A photo of a Covid-19 fence sign.

Voters in both parties favor caution as cities begin to reopen

A photo of a Covid-19 fence sign.

“Our research has revealed a nation largely in agreement on everything from preventive measures to thoughts about returning to normal activities,” said UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

Over the weekend of May 9–10, many states, including California, began to ease safer-at-home restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen under strict conditions, and opening some public spaces, including hiking trails and beaches.

Now, a weekly survey co-led by UCLA political science professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch has found that Democratic and Republican voters favor the restrictions that were enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19. And by and large, people prefer a cautious approach to getting life back to normal.

The UCLA + Democracy Fund Nationscape survey began adding COVID-19–related questions in March, shortly after businesses, schools and events began shutting down. Topics include Americans’ beliefs, worries and behaviors related to the pandemic. The survey will post results each week on a new coronavirus-specific page of its website.

“Our research has revealed a nation largely in agreement on everything from preventive measures to thoughts about returning to normal activities,” Vavreck said. “Far from the partisan division that has described the last several years, nearly everyone has incorporated precautions against the virus into their daily lives and most people support government interventions to stop its spread.”

The study was quickly noticed by government leaders. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland referenced the findings during remarks on the Senate floor on May 13.

A graphic of the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Survey.

A majority of voters surveyed agree with measures local and state governments have implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Faded dots represent results from previous weeks. Data collected March 19 through April 29, 2020.) (Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Survey)

Researchers also surveyed respondents about the economic pain caused by COVID-19. Of respondents who earn less than $25,000 per year, 26% reported that their income has been reduced significantly due to the crisis, and 24% have lost their primary source of income entirely. Among those earning more than $85,000 annually, 23% reported significant income loss but just 8% indicated that they had lost their income entirely.

► Read more about UCLA + Democracy Fund Nationscape

Vavreck is an expert on presidential elections; her previous research has shown that a good economy is often critical to a president’s reelection chances.

“As we head into the presidential election, we will continue to chart how the government’s response to the pandemic will affect the way voters view an incumbent president presiding over an unexpected downturn in the American economy,” Vavreck said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of UCLA professor Renee Tajima-Peña.

PBS series on Asian Americans features work of UCLA filmmakers and scholars

A photo of UCLA professor Renee Tajima-Peña.

UCLA professor Renee Tajima-Peña, series producer of “Asian Americans.” (Photo Credit: Claudio Rocha)

n 1982, a young Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death as he was out celebrating his bachelor party in Highland Park, Michigan, near Detroit. America was fraught and tense, in the middle of a recession that had hit automakers particularly hard, given the rise of economically desirable Japanese cars. Racial animosity toward Asian Americans was running high.

Chin’s death and the relatively lenient sentence laid upon his two white attackers — one a recently laid-off autoworker in the city — were a shock to Asian American communities and sparked a wave of civil rights activism.

“There were lot of people at the time who thought, ‘I’m OK, I’ve made it, everything is OK,’ and then they were really awakened by the case,” said Renee Tajima-Peña, a UCLA professor and director of the Center for EthnoCommunications in the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Chin’s story is just one of many told in “Asian Americans” a five-part series that airs on PBS over two nights, May 11 and 12. It’s a story that Tajima-Peña knows well. She co-directed an Academy Award–nominated documentary about Chin’s murder.

A photo of Vincent Chin, who was murdered in Michigan in 1982.

Vincent Chin, who was murdered in Michigan in 1982. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tajima-Peña also served as series producer for “Asian Americans.” And, while she has been working on the project for nearly two years, the timing of its release feels particularly potent, and unfortunately familiar, given the hate speech and even physical attacks that have been levied at people who might look Chinese in the wake of the crippling economic and health crises brought about by the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve seen all of this before, but the question is, what’s our takeaway from this history?” she said. “To me, the takeaway is for people to find a way to support each other. The series is really future-oriented, even though it’s about history. The U.S has become more diverse yet more divided. When that happens, you’ve got to figure things out because we can’t move forward divided in this country.”

