Nandita Garud named a distinguished investigator by Paul Allen Frontiers Group

Nandita Garud, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.

Nandita Garud (Photo courtesy of Nandita Garud)

The award will provide Garud and two faculty colleagues — Aida Habtezion at Stanford University and Carolina Tropini at University of British Columbia — with $1.5 million in research funding over three years to study the role of gut microbiota and other factors in patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Patients with IBD, a disease that stems from chronic inflammation in the intestines, have widely varied symptoms and responses to treatment, which cannot be fully explained by human genetics.

Garud and her colleagues are leading a project to explore how patients’ immune responses, metabolism, gut microbiota and environments may contribute to that variability. The research has the potential to lead to better, more tailored treatments for this class of immune diseases.

Despite the close links between human health — including our immunity — and how our bodies process what we eat, the intersection of immunology and metabolism remains a poorly understood area of human biology, Garud said.

“It is uncharted territory as to how the microbes inside of us contribute to the inflammation phenotype,” she said. “We are excited to explore these questions using a combination of techniques, ranging from metabolomics to imaging to statistical development that leverage the team’s diverse expertise.”

“In so many diseases, a tipping point is reached where entire systems in our bodies are thrown off balance,” said Frontiers Group Director Kathy Richmond. “Studying the complex and fascinating interactions between the immune system and energy metabolism will give us a better understanding of what it means to be healthy and how it might be possible to return those systems to balance after damage or disease.”

The Frontiers Group was founded by the late philanthropist Paul G. Allen in 2016.

Read more about Garud’s research on her website.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom.

Hosea Nelson receives award for pioneering research in organic chemistry

Hosea Nelson, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has received the 2020 Novartis Early Career Award in organic chemistry for his scientific achievements in the field. He will receive an unrestricted research grant as part of the award.

A photo of Hosea Nelson, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Hosea Nelson (Photo Credit: UCLA)

Nelson’s research is focused on the development of enabling technologies for chemical synthesis and biology. His research team, the Nelson Group, uses organic synthesis and organic catalyst development to develop small molecules and new methodologies that will be widely used by practitioners of medicine and biology.

Nelson earned his doctorate in 2013 from the California Institute of Technology. After postdoctoral training at UC Berkeley, he joined the UCLA faculty in 2015. In October, he received the 2020 Eli Lilly Grantee Award for organic chemistry.

Novartis, a Switzerland-based multinational pharmaceutical company, gives the Early Career Award annually to outstanding scientists within 10 years of having established an independent academic research career in the areas of organic or bioorganic chemistry.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of students in a lecture hall.

UCLA to launch new social justice curriculum with $5 million grant from Mellon Foundation

A photo of students in a lecture hall.

The curriculum will pair social justice teaching with community engagement and instruction in data literacy, statistics and computational research methods. (Photo Credit: Ann Johansson/UCLA College)

A $5 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will enable UCLA to further its commitment to social change and public service by establishing the UCLA Mellon Social Justice Curriculum in the divisions of humanities and social sciences of the UCLA College.

The funding will lay the foundation for a publicly engaged, data-driven approach to teaching and research on social justice issues, positioning more UCLA graduates to become social change leaders in their chosen professions.

“We are deeply grateful to the Mellon Foundation for enabling us to create new opportunities for our students to grow intellectually while obtaining the skills required to succeed in a host of professional careers,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the College and dean of humanities. “The social justice curriculum will empower our students to put their humanistic vision to work in the service of social change.”

The five-and-a-half-year grant will support wide-ranging curricular initiatives, new degree programs and community-engaged research. It will also allow UCLA to hire faculty whose research, teaching and service will strengthen diversity and equal opportunity on campus, in particular scholars with expertise in the field of experimental humanities, which includes digital, urban, environmental and health humanities.

The curriculum will focus on four intertwined social justice issues at the core of the experimental humanities: racial and spatial justice, data justice, environmental and economic justice, and health justice.

