Recent UCLA grad helped Wikipedia set the record straight on ‘Rain Man’ and autism

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a casino in scene from Rain Man | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as Raymond Babbitt and Charlie Babbitt in “Rain Man.”

Lucy Berbeo | December 21, 2022

The 1988 film “Rain Man” won four Academy Awards, earned millions at the box office and moved audiences with its depiction of a central character with autism, played by Dustin Hoffman.

But at least some of that depiction obscured or misrepresented aspects of autism spectrum disorder. And because the movie has reached such a wide audience, those discrepancies have informed how generations of viewers perceive the condition. Until recently, many of the same issues also lived on in the Wikipedia entry about “Rain Man.”

That’s where Madeline Utter comes in. Before she graduated from UCLA in June, Utter took a course called “Performance and Disability Studies,” taught by visiting professor Elizabeth Guffey. As part of the course, Utter watched the film for the first time, and she was struck by elements that seemed to misrepresent autism spectrum disorder and savant syndrome. The latter is a condition in which a person with a developmental disorder shows remarkable brilliance in a specific area, such as music or math — the film’s protagonist, Raymond Babbitt, for example, is able to quickly perform complex mathematical calculations.

Madeline Utter

Madeline Utter | Courtesy of Madeline Utter

For a course project, Guffey tasked her students with researching and rewriting Wikipedia entries about representations of disability in performance to ensure they reflected the latest disability studies research. Utter chose “Rain Man” — and saw an opportunity to right a few things that the film, as well as the Wikipedia entry, had gotten wrong.

Wikipedia allows any user to edit articles directly with the proviso that revisions and additions must be attributable to reliable sources or they may be removed by other users. Utter revised the “Rain Man” article, adding context about how the film’s portrayal of neurodivergent conditions led to public misunderstanding.

Wikipedia bills itself as the world’s largest reference website, and the “Rain Man” entry typically receives about 2,500 visitors a day. Since Utter updated the page in May, it has been viewed more than 465,000 times. Utter has two brothers with autism, so the opportunity to improve the public’s understanding of the condition has been especially meaningful for her.

“From watching the film through a critical lens, to getting feedback from my peers on the article, to finally seeing the published article, I learned so much,” said Utter, who graduated in June with a major in communication and a minor in film studies. “The biggest impact that this project had on me was to start to be able to recognize the places in film where disability representation can be improved.”

UCLA’s disability studies program comprises courses in a range of academic subjects, from media arts to anthropology to nursing. Students play an active role in advancing creative approaches to service and advocacy, from improving health care for people with disabilities to creatively reimagining assistive technology using 3D modeling.

“Our students in UCLA Disability Studies are future leaders in their fields, and they are already helping to create a more inclusive society,” said Adriana Galván, dean of undergraduate education in the UCLA College. “By participating in projects such as this one, they are making a real-world impact.”

A program operated by Wiki Education invites college students to write Wikipedia entries through their coursework. The nonprofit profiled Utter’s project on its website.

This article originally appeared at UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Bridgerton cast photo

Women and people of color still less likely to helm big-budget TV shows

Latest Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA signals potential challenges ahead in writers’ rooms

Bridgerton cast photo

Netflix’s period romance “Bridgerton” enjoyed broad appeal among Asian, Black, Latino and white households in 2020–21; it also generated plenty of buzz on Instagram and Twitter. | Image credit: Netflix

Jessica Wolf | October 27, 2022

UCLA researchers see signs that could foretell a retreat in the industry’s gender and racial diversity — especially on big-budget shows and in writing positions.

That’s among the conclusions of a study of the 2020–21 TV season in the new Hollywood Diversity Report, which is produced by the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA.

“The next few years may be a true test of whether Hollywood is truly committed to the changes they promised during the nation’s reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, director of the initiative.

The report did also find that shows with diverse casts — such as “FBI” on CBS, “Snowpiercer” on TNT and “Bridgerton” on Netflix — continued to draw large, diverse audiences.

But with programmers increasingly shelling out big bucks for high-concept shows, the UCLA report reveals that those opportunities weren’t equal for women and people of color — despite the fact there were more minority and women show creators across all distribution platforms than there were during the 2019–20 season.

“We saw an uptick in opportunity for people of color and women having their shows greenlit, which should be a marker of progress,” Ramón said. “However, when we examined the episodic budgets of all the TV series, we see a strong pattern indicating that shows created by people of color and women tended to receive smaller budgets than those created by white men, particularly in the digital arena.”

Nearly 1 in 2 shows for which white men were credited as show creators enjoyed a budget of more than $3 million per episode, but far fewer women or people of color reached that level.

