Marine scientist Kelsi Rutledge explores new possibilities for bioinspired design
UC Grad Slam finalist Kelsi Rutledge holds a preserved museum specimen of Pseudobatos buthi, a new ray species she discovered.
Lucy Berbeo |
Kelsi Rutledge wants you to understand the world from a fish’s perspective — a stingray’s, to be exact — and for good reason: this fascinating creature and its relatives may help lead the way to a more sustainable future.
Swimming the seas since prehistoric times, the ray is famed for its flat body, wing-like fins and venomous barb. But it has something else that the casual observer can’t see: a curiously shaped, powerful nose that can track a scent like a bloodhound. Rutledge, a doctoral student in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is shedding new light on this sensory superpower and what we can learn from it.
“There are all kinds of rays — huge, pelagic manta rays, deep-sea thorny skates, blind electric rays — and they all have different types of noses,” she says. “Some are circular, some are slit-like, others protrude from their heads. Why do they look so different, and how do they work? It’s not a simple question to answer. Unlike humans, their noses aren’t involved in breathing; they evolved only for smell. Without a pump-like system to bring odors in, how do their noses still smell so efficiently?”
Rooted in these questions, Rutledge’s research earned her a spot as a finalist in this year’s statewide UC Grad Slam competition. She’s interested in how the rays’ sniffers may influence bioinspired design, where technical innovations take a cue from nature’s systems and processes. Her findings are already being used by U.S. Navy engineers to improve underwater technology.
Rutledge’s research journey started at L.A.’s Natural History Museum — where, she says, scientists can check out animals “like books.” After borrowing a number of ray specimens, she worked with staff at UCLA Radiology to CT-scan the fishes’ heads, including their noses of varying shapes and sizes, then used a 3D printer to construct anatomically accurate models. Back at the lab, she used powerful lasers to illuminate water movement and compare the noses in action.
“We tracked individual water parcels to find out how the different nose shapes harnessed odors, which was fastest and most effective, and then tied that back to their ecology,” she says. “We wanted to understand why they evolved this system: do some species rely on sense of smell more than others? For example, deep-sea fishes with limited vision might need an odor-harnessing system that’s quicker and more efficient.”
“Through thousands of years of evolution, nature often provides innovative solutions to complex problems. If we can try to mimic what animals do so elegantly, we have the opportunity to advance our own technology.”
Learning to imitate the rays’ evolutionary “design” may be a game-changer in the era of climate change. Odors are chemicals, and monitoring chemical content in the ocean is vital in tracking the health of our seas, which provide nearly three-quarters of our oxygen. Chemicals like phosphorous, silicate and nitrogen also form the basis of the ocean’s food web, giving nutrients to phytoplankton and algae. And while current chemical detection methods are expensive and tech-heavy, the form and function of ray noses may inspire simple, energy-conscious solutions.
“There’s so much we can learn from animals. I have another paper that looked at the crushing power of stingray jaws — they can actually crush material that’s harder than their own skeleton,” Rutledge says. “Through thousands of years of evolution, nature often provides innovative solutions to complex problems. If we can try to mimic what animals do so elegantly, we have the opportunity to advance our own technology.”
Rutledge has long been curious about nature’s hidden, yet complex and fascinating worlds. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, she was drawn to ocean life and to the study of fishes in particular because of their incredible biodiversity, which led her down endless “research rabbit holes.” As a master’s student, she discovered a new species of guitarfish, a lesser-known and threatened ray relative. The news was covered by Forbes, Smithsonian Magazine and more — hardly typical in the old-school world of taxonomy.
Rutledge named the new species Pseudobatos buthi in honor of her supportive graduate advisor at UCLA, the late Don Buth.
“I staged a photoshoot with my professional photographer friend where I took silly photos with one of the museum specimens of my new species, similar in style to a birth announcement,” she shared on her website. “With a bit of apprehension, I then took to Twitter to post the photos. My hope was to engage scientists and non-scientists alike and highlight the importance of museum collections and this understudied and endangered group of fishes.”
After graduating this year, Rutledge will go on to Caltech’s Dabiri Lab to shine the spotlight on another odd but fascinating creature, the jellyfish — which, like the stingray, has managed to outlive the dinosaurs. “I’m really excited about this new project. Jellyfish are one of the most efficient swimmers in the ocean,” she says. “They’re so simple and complex at the same time.”