It’s also a personal history for Tajima-Peña, whose ancestors came to the United States from Japan in the early 1900s, a time when national law prevented the immigration of certain Asian groups. “My family arrived during the exclusion, they were on skid row during the Depression, they were incarcerated during World War II,” she said.

Her family’s story dovetails with the stories of subsequent generations of Asian Americans who came to the U.S. as immigrants and as refugees from the Korean and Vietnam wars. “People found a way to thrive,” she said. “And Asian Americans have been a part of moving this democracy forward throughout its history.”

Showcasing this reality is one of the overarching goals of the series. The episodes include a wealth of interviews with artists, activists and scholars.

It also quickly became a very UCLA-centric project. Grace Lee, an alumna of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, directed two of the episodes. Several other alumni served as crew on multiple episodes. And David Yoo, a professor of Asian American studies and history and vice provost of the UCLA Institute of American Cultures, served as lead scholar on the project.

“As an epicenter of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and arguably the most diverse city in the world, the greater Los Angeles area is a generative space,” Yoo said. “This is not new for AAPIs and other communities, and many legacies are reflected in the series, including the remarkable contributions of UCLA Asian American studies, in terms of our students, alumni, staff, faculty and programs like EthnoCommunications, which has produced so many talented filmmakers.”

Solidarity is a running theme within the series. The Asian American community is itself the most diverse of any racial group and has faced internal racial conflicts, Tajima-Peña pointed out. But, she said, civil rights leaders past and present recognize that the struggle must always include other marginalized groups within the prevailing racial tensions of America.

“Asian American history is a history of solidarity,” she said. “People may see us as the model minority, but Asian Americans have been fighting from the very beginning. The biggest labor strike in the 1860s was by Chinese railroad workers.”

Tajima-Peña was delighted to find footage of Hawaiian-born Patsy Mink, the first female U.S. congressperson of color, speaking to the Democratic National Convention in the 1960s. Mink urged delegates to stay firm on a civil rights platform.

“What we wanted to lead to in the series is really the question of today, when we are a larger population with a greater presence in society — to quote from Richard Pryor, does justice mean ’just us?’” Tajima-Peña said. “That’s what we need to focus on, because people really want to get to work.”

Yoo said he hopes viewers will be inspired by the stories of civil rights efforts from the 1960s and 1970s. “The activism, struggle and creativity of that era set into motion remarkable efforts for social justice that provide a foundation which we can draw upon to engage the concerns of today,” he said.

The series is organized around personal stories, ones that will hopefully engender empathy and connection.

“These stories we are telling are personal stories around tipping points in history, and at these points, Asian Americans have found a way to work amongst themselves or work across ethnicities,” Tajima-Peña said. “You don’t have to be Asian yourself to see yourself in these stories.”

A photo of Wong Kim Ark, whose U.S. Supreme Court case led to a change in citizenship laws.

Wong Kim Ark, whose U.S. Supreme Court case led to a change in citizenship laws. (Photo: Public domain)

When Tajima-Peña thinks of hope, she thinks of young Asian Americans, some of whom might be experiencing the effects of racism for the first time. She thinks of their potential. She thinks of the stories of other young Asian Americans that came before and brought hope with them.

The series is bookended by two of their stories.

Wong Kim Ark was the son of Chinese railroad workers. He was born in San Francisco, where his parents legally resided at the time of his birth. In 1880, after a trip to China, he was denied entry back into the country on the grounds that he was not a citizen. Just 21 years old, he chose to fight — and took his struggle all the way to the Supreme Court. The landmark 1898 ruling in his favor established birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to parents who were not citizens.

“Asian Americans” also tells the story of Tereza Lee, who migrated from South Korea with her parents. Known as the first “Dreamer,” in the late 1990s, she fought for herself and other undocumented children through the DREAM Act, which ultimately failed to pass Congress after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed political thinking around immigration.

“She kept on fighting and joined a movement of other undocumented young people,” Tajima-Peña said. “And my own parents are citizens because of Wong Kim Ark. The inspiration of those two ends of the Asian American story is what will take us into the future.”

 

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor or psychology in the UCLA College.

Psychology professor honored for pioneering work on ‘social cognition’

A photo of Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor or psychology in the UCLA College.