In broadcast, 71.4% of show creators of color (both men and women) had per-episode budgets of less than $3 million; among white women creators, 86.9% did so; and among white men, just 58.5% worked with less than $3 million per-episode budgets. The discrepancies were similar for streaming and cable series.

Netflix’s “The Crown” and other high-profile projects continued to make streaming services the industry’s biggest-budget playground. There, too, white men show creators received the biggest sums for their projects.

Among streaming series, 21% of those created by white men enjoyed per-episode budgets of $7 million or more. Just 11.1% of streaming shows created by people of color had budgets in that range, and only 2.9% of shows created by white women did. (Disney+’s “WandaVision” was the lone member of that group.)

Overall, in the digital arena, a plurality of white women (42.9%) show creators had budgets between $3 million and $4.99 million; among people of color, the greatest number of show creators (66.6%) had budgets below $3 million per episode.

The report also tracks the gender and racial profile for those who held key jobs for 107 broadcast, 109 cable and 191 digital scripted shows from the 2020–21 season. Women made up 31.8% of show creators in broadcast, 31.2% in cable and 36.1% in digital. People of color held 13.1% percent of those roles in broadcast, 26.6% in cable, and 25.6% in digital. All six of those figures were improvements over the prior year, but they still fall short of proportionate representation for either group.

Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, and co-founder of the Hollywood Diversity Report, said there are ominous signs for the future of the industry’s diversity efforts.

“Diversity initiatives traditionally are the first to be sacrificed when there are economic downturns,” Hunt said. “We’re already seeing it start with cutbacks at Warner and HBO. But rolling back efforts before equity has been truly achieved for women and people of color would be a major miscalculation.

“Any cost-savings studios realize now will come at the expense of alienating increasingly diverse viewers who expect increased representation in their TV shows, and do not make good business sense in the long term.”

Over the course of 11 TV seasons, the report has repeatedly drawn correlations between shows’ ratings and the diversity of their casts and writers. For example, ratings in 2020–21 were highest for cable scripted shows with casts made up of at least 41% minority actors. In digital, ratings were highest for shows with casts that were 21% to 30% minorities.

Representation in writers’ rooms for both women and people of color improved in 2020–21. Women made up about 45% of writers, and minorities made up more than 30% of writers, both small increases from previous TV seasons.

But that progress could be tenuous given the TV industry’s continued shift to releasing more content on digital platforms, which typically have shorter seasons — and therefore fewer slots for all writers.

“Like other industry watchers, we are closely monitoring these trends and exploring what impact they might have on opportunities for women and people of color to tell authentic stories,” said Michael Tran, a UCLA graduate student studying sociology and a co-author of the report. “The racial and gender dynamics in a collaborative writers’ room have an enormous impact on the types of stories that are told.”

The Hollywood Diversity Report uses independently gathered information about the race, ethnicity and gender identity of actors, writers, directors and show creators. The Entertainment and Media Research Initiative, which was formed in September, is under the auspices of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. The initiative will expand UCLA’s study of the entertainment industry to explore equity and access issues affecting industry workers with other underrepresented identities — based on their disability status, sexual orientation and religion, and how those identities intersect with race, ethnicity and gender.

“With a continued focus on workers’ rights, we are currently working with partners to examine ways to gather information and uncover the experiences of those from other underrepresented communities that are often overlooked,” Ramón said.

Other findings from the new report:

Diversity of TV casts continued to improve, extending a longstanding trend. In the 2020–21 season, 34.9% of broadcast, 35.8% of cable and 30.7% of digital featured majority-minority casts.
Women were well represented in lead acting roles on scripted shows on cable, as well as on digital platforms.
Actors of color were underrepresented in lead roles on broadcast TV (just 27.4%), but were nearly proportionally represented — relative to the U.S. population overall — in lead roles on cable (39.6%) and digital (37.6%).
Women of color made gains as writers for broadcast shows, holding 17.8% in 2020-21, up from 13.6% in 2019-20.
A higher percentage of TV directors were women of color than in the previous year, across all three platform types.
Social media engagement was highest for digital shows that had diverse casts. Netflix’s “The Chair,” Disney+’s “Loki” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and HBO Max’s “Hacks” all generated major buzz on Instagram and Twitter.
Transgender and nonbinary actors had nominal representation. The report tracked five transgender and two nonbinary actors in broadcast shows; three transgender and five nonbinary actors among cable TV casts. In digital, just one transgender and seven nonbinary actors appeared across all shows tracked.

