Malawians who got tested for and diagnosed with HIV. Ten years ago, 100,000 Malawians were undergoing treatment; today it’s around 830,000. There are still problems, but for many observers, it’s an emotional revitalization of a nation.


There are as many positions of interest for Bruins in Africa as there are countries spanning the continent. It’s not about what Westerners think should happen, but about what works for the Africans themselves, Smith says.

So what is UCLA’s role in Africa? “There is an incredible awareness of the university, earning respect with its research from South Africa and Mozambique to the Congo Basin,” Rimoin says. “The way we practice global health is much more collaborative than in the past. It’s been decolonized, as we have helped nations develop their own health infrastructures. We have made a promise to be here, to maintain funding, and the Africans are learning to trust that. Our first priority is to not let Africa down.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

How conspiracy theories emerge – and how their storylines fall apart

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

Researchers produced a graphic representation of the narratives they analyzed, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A new study by UCLA professors offers a new way to understand how unfounded conspiracy theories emerge online. The research, which combines sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured, explains how unrelated facts and false information can connect into a narrative framework that would quickly fall apart if some of those elements are taken out of the mix.

The authors, from the UCLA College and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, illustrated the difference in the storytelling elements of a debunked conspiracy theory and those that emerged when journalists covered an actual event in the news media. Their approach could help shed light on how and why other conspiracy theories, including those around COVID-19, spread — even in the absence of facts.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, analyzed the spread of news about the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey — an actual conspiracy — and the spread of misinformation about the 2016 “Pizzagate” myth, the completely fabricated conspiracy theory that a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring that involved prominent Democratic Party officials, including Hillary Clinton.

The researchers used machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to analyze the information that spread online about the Pizzagate story. The AI automatically can tease out all of the people, places, things and organizations in a story spreading online — whether the story is true or fabricated — and identify how they are related to each other.

Finding the puzzle pieces

In either case — whether for a conspiracy theory or an actual news story — the narrative framework is established by the relationships among all of the elements of the storyline. And, it turns out, conspiracy theories tend to form around certain elements that act as the adhesive holding the facts and characters together.

“Finding narratives hidden in social media forums is like solving a huge jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication of noise, where many of the pieces are just irrelevant,” said Vwani Roychowdhury, a UCLA professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in machine learning, and a lead author of the paper.

In recent years, researchers have made great strides in developing artificial intelligence tools that can analyze batches of text and identify the pieces to those puzzles. As the AI learns to identify patterns, identities and interactions that are embedded in words and phrases, the narratives begin to make “sense.” Drawing from the massive amount of data available on social media, and because of improving technology, the systems are increasingly able to teach themselves to “read” narratives, almost as if they were human.

The visual representations of those story frameworks showed the researchers how false conspiracy theory narratives are held together by threads that connect multiple characters, places and things. But they found that if even one of those threads is cut, the other elements often can’t form a coherent story without it.

A conspiracy theory unravels: The researchers found that with Wikileaks relationships removed as the “glue” for the false narrative, other elements of the Pizzagate myth quickly disconnected from one another. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“One of the characteristics of a conspiracy theory narrative framework is that it is easily ‘disconnected,’” said Timothy Tangherlini, one of the paper’s lead authors, a professor in the UCLA Scandinavian section whose scholarship focuses on folklore, legend and popular culture. “If you take out one of the characters or story elements of a conspiracy theory, the connections between the other elements of the story fall apart.”

Which elements stick?

In contrast, he said, the stories around actual conspiracies — because they’re true — tend to stand up even if any given element of the story is removed from the framework. Consider Bridgegate, for example, in which New Jersey officials closed several lanes of the George Washington Bridge for politically motivated reasons. Even if any number of threads were removed from the news coverage of the scandal, the story would have held together: All of the characters involved had multiple points of connection by way of their roles in New Jersey politics.

“They are all within the same domain, in this case New Jersey politics, which will continue to exist irrespective of the deletions,” Tangherlini said. “Those connections don’t require the same ‘glue’ that a conspiracy theory does.”

Tangherlini calls himself a “computational folklorist.” Over the past several years, he has collaborated regularly with Roychowdhury to better understand the spread of information around hot-button issues like the anti-vaccination movement.

To analyze Pizzagate, in which the conspiracy theory arose from a creative interpretation of hacked emails released in 2016 by Wikileaks, the researchers analyzed nearly 18,000 posts from April 2016 through February 2018 from discussion boards on the websites Reddit and Voat.