Shelley Taylor was recently honored as one of the most influential social psychologists working today. (Photo Courtesy of Shelley Taylor)

Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor of psychology in the UCLA College and the founding scholar in the areas of social cognition, health psychology and social neuroscience, has been awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences.

The BBVA Foundation praised Taylor, who has been on faculty at UCLA since 1979, as a pioneer of social cognition who revealed the role of cognitive bias in social relations. Social cognition is the process of people making sense of the social world — how people think about themselves, other people, social groups, human history and the future. This social knowledge begins to develop in infancy, and guides human beliefs about others, and social behavior.

“It is a great honor to receive this award,” said Taylor, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, who is an expert on how people cope with adversity. “In the last decades, social cognition has gone from being an interesting idea to being a guiding force in scientific inquiry concerning how people think about themselves and the social world. I am especially grateful to my colleague, Susan Fiske for her important collaborative role in the development and subsequent prominence of this field.”

The foundation’s award citation praised Taylor as one of the most influential social psychologists working today whose “amazing insights” and “outstanding contributions” have elucidated the role of cognitive shortcuts in shaping social interactions.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize and reward contributions of exceptional impact in science, technology, social sciences and the humanities. The BBVA Foundation, part of financial group BBVA, partners with the Spanish National Research Council, Spain’s premier public research organization. The foundation promotes world-class scientific research and recognizes significant contributions in scientific research with Frontiers of Knowledge Awards that include a cash prize of 400,000 euros.

Taylor and Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton, with whom she has been collaborating since 1972, published in 1984 “Social Cognition,” a landmark book; its fourth edition, in 2012, is titled, “Social Cognition: From Brains to Culture.” The authors proposed a model in which people process information on their social environment (people, groups, social situations) at two distinct speeds: a slow, careful speed, based on a systematic analysis of all available data, and a faster, relatively superficial one drawing on “cognitive shortcuts,” biases and strategies that simplify complex problems.

Instead of reaching conclusions in a rational manner, people often rely on shortcuts, including stereotypes. Taylor and Fiske defined several types of social thinkers, including what they called the “cognitive miser,” who exhibits a kind of bias favoring information that confirms one’s own beliefs, reducing the mental effort involved in processing. The cognitive miser simultaneously draws on and reinforces existing stereotypes, such as race, gender, age and immigrant status. Their model, the committee wrote, “details the conditions under which more elaborative cognitive processes are used as a basis for decision.”

Taylor is also among the founders of health psychology, renowned for her contributions on how stress affects health, and how social factors are able to buffer this effect.

Her research in health psychology led her to the discovery of “positive illusions,” with which people tend to perceive things in an optimistic light, believing they are better than they are. Taylor showed that this bias contributes to the improvement of health, and that these illusions are very adaptive. Taylor is a leader in research into how stress affects health, and how social factors can serve as a buffer in this respect.

What happens when your social support becomes dangerous?

In a new article published by the BBVA Foundation, Taylor and Fiske analyze the impact the COVID-19 pandemic may have on social life. Other people, they note, are the source of our greatest danger and our greatest support. How do we decide who is safe and trustworthy? They explain how social cognition allows us to make these determinations.

Under normal circumstances, social support is one of the most effective resources a person has for dealing with threat.

“One of the particularly disturbing aspects of the coronavirus epidemic is that it undermines and can even eliminate this vital resource,” the article said. “The infection is, of course, socially transmitted, so an infected person likely got it from a social contact and may subsequently inadvertently pass it on to others. How devastating it is to know that one’s social support may be eliminated by the very stressor one is trying to combat, manage, or avoid.”

The article states that there could be other consequences, as well, such as the impulse to form new friendships may be muted and people could come to view the world with more suspicion and concern.

“And yet, there is also the likelihood that we will emerge from these trying times with renewed appreciation for our social ties and the physical and emotional benefits they provide. Never is it more clear than in a crisis that no one solves such severe problems alone. We must depend on one another for warmth, kindness, and help and by providing and receiving the support that is the essence of our humanity.”

Taylor also developed an alternative to the prevailing fight-or-flight theory of how people respond to stress, which is the idea that people respond either aggressively to stressful events or flee from them. Her alternative, “tend-and-befriend” model states that people, especially women, seek positive, nurturing social relationships.

