A photo of J. William Schopf

J. William Schopf’s quest to fill a black hole of knowledge

A photo of J. William Schopf

Paleobiologist J. William Schopf — now in his 52nd year as a UCLA faculty member — did not let scientists or others discourage him from his mission to uncover the earliest history of life. Photo Credit: UCLA

Paleobiologist J. William Schopf — in his 52nd year as a UCLA faculty member — has been on a quest. For decades, he and an international team of scientists have worked to fill a black hole of knowledge about Earth’s earliest history of life.

His pursuit began in 1960, when Schopf — then an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio — took an introductory historical geology course. He had been learning a great deal through his textbooks and professors about the most recent 500 million years of Earth’s history, but could find virtually nothing about the Earth’s first 4 billion years. His professor mentioned that the earliest history of life, now known to be at least 85% of life’s history, was unknown. Schopf decided that day this was a problem he could solve.

He recalls thinking that evolution was a fact, not a fable, so the missing record of life didn’t make sense. Schopf went to his dormitory and read his copy of Charles Darwin’s 1859 classic, “On the Origin of Species.” Darwin stated that there is no known evidence of life before the oldest animal fossils from roughly 500 million years ago, and considered this an inexplicable hole in his theory of evolution. Why was there a complete absence of any record of life more than 500 million years ago?

Schopf said this enormous gap in knowledge was as if U.S. history began in the late 1960s and all earlier history had been wiped out — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, George Washington, the Civil War, electricity, telephones, the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Atomic Age and so much more.

During his college years, his father’s friends and other professionals tried to discourage Schopf from attempting to uncover life’s early fossil record, telling him there had been no meaningful progress for a century and that it was nearly certain he would fail. But he persisted and succeeded. He shares his remarkable story, spanning nearly 60 years, in his 2019 book, “Life in Deep Time: Darwin’s ‘Missing’ Fossil Record.” In it, he recounts the discoveries that reveal the earliest history of life.

Schopf, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, and his colleagues have produced the most comprehensive information about life’s ancient history, from the formation of our planet 4.6 billion years ago to events half-a-billion years ago.

What significant events occurred in that first 85% of the Earth’s history? Among many other things, the first living organisms, the modern food chain, photosynthesis, the development of the atmosphere and oceans, and various types of cell division all date from this enormously long period of time.

The story of the Earth’s earliest history and the life it harbored is detailed in two books Schopf edited. “Earth’s Earliest Biosphere: Its Origin and Evolution,” published in 1983, spans the earliest 2 billion years of Earth’s history, and “The Proterozoic Biosphere: A Multidisciplinary Study,” published in 1992, focuses on the next 2 billion years. Some scientists have referred to these books as the Old Testament and the New Testament. Each received an award from the American Association of Publishers the year it was published.

The two books combined brought together 50 scientists from 30 universities in eight countries: the United States, Russia, Australia, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and South Africa. The interdisciplinary team of scientists included experts in such fields as geology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and microbiology.

Schopf and his colleagues collected and analyzed hundreds of ancient rocks from Australia, China, the United States, Europe, what was then the Soviet Union and elsewhere. They produced a vast ancient-fossil record that tells the history of the Earth’s first 4 billion years and changed our understanding of how evolution works.

Schopf joined UCLA’s faculty in 1968 at age 26, and was promoted to full professor five years later. In 1977, he received the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award as the outstanding young scientist in the nation. He has won seven medals from national and international scientific societies, and has been elected as a member of the country’s most prestigious scholarly honorific societies. He is a professor in UCLA’s department of Earth, planetary and space sciences.

In 2002, Schopf and colleagues substantiated the biological origin of the earliest known cellular fossils, which are nearly 3.5 billion years old.

He and colleagues presented a new analysis in 2017 of these 3.5-billion-year-old fossil microorganisms, which provided strong evidence to support the increasingly widespread understanding that life in the universe is likely common.

“By 3.465 billion years ago, life was already diverse on Earth — that’s clear,” Schopf said in 2017. “This tells us life had to have begun substantially earlier and it confirms that it was not difficult for primitive life to form and to evolve into more advanced microorganisms.”

In his 2019 book, he writes, “Clearly, primordial life evolved earlier, farther and faster than had ever been imagined.”

In 2015, Schopf was part of an international team of scientists that discovered the greatest absence of evolution ever reported — deep-sea microorganisms that appear to have not evolved over more than 2 billion years.

In the new book, he also writes about the NASA scientists who claimed in 1996 that they had found evidence of life on Mars in a meteorite that landed in Antarctica 13,000 years earlier. Schopf offers a behind-the-scenes look at the events leading to a NASA news conference that year that generated headlines worldwide. Schopf, who first assessed the evidence for life on Mars a year-and-a-half before the news conference, concluded, to put it charitably, that the evidence was inconclusive.

“I want there to be life on Mars more than anyone else,” he had said, “but it doesn’t matter what I want. The evidence isn’t there.”