Budget per episode of digital TV programs, segmented by race and gender of show creator; click each image for full description and download:

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

Yesenia Aguilar Silvan (left) and Lauren Ng

Mentorship enhances mental health research focused on the underserved

Psychology professor Lauren Ng and doctoral student Yesenia Aguilar Silvan help each other make a difference for others

Portrait of Psychology professor Lauren Ng and doctoral student Yesenia Aguilar Silvan

Yesenia Aguilar Silvan (left) and Lauren Ng | Photo by Stephanie Yantz

Jonathan Riggs | September 28, 2022

According to the American Psychiatric Association, people from racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. may be more likely to experience long-lasting consequences from mental health issues — and less likely to seek and receive treatment.

Identifying and addressing barriers to care for underserved populations is key to the work of both Lauren Ng, assistant professor of clinical psychology and director of the Treatment and Research for the Underserved with Stress and Trauma (TRUST) Lab, and her mentee, doctoral student Yesenia Aguilar Silvan.

“We actually know little about how to provide the best care for minoritized populations, who are typically also more likely to have experienced traumatic events,” says Ng, who was honored with awards in 2021 and 2022 for her contributions to the field. “My research focuses on how we make sure that people who need care but have been systematically excluded from mental health treatment, receive it. Yesenia’s research interests fit nicely with my own, although she’s taking a very novel approach.”

Part of a newer field of study known as implementation science, Aguilar’s approach focuses on getting people interested in mental health care interventions in the first place. Right now, she’s studying how best to optimize therapist websites to increase the rate of people navigating them successfully to engage in therapy.

“I conducted a survey that found that people who were interested in mental health services needed to know who the therapist was, and not a lot of the clinic websites I studied included information like that,” Aguilar says. “I’m hoping in the next year or so we can gather even more data based on these changes to the clinic websites see if they make a difference.”

Currently, it takes about 17 years for research evidence to reach clinical practice; implementation science like Aguilar’s research seeks to reduce that length of time. In part due to her own experience growing up undocumented, Aguilar is personally very motivated to make a difference like this in the real world, in real time.

“I remember asking a professor once, ‘What’s the point of research?’ And he said that for him, research was just finding something that made you mad or upset and then trying to solve it with science,” Aguilar says. “I knew from my upbringing that a lot of people are not getting mental health services when they really should, and so I asked myself: ‘How do I solve that problem using science?’”

It’s a lifelong commitment that Ng shares.

“I’m a biracial person — my dad is Chinese American, my mom is Black — and I grew up in D.C., where I sometimes felt like an outside observer, trying to understand situations from different perspectives,” says Ng. “Psychology just seemed natural to me, especially when I realized I could do more than just understand, but also create treatments and interventions to help people.”

Getting the chance to work with and learn from Ng was a huge draw for Aguilar, who graduated from UCLA in 2017, to return for her doctorate. She’s flourished here, earning multiple honors, including the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship as well as awards from the Irving and Jean Stone Fund, the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, and the Monica Salinas Graduate Student Endowed Fund. And in Ng’s lab, Aguilar has the opportunity to serve as a mentor herself to undergraduate students.

“It has been amazing to have the support system and resources here that have made it possible for me to pursue my dream. I feel as if I can ask Lauren anything, from specific research questions to advice on how to be a more effective mentor,” Aguilar says. “She also encourages me to be an independent researcher and to think about my own future, in and out of the lab. I continually learn so much from her.”

“UCLA’s department of psychology is so strong in large part due to the quality of our graduate students like Yesenia,” says Ng. “Yesenia started in community college and was able to transfer to UCLA and to receive the support and opportunities a student of her caliber deserves. That can only happen at a very unique place, one that feels like more than a university.”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Portrait of Dean Tracy Johnson

Dean Tracy Johnson receives grant to launch undergraduate stem cell training program

Portrait of Dr. Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson, professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology in the UCLA College and holder of the Cecilia and Keith Tarasaki Presidential Endowed Chair. Effective Sept. 1, 2020, Johnson became dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College. | Photography by Hadar Goren

UCLA Newsroom | August 30, 2022

Editor’s note: This page was updated Aug. 31 with the correct figure for the grant.

Tracy Johnson, dean of the division of life sciences and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, has received a $2.9 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to train students from underrepresented backgrounds in stem cell biology.

The four-year commitment from the state’s stem cell agency comes in the form of a Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science, or COMPASS, grant. With it, Johnson will found the UCLA COMPASS program, which will be open to sophomores and transfer students from two-year colleges.