Eight of Taylor’s research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals have each been cited more than 1,000 times. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health since 1974.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Assistant Professor Wesley Campbell, UCLA Physics & Astronomy

UCLA physicists develop world’s best quantum bits

A photo of Assistant Professor Wesley Campbell, UCLA Physics & Astronomy

Assistant Professor Wesley Campbell, UCLA Physics & Astronomy (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A team of researchers at UCLA has set a new record for preparing and measuring the quantum bits, or qubits, inside of a quantum computer without error. The techniques they have developed make it easier to build quantum computers that outperform classical computers for important tasks, including the design of new materials and pharmaceuticals. The research is published in the peer-reviewed, online open-access journal, npj Quantum Information, published by Nature and including the exceptional research on quantum information and quantum computing.

Currently, the most powerful quantum computers are “noisy intermediate-scale quantum” (NISQ) devices and are very sensitive to errors. Error in preparation and measurement of qubits is particularly onerous: for 100 qubits, a 1% measurement error means a NISQ device will produce an incorrect answer about 63% of the time, said senior author Eric Hudson, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.

To address this major challenge, Hudson and UCLA colleagues recently developed a new qubit hosted in a laser-cooled, radioactive barium ion. This “goldilocks ion” has nearly ideal properties for realizing ultra-low error rate quantum devices, allowing the UCLA group to achieve a preparation and measurement error rate of about 0.03%, lower than any other quantum technology to date, said co-senior author Wesley Campbell, also a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.

The development of this exciting new qubit at UCLA should impact almost every area of quantum information science, Hudson said. This radioactive ion has been identified as a promising system in quantum networking, sensing, timing, simulation and computation, and the researchers’ paper paves the way for large-scale NISQ devices.

Co-authors are lead author Justin Christensen, a postdoctoral scholar in Hudson’s laboratory, and David Hucul, a former postdoctoral scholar in Hudson and Campbell’s laboratories, who is now a physicist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

The research is funded by the U.S. Army Research Office.

Campbell and Hudson are primary investigators of a major $2.7 million U.S. Department of Energy Quantum Information Science Research project to lay the foundation for the next generation of computing and information processing, as well as many other innovative technologies.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Physical Sciences website.

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Sarah Stein named to new Viterbi Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Photo credit: Caroline Libresco

Prominent historian Sarah Abrevaya Stein has been named the inaugural holder of the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies in the UCLA College divisions of humanities and social sciences.

Stein, who directs the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and is a history professor, has received prestigious accolades for her scholarship, writing and teaching, including two National Jewish Book Awards, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award. She previously held the Maurice Amado Endowed Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA for 12 years.

Stein’s 2019 book, “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century,” was named to the Economist’s “Best of 2019” list, was a National Jewish Book Award finalist and received glowing reviews in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other outlets.

“Professor Stein is a leading scholar in her field and a gifted educator,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences. “Faculty chairs like the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair are an important way we can recognize high-caliber UCLA faculty members while supporting relevant, high-impact research.”

Stein hopes to use the funds accompanying the Viterbi Chair to expand her research, develop new courses, and support graduate and undergraduate students in her field, which takes in the broad geographic and cultural sweep of the modern Jewish Mediterranean — including southern and southeastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa — and of émigré Mediterranean Jewish communities across the world.

“I am honored to be the first holder of the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies and to see UCLA — in tandem with the Viterbi family — support the deepening and expansion of scholarship in this dynamic field,” Stein said. “Mediterranean Jewish histories and cultures are an often overlooked but magnetic component of modern Jewish history, as well as of modern regional, national, imperial, global and diasporic histories.”

Thanks to the Viterbi family’s longstanding philanthropic support, UCLA has become an established leader in Mediterranean Jewish studies. Andrew J. Viterbi is the co-founder of Qualcomm and a former UCLA engineering professor. He and his wife, Erna Finci Viterbi, funded a pilot program in Italian Jewish studies in 2004 and created the Viterbi Family Endowment in Mediterranean Jewish Studies in 2008, which at that time was the first endowed program of its kind in North America.

