A photo of a scene from Netflix action-thriller “The Old Guard.”

2021 Hollywood Diversity Report: Audiences showed up for diverse films in theaters, online

A photo of a scene from Netflix action-thriller “The Old Guard.”

Netflix action-thriller “The Old Guard,” directed by UCLA alumna Gina Prince-Bythewood, featured a cast that was 50% minority. The series landed in the top 10 streaming charts for all racial groups — No. 6 for Asian and Latino households, No. 5 for Black households and No. 9 for white households. (Photo Credit: Aimee Spinks)

– Of the top 185 films of 2020, more than half were released via streaming platforms only.

– Of the films that had a theatrical release, minority audiences accounted for the bulk of ticket purchases.

– Films with casts that were at least 21% minority enjoyed the highest online viewing ratings among all racial groups in the all-important 18–49 age category.

– Women and people of color gained ground in all job categories tracked by the report: lead actors, total cast, writers and directors.

– People of color and women are still underrepresented as film writers and directors and typically helmed lower-budget films.


Every industry felt the weight of the pandemic in 2020, and Hollywood was no exception. Business shutdowns and physical distancing efforts around the world wreaked havoc on box-office revenue and upended long-held film release strategies.

Like everyone, Hollywood studios had to get creative in 2020. UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report, published today by the UCLA College Division of Social Sciences, shows that 54.6% of the top films of 2020 were released solely via streaming subscription services, a major departure from business as usual.

More than half of U.S. adults reported that their viewing of film and series content via online subscription services increased during 2020, according to the Motion Picture Association’s latest findings referenced in the report. The global home and mobile entertainment market increased to a record $68 billion over the course of 2020, up 23% from the $55.9 billion in 2019. The U.S. share of this global market stood at nearly 44% in 2020. Latino and Black adults, in particular, consumed online content at higher levels than other groups.

The film installment of this year’s Hollywood Diversity Report tracks the top 185 films of 2020, breaking down performance by box-office revenue for theatrical releases and, new for this year, Nielsen ratings for streaming films.

Many of the big blockbuster films planned for 2020 had their release dates pushed to 2021 and beyond. For films that had a theatrical run in 2020, minorities were major drivers of box-office ticket sales, as with previous years. For six of the top 10 theatrically released films, minorities accounted for the majority of domestic ticket sales during opening weekend. For the seventh top film, minorities accounted for half the ticket sales.

The Hollywood Diversity Report also tracks how well women and minorities are represented in four key industry employment categories: lead actors, total cast, writers and directors.

All four job categories showed progress in 2020, but women and people of color are still underrepresented in critical behind-the-camera jobs. Women made up just 26% of film writers and just 20.5% of directors. Combined, minority groups were slightly better represented as directors at 25.4%. Just 25.9% of film writers in 2020 were people of color.

“We’ve been systematically looking at these key job categories and comparing the representation of women and people of color to the all-important bottom line for eight years, and it’s encouraging to see skyrocketing numbers this year in front of the camera,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA College Division of Social Sciences and the report’s co-author. “This was a very interesting year to track the nimbleness of industry efforts to deliver content to audiences, who grow increasingly racially diverse each year and who it’s clear were eager to enjoy films in new ways, despite disruptions caused by the pandemic.”

UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report is the only study of its kind to incorporate analysis of how top films perform among different racial groups, comparing the diversity of casts, directors and writers with the diversity of American audiences.

For streaming platforms, films featuring casts that were 21% to 30% minority had the highest ratings among white, Black, Latino and Asian households and viewers 18–49.

Among the top 10 streaming films ranked by Asian and Black households, seven had casts that were more than 30% minority. Among the top 10 films ranked by Latino and white households, six had casts that were more than 30% minority.

UCLA’s report shows great progress in actor categories over its decade of data. In 2011, the first year tracked, more than half of the films fell into the lowest level of cast diversity — less than 11%. In 2020, however, 28.8% of films had the highest level of cast diversity — 50% or higher. Just under 10% of films in 2020 fell into the lowest level of cast diversity.

For the first time since the report launched in 2014, people of color were represented in the lead actor and total cast categories at levels proportionate to their presence in the American populace — 39.7% and 42%, respectively. People of color make up 40.3% of the U.S. population.

The analysis of 2020 films also looked at the correlation between directors’ and casts’ racial and gender diversity.

In 2020, nearly all of the films with a female director also featured a female lead (94.7%). Films directed by minorities had the highest level of cast diversity. And 78.3% of films directed by people of color featured minority leads.

However, the report notes, there are still relatively few examples of women and people of color running the show on big-budget films, those marketed to the broadest audience.