“When we looked at the layers and structure of the narrative about Pizzagate, we found that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up,” Tangherlini said. “In this conspiracy, the Wikileaks email dump and how theorists creatively interpreted the content of what was in the emails are the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

The data generated by the AI analysis enabled the researchers to produce a graphic representation of narratives, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers.

Quick build versus slow burn

Another difference that emerged between real and false narratives concerned the time they take to build. Narrative structures around conspiracy theories tend to build and become stable quickly, while narrative frameworks around actual conspiracies can take years to emerge, Tangherlini said. For example, the narrative framework of Pizzagate stabilized within a month after the Wikileaks dump, and it stayed relatively consistent over the next three years.

“The fact that additional information related to an actual conspiracy emerged over a prolonged period of time (here five and half years) might be one of the telltale signs of distinguishing a conspiracy from a conspiracy theory,” the authors wrote in the study.

Tangherlini said it’s becoming increasingly important to understand how conspiracy theories abound, in part because stories like Pizzagate have inspired some to take actions that endanger other people.

“The threat narratives found in conspiracy theories can imply or present strategies that encourage people to take real-world action,” he said. “Edgar Welch went to that Washington pizzeria with a gun looking for supposed caves hiding victims of sex trafficking.”

The UCLA researchers have also written another paper examining the narrative frameworks surrounding conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. In that study, which has been published on an open-source forum, they track how the conspiracy theories are being layered on to previously circulated conspiracy theories such as those about the perceived danger of vaccines, and, in other cases how the pandemic has given rise to completely new ones, like the idea that 5G cellular networks spread the coronavirus.

“We’re using the same pipeline on COVID-19 discussions as we did for Pizzagate,” Tangherlini said. “In Pizzagate, the targets were more limited, and the conspiracy theory stabilized rapidly. With COVID-19, there are many competing conspiracy theories, and we are tracing the alignment of multiple, smaller conspiracy theories into larger ones. But the underlying theory is identical for all conspiracy theories.”

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Jason De León.

Second annual cohort of Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research to incorporate social justice into undergraduate courses

A photo of Jason De León.

Professor Jason De León, one of five 2020-21 recipients of the Chancellor’s Community-Engaged Research Award. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA undergraduates will soon have the opportunity to gather primary source documents about California Indian dance, interview migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, study emerging online platforms for community organizing, and other community research-based subjects.

Five faculty have been chosen to receive the second annual Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research.  The five $10,000 research grants, offered by the UCLA Center for Community Learning and the Chancellor’s office, will support the faculty in developing courses that will engage students in research projects in conjunction with community partners.

In each course, students will carry out research activities in partnership with local community organizations. The course will advance their professor’s research goals and also benefit the communities that the partners serve.

Over the next academic year, the five faculty will participate in a workshop on best practices for teaching undergraduate community-engaged research and attend quarterly meetings to advance their course design. By the end of spring 2021, each faculty will have a new course syllabus, ready to be offered to undergraduates in 2021-22 or 2022-23.

Shalom Staub, director of the UCLA Center for Community Learning, said that the faculty selected for this year’s award will employ anti-racist and decolonial methodologies to tackle critical issues.

“The five award recipients embody the highest standards of scholarship combined with a deep commitment to racial, economic, and gender justice,” Staub said. “Through the new courses emerging from these awards, undergraduates will have the opportunity to learn community-engaged research methodology, contribute to their faculty’s ongoing research, and produce work of value to community partner organizations.”

Though the course topics vary widely, each one places an emphasis on studying the act of community engagement in itself: How can academic institutions and researchers remain respectful, ethical and collaborative when working with the communities they are studying?

Tria Blu Wakpa, professor of world arts and cultures/dance, will develop a course called “The Politics and Possibilities of California Indian Dance.” Students will gather primary and secondary documents about and related to California Indian dances and write annotated bibliographies. They will share all of this information with California Indian representatives of the Tongva, Chumash, Ohlone, and Winnemem Wintu nations, who will draw on these texts to revitalize and innovate their dances.

“The course will show that collaborating and consulting with Native peoples when writing about their dances is vital given the problematic relationships between universities and Indigenous peoples, tribally-specific contexts and understandings that undergird Native dances, and Indigenous protocols around what information is appropriate to share,” Blu Wakpa said.

Another course, “Community-Engaged Approaches to Environmental Toxicants, Chronic Illness, and Gender,” will introduce students to the UCLA Center for the Study of Women’s Oral Histories of Environmental Illness Archive, which has recorded interviews with women who have experienced illness as a result of chemicals and environmental toxins (in beauty products and while working in nail salons, for example).

Rachel Lee, professor in the departments of English, gender studies and the UCLA Institute of Society and Genetics, will teach the course. She wants students to investigate and make contact with community organizations that could benefit the individuals in the oral history archive, enabling the students to learn from them about advocacy and activism.