The Viterbi family’s most recent gift, of $1 million in 2019, included the creation of the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair, which complements the endowed programmatic fund in Mediterranean Jewish studies in the Leve Center and provides support for visiting scholars, public lectures, seminars and symposia.

“The Viterbi family’s generosity has been vital to UCLA’s growing strength and leadership in Mediterranean Jewish studies,” said David Schaberg, dean of the division of humanities. “This prestigious new endowed chair further embeds the field on our campus and underscores its growing importance and relevance in the world today.”

The Viterbi family’s support stems from their roots in the Mediterranean region. Andrew Viterbi was born in Bergamo, Italy, to Italian Jewish parents who emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. His late wife, Erna, was born in Sarajevo to a distinguished family of Sephardic intellectuals and rabbis who survived World War II and emigrated to the U.S. in 1950.

Viterbi said, “It is wonderful that this faculty chair has been awarded to such an impressive and engaging scholar as Sarah Abrevaya Stein. I look forward to witnessing her continued impact on an area of study that is very close to my family’s heart.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a storefront with a sign that says "We are closed temporarily."

California Unemployment Insurance Claims During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A photo of a storefront with a sign that says "We are closed temporarily."

new analysis of initial Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims by the California Policy Lab at UCLA and the Labor Market Information Division at the California Employment Development Department provides an in-depth and near real-time look at how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting various types of workers, industries and regions throughout California.

“It’s clear that California workers who are the least able to afford it are being the most impacted by COVID-19,” explains Till von Wachter, a co-author of the analysis, UCLA economics professor and faculty director at the California Policy Lab. “While the rise in initial UI claims and their potential implications for unemployment are alarming, we also see some positive signs: besides a slight leveling off of new claims in the most recent two weeks in April, we see a much higher percent of people claiming UI benefits are reporting that they expect to return to their former employers. Given these findings, policymakers should consider how best to support employers to stay afloat and rehire their employees, and how to target relief to the groups of workers who have been most severely impacted.”

Key research findings:
– Almost 90% of Californians who filed initial UI claims in the first two weeks of April reported that they expected to be recalled to their prior jobs, a substantial increase from the 40% of claimants who reported this before the crisis.

– Younger, lower-wage, and lower-educated workers and women have been disproportionately impacted by unemployment in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis in the labor market (in mid-March), among those in the labor force, 1 in 3 high school graduates, 1 in 4 aged 20-23, and 1 in 6 women filed initial UI claims.

– Since mid-March 14.4% of the California labor force has filed initial UI claims. If none of these initial UI claimants have returned to work, this implies a rise in the unemployment rate to close to 20% from the 5.3% prevailing in mid-March.

– Almost 1 in 3 workers in Food and Accommodations and 1 in 5 workers in Retail Sales filed new initial claims. Several other large sectors experienced substantial increases in initial UI claims since mid-March, including Health Care and Social Services; Manufacturing; Construction; Other Services; and Administrative Support, Waste Management, and Remediation.

– All counties in California have experienced substantial growth in initial UI claims, but the rise has been more pronounced in several of the usually economically strong areas of the state, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Southern California.

This analysis will be updated on a weekly basis with new data on initial Unemployment Insurance claims to provide a timely and detailed analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on California’s labor market.

Methodology
The analysis is based on comparing initial unemployment insurance claims in February 2020 (before the COVID-19 crisis impacted the labor markets); the start of the employment crisis in mid-March (when initial UI claims increased dramatically); and more recently the first 11 days of April.

The analysis complements traditional survey-based indicators on the labor market, which have detailed information but large time lags and which are released not as frequently, and to weekly publications of the number of total UI claims, which have minimal time lags but which lack the detail available in this analysis.

The California Policy Lab creates data-driven insights for the public good. Our mission is to partner with California’s state and local governments to generate scientific evidence that solves California’s most urgent problems, including homelessness, poverty, crime, and education inequality. We facilitate close working partnerships between policymakers and researchers at the University of California to help evaluate and improve public programs through empirical research and technical assistance.