Looking back at how the decades-long research on the Earth’s “missing” fossil record has changed our understanding of life on Earth, Schopf writes, “While this particular paradigm shift pales in comparison with Copernicus’ realization that the Earth flies around the sun, not the other way around, it too is fundamental, the root of two new fields of science, Precambrian paleobiology and astrobiology.”

At age 78, he continues to work seven days a week, searching for more answers.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of UCLA Chancellor Gene Block participating in a conversation.

Creative thinkers put kindness on the menu at dinner

Kindness is complicated, especially when we begin to consider how kindness might be institutionalized amid a politically polarized culture, how it might be taught, harnessed and wielded on behalf of justice, in service of the betterment of society at large.

Kindness is also simple, personal, quiet and rooted in the commonality of the human experience, the human need for love and support, our shared experiences of suffering and mortality.

Kindness resides in the micro and macro, and should be embraced and interrogated in both those spaces. That was the consensus from an eclectic group of scholars, medical professionals, artists, journalists, educators, activists and community builders who gathered to discuss kindness during an Atlantic Roundtable Dinner on Feb. 20 in Los Angeles, which was made possible by UCLA.

The event was produced by AtlanticLIVE, a division of The Atlantic magazine that crisscrosses the country with more than 100 events annually, from topical summits to festivals, bringing together creative thinkers from the arts, academia, health, entertainment, media and more.

Participants at the dinner cut a broad swath across Los Angeles institutions, including from UCLA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Public Library, the American Red Cross, Reddit, the Crete Academy in South Los Angeles, the Educating Young Minds after-school program, activist-gardener Ron Finley, Hollywood watchdog group The Blacklist, the Islamic Center of Southern California and more.

A photo of UCLA Chancellor Gene Block participating in a conversation.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block participating in a conversation about kindness that was hosted by The Atlantic. Photo Credit: Becki Smith for The Atlantic

It’s important to gather in this way, said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block.

“As diverse as we are as a campus community, we do still live in a bit of an echo chamber,” he said. “We talk to ourselves very well, but I can’t overemphasize how important it is to listen to other voices and to listen more broadly to the community around us.”

Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, started the conversation by talking about the recently launched UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute. Hunt shared an “operationalized definition” of kindness that social scientists affiliated with the first-of-its-kind research center will use in their work. Their research will include examining the roots of kindness in human evolution, the ways kindness is or is not institutionalized in other cultures, and the means and likelihood of perpetuating more widespread kindness.

“Our working basic description of kindness is ‘actions and associated thoughts and/or feelings that are intended to benefit others or society at large, where other’s welfare is an end in itself and not a means to an end,’” Hunt said.

Other UCLA participants were Michelle Craske, who sits on the executive committee of UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenge, and Linda Sarna, dean of the UCLA School of Nursing.

Ronald Brownstein, senior editor at The Atlantic, moderated the discussion, inviting multiple perspectives to chime in on the topic, which he said seems more relevant than ever amid another fractious election cycle.

“We do not seem to be surrounded by an excess of kindness,” Brownstein observed.

Topics ranged from social media to social justice, health care to education, food insecurity to childhood trauma, and also included poverty, Hollywood and storytelling at large. Among the questions and ideas the panelists considered:

  • How do we perpetuate kindness in a culture that seems to reward cruelty?
  • How do people grapple with the pervasive racial undertones of cruelty in America?
  • Does the kindness of an oppressed person toward their oppressor actually result more-humane action?
  • Can social media and the internet be a home for kind words and deeds as well as vitriol?
  • Can kindness be taught?
  • Can kindness be measured?
  • How can children who live in unkind home situations learn and experience kindness?
  • How can kindness help stop cycles of pain and trauma, especially in children?
  • What is the role of the media and Hollywood storytellers in generating empathy and potentially kindness toward people of different races?
  • How can medical professionals like nurses, physicians and palliative care doctors continue to embrace not only operationalized kindness toward their patients, but also in service of self-care?
  • Can loving kindness as a meditation practice be used to treat depression?

Inspiring a community of kindness is about building positive environments, and supporting systems that inspire people from a young age to value each other more than the hottest gadget or pair of shoes, or other materialistic trappings, said Finley, who has seen it all through his urban gardening project in South Los Angeles.

“It’s real simple,” he said. “Good in, good out … in anything. If you have good soil and good seeds, you’re going to get a good plant. If somebody takes care of you and gives you these things that’s what’s going to come out.”

The complexity of questions from a diversity of voices and experiences yielded a few simple examples of kindness, like making sure a kid who makes a mistake gets a chance to learn about a fellow student’s struggle and a second chance to be kind, and how a single person speaking up for a marginalized group against an oppressor can be construed an act of kindness even if the message is not delivered kindly.

Overall the discussion was permeated by an awareness that while a simple act of kindness might be powerful, the powerful act of committing an entire culture to embrace kindness is far from simple.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An illustration that shows the Earth’s magnetosphere during a magnetic storm.

Researchers discover a new source of space weather – too close to home

An illustration that shows the Earth’s magnetosphere during a magnetic storm.