And in a field with endless possibilities, Rutledge continues to find wonder and inspiration in fishes, our strange evolutionary ancestors. “There’s so much we can learn about them,” she says. “There’s still so much to be discovered.”
Learn more about Kelsi Rutledge’s research and teaching at her website, fishandfreckles.com.
Sharing a meal is a lovely way to mark a special occasion, and we hope you’re nourished by the banquet you now hold in your hands.
Our centerpiece feature is all about food — explorations of the innovative, interdisciplinary ways our faculty and students are using this lens to tackle some of society’s most complex issues. Other features include a spotlight on long-view projects expected to bear fruit in the coming decades and a piece on creative combinations of majors and minors devised by students (and professors) to round out their undergraduate education. We have filled these pages with some of the many extraordinary stories and voices that help make the UCLA College a world leader in every way.
Please join us, too, in a grateful toast to David Schaberg, senior dean of the College and dean of humanities, who concludes his distinguished leadership term this October. He has long been — and will continue to be — an exemplary champion of the UCLA College and its mission.
We hope you enjoy this issue and that it inspires you to connect further with the College and all the incredible work we’re cooking up. Bon appétit!
As a land grant institution, UCLA acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (Los Angeles basin, So. Channel Islands).
THE SCHOLARSHIP RESOURCE CENTER
25 YEARS OF HELPING UCLA STUDENTS GRADUATE WITH LESS DEBT
To get a sense of its profound impact, ask any of the hundreds of students whom Angela Deaver Campbell and the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center have helped since she launched it in 1996.
“I absolutely would not be where I am today without Angela’s and the SRC’s support,” said Aleksandr Katsnelson, a 2009 graduate who went on to earn a law degree from Harvard University. “Angela wore many hats during our interactions: role model, emotional support provider and hero.”
The center’s legacy keeps growing thanks to Deaver Campbell, who still serves as director, and assistant director Rebecca Blustein, student affairs officer Mac Harris and a group of graduate students who act as student affairs advisors. And while its scope has expanded, the center’s core mission remains unchanged: to provide free scholarship information, resources, mentoring and support to all UCLA students, regardless of their financial aid eligibility.
“We would love for a donor to step in and provide permanent funding, so that no economic downturn could ever affect our ability to help change lives,” Deaver Campbell said. “Every year, more students and families come to us for solutions. Our work is too important to be vulnerable.” [Read More]
Created by Judy Baca, professor emerita of Chicana/o and Central American studies, the nearly 80-foot mural “La Memoria de la Tierra: UCLA” on Ackerman Union was unveiled April 1. The central panel (above) is built around Toypurina, a Tongva woman who opposed the colonial rule by Spanish missionaries in California in the late 1700s; Angela Davis, civil rights activist and former UCLA faculty member; and Dolores Huerta, the iconic labor leader. [Read More]
Jessica Watkins, who earned a
doctorate in geology from UCLA in
2015, is currently spending six months on the International Space Station as part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission; she has also already been selected for NASA’s Artemis program, which plans to return explorers to the moon by 2024. [Read More]
and STUART WOLPERT
Meyer and Renee Luskin with legendary journalist Bob Woodward, who delivered the 2022 Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership on May 9. The event connects the UCLA community to some of the most visionary figures of our time, inspiring attendees to change the world for the better. [Read More]
Farwiza Farhan, who works to sustainably protect the Leuser Ecosystem — the last place where tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans live together in the wild — won the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. [Read More]
David Kaplan, the Hans Reichenbach Professor of Scientific Philosophy, won the 2022 Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy “for his contributions to the understanding of the role played by the extralinguistic context for the semantics of natural language, for the logic of natural language sentences, and for the nature of belief.”
“I look forward to providing creative and responsive leadership at UCLA, and partnering with all of the excellent and diverse units and communities within and beyond the division,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, who comes from the University of Michigan and will become dean of the UCLA Division of Humanities Nov. 1.
“BEHERE / 1942”: A LIFE-CHANGING EXHIBITION
During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from the West Coast, incarcerating 120,000 in concentration camps. Starting this May, an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum lets visitors step into those dark days of 1942 through an augmented reality re-creation at the very site where thousands of Angelenos reported before being taken to the camps.
“BeHere / 1942: A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration,” which runs until Oct. 9, is presented by the Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, a joint project of UCLA and Japan’s Waseda University, in collaboration with the museum.