The Labor Market Information Division (LMID) is the official source for California Labor Market Information. The LMID promotes California’s economic health by providing information to help people understand California’s economy and make informed labor market choices. We collect, analyze, and publish statistical data and reports on California’s labor force, industries, occupations, employment projections, wages and other important labor market and economic data.

This article originally appeared on the California Policy Lab website.

A photo of Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA .

A step toward a more efficient way to make gene therapies to attack cancer, genetic disorders

A photo of Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA .

(From left) Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

A UCLA-led research team today reports that it has developed a new method for delivering DNA into stem cells and immune cells safely, rapidly and economically. The method, described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could give scientists a new tool for manufacturing gene therapies for people with cancer, genetic disorders and blood diseases.

The study’s co-senior author is Paul Weiss, a UCLA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, of bioengineering and of materials science and engineering. “We are figuring out how to get gene-editing tools into cells efficiently, safely and economically,” he said. “We want to get them into enormous numbers of cells without using viruses, electroshock treatments or chemicals that will rip open the membrane and kill many of the cells, and our results so far are promising.”

In current practice, cells used for genetic therapies are sent to specialized labs, which can take up to two months to produce an individualized treatment. And those treatments are expensive: A single regimen for one patient can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We hope our method could be used in the future to prepare treatments that can be performed at the patient’s bedside,” Weiss said.

The method could be used with CRISPR, the genetic engineering technique that enables DNA to be edited with remarkable precision. However, using CRISPR efficiently, safely and economically in medical therapies has proven to be a challenge — one this new method may be able to solve.

The technique uses high-frequency acoustic waves coupled with millions of cells that flow through an “acoustofluidic device” in a cell culture liquid. The device was invented by the research team as part of the study; inside of it are tiny speakers that convert electrical signals to mechanical vibrations that are used to manipulate the cells.

That procedure opens up pores along the cells’ membranes that allow DNA and other biological cargo to enter the cells, and it enables the researchers to insert the cargo without the risk of damaging the cells by contacting them directly.

Dr. Steven Jonas, the study’s co-senior author and a UCLA clinical instructor in pediatrics, likened the soundwaves’ ability to move cells to the experience when audience members actually feel the sound at a concert.

“At a concert hall, you can feel the bass — and if you can feel the sound, the cell can feel the acoustic wave,” said Jonas, a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “We can engineer the acoustic waves to direct the cells as needed.”

The researchers delivered short strands of DNA called plasmids into human blood cells and blood-forming stem cells that were intended specifically for laboratory research, and pumped millions of such cells through the acoustofluidic device. Once inside a cell, a plasmid can be made into a protein that may be missing or damaged, or it can give the cell new capabilities.

“When combined with new gene-editing approaches, the method enables us to correct a DNA sequence that is miscoded in a disease,” said Weiss, who also is a member of CNSI.

Plasmids used as templates for gene editing can make the correction because they have the right coded sequence for the desired protein, he explained.

Lead author Jason Belling, a UCLA graduate student in chemistry and biochemistry, was able to insert plasmids into the model cells used for testing about 60% of the time, without using any chemical and physical treatments.

“The viability is very high compared with other techniques,” Weiss said, “but we still want higher efficiencies and are working toward that.”

Jonas — whose expertise is in treating childhood cancer and blood disorders — said the research has the potential to benefit adults and children with cancer, immune system disorders and genetic diseases.

“If the delivery works, and it seems to, this research is an important step toward bringing new therapies more broadly to the patients who need them,” Jonas said. “Traditionally, we have treated cancers with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and bone marrow transplantations. Now, we’re at an amazing era of medicine, where we can use different types of gene therapies that can train the immune system to fight cancer.”

A photo of a prototype of the acoustofluidic device developed by UCLA researchers.

A prototype of the acoustofluidic device developed by UCLA researchers. (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Jonas said some existing treatments can take a patient’s T cells and adapt them with a gene that encodes for a receptor that allows it to target the cancer.

“We want to be the delivery service that gets these therapeutic packages to the cells,” he said. “I want to treat my patients with cells that are engineered in this way.”

For the technique to lead to viable treatments for disease, it would need to allow doctors  to process at least a couple hundred million cells — and in some cases, billions of cells — safely, rapidly and cost-effectively for each patient.