“It’s always striking to me how much knowledge is had by the organizers. They are the teachers here,” Lee said.

Jason de Leon, professor of anthropology and Chicana/Chicano studies, said community-engaged coursework can show students that they are capable of doing fieldwork and taking ownership of research projects.

“There is no substitute for hands-on learning,” de Leon said. “There’s a transformation that happens when you put people into a situation where they’re no longer passive learners, and they’re put into the driver’s seat to do the work.”

In De Leon’s course, students will interview and conduct focus groups with migrants who have been held in federal detention centers at the U.S./Mexico border, as well as people who have worked in the detention centers or live in the cities where the centers are located. Their work will be incorporated into an art exhibition called Hostile Terrain 94, part of the Undocumented Migration Project.

“We really hope that we can develop a rich collaboration with the communities, to feel like they are really collaborating with us,” he said. “What can we do in the community to help?”

Rounding out the 2020 cohort is Jennifer Chun, department of Asian American studies, and Gaye Theresa Johnson, Chicano/Chicana studies and African American studies. In conjunction with the Asian Pacific Islander American Leadership Development Project, Chun’s course will instruct students on developing relationships and practices of accountability, transparency, and reciprocity in the writing of organizational case studies and movement histories.

Johnson’s course will assign students to different local social welfare organizations such as Hunger Action LA to complete a project for that organization, while studying the intersecting social justice issues that determine the organization’s central organizing principles.

“In these tumultuous times, it is more important than ever for students to be actively engaged in the world around them,” Chancellor Gene Block said. “The Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research recognizes and supports those faculty who are providing exceptional undergraduate learning opportunities, empowering students to conduct research that will benefit the community and amplify voices that are often silenced. I look forward to seeing the positive impact the courses will have on both the Bruins who take part and the communities they will serve.”

 

A photo of the Colgan-Coral Reef.

Discovery opens up new path in study of marine evolution and biodiversity

A photo of the Colgan-Coral Reef.

Two studies — one of reef-dwelling marine snails, the other of similar mollusks called nudibranchs — show for the first time that new species of both groups may be emerging as a result of host-switching, (Photo Credit: Sara Simmonds/UCLA)

New UCLA research indicates that an evolutionary phenomenon never before observed among marine life could help explain why there is such immense biodiversity in the world’s coral reefs and the ocean beyond.

Two studies — one of reef-dwelling marine snails, the other of similar mollusks called nudibranchs — show for the first time that new species of both groups may be emerging as a result of host-switching, in which populations of these animals that rely on a single species of coral for food and habitat switch to a new coral species, leading to wide genetic and physical differentiation. The phenomenon had only been seen previously in viruses, insects and several other organisms.

“This is the first time that anyone has seen this, but no one has ever looked,” said UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Paul Barber, whose lab conducted both studies. “This very well could be the tip of the iceberg.”

The findings suggest the possibility that the formation of new and distinct marine species through host-shifting may occur among other marine organisms as well, Barber said, opening up new avenues for research into the causes of marine biodiversity.

On land, new species are typically thought to evolve when natural barriers like mountains, canyons or rivers separate individuals or groups from one another. The ocean, however, has different barriers, including reef structures and currents, both of which contribute to host-shifting among snails and nudibranchs, the researchers note.

The larvae of snails and nudibranchs that subsist on a single species of coral will at times be swept away by ocean currents; if they aren’t lost or eaten, they can land on an entirely different coral species, where they imprint and spend their whole lives. Eventually, the scientists say, a generational line of snails or nudibranchs will evolve to prefer that particular coral and form a new species.

“It’s pretty likely that the corals are helping the nudibranchs form new species, in a way,” said Allison Fritts-Penniman, lead author of the nudibranch study, which reported a three-fold increase in known species for this group. “The more corals they can live on, the more different nudibranch species can evolve.”

The two new papers may mark the beginning of marine speciation discoveries — for nudibranchs and snails, which are common but understudied, as well as more broadly, said Sara Simmonds, lead author of the snail study, which used genomics to catch speciation in the act.

“Finding that divergence and speciation can happen in the oceans even with gene flow is an important discovery, not just for the marine environment but also for understanding evolution and speciation in general,” Simmonds said.

Both studies focused on a relatively small area of the western Pacific Ocean known at the Coral Triangle, which has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, including 600 different coral species.

“If there are so many corals, and so many of them have these strong associations, this very well could be an incredibly important process in generating all of this diversity,” said Barber, who also stressed the importance of protecting reef systems like the Coral Triangle from the devastating effects of climate change and industry-related threats.