“On one level, it is about what happened here in Little Tokyo and all along the West Coast in 1942, but it is also about the present,” said UCLA Professor Michael Emmerich, director of the Yanai Initiative. “Even 80 years later, we are still grappling with anti-Asian violence and racism and still dealing as a society with the same civil rights issues.” [Read More]
THE NATURE OF INNOVATION
Marine scientist Kelsi Rutledge wants you to understand the world from a stingray’s perspective — and for good reason. Rays and their relatives have a little-known sensory superpower: a curiously shaped, powerful nose that can track a scent like a bloodhound.
Rutledge, a doctoral student in UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is researching these fishes’ potential to lead the way to a more sustainable future. Odors are chemicals, and monitoring their presence is vital in protecting our seas, which provide nearly three-quarters of our oxygen. While current methods are expensive and tech-heavy, the rays’ form and function may inspire efficient, energy-conscious alternatives.
“Through thousands of years of evolution, nature often provides innovative solutions to complex problems,” says Rutledge, whose findings are already being used by U.S. Navy engineers. “If we can mimic what animals do so elegantly, we can advance our own technology.” After graduation, Rutledge will go on to Caltech to continue exploring the world of fishes, our fascinating evolutionary ancestors. “There’s so much we can learn about them,” she says. “There’s still so much to be discovered.”
HASTE YE BACK
This summer, Margaret MacDonald, senior associate director of communications, retired. The co-founder of UCLA’s first women’s soccer club, a political science alumna and a longtime pillar of College Development, she has been the College’s heart, memory and voice for more than 12 years. Whether or not you knew it — and those of us lucky to have worked with her know it well — she’s been a guiding light and a good friend beyond measure to UCLA. Thank you for everything, Margaret. Lang may yer lum reek!
She’s helping create a more equitable biomedical research future for all
By Jonathan Riggs
Native Americans and Alaska Natives have long experienced disproportionate negative health outcomes, including lower life expectancy. Born and raised on the Navajo Nation, Nanibaa’ Garrison saw these disparities firsthand and vowed as a child to do something about them. Today, she is an associate professor at UCLA who holds appointments in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the Institute for Precision Health and the Division of General Internal Medicine & Health Services Research. Garrison also teaches bioethics for UCLA’s new genetic counseling program.
“I really found my place in bioethics exploring anthropological, sociological and historical questions of genetic research,” she says. “Most recently, I’ve been engaged in a lot of policy-related discussions with tribes to think through how to strengthen tribal governance over Indigenous data, how to ensure that tribes have the capacity to evaluate genetic research protocols and how to deliver more educational opportunities to tribes.”
Key to Garrison’s mission is building bioethical bridges between researchers working on world-changing science and communities who can benefit from it. This often involves restoring trust, explaining complicated concepts in layperson’s terms and navigating cultural differences to ensure that appropriate guidelines are mutually established, understood, agreed upon and followed. (A cautionary tale occurred in 2003, when the Havasupai Tribe successfully sued Arizona State University over misuse of their genetic samples. They won a settlement and the return of their DNA.)
“While my main focus has been with Indigenous communities, this work bleeds over into others as well,” she adds. “I identify barriers and then work with different teams to create solutions or pathways to reduce those barriers and move toward a more equitable future for all, with regard to genetics.”
It has been a special point of pride for Garrison that she can tackle certain aspects of her work with her father, a retired biology professor, and her mother, a Navajo language scholar, who both taught for many years at Diné College, the first tribally controlled and accredited collegiate institution in the United States. It’s important to her, too, that she can continue her work in Los Angeles, home to a large population of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and at a university like UCLA.
Garrison remains equally excited about engaging with students, who approach these topics in ways that inspire and reaffirm her enduring passion for her work.
“Students often come in with grandiose ideas for change. Sometimes they aren’t achievable, but that’s OK, because I have big ideas, too,” she says. “This is a field where you face a lot of pushback, because we’re trying to accomplish very lofty goals. But I don’t look at my work as something to get done in a year or two — I see it as a lifelong commitment.”
He won the Marshall Scholarship by honoring his Bolivian heritage and transfer experience
© Steven Ruiz
By Jonathan Riggs
Herman Luis Chavez found his destiny inside his aunt’s piano bench while visiting her in Bolivia. Leafing through sheet music to perform for his family, Chavez happened upon the score to “6 Danzas Bolivianas delciclo Runas para violín y piano” by Atiliano Auza León.