An illustration shows the Earth’s magnetosphere during a magnetic storm. At right, three satellites witnessed reconnection close to geosynchronous orbit where many other critical satellites reside. The red “X” identifies the reconnection site, and the yellow arrows indicate the direction of explosive outflows of energized particles toward and away from Earth. Earth-directed electrons (shown in red and pink) carry energy along magnetic field lines to power the aurora at Earth’s north and south poles. These energized electrons were detected by a weather satellite (center).

Beyond Earth’s atmosphere are swirling clouds of energized particles — ions and electrons — that emanate from the sun. This “solar wind” buffets the magnetosphere, the magnetic force field that surrounds Earth.

In much the same way winds and storms create weather in our atmosphere, strong gusts of solar wind penetrating the magnetosphere can generate magnetic storms with powerful electric currents that can impact our lives.

A new study by the NASA THEMIS mission team — led by Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of space physics — is the first to show that such storms can originate much closer to Earth than previously thought, overlapping with the orbits of critical weather, communications and GPS satellites. The team’s findings are published in the journal Nature Physics.

Magnetic storms can produce dazzling northern lights or hazardous particles careening toward spacecraft and astronauts, zapping them out of commission. Under certain conditions, magnetic storms can disable the electrical grid, disrupt radio communications and corrode pipelines, even creating extreme aurora visible close to the equator.

“By studying the magnetosphere, we improve our chances of dealing with the greatest hazard to humanity venturing into space: storms powered by the sun,” Angelopoulos said.

An incident that illustrates the dramatic power of magnetic storms occurred in 1921, when such a storm disrupted telegraph communications and caused power outages that resulted in a New York City train station burning to the ground. And in 1972 the Apollo 16 and 17 astronauts narrowly missed what could have been a lethal solar eruption. These incidents underscore the potential dangers that should be assessed as more humans venture into orbit. If a similar storm occurred today, a separate study estimated, economic losses in the U.S. due to electrical blackouts only could surpass $40 billion a day.

How electric currents in space influence the aurora and magnetic storms has been long debated in the space physics community. Because the storms occur so rarely and satellite coverage is sparse, it has been difficult for researchers to detect the dynamic process that powers those storms.

When solar wind magnetic energy is transferred into the magnetosphere, it builds up until it is converted into heat and particle acceleration through a process called magnetic reconnection. After decades of study, it is still unclear to researchers where exactly magnetic reconnection occurs during storms.

Recent observations by multiple satellites have shown that magnetic storms can be initiated by magnetic reconnection much closer to Earth than previously thought possible. The three NASA THEMIS satellites observed magnetic reconnection only about three to four Earth diameters away. The researchers did not expect this could happen in the comparatively stable magnetic field configuration near Earth.

Later, a weather satellite, which was nearer to Earth in geostationary orbit, detected energized particles associated with magnetic storms.

The weather satellite proved that this near-Earth reconnection stimulated ion and electron acceleration to high energies, posing a hazard to hundreds of satellites operating in this common orbit. Such particles can damage electronics and human DNA, increasing the risk of radiation poisoning and cancer for astronauts. Some particles can even enter the atmosphere and affect airline passengers.

“Only with such direct measurements of magnetic reconnection and its resulting energy flows could we convincingly prove such an unexpected mechanism of storm power generation,” said Angelopoulos, who is lead author of the paper. “Capturing this rare event, nearer to Earth than ever detected before, forces us to revise prior assumptions about the reconnection process.”

This discovery will ultimately help scientists refine predictive models of how the magnetosphere responds to solar wind, providing precious extra hours or even days to prepare satellites, astronauts and the energy grid for the next “big one” in space.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio Is Working to Make Disease and Infertility a Thing of the Past

UCLA College division of Life Sciences student Esmeralda Isabel Villavicencio wants to return some day to her home country of Ecuador as a genetics professor, leading pioneering research on complex diseases and neurological disorders. She already has a solid start at UCLA.

“My community has suffered from a tremendous lack of support for STEM research, and I want to contribute to change that,” says Villavicencio, a senior majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics with a Biomedical Research minor.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio in the lab. Photo credit: UCLA College/Reed Hutchinson

Villavicencio is gaining valuable experience in Dr. Amander Clark’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant, where her project working with stem cells is a part of a research effort that could one day help develop novel treatments for infertility. The possibility that her work will have impact is what drives her.

“The work I’m doing now could eventually help people who suffer from infertility to conceive a child—people, for example, who become infertile after treatments for pediatric cancer, or due to developmental defects,” she says.

Villavicencio says the collaborative research environment at UCLA has prepared her for graduate school and a career as a scientist, from learning lab techniques to strengthening her critical thinking skills, discipline and resiliency.  This experience has helped her grow in her chosen career, and her hard work is also paying off in other ways.

Villavicencio’s drive and vision have been recognized by two UCLA Life Sciences scholarship awards that are helping her move closer to her goals. Last year, she was awarded the Kristen Hanson Memorial Scholarship, which honors a female undergraduate for academic accomplishment and a passion for science in addition to well-rounded interests, leadership, originality and commitment to engage with the world.  More recently, the COMPASS scholarship—from the Center for Opportunity to Maximize Participation, Access and Student Success—was presented to Villavicencio for her summer research.