“Addressing complex social problems requires the interpretative methods, critical knowledge, historical perspectives and values infrastructure informed by engagement with the humanities, culture, arts and society,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences. “With this generous grant, the Mellon Foundation has given UCLA the means to transform what and how we teach by centering social justice, community engagement and the critical tools and methods for knowledge creation.”

UCLA’s strong community connections will be leveraged, in partnership with the UCLA Center for Community Engagement, through academic courses that mutually benefit students and community partners, student internships, and summer institutes and workshops. Courses tailored to the curriculum will offer instruction in data literacy, statistics and computational research methods, linked with the study of narrative and media-making.

An introductory course for freshmen titled “Data, Society, and Social Justice” — co-taught by interdisciplinary faculty teams with expertise on the environment, cities, health and racial disparities in Los Angeles — will focus on humanistic frameworks for understanding social inequalities and train students to assess the practical and ethical implications of data-driven approaches to social change.

The new curriculum is expected to attract the rising numbers of UCLA students who are committed to social justice issues but have been underrepresented in courses and majors that provide critical training in statistics, computation and quantitative research methods. These include students from low-income households, first-generation college students and those from historically underrepresented groups.

Schaberg and Hunt are co–principal investigators on the project. The faculty leads are Todd Presner, chair of UCLA’s digital humanities program and the Ross Professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature, and Juliet Williams, professor of gender studies and chair of the UCLA social science interdepartmental program. Co-chairs of the faculty advisory committee are Safiya Noble, associate professor of information studies and African American studies, and Sarah Roberts, associate professor of information studies with affiliate appointments in labor studies and gender studies. Roberts and Noble also co-direct the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, which will play a key role in programming.

This latest Mellon grant to the College follows a five-year grant awarded in 2015 that supported innovative and more inclusive methods of humanities teaching and brings the foundation’s total support for UCLA to approximately $60 million.

This article, written by Margaret MacDonald, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

A UCLA researcher prepares to lower a specialized bottle into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Cruz Island to capture samples of eDNA. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

Researchers used to need to scuba dive to find out which fish live in any given area of the ocean. Now, a new UCLA study has found that environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be used to identify marine organisms living in a certain space.

Environmental DNA is the term for the DNA from cells that are constantly released by organisms into their environments — much like the hair and skin people normally shed in the shower. In the past decade eDNA technology has advanced rapidly, making it a competitive tool for assessing ecosystem biodiversity.

The findings, which were published in PLOS One, could have major implications for monitoring of marine protected areas, sections of ocean where fishing and other activities are prohibited to conserve marine life and habitat.

In 2012, California established 124 marine protected areas covering about 16% of state waters. Regular monitoring of those areas is critical for understanding if marine life is being protected successfully, said UCLA ecologist Paul Barber, the study’s senior author. Before eDNA, the only way to tell if marine protected areas were working was for scuba divers to count and identify every fish they saw, a method known as visual surveying.

“These surveys typically require experienced divers with specific training to spend hours and hours underwater,” said Barber, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Now we can simply lower a bottle into the ocean from the side of a boat.”

The researchers compared which species were detected using eDNA and which were counted using visual surveying during summer 2017 at three sites inside and outside of the State Marine Reserve near Santa Cruz Island. Using eDNA, they identified nearly all of the same species as the visual surveys.

The only fish that did not show up using the technique were five species of rockfish — an issue the researchers said could be easily fixed by tweaking the genetic test to recognize that specific DNA when it appears in water samples.

A photo of a garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California's marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island.

A garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California’s marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

The eDNA also revealed an additional 30 species that had been seen in the same areas in previous years but that were not spotted during the 2017 visual surveys.

“We demonstrated that that we can use eDNA as a tool to monitor these ecosystems,” said Zachary Gold, the study’s lead author, a former UCLA doctoral student who is now a researcher at the University of Washington and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an opportunity going forward to expand the scope and scale of monitoring marine protected areas.”

Wider use of eDNA could help scientists overcome some of the challenges of visual surveying as a technique for monitoring marine species. For one, the new method could be far less expensive than the current one: Each eDNA sample costs around $50, while the National Park Service spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to survey 33 sites in the Channel Islands.