“I had been playing classical music my whole life, but I was trained in an entirely European tradition,” says Chavez, who was born in Utah to immigrant parents. “When I realized this was a Bolivian art music composer, it changed everything for me.”
Determined to explore classical music beyond the European canon, Chavez decided he needed to transfer from Colorado State University to UCLA — one of the only U.S. institutions to hold compositions by León. Once at UCLA, he completed 20-plus units of coursework every quarter to earn a double major in comparative literature and ethnomusicology, received the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and even taught his own course, “Latinx the Word: Discourse and Expression.”
“The incredible UCLA community that I have found here has empowered me to know that I can continue into the academy myself one day as a queer Latinx scholar,” Chavez says. “My dream is to become a professor at a public university engaged in my own research and teaching while also paying forward the remarkable mentorship I’ve received at UCLA.”
In fact, Chavez says that his status as a transfer Bruin helped him to become one of the 41 American students honored as Marshall Scholars. Crediting the Scholarship Resource Center’s assistance, Chavez will follow his predecessor Leia Yen to King’s College London, where the Marshall Scholarship will cover the cost of his graduate work in musicology and cultural policy research.
“It means so much to be the third UCLA student in more than a decade — and the second UCLA transfer student ever — to earn this honor,” Chavez says. “I hope I’m an example of how driven transfer students are to get as much as possible out of their UCLA experience. No matter what school we come from or what unique path we take, we come here to seek knowledge and make a difference.”
Wherever his journey takes him, Chavez will always draw much strength and inspiration from his Bolivian roots. He especially wants to ensure that the home country of his parents — and of Auza León, his senior thesis subject — receives its due consideration across the board in global academic conversations.
“I’m so excited to take this next step with the Marshall Scholarship to look into cultural policy, and how music both shapes and is shaped by it, specifically in terms of Bolivia and the Andes,” Chavez says. “Music can tell us about policy, the environment, social movements and ourselves. I owe everything to my transfer journey, and I’m proud to say it’s just beginning.”
He’s coaching the next generation of skilled social scientists
© Stephanie Yantz
By Jonathan Riggs
UCLA Professor Efrén Pérez made a surprising New Year’s resolution: learn the accordion. Surprising because, well, accordion, but also because his previous musical history was limited to a teenage attempt to master the alto sax that traumatized his loved ones’ ears.
It makes sense that Pérez, a professor of political science and of psychology, has a unique hobby — he’s carved out a unique career bridging two fields. As a political psychologist, his research explores how demographic changes are unleashing new political forces in the nation.
“Having a joint appointment in two such strong departments is intellectually exhilarating,” Pérez says. “As our country continues toward minority-majority status, we need to better understand what these trends imply. I believe that our UCLA undergraduates are uniquely positioned to provide some of the answers.”
A native Angeleno, Pérez worked in local politics before earning his Ph.D. in political science from Duke University. After spending 10 years as a professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, he joined UCLA. Growing up, he’d never set foot on the campus, believing it was out of reach, so he began his tenure here with a mission.
“Someone with my profile is not the pony you’re going to bet on to make it through a grueling doctoral program,” he says. “The fact that I did was strongly related to the mentoring I received. I learned firsthand if you want to see real change in academia, active support and mentorship of folks who come from nontraditional backgrounds are crucial.”
And so Pérez was inspired to found the Race, Ethnicity, Politics & Society Lab. Its mission is twofold: to further his systematic research into the effects of demographic diversity on U.S. society as well as to offer a training ground and pipeline for gifted undergraduate and graduate students from nontraditional backgrounds to gain the footing they need to pursue academic careers in the social sciences.
“There are plenty of directions I could be taking my career in, but empowering students is so gratifying. It feeds into what the UC system prides itself on: generating future leaders and upward mobility,” he says. “And if we want to keep California’s reputation as a paragon of innovation, we need to be investing more in the skill set that our undergraduates take with them once they leave our campus.”
It all comes back to that accordion (as everything should). Pérez was able to succeed where he once failed because he thoughtfully took the time not only to see the instrument’s potential but also to do the work to master it.
“When it comes to the art of making music or growing talent, it’s a long process,” Pérez says. “But it pays off.”