“Knowing my hard work and enthusiasm stand out in such a top-tier school is encouraging, and receiving these honors also greatly alleviated my financial burden,” Villavicencio says. “I come from a low-income family and I’m able to attend UCLA in part thanks to a scholarship from my government. However, there are expenses it does not cover. The scholarships allow me to reduce my part-time job hours and focus more on my research and academic endeavors.”

Photos of UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez and Erik Petigura.

Two UCLA College faculty members awarded 2020 Sloan Research Fellowships

Photos of UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez and Erik Petigura.

UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez (left) and Erik Petigura (right).

Two young UCLA College professors, and two others, are among 126 scientists and scholars from more than 60 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada selected today to receive 2020 Sloan Research Fellowships. UCLA is tied for fifth — behind only Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in the number of faculty honored this year by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which selects early-career scientists and scholars who are rising stars of science.

“To receive a Sloan Research Fellowship is to be told by your fellow scientists that you stand out among your peers,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “A Sloan Research Fellow is someone whose drive, creativity and insight make them a researcher to watch.”

Since the first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955, 165 UCLA faculty members have received Sloan Research Fellowships. UCLA College’s 2020 recipients are:

Erik Petigura

Petigura, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College, studies exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than the sun — using ground-based and space-based telescopes. “My passion for exoplanets is motivated by a deceptively simple, yet fundamental question: Why are we here?” said Petigura. “Our species has wrestled with this question since antiquity, and it resonates strongly with me.” Exoplanets offer the key avenue toward answering this question, as they inform the otherwise elusive physical processes that led to the formation of the solar system, the formation of the Earth and the origin of life. His group has shown that nearly every sun-like star has a planet between the size of Earth and Neptune — sizes not present in the solar system. “In other words, our solar system is not a typical outcome of planet formation, at least in that one key respect,” he said. As a Sloan Fellow, Petigura plans to study the origin, evolution and fate of these ubiquitous planets.

Jose Rodriguez

Rodriguez, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the UCLA College, develops and applies new scientific methods in bio-imaging to determine, and provide a deep scientific understanding of, cellular and molecular structures and reveal undiscovered structures that influence chemistry, biology and medicine. His research combines computational, biochemical and biophysical experiments. His laboratory is working to explore the structures adopted by prions — a form of infectious protein that causes neurodegenerative disorders. Prion proteins, like the amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease, form large clumps that damage and ultimately kill neurons in the brain. Among his awards and honors, Rodriguez won a 2019 Packard fellowship for Science and Engineering by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; a 2018 Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences, a 2017 Searle Scholar and a 2017 Beckman Young Investigator by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

Winners of Sloan Research Fellowships receive a two-year, $75,000 award to support their research. The fellowships are intended to enhance the careers of exceptional young scientists and scholars in chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics. The Sloan Foundation, which is based in New York, was established in 1934.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Changes make it easier than ever for Bruins to vote

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Students, faculty, staff and even members of the public will be able to vote at the Ackerman Union beginning Feb. 22, and at the Hammer Museum beginning Feb. 29.

When it comes to voting, there can be a litany of excuses as to why someone doesn’t make it to the polls on Election Day — you forgot, too busy to get there that day, working too far from your polling place, among others.

To erase as many barriers as possible to voting, Los Angeles County is implementing sweeping changes for voters leading up to the March 3 primary, and the UCLA campus community will be a major benefactor as the site of two vote centers — Ackerman Union and the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

The biggest change is that voters will have multiple days to cast their ballots. Voting begins Feb. 22 at Ackerman, and the Hammer Museum will be open for voting beginning Feb. 29.

For campus and county officials, bringing vote centers to UCLA was a no-brainer.

“We are really glad that California, specifically L.A. County, is pursuing a modernizing of the voting process,” said Karen Hedges, deputy director of campus life for UCLA Student Affairs. “There is often talk of students, faculty and staff trying to squeeze in their vote on Election Day. Having a vote center in the middle of campus at Ackerman Union, and having it open for 11 days, I think, will really encourage people to make voting less of a hassle and more of a prideful opportunity.”

The new L.A. County Vote Centers not only allow for up to 11 days of voting, but also commuters with limited time can rejoice. The new rules no longer force people to vote at the one place in their neighborhoods. Instead people now can cast their ballots at any voting center location in the county.

The new system also emphasizes accessibility. Voters can make the text larger on the screen, toggle between 13 languages, change the contrast of the screen and request an audio ballot. The system is also secure — it is not connected to the internet or any network and still produces a paper ballot.

“One of the goals to moving to the vote center model was to meet voters where they are, and UCLA is an amazing university centrally located to thousands of voters who live on campus or nearby,” said Mike Sanchez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Registrar. “We’re thrilled to have UCLA and other universities, colleges and high schools act as vote centers for the upcoming March primary election.”