The new approach is still the subject of research and is not available to treat human patients.

The study’s other co-authors include Duke University professor Tony Huang, a pioneer of acoustofluidics and a UCLA alumnus; Dr. Stephen Young, distinguished professor of medicine and human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; and Dr. Satiro De Oliveira, a UCLA assistant professor of pediatrics.

The study was funded in part through a National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award for Jonas; the University of California Center for Accelerated Innovation; and Belling’s predoctoral fellowship through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Jonas also has received young investigator awards from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research, Hyundai Hope on Wheels Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research, and the Tower Cancer Research Foundation. UCLA’s Technology Development Group Innovation Fund also provided funding.

Weiss’ research group has applied for patents on the acoustofluidic device and related devices, working with the Technology Development Group.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

UCLA Students Find COVID-19 Silver Linings

Commentary on mindful awareness training by Sara Melzer, Professor Emerita of French & Francophone Studies:

Surprising as it may sound, some of my UCLA students are finding meaning during the pandemic. One student reports: “I’m excited at the inner changes this quarantine is bringing out in me.” Almost all the students are discovering that their lives are fuller than they had realized – when they re-direct their attention. This training is the work of a mindful awareness.

Mindfulness is not necessarily spiritual or mystical, although it can be. Mainly, it trains our most fundamental faculty: our attention. If skillfully cultivated, our attention can dramatically transform our experience and promote well-being, even during a crisis. This claim may seem astonishing because we are not taught to value our attention, even though it is the ever-present background to all thought and experience.

Mindfulness highlights the vast potential of this resource. Our attention is a muscle — a mental muscle that needs to be trained, just as athletes train their bodies, insists Shinzen Young, founder of Unified Mindfulness and my teacher for 20 years.

My students experienced the power of their attention to transform their relationship to pain in a class experiment where I had them hold ice-cubes in one hand, for two rounds. In round one, I offered no guidance and they relied on their standard coping strategy. After five minutes, they were in agony. In round two, I guided them to hold the ice mindfully. One student reported, “I felt blissfully calm. I could have held the ice forever.”

What made the difference? Their attention – what they focused on and how. In the first round, they tightened their bodies and narrowed their lens to block the pain. This mental image, a cortical homunculus, simulates the brain mapping the body from the inside: hands swell up like balloons and dwarf the body.

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

A student meditating during a break. (Photo Credit: Christian Ibarra)

Their hand defined their whole body. When we are in pain, physical or emotional, we often identify with the ailing part and let it become the whole.

Alternatively, we can re-frame our attention. I invited my students to expand their focus beyond their hands to include their feet, where they noticed pockets of calm.  I activated their attention’s telescopic lens when I had them zoom their awareness out, first to sounds inside the room, then outside, before extending to the silence beyond. While they felt their hands throb, they simply included it within a wider attentional field. The impact of the ice was diffused. Just as a few drops of red dye can define the water’s color in a fish-bowl, but not in a lake, my students could dilute and transform their experience of pain by enlarging their attentional frame.

The momentary shift of attention is actually not the hard part. Keeping it there is. To achieve this, Unified Mindfulness emphasizes sensory clarity as a key attentional skill. It can open up our awareness to a fascinating “something” within the seeming “nothing” of our ordinary experience. Take the breath, for example. Using a microscopic lens, we zero in on the outbreath to notice a subtle release of air. Other forms of release – in the jaws, shoulders, rib cage – ripple out. This inter-connectedness is a source of wonder.

Sensory clarity helps anchor our attention because our sensory world becomes more richly layered and attention-grabbing.  One student wrote, “I invited my family to join me in my mindful eating exercise. For desert, we had grapes — just ordinary grapes. They exploded with extraordinary taste sensations. Waves of sweetness, then sourness rippled out towards my ears, then throughout my whole body. It was so satisfying I almost felt full.” When we tune into the nuanced layers of something as ordinary as an exhale or a grape, any experience can anchor our attention and nourish us.