Preserving the Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle spans roughly 6.3 million square miles, accounting for about 1.6% of the world’s oceans, and is bordered by several countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. With hundreds of coral species and thousands of species of fish and other marine organisms, it is, Barber says, one of the most biodiverse, least studied and most threatened locations in the world.

While coastal development, unsustainable tourism and habitat destruction through “bomb fishing” with homemade explosives all pose significant dangers to the region, the biggest threat is climate change, which is damaging the reefs that underpin the Triangle’s biodiverse ecosystem. Ocean warming, acidification and rising sea levels are causing mass coral bleaching, in which coral expel living algae from their tissues and turn completely white; this can lead to coral death if the stressful conditions continue for too long. The World Wildlife Fund predicts that at the current rate of climate change, the Coral Triangle will disappear by 2100.

Major climate change–induced damage to the region’s biodiversity also puts the economies of the surrounding countries at risk, Barber notes, and a collapse of the marine ecosystem would result in the destruction of the region’s vast fishing industry and subsequent food insecurity for hundreds of millions of people.

Continuing to carry out research to boost our understanding what generates biodiversity in the Coral Triangle and other reefs is one of the major keys to protecting them in the fight against climate change, Barber said.

Even the public is getting involved in furthering that understanding, with citizen snorkelers and divers all over the world contributing to an effort by the nonprofit iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, to search for new coral-associated nudibranch species and helping scientists with the fieldwork needed for further study.

“The Coral Triangle is the world’s largest, most biodiverse marine ecosystem,” said Barber. “There is still so much to learn from it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An image of the Earth's magnetosphere.

The full moon may not be protected by Earth’s magnetic field after all

An image of the Earth's magnetosphere.

Rendering showing how the flapping tail of Earth’s magnetosphere (dark region) can leave the full moon exposed to solar wind radiation (yellow-orange). (Photo Credit: Emmanuel Masongsong/UCLA)

A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics shows that the magnetosphere can flap across the moon much like a windsock, exposing it to hazardous solar wind particles. Previous simulations suggested that lunar satellites and astronauts on the surface could be considered safe during a full moon while it resides within the magnetosphere.

The paper’s authors included two UCLA researchers, Jiang Liu and Xiaoyan Zhou, and the study used findings from the UCLA-led Themis and Artemis lunar probes.

One side of the moon always faces Earth due to synchronization with ocean tides, so understanding the effects of the solar wind at the full moon’s surface is critical for manned activity.

“Before we send astronauts back for longer periods, it is crucial that we understand the dynamics of space weather around our moon,” said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a professor of space physics who oversees the Themis and Artemis missions at UCLA. “There are still many science and safety questions to address.”

Potential hazards to lunar missions include increased static charging of surface dust, which can cling to space suits and damage equipment, and the degradation of solar panels over time. Solar wind exposure might also influence the placement of long-term lunar bases and mining operations. Because water is spontaneously formed when solar wind protons impact the lunar soil, the phenomenon could influence where water, which could be used for fuel and human consumption, is deposited on the moon’s surface.

Read the full news release on the Physical Sciences website.

A photo of a panorama of Los Angeles at dusk.

Clean energy revolution may leave disadvantaged communities behind

A photo of a panorama of Los Angeles at dusk.

Historically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County are at risk of getting left behind in the transition to lower-carbon energy sources and energy-efficient technologies, according to a UCLA study. (Photo Credit: haykatomts/Pixabay)

Historically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County are at risk of getting left behind in the transition to lower-carbon energy sources and energy-efficient technologies, according to a new study by the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.

The research, published in the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, looks particularly at how public incentive programs aimed at reducing emissions and promoting energy efficiencies disproportionately benefit wealthier individuals — people who use more energy than their less-affluent peers. In essence, the researchers say, such policies help to subsidize and encourage this excess consumption.

On average, residents of L.A. County’s most affluent communities consume twice the amount of energy each year as their counterparts in lower-income areas, according to Eric Fournier, the study’s lead author and research director of the center.

“When we look at the distribution of per capita energy consumption across Los Angeles County, at the low end, people are often not using enough energy to satisfy their basic needs, like maintaining a comfortable temperature inside their home,” Fournier said. “On the high end of this range, we see that people are consuming energy at levels that go well beyond what is required to satisfy their basic needs.”

In general, it is these high-consumption communities that are increasingly transforming their relationship to grid-supplied energy by taking advantage of technologies that improve household energy efficiency and that generate and store renewable energy. Some are even becoming electricity generators themselves. Meanwhile, the degree to which disadvantaged communities have been able to participate in this transition and benefit from these technologies remains unequal.