Each UCLA student accepted into the COMPASS program will be matched with a faculty mentor from the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center and will engage in at least six quarters of laboratory research, gaining valuable hands-on experience and earning credit towards their degree. COMPASS scholars will also complete courses designed to equip them with the skills they need to build careers in the stem cell field, present their research at conferences and receive training in science communications and community outreach.

Applicants will initially be recruited from two UCLA programs: the Academic Advancement Program’s Transfer Summer Program and Pathways to Success, the latter of which was developed by Johnson. Pathways to Success is a four-year, honors-level program designed to support undergraduate students’ efforts in science, technology, engineering and math degree programs, academic achievement, sense of belonging in science and career goals.

“I am proud of UCLA’s efforts to create and maintain college and career readiness programs that help ensure the future success of undergraduate students who are determined to bring about positive change in the world,” said Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in Life Sciences and is a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology.

Recruiting for the UCLA COMPASS program will begin this fall.

Read the full news release about the UCLA COMPASS program.

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

Photo of Christopher, a white genderqueer man with short brown hair, small-framed glasses, a white t-shirt, and a black bomber jacket with a trans pride pin, smiles to the camera in front of a lavender background.

Finding himself at the intersection of communication and disability studies

Activist, advocate and artist Christopher Ikonomou looks ahead to his UCLA senior year

Photo of Christopher, a white genderqueer man with short brown hair, small-framed glasses, a white t-shirt, and a black bomber jacket with a trans pride pin, smiles to the camera in front of a lavender background.

Christopher Ikonomou

Jonathan Riggs | July 18, 2022

Scroll through most UCLA students’ TikToks and you’ll find similar content: summer adventures, pet videos, comedic musings. That’s all there on Christopher Ikonomou’s TikTok, plus updates on the open-heart surgery he had June 13.

Diagnosed with Marfan syndrome at 18 months old, Ikonomou (who uses he/xe pronouns) posted regularly before and after the surgery, which often becomes necessary for those with the syndrome to avoid potentially fatal aortic dissections. (Ikonomou must rest frequently on his way to class, take elevators in lieu of stairs and avoid strenuous activities: a challenge on UCLA’s hilly campus.)

Unflappable with a kind, wry sense of humor — Ikonomou posted a post-surgical TikTok dancing in his hospital bed under the caption, “didn’t think I’d get to check off ‘hallucinations after open heart surgery’ this year” — he has built an impressive social media following. Even more so, however, is his reputation as an activist. An outspoken member of the Disabled Student Union at UCLA who participated in this February’s successful sit-in, Ikonomou is a communication major and disability studies minor who hopes to make a career and a difference at the intersection of these fields.

Photo of Quinn (left) and Christopher (right) standing with stern expressions in front of the UCLA Chancellor’s Office doors plastered with flyers and posters with anti-racist and pro-disabled messages. Quinn is a Brown genderfluid person with chin length dark hair, a black KN95 mask, a gold necklace and matching dangly earrings, a rose tattoo, and a brown tank top tucked into light-wash jeans. Christopher is a white genderqueer man with short brown hair, small-framed glasses, a black KN95 mask, a white crewneck sweater, and blue shorts.

© Rowan O’Bryan
Ikonomou and Quinn O’Connor take part in the 2022 sit-in at Murphy Hall.

“Knowing what I do about my community and the power of entertainment, I want to change disabled representation within media,” Ikonomou says. “When I started making TikToks and being very open about my disability, I saw firsthand what people’s first reactions could be.”

In one instance, he spoofed these reactions by participating in a popular TikTok challenge where users reveal their celebrity doppelganger; Ikonomou jokingly discovers his is the horror character Slenderman.

“The majority of comments I get like that compare me to things that aren’t human — our bodies are made to be the villains,” Ikonomou says. “The actor Javier Botet, who also has Marfan syndrome, has had a lot of success playing monsters in Hollywood. It’s cool he’s rich and gets lots of villain roles, but I think we should have the opportunity to play heroes as well. And I want to be a part of that.”

Ikonomou knows all about speaking truth to power — he’s a longtime debater who grew his high school team from six to 60, served as captain for two years and led them to a national No. 1 ranking. He’s also the Editor-in-Chief of UCLA’s official queer newsmagazine, OutWrite, and a popular Etsy creator specializing in queer and disability stickers, buttons, pins, apparel and prints. (Proceeds of up to 100% of the sales from his various collections are donated to related charities, including his Pride-themed CASETiFY phone cases.)