And in part because of those costs, visual surveys are conducted only once a year, which means seasonal variations in fish species have rarely been studied.

Another current challenge is that visual surveying is only performed in waters up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep, which means the technique cannot be used in more than 99% of California’s marine protected areas.

To analyze eDNA, researchers run the water they collect through a filter that captures the cells and DNA of marine organisms. Those filters are frozen on the boat and taken to a lab, where researchers extract DNA from the cells, sequence it and identify which species the DNA belongs to using a reference database.

For the PLOS One study, Gold used a reference database called the Anacapa Toolkit, which was developed previously by UCLA scientists.

The authors acknowledge that eDNA surveys won’t completely replace visual surveys, because the newer method can’t reveal the sex, size, abundance or behavior of the fish being studied — all of which are important elements of a complete assessment. “There will always be value to having eyes in the water,” Barber said.

But the simplicity of eDNA could create opportunities for community science — research in which nonscientist members of the public can participate. For example, Gold set up a program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Heal the Bay that teaches volunteers how to collect water samples. The combination of eDNA tools and a wider network of people collecting samples could dramatically improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

From Startup to Social Change: UCLA’s Blackstone Launchpad Social Impact Fellows

Photos from top left: Shelby Kretz of Little Justice Leaders, Diondraya Taylor of Mindsets & Milestones; Bottom from left: Michael Sesen-Perrilliat of TIED, Shae Koberle and her team member of Robinswing. (Photos courtesy of the depicted)

From top left: Shelby Kretz of Little Justice Leaders, Diondraya Taylor of Mindsets & Milestones; Bottom from left: Michael Sesen-Perrilliat of TIED, Shae Koberle and her team member of Robinswing. (Photos courtesy of Kretz, Taylor, Sesen-Perrilliat and Koberle)

Startup companies have introduced innovative technology, unique products and even new social networks. At UCLA, four startups are also addressing some of society’s most important challenges, from reaching swing voters to inspiring leadership skills in adolescent girls.

Last fall, Startup UCLA’s Blackstone Launchpad and Techstars network hosted the Social Impact Fellowship Program, focused on student-run companies with clear social impact missions. Out of 40 teams selected from across the country, four originated from UCLA – a reflection of Bruins’ dedication to community engagement and social change through entrepreneurship.

During the program, student fellows took part in coaching sessions with LaunchPad campus directors, received mentoring and learned about team management, digital marketing, fundraising, and more. Each fellow also received $5,000 in grant funding to advance their startup companies. Each of the four UCLA student-run companies was inspired by a variety of needs reflected in their communities.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Diondraya Taylor ’20, founder of Mindsets & Milestones, started her company as an undergraduate psychobiology major at UCLA and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in education. Mindset & Milestones creates educational materials to develop entrepreneurial skills in middle and high school girls. So far, Taylor’s company has produced a workbook, created an online course and more recently, launched an ambassador program for girls. Taylor was inspired to create Mindsets & Milestones to help tackle the confidence dips experienced by adolescent girls that can cause them to question their capabilities.

She recalled a particular conversation with a student in which they were discussing the organizational structure of the student’s team. In response, the student drew a circle, not a typical top-down organizational chart, explaining that she wanted everyone to work together. After some gentle probing by Taylor, the student admitted that she wasn’t sure if she was capable of leading people, despite her record demonstrating leadership potential.

“It was baffling to me. This student knew enough and had the vision, yet she couldn’t see herself as a leader,” Taylor said.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Shelby Kretz, who like Taylor is working on her Ph.D. in education, is the founder of Little Justice Leaders, a monthly subscription box aimed at elementary school children that creates opportunities for parents to talk their kids about topics such as social justice, environmental sustainability, immigration, racism and feminism. Each box contains an age-appropriate book on a single topic, a hands-on activity, lessons and worksheets, information cards and a nonprofit spotlight. Little Justice Leaders does more than serve children, it also engages parents and teachers, and facilitates learning in the community about social justice issues.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Shae Koberle is a third-year political science student who came up with her business idea last July, when she came across a document circulating on social media purporting to show the costs incurred by the LAPD to police demonstrations in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. During that time, she noted that while many individuals had the best intentions in mind, no real change was being made because the information tended to circulate in the same social circles and wasn’t being forwarded to the opposing side.