A major push from UCLA students, faculty and staff is underway ahead of the Feb. 18 voter registration deadline. The BruinsVOTE! organization will be hosting get-out-the-vote events and its website relaunched this week to include extensive information on voter registration, events, FAQs and more.

“Culturally, we’re trying to weave voting into the fabric of campus life — this is what Bruins do,” Hedges added. “Bruins are civically engaged and civically minded. Our volunteer work, our service work — it all falls into alignment with this. I think it is a True Bruin Value to vote.”

As UCLA celebrates its centennial, campus officials also point out two other important anniversaries: The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s constitutional right to vote and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing men the right to vote regardless of race.

“These milestones should be reminders to all of us not to take for granted the hard-won right, responsibility and privilege we have to participate in our nation’s democracy,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to the campus community. “I hope you will get civically engaged and show the world that #Bruinsvote.”

On March 3 at 5:30 p.m., the Hammer Museum will host Super Tuesday Bash 2020, during which people can watch election returns and pundits’ analyzing what unfolds on big screens in the courtyard.

In the meantime, BruinsVOTE! members will work to continue the gains made in student participation during the past several elections. Organizers will be canvassing Bruin Walk and promoting voting at UCLA athletics events, to name a few efforts.

“I think the biggest change is now you have 11 days to vote instead of one,” said Joshua Avila, third-year political science major and co-director of the BruinsVOTE! initiative. “This is definitely a big improvement, and we are excited to see more student turnout because of that. If it’s just one day, students might be busy that day or they just forget.”

Although there is an emphasis on registering to vote by Feb. 18, the vote center will allow for same-day conditional registration, which is a major plus, officials touted.

“If you think about it, registering to vote is the last of the antiquated processes that you can’t just do instantly,” Hedges said. “That does not resonate with our students, who are last minute and who are used to being able to do something right now. In our last few elections we’ve had long lines of provisional ballot people in hopes that their votes will still count.”

Having 11 days and same-day registration should lessen voter congestion, she said.

The UCLA campus voice can and will be a vital one, said Elisa Chang, graduate student studying education and BruinsVOTE! co-director.

“If we want to be able to shape the future that we’re going to literally be inheriting, then we all actually do need to vote and make ourselves heard,” Chang said.

VOTE CENTERS

Ackerman Union
308 Westwood Plaza
Bruin Reception Room, second floor
11-day Vote Center
Feb. 22–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Hammer Museum at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Annenberg Terrace, third floor
Four-day Vote Center
Feb. 29–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a Himba father and son.

Study of African society inspires broad thinking about human paternity, fidelity

A new study from UCLA professor of anthropology Brooke Scelza invites geneticists and sociologists to think more broadly about human fidelity and paternity.

Scelza’s study, published in the journal Science Advances, uses data from a long-term anthropological study in Namibia with Himba pastoralists. She found that Himba have the highest recorded rate of what researchers call “extra-pair paternity.” The term refers to an instance in which a child is born to a married couple, but the husband is not the biological father.

The rate of extra-pair paternity found among Himba is 48%, far exceeding the 1% to 10% range previously thought to be typical for humans. Having children with non-marital partners was widespread among this group. A high percentage of couples (70%) had at least one child who was fathered by someone outside the marriage.

Extra-pair paternity is typically thought to occur at the expense of the husband, who is ostensibly being “tricked” into caring for a child who is not biologically his, Scelza said. However, her team shows that Himba men and women are highly accurate at detecting extra-pair paternity in their children. And Scelza contends that men not only are aware of this pattern, but they also have a system of social norms that support the practice.

A photo of a Himba father and son.

Brooke Scelza’s study found that “Himba have strong beliefs about the importance of social fatherhood, that a child is yours if it is born to your wife, regardless of paternity.” Photo Credit: Brooke Scelza/UCLA

“Himba have strong beliefs about the importance of social fatherhood, that a child is yours if it is born to your wife, regardless of paternity,” Scelza said. “Both the stigma that typically surrounds women having multiple partners and the bias that might lead to children being mistreated are markedly lower among Himba than they are in much of the rest of the world.”

It was important for researchers to collaborate closely with members of the Himba community involved in the study for ethical and logistical reasons that come up whenever paternity is at issue. For this study, Scelza and her team, in collaboration with the community, designed a novel double-blind method of analysis, so that none of the researchers was privy to both genetic data and individual-identifying information. The team received ethical approval for the study from Namibian Ministry of Home Affairs and the University of Namibia, as well as UCLA and the State University of New York’s Stony Brook University.

This research, while focusing on a small group, provides a new perspective in the study of human reproduction, Scelza said.

Generally, researchers believe that extra-pair paternity is rare among humans. Geneticists have estimated the extra-pair paternity rate in populations from the Netherlands and other European-descent communities. Historically, they have found the rate in these societies to be extremely low, from 1% to 6%.

Over the last decade, more social scientists have begun to focus on diversity and inclusivity when it comes to research samples, rather than focusing solely on people from Western societies, which has been the norm.