“Our report finds that women directors and directors of color have overwhelmingly diverse productions,” said Ana-Christina Ramon, the report’s co-author and the director of research and civic engagement for the division of social sciences. “However, these films often have smaller budgets than those helmed by male directors and white directors. So, in a year where more diverse productions were made more accessible to larger audiences through streaming services, the contrast is stark as to what types of films have the big budgets. There is a clear underinvestment of films made by, written by, and led by women and people of color.”

White film directors were more than twice as likely as minority directors to helm a film with a budget of $100 million or more — 6.4% versus 2.8%. Men and women were equally likely to direct a big-budget film in 2020 — 5.7% and 5.6%, respectively.

Women and people of color were more likely to direct films that fell into the lowest budget category of less than $20 million. For films directed by people of color, 72.3% had budgets less than $20 million, compared to 60% for white directors. It was about the same for films directed by women. Of those, 74.3% had budgets that were less than $20 million, compared to 59.2% for directors who were men.

Along those same lines, films with minority leads and writers of color also trended toward lower budgets, the report found.

Among other findings in the report:

– Women made up 47.8% of lead actors and 41.3% of overall casts in the top films of 2020. Women make up about half the U.S. population.

– Among white, Black and Middle Eastern or Northern African actors, women were significantly underrepresented in the top films of 2020, compared to men from those groups.

– Among Latino, Asian, multiracial and Native actors, women either approached parity with their male counterparts or exceeded it in films of 2020.

– The most underrepresented groups in all job categories, relative to their presence in the U.S., are Latino, Asian and Native actors, directors and writers.

The current report includes 10 years of data, making UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report the longest-running, consistent analysis of gender and racial diversity in the film industry. TV industry data, part two of the now biannual report, will be released in September 2021.

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

Psychology professor working to eliminate health disparities

A photo of Vickie Mays

“We are all connected. The extent to which we allow members of our society to be unequal is the extent to which we endanger the health of all,” says Vickie Mays, professor of psychology in the UCLA College whose work focuses on understanding the physical and mental health challenges of underserved populations.

A vital part of the UCLA faculty since 1979, Mays is a highly regarded thinker, scholar and leader. She is director of the UCLA Center on Bridging Research, Innovation, Training and Education (BRITE) for Minority Health Disparities Solutions, an NIH-funded center with approximately 80 faculty, staff, students and community partners working to eliminate physical and mental health disparities in racial/ethnic minority populations. Last year, Chancellor Block appointed Mays as Special Advisor to the Chancellor on Black Life.

Mays, who holds a joint appointment in health policy and management in the Fielding School of Public Health, has worked with members of Congress on a bill that would require better data on the race and ethnicity of people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. She also is conducting research on the data needed to create better models to predict the spread of COVID-19, in order to reduce the number of infections and deaths in Black communities.

Mays is co-senior author of a new UCLA-led study that found that Black men of all income levels reported experiencing higher levels of discrimination than their white counterparts. Published March 8 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the study may help explain why increased income levels among Black men aren’t accompanied by improved physical and mental health outcomes, as they are for whites.

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald.

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

UCLA-led study reveals ‘hidden costs’ of being Black in the U.S.

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

The study’s findings may help explain why increased income levels among Black men aren’t accompanied by improved physical and mental health outcomes, as they are for whites, researchers say. (Photo Credit: iStock.com/FlamingoImages)

A woman grips her purse tightly as you approach. A store manager follows you because you look “suspicious.” You enter a high-end restaurant, and the staff assume you’re applying for a job. You’re called on in work meetings only when they’re talking about diversity.

The indignities and humiliations Black men — even those who have “made it” — regularly endure have long been seen as part and parcel of life in the United States among the Black community, a sort of “Black tax” that takes a heavy toll on physical and mental health.

Now, a new UCLA-led study reveals these “hidden costs” of being Black in America. Researchers who analyzed a national sample of the views of Black men and white men found that Black men of all income levels reported experiencing higher levels of discrimination than their white counterparts.

“Black men face constant experiences of discrimination and disappointment when they try to contribute. They are treated like criminals in a society where they often are not allowed to achieve their full potential,” said the study’s co-senior author, Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

“Successful Black men,” she said, “hope their hard work will pay off and instead are tormented to find their education and income often do not protect them from racial discrimination. The ‘return on achievement’ is reduced for Blacks in the U.S. It’s a disturbing wake-up call.”