“To change local policy, you must engage the other side,” Koberle said. “You have to engage someone who doesn’t believe in defunding the police. That got me to think, ‘How can I reach those people’?”

To reach people across the opinion spectrum, Koberle founded Robinswing, an app that anonymously connects swing voters to canvassers without the hassle of soliciting. The app lets users anonymously learn about and follow local propositions and candidates, no strings attached. Koberle envisions Robinswing expanding to more conservative areas, citing the benefits of its anonymous user capabilities, which allow individuals who feel they might be persecuted due to their political stance or identity to become informed without fear of being harassed.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Michael-Sesen Perrilliat ’17 is a political science alumnus and founder of Tapped In: Equitable Development (TIED). TIED aims to create access and opportunities for people who are new to startups or need more resources to drive their startups to success. Founders connect with TIED through word of mouth or social media, and submit a form that analyzes the stage of their startup. TIED then assigns tasks to help the startup further develop their concept before connecting them with mentors and consultants who can support these entrepreneurs.

At UCLA, services like Startup UCLA and the venture consulting offered through Blackstone Launchpad allow students to develop their ideas, which increasingly include nonprofit ventures and social impact businesses. To meet the demands of UCLA’s growing community of social impact-oriented creators and entrepreneurs, Startup UCLA recently hired Rachael Parker-Chavez, an entrepreneur, lecturer and consultant with extensive experience with human-centered design and building up social impact businesses and nonprofits.

To learn more, visit https://startupucla.com.

This article was written by Shirley Li. 

Gift from Astrid and Howard Preston will Fund Renovation of UCLA’s Remote Observing Facility

Howard and Astrid Preston in front of a painting by Astrid in the UCLA Luskin Conference Center. (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

The UCLA College’s Division of Physical Sciences has received a gift of $500,000 from alumni Astrid and Howard Preston to renovate and expand the facility that allows prominent UCLA astronomers and research scientists to observe distant galaxies and stars without leaving campus.

Galaxy: Stellar orbits. (Photo courtesy of NCSA, UCLA / Keck)

Renamed in honor of the couple, the Astrid and Howard Preston Remote Observing Facility in Knudsen Hall provides remote access to the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the Lick telescope in Northern California, and, when completed, will also link to the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.

The division matched the Prestons’ gift at 50%, bringing the total investment to $750,000.

Dean of physical sciences Miguel García-Garibay said, “We are incredibly grateful for this generous gift, which will enhance remote observing capabilities for world-renowned research groups in our division for decades to come. It’s yet another impactful example of the Prestons’ long record of leadership and philanthropy in support of the Department of Physics & Astronomy.”

The Preston Remote Observing Facility is used by four leading astronomy UCLA research groups:

-The Galactic Center Group, led by 2020 Physics Nobel Laureate Andrea Ghez, studies the formation and evolution of galaxies and their central supermassive black holes.

-The Infrared Laboratory develops techniques and applications of infrared imaging devices for astrophysics, including infrared cameras and spectrometers for Lick Observatory, Keck Observatory, Gemini Observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Observatory, and NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

– Extrasolar planets and planetary science faculty study the dynamics and physical properties of the interiors, surfaces and atmospheres of Earth, planets, moons and other solar system objects.

– Cosmology, galaxies and galaxy evolution faculty study the nature of galactic nuclei and quasars, the first generation of galaxies and the structure of the early universe.

Following the renovation project, which is due to begin later this year, the facility will comprise 750 square feet with two distinct remote observing areas equipped with state-of-the-science technology, which can open to one shared area to optimize functionality of the space. Also included in the plans are areas for video conferencing, group discussion, food preparation, and even sleeping, since most observing time is scheduled during night and early morning hours.

Ghez, who holds the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics, said, “I can’t emphasize enough how critical the remote observing facility is to our work. It allows us convenient real-time access to precious telescope time so that we can collect the observational data that advances our research. The renovation made possible by the Prestons’ gift will not only make a huge difference to all of us who use the facility but also will facilitate the technical development of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Keck telescopes and the Lick telescope.”