The team analyzed historical county data that measured building energy use and the adoption of renewable energy technology. In addition to finding that per capita use of electricity and natural gas is higher — in some cases as much as 100 times higher — among the wealthiest residents, they found that rates of adoption of rooftop solar systems and electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were dramatically lower among disadvantaged communities. Furthermore, these disparities are expected to persist based on recent trends in the historical data, the researchers say.

The study also shows that public programs intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy — including rebates for energy-efficient appliances and vehicles, solar installations, and building retrofit programs — are primarily being taken advantage of by affluent residents. This is due in part to the fact that many programs require participants to make up-front payments for energy-efficiency upgrades, as well as to own the property on which they live.

When it comes to government incentive programs, providing equal access doesn’t always result in equal participation, notes study co-author and UCLA energy researcher Robert Cudd.

“Incentive programs designed to be equally accessible to all consumers are easy to implement and politically inoffensive, but they also do almost nothing to encourage the adoption of renewable energy technology in disadvantaged communities,” Cudd said. “If these programs were re-designed based on the preferences and needs of people in these communities, participation would likely increase. Current programs’ eligibility requirements are simplistic and reflect old notions of equity.”

The energy system, as it exists today, places a larger burden of cost on those who can least afford it, says co-author Stephanie Pincetl, a professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Ironically, it also rewards those who consume the most energy by giving them access to a host of programs, incentives and other benefits.

“Policy aims need to get beyond efficiency to address absolute levels of consumption and to reflect reasonable need rather than excessive use,” Pincetl said. “If not, efficiencies will continue to chase increased demand with limited effect, and the disadvantaged communities will be left out of improving their well-being, though they use the least energy of all.”

Going forward, the researchers will continue to explore the unequal distribution of energy use across incomes and demographics to understand the consequences and needs for a just energy transition.

“We must ask ourselves how much energy is enough to live a decent and modern life,” Pincetl said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a woman at a voting booth.

Politicians courting Latinos and Asian Americans are advised to step up outreach now

 

A photo of a woman at a voting booth.

Woman at a voting booth (Photo Credit: Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

A UCLA report published today shows that Asian Americans and Latinos in California, Texas and Virginia went to the polls in smaller numbers in the 2020 primaries than they did in the primary elections four years ago. Because those three states have large Asian American and Latino populations, the findings may signal that Democratic political campaigns have more work to do to engage those voters before the November elections.

The report, by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, analyzed precinct-level data in the Democratic Party’s nominating contests through March 17, when Joe Biden became the party’s presumptive presidential nominee. Its goal was to determine Latino and Asian American voters’ preferred candidates in each of 10 states with large Asian American and/or Latino populations.

Researchers studied results from California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. (In Illinois, the authors focused only on precincts in Chicago due to data limitations and its large Latino population.) Those states represent almost one-third of Democratic Party delegates, and half of them are seen as battleground states for the presidential election.

“Campaigns across the country need to engage voters in their vision for a prosperous future,” said Natalie Masuoka, a UCLA associate professor of political science and Asian American studies, and the report’s lead author. “We believe that tapping the potential of the subset of voters of color is critical to electoral victory for Democratic candidates who are relying on the support of the Latino and Asian American vote, and there is still time for campaigns to get outreach right.”

In the report’s preface, Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, offers insights on how the findings can provide a call to action for campaigns that are courting Asian American and Latino voters. She focuses on three key points:

  • The strong Latino and Asian American support for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy during the primaries reflected his campaign’s investments in grassroots engagement, which helped turn everyday voters into campaign “ambassadors” within their families and communities. This should be a lesson for candidates in the upcoming general election.
  • Quality-of-life issues played a leading role in voting decisions, even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Latino and Asian American voters wanted candidates to address how to keep their families healthy, to lead with diversity and to have a plan for making the American Dream accessible.
  • Even if universal vote-by-mail were to be implemented, the change would not by itself guarantee Latino voter turnout, particularly among communities of color. Education and outreach efforts to encourage voter turnout should be launched immediately.

The study also revealed that fewer ballots were cast in high-density Latino precincts in Los Angeles County and Orange County, California, in the 2020 primaries than in the 2016 primaries. The authors suggest this might have been due to changes to election procedures, including polling location closures and the creation of new vote centers. Those figures also might indicate that education efforts didn’t reach Latino voters. As advocacy for voting by mail grows nationally, the data from California highlights the need for improved outreach when election procedures change.

► Read about the UCLA Voting Rights Project

Diaz said the COVID-19 pandemic will make traditional outreach tactics such as in-person rallies and door-to-door canvassing more difficult, but there is still time to implement plans to reach two of the nation’s fastest-growing voting blocs.