Managing our attention in this way contrasts with our standard notion of concentration. The term “concentration” in English mainly signifies a forcible narrowing of focus to bear down on an object. But our bodies tighten and we slip back into a version of the ice-cube scenario. What we resist, persists! Mindfulness, however, emphasizes that the truest concentration comes from an ease that unifies our energies. Coupled with sensory clarity, concentration holds our attention not through coercion, but fascination and wonder.

Of course, the COVID crisis is much more serious than ice-cubes. But the underlying principle still pertains: include the ailing part within a larger whole so that fear does not occupy all our attentional space or define our whole life. One student described how a shift in her attention helped ease her panic after learning that the “shelter-in-place” would continue longer than expected. Initially, she was glued to social media which convinced her “all of life was closing up shop.” Finally, she remembered she had a choice. She could re-frame her attention to include her anxiety within a wider container that diluted its power. She did not deny her fear but included it within a larger lens. As poet Maya Angelou wrote: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can choose not to be reduced by them.”

When all their attention was not colonized by fear, my students freed up energy to explore what was available to them. I had asked them to notice their COVID-19 Silver Linings. Since they were on the look-out for them, they found them. They used their mindfulness muscle to soak their awareness into them and anchor their attention there. Many experienced a surprising inner freedom when they discovered creative resources they didn’t know they had.

Creativity thrives when we are confronted with constraints. Let us seize this opportunity to turn our focus towards what remains possible and open up their hidden depths. In this way lies freedom and well-being.

Sara E. Melzer is a Humanities Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her latest book is Colonizer or Colonized: The Hidden Stories of Early Modern French Culture. Currently, she is working to integrate mindfulness into Higher Education through UCLA’s EPIC program

A photo of Lynn Vavreck and Miguel García-Garibay.

Two elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

A photo of Lynn Vavreck and Miguel García-Garibay.

From left: Lynn Vavreck, Miguel García-Garibay

Six exceptional UCLA professors and leaders — including the UCLA College’s Physical Sciences Dean Miguel García-Garibay and Political Science Professor Lynn Vavreck — were elected April 23 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies. The other honorees include School of Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin, Education Professor Pedro Noguera, environmental champion Mary Nichols and Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin.

“I am delighted to congratulate each of this year’s UCLA inductees, who are all deserving of this wonderful honor,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a testament to the exceptional work of our scholars and leaders. The entire campus community can take pride in this news and their many accomplishments.”

A total of 276 artists, scholars, scientists and leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors who were elected to the Academy today. More about UCLA’s honorees:

Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has earned worldwide recognition in the fields of artificial molecular machines, organic photochemistry, solid-state organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. He studies the interaction of light and molecules in crystals. Light can have enough energy to break and make bonds in molecules, and García-Garibay’s research team has shown that crystals offer an opportunity to control the outcome of these chemical reactions.

His research has applications for green chemistry — the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances — and it could lead to the production of specialty chemicals that would be very difficult to produce using traditional methods. Among his many honors, he was elected a fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2019.

Lynn Vavreck is UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy, a contributing columnist to the Upshot at the New York Times, and a recipient of many awards and honors, including the Andrew F. Carnegie Prize in the Humanities and Social Sciences. She is the author of five books, including “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” and “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election,” which has been described as the “definitive account” of that election.

Consultants in both political parties refer to her work on political messaging in “The Message Matters” as required reading for presidential candidates. “Identity Crisis” was awarded the 2019 Richard E. Neustadt Prize for the Best Book on Executive Politics by the Presidents and Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Vavreck’s 2020 election project, Nationscape, is the largest study of presidential elections ever conducted in the United States. Interviewing more than 6,000 people a week, Nationscape will complete 500,000 interviews before next January’s inauguration.

► Read more about the Nationscape election project.

“The members of the class of 2020 have excelled in laboratories and lecture halls, they have amazed on concert stages and in surgical suites, and they have led in board rooms and courtrooms,” said David Oxtoby, president of the Academy. “With [the] election announcement, these new members are united by a place in history and by an opportunity to shape the future through the Academy’s work to advance the public good.”

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and others who believed the new republic should honor exceptionally accomplished individuals. Previous fellows have included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

It also is an independent policy research center that undertakes studies of complex and emerging problems. Current academy members represent today’s innovative thinkers in many fields and professions, including more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.