“Anthropologists have long emphasized the need to include diverse groups in research,” said Dr. Brenna Henn, a population geneticist formerly at Stony Brook and now at UC Davis, and co-author of the study. “Geneticists are still catching up. Our study shows that paternity rates can vary widely across different populations.”

Scelza emphasized that there is no “correct” or “moral” standard that researchers should think about when examining human reproductive behavior. In Himba culture, for example, extramarital sexual activity is common and not stigmatized.

“What we’re starting to understand and examine is how social and biological notions of paternity reflect complex suites of locally relevant norms, traditions and cultural histories,” Scelza said.

Scelza has been working with the Himba people for 10 years. A previous study published in Nature Human Behavior about infidelity also included Himba.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Michelle Craske.

Michelle Craske to share how research can inform anxiety and depression treatment

A photo of Michelle Craske.

Michelle Craske and colleagues are studying how to integrate virtual reality into treatment for anxiety and depression. Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

For more than three decades, Michelle Craske has been trying to understand what makes some people prone to anxiety and depression. She’s studied what biomarkers, behaviors and thinking patterns contribute to these conditions, and how to use that knowledge to develop better treatments.

At the 128th Faculty Research Lecture, Craske, distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College, will describe some of her findings and talk about how virtual reality has begun playing a role in changing patients’ mindsets for the better. The talk will be held at 3 p.m. on Wednesdsay, Feb. 19.

“Anxiety and depression are dramatically increasing in prevalence,” said Craske, who is also a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and holder of the Joanne and George Miller and Family Endowed Chair. “We need to understand the engine that’s driving these conditions so we can improve our treatments.”

In the U.S., only about half of people with symptoms of anxiety or depression receive treatment. And when they do get help, treatments are only effective about half the time, said Craske, also an executive committee member for the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a campus-wide initiative that aims to cut the global burden of depression in half by 2050.

Much of Craske’s work on anxiety centers on the idea that people prone to anxiety disorders, which affect an estimated 18% of U.S. adults each year, anticipate threat more often than others and have difficulty inhibiting this fear. Most people feel fearful when faced with a real threat — say, a bear in front of us in the woods. But people most at risk for anxiety disorders are more likely to respond to an uncertain situation — feeling afraid in the woods even when there’s no bear, for instance.

The challenge for clinicians like Craske is to decrease this anticipation of threat. Craske uses a technique known as exposure therapy, in which a person is exposed to a situation or setting that makes them anxious, in an attempt to train their brain that it’s safe. Craske utilizes prediction error learning to explain the effects of exposure therapy and attempts to optimize such learning. The greater the element of surprise, the more the learning sticks.

“We want to design a treatment where a person says, ‘Oh, I was wrong! I really expected this to be unmanageable or even risky and it wasn’t at all,’” Craske said.

Craske’s research aims to make people with depression — or those prone to depression — more motivated to work toward and to savor rewards. This “reward sensitivity” is often dampened by depression and Craske thinks it’s an avenue for potential treatments to target. For example, in her studies of the effects of kindness and compassion on depression, she has found that training people how to more regularly engage in acts of kindness can ease their symptoms.

Craske and colleagues also are studying how to integrate virtual reality into treatment for anxiety and depression.

“We use virtual reality to help people face the situations they fear and avoid, and at other times we use virtual reality to increase their capacity for positive emotions,” she said. “By immersing themselves in positive scenes we can teach them how to anticipate and savor rewarding events and then transfer that to real life.”

In her talk, titled “Anxiety and Depression: Risk Factors and Treatment,” Craske wants to convey a sense of her scientific approach, which builds off her background as a clinical psychologist to improve psychotherapies. It will take many different perspectives, however, to solve anxiety and depression, she said. In her role with the Depression Grand Challenge, she helps build collaborations between researchers like herself and those that study psychological diseases from a genetic, molecular or neurological point of view.

Craske looks forward to presenting her research, and hopes the audience comes away from her lecture feeling hopeful about the progress that science is making on anxiety and depression.

“I am deeply honored to have been selected to give this lecture which represents the true pinnacle of my career at UCLA,” Craske said.

The Faculty Research Lecture — a UCLA tradition since 1925 — is free and open to the public and will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 19 in the Schoenberg Music Building. Please RSVP here if you’d like to attend.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of a computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus.

First childhood flu helps explain why virus hits some people harder than others

Photo of a computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus.

A computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus. Photo Credit: Dan Higgins/Courtesy of CDC/Douglas Jordan

Why are some people better able to fight off the flu than others? Part of the answer, according to a new study, is related to the first flu strain we encounter in childhood.

Scientists from UCLA and the University of Arizona have found that people’s ability to fight off the flu virus is determined not only by the subtypes of flu they have had throughout their lives, but also by the sequence in which they are been infected by the viruses. Their study is published in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens.

The research offers an explanation for why some people fare much worse than others when infected with the same strain of the flu virus, and the findings could help inform strategies for minimizing the effects of the seasonal flu.

In addition, UCLA scientists, including Professor James Lloyd-Smith, who also was a senior author of the PLoS Pathogens research, recently completed a study that analyzes travel-related screening for the new novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. (The research is under review; a preprint is online.)