The study, “Money protects white but not African American men against discrimination,” is published today in the peer-reviewed open-access International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

To measure perceived discrimination, the researchers analyzed data from the National Survey of American Life that assessed the mental health of 1,271 Black and 372 non-Hispanic white adults who live in the same areas across the U.S. Survey questions inquired about chronic, daily experiences over the past year. For example, respondents were asked how often in their day-to-day lives any of the following had occurred: “being followed around in stores,” “people acting as if they think you are dishonest,” “receiving poorer service than other people at restaurants” and “being called names or insulted.” Scaled response options ranged from 1 (“never”) to 6 (“almost every day”).

The results indicate that many Black men face discriminatory indignities on a nearly daily basis, year after year — and the experience is exhausting, said Mays, who directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is a special advisor to UCLA’s chancellor on Black life. “It takes a toll on your physical and mental health. You get depleted.”

The daily discrimination measured by the survey did not include other frequently cited injustices, such as being pulled over and questioned by police officers without cause and facing discrimination in housing, education, jobs and health care, said Mays. She noted that while the study’s results were distressing, they were not particularly surprising.

“We’ve known this,” she said, “but now it’s documented. This is evidence.”

Higher incomes and achievement offer Black men little relief

While the study found that for white men, increases in household income were inversely associated with perceived discrimination, this did not hold true for Black men, who continued to report high levels of discrimination regardless of any boost in income level.

The findings may explain why Black men, even as they attain greater financial and educational success on average, don’t gain much protection against negative physical and mental health outcomes the way white men generally do, said co-senior author Susan Cochran, a professor of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health.

“In the United States, many people believe that higher levels of income and education provide relief against being treated differently, badly or unfairly,” Cochran said. “The results of our study show that is truer for white men, but it’s clearly not the case for many Black men. Structural barriers limit the benefits of Black men’s economic achievements, and perceived discrimination increases the risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes.”

For Black men, increases in income at all financial levels actually lead to more perceived discrimination, perhaps because they come into increased contact with whites, according to lead author Shervin Assari, who conducted the analysis as a researcher with the BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is currently an associate professor of urban public health and family medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

“It was upsetting to write this study,” Assari said. “Successful Blacks expect better treatment and think they deserve it but often do not get it.”

Discrimination, the authors say, is embedded in the fabric of U.S. institutions and harms Black men in their daily lives. For Mays, the damage this does to equal opportunity brings to mind the 1951 Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” in which the poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”

“Change has to come faster,” Mays said. “Change has to be permanent. We are tired of hearing ‘wait your turn.’ Black men’s dreams have been deferred for far too long.”

The research was supported by the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

$1.3 million grant will help UCLA advance workforce equity and empowerment

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

The new initiative will seek ways to help build a more equitable economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels)

The UCLA Labor Center has received a $1.3 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation to establish the California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative with the National Skills Coalition.

Leading the effort for UCLA are Betty Hung, project director at the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, and Ana Luz Gonzalez-Vasquez, a project manager at the Labor Center. The National Skills Coalition is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for policies and skills training to benefit workers and businesses.

The Worker Equity Initiative will collaborate with the state of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency to explore how government agencies and their partners help workers thrive in quality careers, particularly as California recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

“The California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative will shed light on how to improve public sector supports and systems while specifically centering the needs and career aspirations of those who have been hit hardest by COVID-19 and racism and other discrimination,” Hung said.

The effort has already begun: The initiative is in the midst of 18 months of community engagement, planning and research, with representatives collecting input from local workers and community leaders. The initiative will then recommend state-level policy changes and highlight opportunities for Californians to push for similar improvements at the federal level.

The initiative also will engage Californians who have been most affected by the recession and those who have been excluded, underserved or marginalized by longstanding structural barriers of discrimination. By soliciting their voices, the initiative aims to increase racial and worker equity in the state’s public workforce development efforts.

“We are extremely grateful for this generous and very timely grant from the James Irvine Foundation,” Gonzalez-Vasquez said. “These funds will help us build upon our partnership with the National Skills Coalition and enable us to focus on ways our society can recover from COVID-19 to build a more equitable economy.”