Any funds remaining after completion of the project will be used to create an endowment to cover ongoing costs related to the space, including computational analysis, future renovations and maintenance, and technology upgrades.

The Prestons have supported the Department of Physics & Astronomy for more than 20 years. They previously established the Howard and Astrid Preston Term Chair in Astrophysics and the Preston Family Graduate Fellowship in Astrophysics. Howard serves on UCLA’s Galactic Center Group Board of Advisors and Physical Sciences Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund. Astrid is on the board of Women & Philanthropy at UCLA and the Department of English board of visitors. The couple met as UCLA undergrads in 1963. After earning a doctorate in physics, Howard founded Preston Cinema Systems, maker of high-tech camera and lens control systems for film and television. Astrid, who graduated with a B.A. in English, is an acclaimed painter.

Howard Preston said, “Astrid and I have followed the exciting progress of UCLA’s astronomy research groups for some time, and we know how important this facility is to their work. We are absolutely delighted that we can support this much-needed renovation and expansion, and we are eager to see what discoveries are around the corner.”

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald. 

A photo of student researchers.

Dean Tracy Johnson seeks to diversify the pipeline of future scientists and doctors

A photo of student researchers.

Over the years, the pathways program has enrolled more than 125 students, who have taken on responsibilities as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

When Tracy Johnson was an undergraduate working in a lab at UC San Diego, she found herself suddenly jolted. Conducting research on gene function using fruit flies, she realized she was involved in something deeper and more fulfilling than a traditional classroom experience.

“The idea that I was learning things that nobody else knew, that I could make some contribution,” says the dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College, “that was a game-changer.”

Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in Life Sciences, joined the faculty of UCLA’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in 2014. Soon after, she was awarded a $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to improve undergraduate science education, which was, in part, used to create the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success program.

Pathways gives students from diverse backgrounds an “authentic research experience, early on, and in a prolonged way.” For years, Johnson said, students of color and those who were the first in their family to attend college pursued science, technology, engineering and math degrees at equal rates as other students but left STEM majors at a higher rate.

“It was clear that these statistics had less to do with preparation,” she said, “and more to do with students not seeing themselves as part of a scientific community. Pathways was designed to rethink that.”

The goal was to help students understand they belonged and had important contributions to make.

“The Pathways program has honestly opened up the world of research to me. I come from a normal public school in a mainly minority area, so I never knew what research truly entailed,” said Venus Hagan, a second-year UCLA student majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research.

Hagan noted how getting to do research as an undergraduate helped her discover her passion for it. “Without the program,” she said, “I may have never considered minoring in biomedical research and possibly applying to MD/Ph.D. programs in the future.”

In building the program, Johnson looked around the country to find what worked best, and bring it to UCLA. She was interested not just in lab work, but in mentoring as well.

Pathways students participate in a lab course dedicated to Johnson’s field, gene expression. The DNA in every cell of a given plant or animal is identical. Expression is the process by which genes, or specific segments of DNA, get turned on. This process allows cells to perform specific functions. For example, this process can tell a cell to become part of a muscle or part of the brain, and so on.

“It’s a lot for first-year students to dive into,” Johnson acknowledged. “They’re freshmen, on campus for barely 10 weeks when they start. Some students have never taken AP biology. It is ambitious, but they rise to the occasion.”

Second-year student Nyari Muchaka said enrolling in Pathways was one of the best decisions she has ever made.

“The program has provided me with multiple opportunities for summer and during the year research opportunities, and allowed me to find a group of friends I resonate with,” said Muchaka, who is majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research. “Everyone is truly there to help each other which makes it one of the most fulfilling, enriching parts of my college experience. The program helps advance your interest in the biological field but also carry you through some of the best and roughest four years of your life. Pathways is truly an innovative program and provides a foundation for college studies you won’t find anywhere else.”