Photo of Christopher, a tall, thin, white genderqueer man with short brown hair tucked under a sky blue baseball cap, small-framed glasses, a black space-themed mask, a white Disabled Student Union t-shirt, black sweatpants, and purple shoes, standing in front of foliage beside Kaplan Hall at UCLA. He speaks into a microphone and holds up a protest sign reading “Accessibility Now! We Deserve Better!” in blue and yellow lettering. Beside him on the ground sits a teal water bottle with stickers on it.

© The Disabled Student Union at UCLA

As he eyes his senior year and his goal of revamping the entertainment industry from the inside, Ikonomou draws strength from the knowledge that he’s already overcome formidable challenges.

“I was good at math in high school, but the college level wasn’t for me. Announcing that I wasn’t going to be a math major anymore was the best and the hardest decision I’ve made in college,” he says. “I make a joke that it was easier for me to come out as trans than it was to say I didn’t want to be in STEM anymore to immigrant parents.”

Underpinning all Ikonomou’s learned so far in his college experience is having the courage to decide what he wants to do, putting himself out there to try and learning from the results. For example, Ikonomou wasn’t accepted into the UCLA design media arts major, but considers some of the classes he took in the area among his favorites, including a typography course that has helped immensely with magazine layout work. It’s this resilient, optimistic outlook that’s helped Ikonomou find like-minded allies — and himself.

“My number one inspiration is the community I have found, both online and in person at UCLA. My illness is very rare, but quite literally millions of people across the U.S. and world experience systemic barriers,” he says. “My disability studies minor has shown me how I can use what I’m learning to advocate for a better world for all. That gasses me up and keeps me moving forward.”

Raising awareness of Marfan syndrome is the main goal of Ikonomou’s educational TikToks, like this one. For more information, he recommends visiting the Marfan Foundation and its Instagram, where you might see a familiar face.

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Portrait of nine members of the Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at standing in front of Royce Hall

Equity and Empowerment

They saw the change they wanted and created the organization to deliver it

Portrait of nine members of the Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at standing in front of Royce Hall

Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at UCLA members, from left to right: Zoe Pierrat, she/her (AOS, 4th year); Sarah Worden, she/her (AOS, 3rd year); Nique Stumbaugh, she/her (AOS, 2nd year); Cat Banach, she/her (AOS, 2nd year); Aly Fritzmann, she/her (AOS, 2nd year); Sarah Johnson, she/they (AOS, 3rd year); Jordan Bretzfelder, she/her (EPSS, 3rd year); Elisha Jhoti, she/her (EPSS, 3rd year); Laura Thapa, she/her (AOS, 3rd year). © Stephanie Yantz

By Jonathan Riggs 

The laboratory notebooks containing work from Marie Curie, the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two sciences thus far, remain so radioactive that they must be stored in lead-lined boxes for the next 1,500 years. That the scientific legacy of a brilliant woman is literally untouchable is a powerful metaphor for today.

Women remain underrepresented in scientific fields and must contend with additional higher education barriers. For example, in geosciences today, women represent about 42% of the graduate student population, a 5% decline over the past 10 years. At the faculty level, the numbers are worse — and significantly more so for women of color.

Inspired to tackle these issues in 2018, UCLA Physical Sciences doctoral students Alexandrea Arnold, Emily Hawkins, Jordyn Moscoso, Zoe Pierrat and Katie Tuite launched the Society of Gender Equity in Geosciences at UCLA.

“The initiative, vision and energy SGEG brings to outreach, community building, institutional reform and career development make a difference and fill a need that has been there for decades,” says Professor Suzanne Paulson, SGEG faculty advisor and the first woman to chair UCLA’s department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. “We desperately need the talent and passion of the many young people SGEG encourages and makes more welcome.”

Another one of the group’s important priorities has been to identify issues of and advocate for solutions to the gender imbalance within their depart­ments across the division of physical sciences. Working with a receptive faculty, they have raised awareness of unintentional biases when recruiting and admitting graduate students.

The group has been able to offer a stronger support network, and their efforts have paid off, with an increase in female-identifying graduate students entering these disciplines at UCLA.

“SGEG has also brought the physical sciences departments closer together,” adds Pierrat. “I’ve gained new friends I wouldn’t necessarily have met without the benefit of this group, and we’ve also been able to have more serious discussions about supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in our respective departments.”

“Imposter syndrome and isolation can be especially challenging, so having a network of mentors, peers and role models can be critical for those who don’t see themselves well represented in the geosciences,” says Jordan Bretzfelder, SGEG’s current co-chief communications officer. “Plus, the importance of having effective allies cannot be overstated. We invite anyone interested in our mission
to reach out to us.”

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