In addition to the leadership of the UCLA Labor Center and National Skills Coalition, the initiative will benefit from the expertise of a statewide steering committee representing worker centers, nonprofit training providers, labor unions and local workforce boards. The committee members are:

  • Janel Bailey, Los Angeles Black Worker Center
  • John Brauer, California Labor Federation
  • Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, Jewish Vocational Services (San Francisco Bay Area)
  • Rebecca Hanson, SEIU UHW and Joint Employer Education Fund/Shirley Ware Education Center
  • Sheheryar Kaoosji, Warehouse Worker Resource Center
  • Cesar Lara, MILPA Collective and Monterey Bay Central Labor Council
  • Sam Lewis, Anti-Recidivism Coalition
  • Arcenio Lopez, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project
  • Simon Lopez, Goodwill Southern California
  • Laura Medina, Building Skills Partnership
  • Pedro Ramirez, Central Valley Worker Center
  • Rebecca Rolfe, San Francisco LGBT Center
  • Aquilina Soriano, Pilipino Workers Center
  • Brooke Valle, San Diego Workforce Partnership

The James Irvine Foundation is a private, nonprofit grantmaking foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California. The foundation’s focus is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. Since 1937 the foundation has provided more than $2.09 billion in grants to organizations throughout California, and it has contributed to UCLA since 1970.

This article, written by Ariel Okamoto, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of people sleeping at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles

The history of homelessness in Los Angeles points to new approaches

A photo of people sleeping at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles

Among the recommendations in the new report: Officials must stop treating homelessness as a criminal act. (Photo Credit: Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons)

Homelessness in Los Angeles was already on the rise before COVID-19 struck. But the health and economic fallout of the pandemic has left many more low-income residents on the brink of housing insecurity.

While recent statewide legislation prevents evictions through June and creates options to help Angelenos pay back rent, the homelessness problem could worsen significantly as the pandemic and business closures continue.

A new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy offers recommendations for policies that the authors say could help tackle the crisis. The suggestions are based on a wealth of insights about the history of homelessness in Los Angeles County.

The report (PDF) details a complex web of causes to this crisis, whose economic, racial, social and political roots date back to the Great Depression — many other studies on the issue go back only to the 1970s. The authors write that those factors converged to disproportionately affect people of color, particularly African Americans. While white, single, older men made up a majority of Los Angeles’s homeless population prior to the 1980s, Black and Latino people began to make up a majority of the homeless population after that.

Among the report’s chief recommendations: Officials should stop treating homelessness as a criminal act, address rental and land use policies— for example, by expanding renter protection and landlord regulations and converting unused or underused property into supportive housing — and improve residents’ access to mental health and other social services.

“The report offers deep historical analysis in centering the long-term structural causes of racial and economic inequality in Los Angeles,” said David Myers, a UCLA professor of history and director of the Luskin Center. “In doing so, it calls for a new policy approach, one that recognizes the repeated failure of piecemeal, short-term and color-blind approaches. It insists that access to adequate housing is a basic human right, not a societal luxury.”

The report reveals that a lack of meaningful coordination among city and county agencies has hampered structural changes. After years of political battling on how to handle homelessness, the city and county in 1993 jointly created the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. But, the report contends, even that has not led to a long-term coordinated strategy. Solutions like permanent supportive housing have yet to take hold. A 2007 permanent supportive housing program called Project 50 was largely successful but ultimately not supported by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

According to the report, the Los Angeles homelessness crisis largely began during World War II, when housing development could not keep up with the city’s population growth. A rush of federal housing development and widespread rent control was enacted in 1942 in response. But redlining and exclusionary zoning practices excluded most people of color from the postwar housing boom, setting the stage for racial disparities that continue today.

Another factor was California’s shutting down of mental health care institutions beginning in the 1950s, which left few options for indigent people with mental health challenges. Many of them ended up on the streets, in jail or cycling between the two, according to the report.

And many residents with mental health struggles continue to fall through the cracks, the analysis found, as a result of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s reliance on a patchwork of agencies to provide mental health and drug use treatment.

In addition, a focus on criminalizing people who live on the street — a trend that intensified nationally since the 1970s and still informs Los Angeles’ approach today — has not helped mitigate homelessness. A 1976 plan to prevent the expansion of Skid Row’s homeless population relocated homeless services to a 50-block “containment zone” and selective policing was used to discourage residents from leaving the zone. The plan was unsuccessful and the policy was formally reversed in 2016.

And, the authors write, the city’s 2006 zero-tolerance policy on crime on Skid Row had the effect of putting poor and mentally ill people into the criminal justice system and then back onto the streets.

The report also examines demographic trends and real estate policies that contributed to the issue. For example:

– While the Los Angeles population boomed again in the late 1990s, housing development did not. In 1998 and 1999, the city’s population increased by 65,000 people, but the net increase in housing units was just 1,940.

– Some real estate developers and businesses have lobbied against policies that would produce low-cost housing or establish broader rent control policies that would keep housing more affordable.

Myers said future policies must take into account the desires of homeless people themselves.

“One thing we found while looking back was the consistency with which unhoused people, across the 20th century, have proposed solutions to the problem centered on repurposing vacant land and unused or underutilized public property,” he said. “The report suggests that any policy response that doesn’t take into account the desires, demands and visions of houseless people — particularly regarding the right to autonomy and self-determination — are doomed to fail.”