This Black feminist futurist is working to create more equitable medical care for all
By Jonathan Riggs
Ariel Hart grew up in Pasadena, grateful for the love and care of their family, especially their grandmother, a former nurse at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. However, Hart realized at a young age how the lives of Black people were unfairly marked when several of their beloved family members suffered untimely deaths.
“As a child, I felt injustice on such a personal level I couldn’t even see a movie with someone hurt comedically because I was so sensitive,” Hart says. “Losing those loved ones opened my eyes and made me determined to work against racialized premature death.”
Interested in exploring public health as well as medicine, Hart (who uses they/them pronouns) earned their M.P.H. from the University of Washington while working as a local community organizer resisting the construction of a new Seattle juvenile incarceration facility. Today, they are in the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), earning their Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA and their M.D. from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, a historically Black institution founded after the 1965 Watts Rebellion.
“I was lucky to start with people who are committed to addressing structural problems within medicine and bringing high-quality care to places like Watts,” Hart says. “I wanted space to dig into a deeper understanding of the ways health inequities continued to be produced within health ‘care’ systems. UCLA’s MSTP program allowed me that space.”
Of particular interest to Hart is the resurgence of Black birth workers, whose critical contributions were systematically erased by racist public health campaigns criminalizing Black midwifery. Seeing how activists have worked tirelessly to reclaim this traditional healing practice in direct response to the modern maternal health crisis inspires Hart to make sure these and other invaluable voices are not lost to medical history.
“I want to be a part of conversations and actions that create models of deep care and healing that enhance and support Black people’s well-being,” Hart says. “That requires us as health care professionals to honor the knowledge that every person has about their own body and the history of their people.”
While the road ahead is long — both to complete their two doctoral degrees and to begin their chosen work — Hart remains purposeful and passionate.
“I was able to take formative classes to explore issues of Black women and Black queer people’s health and bodies in a historical context,” Hart says. “Black feminist thought provides a long history of embodied critiques of medical harm that is compelling and necessary for actors within medical spaces. I want to keep engaging with this history and learning from Black birth workers about possibilities for building more caring spaces, systems and worlds.”
Rising scientific stars are recipients of the Pritzker Graduate Scholar Award
By Jonathan Riggs
According to the CDC, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by adolescents have risen during COVID-19. The organization also found that about 38 million adults in the U.S. consume too much alcohol. The desire to help people struggling with these issues inspired Julia Yarrington and Lindsay Meredith to pursue doctoral work in psychology at UCLA, where their incredible potential has been honored with the first two Pritzker Graduate Scholar Awards.
“Thanks to this recognition, I am more connected to the department, the academic community and my research than ever,” says Yarrington, who grew up in New York state and was named the inaugural Pritzker Scholar in 2021.
With Professor Michelle G. Craske as her mentor, Yarrington began looking into risk factors for depression, anxiety or suicide in adolescents and young adults. Seeing how rates of psychopathology have continued to increase, despite a large body of evidence that has clarified risk factors, she’s pivoted to studying protective factors in hopes of determining how to best leverage them to reduce the likelihood of developing clinical levels of depression or anxiety in the first place.
“It has been such a blessing to have more time to focus on research, mentoring undergraduates and exploring other clinical training opportunities,” says Meredith, who grew up in rural Ohio and was named the second Pritzker Scholar in 2022.
Mentored by Professor Lara A. Ray, Meredith hopes to develop and advance evidence-based treatments for addiction, specifically alcohol use disorder. Recently focusing on clinical trials testing ibudilast, a medication that may help reduce alcohol use, she seeks to better understand how this new class of therapy works on the psychological level.
The Pritzker Graduate Scholar Award, established as a result of a gift from long-time UCLA supporters Tony and Jeanne Pritzker, supports psychology graduate students who demonstrate excellence with the potential for high public impact.
“I‘m a first-generation college student, so I didn’t even know research was an option for me at first,” says Meredith. “It’s been so nice connecting with Julia and building a sense of community while being able to serve as mentors for others, as mentorship has been invaluable to my own growth.”
“Sometimes it feels very surreal to be here, with all of the opportunities at UCLA at our fingertips,” adds Yarrington. “We are both grateful to everyone who has supported us in this collaborative, inspiring environment.”
1309 Murphy Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1413
(t) (310) 206-1953
(f) (310) 267-2343