“The 2020 election will not only decide control of the White House and the United States Congress, but down-ballot races that will decide redistricting, economic recovery, police reform and our fragile social safety net,” she said. “Asian American and Latino voters have an opportunity to make their voices heard on those issues in the coming election, but it’s clear that candidates and campaigns must engage with America’s diverse electorate prior to November.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A portrait of Adriana Galván

Neuroscientist Adriana Galván named dean of undergraduate education

A portrait of Adriana Galván

Photo Courtesy of Adriana Galván

Neuroscientist Adriana Galván will become UCLA’s next dean of undergraduate education on July 1.

A member of the UCLA faculty since 2008, Galván is a professor of psychology, holds the Wendell Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel Term Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience and is director of the Developmental Neuroscience Lab at UCLA.

Emily Carter, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, announced the appointment in an email to the campus community today. “Chancellor [Gene] Block and I are confident that undergraduate education will continue to thrive under Adriana’s capable leadership,” she wrote.

Galván is a faculty affiliate of the UCLA Brain Research Institute and the UCLA Neuroscience Interdepartmental Program, and is an executive committee member of the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and co-director of the NICHD T32 Predoctoral Training Program in Adolescent Brain and Behavioral Development.

“I am tremendously excited to serve as UCLA’s next dean of undergraduate education,” Galván said. “During this extraordinary time in history I look forward to working with the high-caliber students who make UCLA a leading institution of higher education.

“I am honored to work with community members across campus to uphold the mission of this innovative public university and to help enrich our students with a transformative environment where they all have the tools and resources they need to thrive, grow and become engaged members of society.”

Her research focuses on adolescent brain development and behavior, particularly in the domains of learning, motivation, and decision-making. She is a board member and on the leadership team of the Center for the Developing Adolescent, a standing member of the NIH Child Psychopathology and Developmental Disabilities Study Section, and a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She has been a member of the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Russell Sage Foundation Biological and Social Sciences Working Group, and the Society for Research on Adolescence Interdisciplinary Committee. She has also served as amicus curiae for numerous U.S. Supreme Court cases pertaining to youth behavior and development.

In addition to serving on the psychology department’s executive committee and academic personnel review committee, and as chair of the department’s 2018 strategic planning committee, she has been actively involved in the UCLA Academic Senate, having served on the executive committee, the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools, and the Undergraduate Council — mostly recently as the council’s chair from 2019 to 2020. She is also a member of the Life Sciences Diversity Advisory Committee and was on the University of California Committee on Educational Policy.

Among her many honors and awards are the American Psychological Association Boyd McCandless Early Career Award, the William T. Grant Scholars Award, the 2015 UCLA Psychology Department Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2016 APA Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contributions, the 2016 Cognitive Neuroscience Society Young Investigator Award and the 2019 Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences. In 2018, she was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Barcelona and in 2019 she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering.

Galván earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a doctorate in neuroscience at Cornell University.

The position has been held since 2013 by Patricia Turner.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Kevin Love.

NBA star and alumnus Kevin Love to fund chair in psychology

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love, a former Bruin basketball player who has publicly shared his struggles with panic attacks, anxiety and depression, has committed $500,000 through his foundation — matched by a $500,000 UCLA Centennial Term Chair Match — to establish the Kevin Love Fund Centennial Chair in UCLA’s psychology department.

The $1 million investment will support the teaching and research activity of UCLA’s faculty working to diagnose, prevent, treat and destigmatize anxiety and depression at one of the top-ranked psychology departments in the United States.

“Kevin Love has shown not only tremendous leadership, but also tremendous heart, both on and off the court,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Thanks to his gift, the UCLA psychology department will be able to further its efforts to help those who suffer from anxiety and depression and the stigma that surrounds these conditions.”

Photo courtesy of Kevin Love

The NBA star founded the Kevin Love Fund in 2018 to help people improve their physical and emotional well-being, with the goal of assisting more than 1 billion people over the next five years. On June 21, Love was honored at the ESPYs as the 2020 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for his work as a mental health advocate.

“I’m concerned about the level of anxiety that people are feeling. Recent events, including the novel coronavirus outbreak, have put our society under enormous stress,” Love said. “I am happy to be able to help UCLA, my alma mater, work toward solving some of society’s biggest underlying issues. I hope one day we are able to erase the stigma around anxiety and depression, and we can only do that by improving diagnosis and treatment, fostering public conversations about mental health and encouraging people to seek help when they need it.”

Love’s contribution, bolstered by the Centennial Term Chair Match, will go to a scholar in the psychology department whose research could help advance more personalized treatments for people living with anxiety and depression.