Johnson and her co-instructor and research collaborator, Azad Hossain, are preparing to publish some of the student research in an academic journal within the next year. Pathways has enrolled more than 125 students, and these students have taken on more and more responsibility as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders as the years have passed. Many have gone on to doctoral programs, medical school, M.D./Ph.D. programs, and a host of other STEM-related careers.

“There isn’t anything quite like what we do,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a model for how to think about student success.”

This article, written by Scott Timberg and Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Martin Monti.

Scientists jump-start two people’s brains after coma

A photo of Martin Monti.

Monti said two patients exhibited “behaviors [that] are diagnostic markers of emergence from a disorder of consciousness.” (Photo Credit: Ivy Reynolds)

In 2016, a team led by UCLA’s Martin Monti reported that a 25-year-old man recovering from a coma had made remarkable progress following a treatment to jump-start his brain using ultrasound.

Wired U.K. called the news one of the best things that happened in 2016. At the time, Monti acknowledged that although he was encouraged by the outcome, it was possible the scientists had gotten a little lucky.

Now, Monti and colleagues report that two more patients with severe brain injuries — both had been in what scientists call a long-term “minimally conscious state” — have made impressive progress thanks to the same technique. The results are published online in the journal Brain Stimulation.

“I consider this new result much more significant because these chronic patients were much less likely to recover spontaneously than the acute patient we treated in 2016 — and any recovery typically occurs slowly over several months and more typically years, not over days and weeks, as we show,” said Monti, a UCLA professor of psychology and neurosurgery and co-senior author of the new paper. “It’s very unlikely that our findings are simply due to spontaneous recovery.”

The paper notes that, of three people who received the treatment, one — a 58-year-old man who had been in a car accident five-and-a-half years prior to treatment and was minimally conscious — did not benefit. However, the other two did.

One is a 56-year-old man who had suffered a stroke and had been in a minimally conscious state, unable to communicate, for more than 14 months. After the first of two treatments, he demonstrated, for the first time, the ability to consistently respond to two distinct commands — the ability to drop or grasp a ball, and the ability to look toward separate photographs of two of his relatives when their names were mentioned.

He also could nod or shake his head to indicate “yes” or “no” when asked questions such as “Is X your name?” and “Is Y your wife’s name?”

Small but significant improvement

In the days following the second treatment, he also demonstrated, for the first time since the stroke, the ability to use a pen on paper and to raise a bottle to his mouth, as well as to communicate and answer questions.

“Importantly,” Monti said, “these behaviors are diagnostic markers of emergence from a disorder of consciousness.”

The other patient who improved is a 50-year-old woman who had been in even less of a conscious state for more than two-and-a-half years following cardiac arrest. In the days after the first treatment, she was able, for the first time in years, according to her family, to recognize a pencil, a comb and other objects.

Both patients showed the ability to understand speech.

“What is remarkable is that both exhibited meaningful responses within just a few days of the intervention,” Monti said. “This is what we hoped for, but it is stunning to see it with your own eyes. Seeing two of our three patients who had been in a chronic condition improve very significantly within days of the treatment is an extremely promising result.”

The changes the researchers saw are small, but Monti said even the smallest form of communication means a way to reconnect. One powerful moment during the study was when the wife of the 56-year-old man showed him photos and asked whether he recognized who he saw.

“She said to us, ‘This is the first conversation I had with him since the accident,’” Monti said. “For these patients, the smallest step can be very meaningful — for them and their families. To them it means the world.”

Using acoustic energy

Scientists used a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain.

The scientists used a technique called low-intensity focused ultrasound, which uses sonic stimulation to excite the neurons in the thalamus, an egg-shaped structure that serves as the brain’s central hub for processing. After a coma, thalamus function is typically weakened, Monti said.

An image of a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain

Scientists used a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain. (Photo Credit: Martin Monti/UCLA)

Doctors use a device about the size of a saucer creates a small sphere of acoustic energy they can aim at different brain regions to excite brain tissue. The researchers placed the device by the side of each patient’s head and activated it 10 times for 30 seconds each in a 10-minute period. Each patient underwent two sessions, one week apart.