The researchers report that screening travelers is not very effective for the 2019 coronavirus — that it will catch less than half of infected travelers, on average — and that most infected travelers are undetectable, meaning that they have no symptoms yet, and are unaware that they have been exposed. So stopping the spread of the virus is not a matter of just enhancing screening methods at airports and other travel hubs.

“This puts the onus on government officials and public health officials to follow up with travelers after they arrive, to isolate them and trace their contacts if they get sick later,” said Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Many governments have started to impose quarantines, or even travel bans, as they realize that screening is not sufficient to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

One major concern, Lloyd-Smith said, is that other countries, especially developing nations, lack the infrastructure and resources for those measures, and are therefore vulnerable to importing the disease.

“Much of the public health world is very concerned about the virus being introduced into Africa or India, where large populations exist that do not have access to advanced medical care,” he said.

The researchers, including scientists from the University of Chicago and the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine, have developed a free online app where people can calculate the effectiveness of travel screening based on a range of parameters.

“Our finding concerning the effectiveness of screening for the coronavirus is not a criticism of screening practices being done by public health officials in the United States or elsewhere,” Lloyd-Smith said.

He said that the biology and epidemiology of the virus itself makes infection extremely difficult to detect in its early stages, because the majority of cases show no symptoms for five days or longer after exposure.

“My colleagues and I know there is a lot of speculation online about the coronavirus and how it spreads,” Lloyd-Smith said “People should look to trusted sources for accurate information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and the peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

Solving a decades-old question

The PLoS Pathogens study may help solve a problem that had for decades vexed scientists and health care professionals: why the same strain of the flu virus affects people with various degrees of severity.

A team that included some of the same UCLA and Arizona scientists reported in 2016 that exposure to influenza viruses during childhood gives people partial protection for the rest of their lives against distantly related influenza viruses. Biologists call the idea that past exposure to the flu virus determines a person’s future response to infections “immunological imprinting.”

The 2016 research helped overturn a commonly held belief that previous exposure to a flu virus conferred little or no immunological protection against strains that can jump from animals into humans, such as those causing the strains known as swine flu or bird flu. Those strains, which have caused hundreds of spillover cases of severe illness and death in humans, are of global concern because they could gain mutations that allow them to readily jump not only from animal populations to humans, but also to spread rapidly from person to person.

In the new study, the researchers investigated whether immunological imprinting could explain people’s response to flu strains already circulating in the human population and to what extent it could account for observed discrepancies in how severely the seasonal flu affects people in different age groups.

To track how different strains of the flu virus affect people at different ages, the team analyzed health records that the Arizona Department of Health Services obtains from hospitals and private physicians.

Two subtypes of influenza virus, H3N2 and H1N1, have been responsible for seasonal outbreaks of the flu over the past several decades. H3N2 causes the majority of severe cases in high-risk elderly people and the majority of deaths from the flu. H1N1 is more likely to affect young and middle-aged adults, and causes fewer deaths.

The health record data revealed a pattern: People first exposed to the less severe strain, H1N1, during childhood were less likely to end up hospitalized if they encountered H1N1 again later in life than people who were first exposed to H3N2. And people first exposed to H3N2 received extra protection against H3N2 later in life.

The researchers also analyzed the evolutionary relationships between the flu strains. H1N1 and H3N2, they learned, belong to two separate branches on the influenza “family tree,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and one of the study’s senior authors. While infection with one does result in the immune system being better prepared to fight a future infection from the other, protection against future infections is much stronger when one is exposed to strains from the same group one has battled before, he said.

The records also revealed another pattern: People whose first childhood exposure was to H2N2, a close cousin of H1N1, did not have a protective advantage when they later encountered H1N1. That phenomenon was much more difficult to explain, because the two subtypes are in the same group, and the researchers’ earlier work showed that exposure to one can, in some cases, grant considerable protection against the other.

“Our immune system often struggles to recognize and defend against closely related strains of seasonal flu, even though these are essentially the genetic sisters and brothers of strains that circulated just a few years ago,” said lead author Katelyn Gostic, who was a UCLA doctoral student in Lloyd-Smith’s laboratory when the study was conducted and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. “This is perplexing because our research on bird flu shows that deep in our immune memory, we have some ability to recognize and defend against the distantly related, genetic third cousins of the strains we saw as children.

“We hope that by studying differences in immunity against bird flus — where our immune system shows a natural ability to deploy broadly effective protection — and against seasonal flus — where our immune system seems to have bigger blind spots — we can uncover clues useful to universal influenza vaccine development.”

Around the world, influenza remains a major killer. The past two flu seasons have been more severe than expected, said Michael Worobey, a co-author of the study and head of the University of Arizona’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology. In the 2017–18 season, 80,000 people died in the U.S., more than in the swine flu pandemic of 2009, he said.

People who had their first bout of flu as children in 1955 — when the H1N1 was circulating but the H3N2 virus was not — were much more likely to be hospitalized with an H3N2 infection than an H1N1 infection last year, when both strains were circulating, Worobey said.