UCLA’s psychology department is among the nation’s top-ranked departments of its kind and one of the largest academic units on campus, with more than 3,700 undergraduate students and 180 graduate students. In addition to its depth of expertise in anxiety and depression, the department’s faculty is renowned for its studies in multiple areas including human relationships and social networks; the adolescent brain; substance abuse and addiction; health psychology; neuroscience of behavioral health; and cognition and consciousness.

“When heroes like Kevin come forward and share their vulnerability, it shines a light on anxiety and depression, and that helps chip away at stigma,” said Michelle Craske, a UCLA distinguished professor psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “I want to thank Kevin for his leadership and his courage to share his personal story with the world. He has inspired and provided hope to many. Through his continued efforts, he is changing people’s lives.”

Love first connected with Craske in August 2019 when they took part in a public conversation for “Minds Matter: Raising the Curtain on Depression and Anxiety.” Co-hosted by UCLA College and the Geffen Playhouse, the event explored the causes of depression and anxiety, the public stigma associated with the conditions, and potential advances in diagnosis and treatment.

UCLA’s psychology department has long been at the leading edge of research and clinical programs aimed at alleviating the suffering caused by anxiety and depression, which are among the leading causes of disability worldwide. The department’s faculty also are integral to the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, which aims to elucidate the basis of depression, integrating basic brain science, genetics and other disciplines.

“We are immensely grateful to Kevin and the Kevin Love Fund for this generous and impactful gift,” said Victoria Sork, dean of life sciences in the UCLA College. “Kevin lives his values of service and investment in his communities. His gift will be of incalculable benefit to society for many decades to come.”

The chair’s establishment is pending approval by the UCLA Academic Senate and Block.

A photo of seniors who are part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates. From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes.

First labor studies graduates venture out ready to help and versed in struggle

A photo of seniors who are part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates. From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes.

From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes, all seniors and part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates at UCLA. (Photo Credit: Joey Caroni/UCLA)

The class of 2020 is stepping out of their UCLA studies into a world that is crying out for massive social change and racial justice amid an economic recession that is disproportionately affecting communities of color.

While for many people around the country this feels unprecedented, for UCLA’s first cohort of graduates to earn degrees in labor studies, an interdisciplinary major run by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, this is much like every other health or economic crisis they’ve studied.

They’ve spent the last few years learning about workers’ rights, wage theft, peaceful protest, labor organizing and issues of race, class and gender in the workplace. They’ve conducted research that interrogates the very institution they’ve been studying within.

They are curious, passionate about community building and cautiously hopeful about what is a decidedly murky near future.

They’ve spent the last months of their college experience physically separated from the community they have built, but remain committed to forging connections, and forging ahead.

Riya Patel started out majoring in economics, a subject she fell in love with as a high school student in Chino, which is 50 miles east of UCLA. But as a first-generation college student whose parents emigrated from India in the 1990s, she didn’t always see herself reflected in the students and faculty in that department.

An introductory course piqued her interest in labor studies, and there she found not only a program that will inspire her future, but a community of UCLA students whose experiences and perspectives were more like hers.

“I admit, it was kind of a culture shock at first,” she said. “I didn’t look like the traditional UCLA economics student. Then I found labor studies and found out I wasn’t alone at UCLA and I wasn’t alone in that feeling, that sense of ‘impostor syndrome’ that happens to so many first-gen or immigrant students.”

While economics coursework remained fascinating to Patel, she’s grateful for that first labor studies class that led her to double major.

“Economics is such a great degree because I felt like I could do anything with it: consulting, marketing, investment banking,” she said. “I come from a working class background — both of my parents work at a liquor store — so learning the history of the community was really personal to me. In labor studies, learning about working-class movements, you get to see the economy from workers’ perspective.”

Students in the program have been keeping in touch throughout quarantine, sharing resources for grant funding, coronavirus information, support for undocumented people, help with housing contracts and other advocacy efforts.

Patel is realistic about an uncertain job market. She’s hoping to get internships or take more online courses.

“I’m interested in public policy research and economic justice, nonprofit work or think tank work,” she said.

UCLA was Patel’s dream school from a young age, so being off-campus for her final quarter has been difficult.

“Ever since seventh grade when I visited on a class trip I just fell in love with UCLA,” Patel said. “I love the location, the people and I really didn’t think I would make it here, so when I got in, it was obvious that I would come to UCLA.”

Working-class students bring a valuable perspective

It’s a fascinating time to be an instructor, said Toby Higbie, who serves as chair of the labor studies major.