Kirsten Moore-Sheeley, a visiting assistant professor of history at UCLA and co-author of the report, said the authors hope the research helps reframe housing as a basic human right.

“Looking back at almost a century of history, we indicate how intractable the problem has been and still is,” she said. “We are suggesting a need to rethink core assumptions about property and tenancy rights and, more fundamentally, who has a right to the city.”

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

A rendering of the NASA Perseverance rover as it would appear on Mars.

Q&A: David Paige on the Mars Perseverance landing

A rendering of the NASA Perseverance rover as it would appear on Mars.

Rendering of the NASA Perseverance. The rover’s RIMFAX technology will use radar waves to probe the unexplored world that lies beneath the Martian surface. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/FFI)

NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18 after a six-and-a-half month flight. Over the next two years, it will explore Jezero Crater, which is in Mars’ northern hemisphere, for signs of ancient life and for new clues about the planet’s climate and geology.

Among other tasks, it will collect rock and soil samples in tubes that a later spacecraft will bring back to Earth, and the experiments will lay the groundwork for future human and robotic exploration of Mars.

Perseverance, which is about the size of a car, is outfitted with seven different instruments, including the Radar Imager for Mars‘ Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX. RIMFAX will probe beneath the planet’s surface to study its geology in detail, and its deputy principal investigator is David Paige, a UCLA professor of planetary science.

In an email interview with UCLA Newsroom, Paige discussed his hopes for the mission. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why do you want to study Jezero Crater’s geologic history?

Jezero Crater is a very interesting location on Mars because it looks like there was once a lake inside the crater, and that a river flowed into the lake and deposited sediments in a delta. We plan to land near the delta and then explore it to learn more about Mars’ climate history, and maybe something about ancient Martian life. What we’ll be able to see once we start roving and what we will actually learn is anybody’s guess.

RIMFAX will provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures and help find clues to past environments on Mars, including those that may have provided the conditions necessary for supporting life.

A photo of David Paige.

David Paige (Courtesy of David Paige)

What are you hoping to discover?

Well, the first thing to know about RIMFAX is that it’s an experiment. We’ve never tried using a ground-penetrating radar on Mars before, so we can’t really predict what types of subsurface structures we might be able to see.

But we have done some fairly extensive field testing of RIMFAX on Earth to learn how to use it and how to interpret the data. Here, ground-penetrating radars can be very useful for clarifying subsurface geology, but with any kind of imaging system, the science of ground-penetrating radar comes from the interpretation of the images, and interpretation relies on context.

Frankly, if we are able to usefully interpret anything we see in the RIMFAX data, the experiment will be a success. Any discoveries we make beyond that will be icing on the cake.

Are you hopeful of finding water, or evidence of water, beneath the planet’s surface?

There are all kinds of evidence for past liquid water all over Mars. At Jezero, there must have been a lot of water at some point, but we don’t expect that the ground beneath the rover will still be wet.

Mars today is a very cold place, and any water in the shallow subsurface should be frozen at Jezero. What we’re interested in finding are geologic features that wouldn’t be expected to form under present climatic conditions, as those would be especially interesting targets to search for signs of past life.

However, searching for past life on Mars may be very difficult, and we should not expect instant success. After all, we know the Earth was literally crawling with life, but definitive evidence for past life on Earth, especially ancient life, is very rare.

What is your role in the research? 

My role is to help plan the observations and analyze the results. Since the rover will be working on Mars time, in which the days are 24.5 hours long, responsibility for the operation of RIMFAX will pingpong between Norway and UCLA every two weeks. Having operations centers on two continents will make it easier to keep up with the mission and stay on a reasonably normal schedule.

In fact, RIMFAX was designed, paid for and built by our colleagues in Norway. I teamed up with my colleague, Svein-Erik Hamran of the University of Oslo, to propose the instrument to NASA, and it has been a rewarding experience to work with the international RIMFAX team.

Are UCLA students involved?

Yes. Mark Nasielski, a UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering, is part of our operations team. And Max Parks and Tyler Powell, graduate students in Earth, planetary and space sciences, are part of our science team.

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

Nandita Garud named a distinguished investigator by Paul Allen Frontiers Group

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

Nandita Garud (Photo courtesy of Nandita Garud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more about Garud’s research on her website.

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

Hosea Nelson receives award for pioneering research in organic chemistry

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

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

Hosea Nelson (Photo Credit: UCLA)

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

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

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

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom

Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A photo of student researchers.

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

A photo of student researchers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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