“The second subtype you’re exposed to is not able to create an immune response that is as protective and durable as the first,” he said.

The researchers hope that their findings could help predict which age groups might be severely affected during future flu seasons based on the subtype circulating. That information could also help health officials prepare their response, including decisions about who should receive certain vaccines that are only available in limited quantities.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, DARPA and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In 2018, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced a strategic plan to develop a universal flu vaccine.

The study’s co-authors are Rebecca Bridge of the Arizona Department of Health Services and Cecile Viboud of the Fogarty International Center at the NIH.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

2020 Hollywood Diversity Report: A different story behind the scenes

Image from the 2019 film "Aladdin"

Mena Massoud and Will Smith in the 2019 film “Aladdin,” which sold more than $1 billion in tickets worldwide, and whose cast was more than 50% minority.

Oscars viewers this weekend might see the predominantly white nominees and think Hollywood still has a diversity problem.

It does.

But there are indications that the film industry is starting to get the message that diversity sells. The numbers of acting jobs for women and people of color are getting closer to being proportionate with the U.S. population overall, according to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report.

The report focuses on the top-grossing films of 2018 and 2019. (A related report covering the past two seasons of television data will be published in April.)

Although minorities were largely ignored for Academy Award nominations, films with diverse casts continued to resonate with increasingly diverse audiences, a fact emphasized by each new edition of the Hollywood Diversity Report.

When it comes to key jobs in the film world, the seventh annual report tells the story of two Hollywoods.

“As of 2019, both women and minorities are within striking distance of proportionate representation when it comes to lead roles and total cast,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA College division of social sciences and the report’s co-author. “But behind the scenes, it’s a very different story. That begs the question: Are we actually seeing systematic change, or is Hollywood just appealing to diverse audiences through casting, but without fundamentally altering the way studios do business behind the camera?”

Women make up about 50% of the U.S. population and minorities slightly more than 40%. A majority of the nation’s population will be minorities by 2050, according to U.S. Census estimates.

The numbers of acting roles for women and people of color in film have been progressively increasing since UCLA researchers first started tracking data. And results from the last two years of film are heartening.

The researchers analyzed 139 films with the highest gross global ticket receipts of 2018. They found that 41.0% of lead roles went to women and 26.6% to minorities. And among all acting roles in those films, 40.4% went to women and 30.9% to people of color.

Things improved somewhat in most casting roles in 2019. Women had 44.1% of lead acting roles and 40.2% of the total cast in the 145 films from 2019 examined in the report; people of color made up 27.6% of lead actors and 32.7% of all film roles in 2019.

Each year, the report also analyzes the range of cast diversity among the top-grossing movies. In every previous report, films with the least diverse casts — those in which less than 11% of the cast were minority actors — made up the largest share of the top-grossing movies.

By 2019, that was not the case: Just 15.9% of the top-grossing movies had casts that were less than 11% minorities. By comparison, more than half of the top films in 2011 had less than 11% minority casts.

When it comes to writing and directing, minorities and women have gained a little ground on their white and male counterparts in recent years, but still have a long way to go.

In 2018, just 7.1% of the directors of top-grossing films were women and 19.3% were people of color. In 2019, women posted meaningful gains to reach 15.1%, but minorities directed just 14.4% percent of the top box office movies, a slight increase over recent years.

Women earned 14.8% of writing credits on the films analyzed in 2018, and minorities claimed 10.4%. Both figures improved for 2019, with 17.4% of writing credits going to women and 13.9% to people of color.

“Getting writing, directing and acting jobs is a critical step for women and people of color because success in the industry is largely driven by the credits you have,” Hunt said.

The statistics for people of color in key entertainment roles are particularly striking considering their visibility, buying power, ideas and experiences in the population at large — including as consumers of entertainment. People of color accounted for at least 50% of domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films in 2018. In 2019, minorities bought at least 50% of tickets for nine of the top 10 films.

In 2018, films with casts made up of 21% to 30% minority actors had the highest median global ticket receipts. In 2019, the films that tended to perform the best at the box office were even more diverse, with casts in the 41% to 50% minority range.

Despite that buying power, the analysis suggests, fundamental structural change in Hollywood is not yet evident.

The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report also includes a workplace analysis of 11 major and mid-major studios, which found that 91% of C-level positions are held by white people and 82% are held by men. Among all senior executive positions, 93% percent are held by white people and 80% by men.

Further down the org chart, gender equality is somewhat better: Studios’ film unit heads are 86% white, but only 69% male.

“What’s being green-lit matters,” said the report’s co-author, Ana-Christina Ramon, director of research and civic engagement for the UCLA College division of social sciences. “And although the industry is changing in front of the camera, white men are still doing the overwhelming majority of the green-lighting and making the major decisions behind the scenes at the studios.”

That phenomenon largely dictates what stories get told and who gets the all-important jobs in front of and behind the camera, she said.

The report’s authors in 2019 published an analysis of inclusivity practices across several entertainment sectors. That report included a five-part strategy that could help push the needle on Hollywood diversity.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.