“It’s a different kind of curriculum and a different kind of student experience,” said Higbie, who is also a history professor. “It’s populated by an amazing group of students who are mainly first-gen from across the L.A. region, coming from working class families. Often they have experience as workers in the labor market already so they bring a different level of engagement on topics like farm workers, industrial regulations, labor law and labor history. They bring their personal experience to the classroom, which changes the conversation.”

The goal of the major is not just to impart knowledge, but to endow its students with the tools to become active in society in whatever way they want to whether that’s working for a union or as a lawyer, community leader or entrepreneur, Higbie said.

The community-building ethos of labor studies is a sentiment echoed by other graduating students.

Michelle Cervantes has spent much of her time during the pandemic volunteering to help with the hotel workers union by calling policymakers, working on a food drive and packaging food supplies for those out of work. She’s hoping her experiences with this group inspire UCLA to create paid fellowship programs that allow students to do this kind of work as part of their education.

Growing up in downtown L.A., a middle child of seven siblings, with a single mom who emigrated from Mexico, Cervantes said her childhood memories center around watching her mom work many hours at multiple jobs and multiple side hustles.

“But, still, we never had enough money,” Cervantes said. “I didn’t understand and it really stuck with me. My mom came to this country when she was 12 and her dream has been to see her kids go on to higher education.”

Cervantes is graduating with a double major in history and labor studies. After a gap year, she plans to go to law school, and post-graduation hopes to work at a litigation law firm to gain experience.  She also plans to devote her free time to volunteering with nonprofits that focus on immigration to round out her knowledge of legislation and how it can benefit or detract from social justice movements.

Early in her time at UCLA, Cervantes felt first-hand some of the struggles of low-income workers, witnessing wage theft and experiencing personal intimidation at a now-closed Westwood restaurant where she worked during her sophomore year. In part, this is what drew her to the labor studies major.

“It made me want to be part of history, it made me want to organize,” she said. “One day I would love to work in an immigration law firm and also do something with civil lawsuits, protecting people from wage violations. Eventually I’d like to be an elected official, a D.A. or appointed official in a position of power to make changes in immigration legislation, in labor law.”

Cervantes also served as campus engagement director for the immigrant youth task force at UCLA. In some of her last work for the major, she completed a case study on immigrant workers as essential workers during the pandemic.

Labor studies students connect real-world research with their community

Students in labor studies participate in a summer intensive research class run by Saba Waheed, research director at the UCLA Labor Center and Janna Shadduck-Hérnandez, professor of labor studies one of the center’s project directors. For the last several years they have been working with labor studies students collecting and analyzing data that tells stories of student workers throughout the higher education system.

Seniors from the 2020 class said that real-world data gathering experience was invaluable.

“I fell in love with their way of teaching, their way of conducting research, their leadership as women,” said Mayte Ipatzi, who is graduating with a double major in sociology and labor studies.

Ipatzi is looking forward to the fact that data from this ongoing summer research project will be published soon, potentially by the end of June. It will also include information on how COVID-19 has affected working students.

“We’ve been analyzing identities and challenges for students who are enrolled full-time in L.A. County, and navigating also having to work,” Ipatzi said. “We’re looking at how this affects their mental health, and where do their paychecks go. I think the labor studies major does a really good job at inspiring us to really critique our economic systems.”

The lives of working students have changed dramatically over the last several decades as the cost of a college education wildly outpaces real wages.

Forty years ago, students who worked likely used some or all of that money for fun or leisure, but now paychecks are more likely going to tuition, housing, food, or even supporting their families, Ipatzi said.

Ipatzi has been serving as an academic peer counselor for UCLA, working 20 hours a week in spring quarter, along with her full course load and her internship with the Foundation for California Community Colleges

After commencement she has one last summer course to complete, then she plans to take a year off, study for the GRE to get into graduate school, and figure out the best trajectory for her goal to work as a counselor or social worker.

UCLA actually wasn’t her first choice, but Ipatzi got in to all of the schools she applied to, including UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. A first-generation student born in Mexico City, but raised in Oxnard, California, Ipatzi accepted the UCLA offer sight unseen, thanks to a generous financial aid package.

“I really took a leap of faith, orientation was my first day on campus,” she said. “It was probably was one of the best decisions I have ever made and the best decision I could have made.”

Ipatzi has a brother in community college, who she is helping navigate the higher education process. She and her family are understandably disappointed at the fact that there will be no commencement ceremony this spring to celebrate her accomplishments in person.

“It’s that moment you play over and over in your mind like a movie, and it’s hard to know it’s not happening this year,” she said, “But if there is a ceremony later, of course I will come back and be the star of that movie.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.