Monti hopes to eventually translate the technology into an inexpensive, portable device so the treatment could be delivered not only at state-of-the-art medical centers, but also at patients’ homes, to help “wake up” patients from a minimally conscious or vegetative state.

The treatment appears to be well tolerated; the researchers saw no changes to the patients’ blood pressure, heart rate or blood oxygen levels, and no other adverse events. Monti said the device is safe because it emits only a small amount of energy, less than a conventional Doppler ultrasound.

While the scientists are excited by the results, they emphasize that the technique is still experimental and likely will not be available to the public for at least a few years. For now, there is little that can be done to help patients recover from a severe brain injury that results in either a chronic vegetative state or a minimally conscious state, Monti said.

Monti said his team is planning additional studies to learn exactly how thalamic ultrasound modifies brain function; he hopes to start those clinical trials once the researchers and patients are assured of being safe from COVID-19.

The study’s lead author is Josh Cain, a UCLA graduate student in psychology, and a co-senior author is Caroline Schnakers, a former UCLA researcher who is now assistant director of research at Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare in Pomona, California. The work was funded by the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation and the Dana Foundation.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Million Dollar Hoods is already influencing policing in Los Angeles

Students, staff and faculty members of Million Dollar Hoods. Less than five years old, the effort has nevertheless helped shape Los Angeles and California law enforcement policy in several areas. (Photo Credit: Leroy Hamilton)

In less than five years, Million Dollar Hoods has already begun to influence criminal justice and policing in Los Angeles.

The program, launched in 2016, produced research on cannabis enforcement that shaped the development of the city’s Social Equity Program, which addresses the impact of disparate enforcement of cannabis prohibition. Its research on the money bail system, the first to document the scale of money bail in a large U.S. city, was instrumental to the passage of California legislation ending money bail for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases.

Its report on the Los Angeles School Police Department helped persuade the Los Angeles Unified School District to stop arresting children 14 and younger. And its analyses of Los Angeles Police Department arrests of homeless people unmasked the fact that arrests are outpacing the growth of the city’s homeless population — revealing an escalating focus on policing homeless persons.

Million Dollar Hoods is a big-data research initiative based at UCLA that uses Los Angeles police and jail records to monitor how much authorities are spending to lock up residents, neighborhood by neighborhood. In some communities, that figure is more than $1 million per year.

And not every neighborhood is affected equally by Los Angeles’ massive jail system. Data from arrest records shows that Los Angeles’ jail budget, nearly $1 billion per year, is largely devoted to incarcerating people from just a few neighborhoods.

Million Dollar Hoods researchers have researched and written dozens of “rapid response reports” in response to concerns from community members. Each report is made available on the program’s website.

Million Dollar Hoods researchers have also interviewed nearly 200 Los Angeles residents, under the guidance of Terry Allen, the lead researcher and director of the oral history project and a recent doctoral graduate of the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. The oral histories tell stories of individual experiences of dealing with police and being arrested or incarcerated, as well as the impact of incarceration on families.

Its research team is led by Kelly Lytle Hernández, a UCLA professor of history and urban planning, and includes UCLA students, staff and faculty. Every project also benefits from the involvement of community organizations; Youth Justice Coalition, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Dignity and Power Now!, and JusticeLA are among those that have contributed to recent projects.

The project has attracted a passionate collective of undergraduate researchers, said Marques Vestal, faculty advisor for Million Dollar Hoods.

“There are lines out the door to get involved with this project,” said Vestal, a UCLA postdoctoral fellow and leader on the Million Dollar Hoods team who will joins the faculty of UCLA’s department of urban planning in July 2021. “Million Dollar Hoods gives students the chance to work with big data in ways that have a reparative impact on their communities.”

Next up: Thanks to a portion of a $3.65 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Million Dollar Hoods will expand its capacity to produce oral histories — including training students to conduct interviews — and digitize more records and work with members of the community to document their experiences with and perspectives on mass incarceration.

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

A photo of Michael Carli and Christopher Zyda

The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and ’90s forms the backdrop for written works by two Bruins, born generations apart

As part of his senior thesis, English major Michael Carli is putting the finishing touches on “Malfunction,” a short story about two gay men living in New York City from 1984 to 1986, and English alumnus Christopher Zyda ’84 recently published his memoir “The Storm: One Voice from the AIDS Generation” (Rare Bird Books), centered on losing his partner to AIDS in 1991.

Carli will interview Zyda on January 26 as part of an online author discussion hosted by the UCLA Creative Writing Program and moderated by Assistant Professor Justin Torres.

For Carli, writing about the AIDS epidemic stemmed from wanting to examine the era from the unique perspective of his generation.

A photo of Michael Carli and Christopher Zyda

From left: Michael Carli, Christopher Zyda

“I grew up with the worst of the AIDS epidemic behind me, but in a period in which my contemporary artistic heroes, particularly when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, were the ones who were left, who had witnessed the destruction [caused by AIDS] firsthand,” Carli said. “It’s important for me to examine that history now because I feel in a way that it’s been forgotten or misunderstood by my own generation.”

Like so many writers, Carli has always been a voracious reader. It was his love of literature that lured him back to school after a stint selling shoes at a Jimmy Choo boutique in Boston. Six years ago, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as a nanny and chef for a family in Santa Monica while attending community college. In 2019, he transferred to UCLA and discovered his passion for creative writing.

Carli said, “Years ago I was afraid to admit to wanting to write novels. The creative writing program has changed things for me. Not only do I feel secure in the education itself and the technical skills I’m attempting to master here, but I feel more confident I can do it. I’d read works by [my professors] Mona Simpson and Justin Torres before I came to UCLA, and it’s really a dream to be in the same room with them. All of my professors in the Department have been incredibly instructive and supportive.”

After graduating from UCLA, Carli plans to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing and complete his first novel. Through his fiction writing, he hopes to have a positive impact on environmental issues such as climate change.

“Moving through this century, facing ecological collapse, those of us working in the humanities have a special responsibility to engage with and respond to the work that scientists are doing. We have the power to translate, as it were, that work to the public by appealing more directly to readers’ emotions,” Carli said. “I hope to do that with my writing.”

Like Carli, Chris Zyda planned to write for a living after graduating from UCLA, but he ended up setting aside his book-writing ambitions for more than 35 years.

Zyda came of age in the early years of the AIDS epidemic and, like most, had no idea of the devastation to come. Then in 1986, his partner Stephen was diagnosed with AIDS. Knowing that sky-high medical expenses were on the horizon, Zyda decided to obtain his MBA from the UCLA Anderson School and pursue a career in corporate finance. He went on to serve in high-level financial roles for industry giants like The Walt Disney Company, Amazon, and eBay before founding his own boutique investment management firm, Mozaic LLC, in 2007.

The idea for “The Storm” began with a journal entry in 2011 on the 20th anniversary of Stephen’s death, but Zyda didn’t start writing the book until 2017, a disciplined process that took only six months alongside running his business. In the book, he recounts the highs and lows of his life through the lens of family dysfunction, Stephen’s battle with AIDS, grief, the gay rights movement, the scientific quest to understand the virus, and the big cultural moments of the era.

Zyda said, “When I first started, one of my fears was that I wouldn’t remember what had happened because I had spent 26 years trying to forget it and stuffing it all away. Fortunately, I am a packrat and save receipts, ticket stubs, photos, and letters. I also made a playlist of music from that time to help me remember. Writing “The Storm” became a cathartic, healing experience.”

As for the central message of “The Storm,” Zyda said, “At some point in life, everybody has to deal with some version of what I call ‘the storm.’ Whether it’s divorce or losing a loved one or losing a job or any other personal challenge in life, remember that you can get through it. My book is a story of survival, of coming through a really challenging situation and having a wonderful, positive life afterwards.”

Author discussion with Chris Zyda: Tuesday, January 26, at 4:00 p.m. To register, please click here.

UCLA’s English department has offered creative writing courses for more than 40 years, including undergraduate concentrations in fiction and poetry writing, as well as workshops in fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and creative nonfiction. Learn more: https://english.ucla.edu/creative-writing-faqs/

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald.