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

Creative thinkers put kindness on the menu at dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photos of UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez and Erik Petigura.

Two UCLA College faculty members awarded 2020 Sloan Research Fellowships

Photos of UCLA College professors Jose Rodriguez and Erik Petigura.

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

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

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

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

Erik Petigura

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

Jose Rodriguez

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a Himba father and son.

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

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

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

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

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

A photo of a Himba father and son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Michelle Craske.

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

A photo of Michelle Craske.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving a decades-old question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

2020 Hollywood Diversity Report: A different story behind the scenes

Image from the 2019 film "Aladdin"

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

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

It does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Hundreds of UCLA students publish paper analyzing 1,000 genes involved in organ development

A team of 245 UCLA undergraduates and 31 high school students has published an encyclopedia of more than 1,000 genes, including 421 genes whose functions were previously unknown. The research was conducted in fruit flies, and the genes the researchers describe in the analysis may be associated with the development of the brain, eye, lymph gland and wings.

The fruit fly is often the object of scientific research because its cells have similar DNA to that of human cells — so knowledge about its genes can help researchers better understand human diseases. The UCLA study should be useful to scientists studying genes involved in sleep, vision, memory and many other processes in humans.

The research is published in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics. The study’s senior authors include researchers Cory Evans and John Olson, who taught UCLA’s Biomedical Research 10H, the course in which the studies were conducted.

“I expect this will be a highly cited paper and a valuable resource to life scientists,” said Tracy Johnson, director of UCLA’s biomedical research minor, which offers the course the students all took. “It’s inspiring to know all of this really important research came from freshmen and sophomores. It’s beautiful, high-quality research.”

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Visible on this page are images of fruit flies’ eyes (top), wings and lymph glands, showing which genes are active (red) or were previously active (green). (Download the full image to also see scans of the brain.) Photo credit: Cory Evans

The students studied short DNA sequences to learn how specific genes are turned on and off and understand how those genes control the functions of various cell types. Although all cells have essentially the same collection of genes, specific genes are turned on or off depending on the cells’ needs, Evans said.

Each student studied several genes, ultimately producing a total of more than 50,000 microscopic images; the researchers then posted their analysis on an online database where other scientists can study the genes’ roles.

“This shows not only which genes are turned on, but the history of which genes have been turned on,” Johnson said.

The research was conducted as part of a UCLA life sciences course that was developed in the early 2000s by Utpal Banerjee, a UCLA distinguished professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and a senior author of the paper. The course received initial funding from the HHMI.

“Research on science education says that one of the best way to teach science is by having authentic research experiences embedded in a course,” said Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in the Division of Life Sciences and is an HHMI Professor. “Professor Banerjee understood years ago when he envisioned the class that students learn more by doing science. They learn how to design experiments, how to think like scientists, how to write about science and how to present their research.”

Johnson said the approach is analogous to teaching a sport. “If a kid wants to play soccer, you don’t say, ‘Don’t touch the soccer ball yet. You have to first learn all of the rules, watch other people play and read about the soccer greats, and maybe in a couple of years, we’ll let you kick the ball.’ No, bring out the soccer balls! So we need to get science students in the lab.”

The students completed two other research projects, one of which Evans expects will be published this year. In that study, the undergraduates studied the effects of turning off specific genes in fruit flies using a scientific technique called RNA interference. They then determined which of those 4,000 genes, when turned off, affect the proper development of blood cells.

“We teach students how to do research, not fly biology,” said Evans, who is now an assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University. “Their science literacy is high, and they know how to evaluate evidence.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Alain Mabanckou.

UCLA professor named one of 2019’s 100 most influential Africans

Photo of Alain Mabanckou.

Alain Mabanckou, professor of French and Francophone studies at UCLA. Credit: UCLA

Alain Mabanckou, literature professor in the UCLA Department of French and Francophone Studies, has been named one of 2019’s 100 most influential Africans by leading politics and culture magazine, “New African.”

A renowned novelist, poet and professor, Mabanckou is recognized for his contributions to the global literary scene. Known for his novels and non-fiction writing depicting the experience of contemporary Africa and the African diaspora in France, he is among the most recognized writers of Franco African contemporary literature. His most recent novel, “Black Moses,” winner of the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, follows the story of an orphan navigating his way through a poor and corrupt society.

The list recognizes Africans who have made large contributions to the continent and its culture, from reform-leading political figures to business pioneers and record-breaking athletes. The list includes the likes of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed and Kenyan world record breaking marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge. According to “New African,” those chosen to be on the list exemplify how African talent is impacting the world.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy

Astronomers discover class of strange objects near our galaxy’s enormous black hole

Photo of orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy

Orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy, with the supermassive black hole indicated with a white cross. Stars, gas and dust are in the background. Photo: Anna Ciurlo, Tuan Do/UCLA Galactic Center Group

Astronomers from UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative have discovered a new class of bizarre objects at the center of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. They published their research in the Jan. 16 issue of the journal Nature.

“These objects look like gas and behave like stars,” said co-author Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group.

The new objects look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole. Their orbits range from about 100 to 1,000 years, said lead author Anna Ciurlo, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher.

Ghez’s research group identified an unusual object at the center of our galaxy in 2005, which was later named G1. In 2012, astronomers in Germany made a puzzling discovery of a bizarre object named G2 in the center of the Milky Way that made a close approach to the supermassive black hole in 2014. Ghez and her research team believe that G2 is most likely two stars that had been orbiting the black hole in tandem and merged into an extremely large star, cloaked in unusually thick gas and dust.

“At the time of closest approach, G2 had a really strange signature,” Ghez said. “We had seen it before, but it didn’t look too peculiar until it got close to the black hole and became elongated, and much of its gas was torn apart. It went from being a pretty innocuous object when it was far from the black hole to one that was really stretched out and distorted at its closest approach and lost its outer shell, and now it’s getting more compact again.”

“One of the things that has gotten everyone excited about the G objects is that the stuff that gets pulled off of them by tidal forces as they sweep by the central black hole must inevitably fall into the black hole,” said co-author Mark Morris, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “When that happens, it might be able to produce an impressive fireworks show since the material eaten by the black hole will heat up and emit copious radiation before it disappears across the event horizon.”

But are G2 and G1 outliers, or are they part of a larger class of objects? In answer to that question, Ghez’s research group reports the existence of four more objects they are calling G3, G4, G5 and G6. The researchers have determined each of their orbits. While G1 and G2 have similar orbits, the four new objects have very different orbits.

Ghez believes all six objects were binary stars — a system of two stars orbiting each other — that merged because of the strong gravitational force of the supermassive black hole. The merging of two stars takes more than 1 million years to complete, Ghez said.

“Mergers of stars may be happening in the universe more often than we thought, and likely are quite common,” Ghez said. “Black holes may be driving binary stars to merge. It’s possible that many of the stars we’ve been watching and not understanding may be the end product of mergers that are calm now. We are learning how galaxies and black holes evolve. The way binary stars interact with each other and with the black hole is very different from how single stars interact with other single stars and with the black hole.”

Ciurlo noted that while the gas from G2’s outer shell got stretched dramatically, its dust inside the gas did not get stretched much. “Something must have kept it compact and enabled it to survive its encounter with the black hole,” Ciurlo said. “This is evidence for a stellar object inside G2.”

“The unique dataset that Professor Ghez’s group has gathered during more than 20 years is what allowed us to make this discovery,” Ciurlo said. “We now have a population of ‘G’ objects, so it is not a matter of explaining a ‘one-time event’ like G2.”

The researchers made observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and used a powerful technology that Ghez helped pioneer, called adaptive optics, which corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time. They conducted a new analysis of 13 years of their UCLA Galactic Center Orbits Initiative data.

In September 2019, Ghez’s team reported that the black hole is getting hungrier and it is unclear why. The stretching of G2 in 2014 appeared to pull off gas that may recently have been swallowed by the black hole, said co-author Tuan Do, a UCLA research scientist and deputy director of the Galactic Center Group. The mergers of stars could feed the black hole.

The team has already identified a few other candidates that may be part of this new class of objects, and are continuing to analyze them.

Ghez noted the center of the Milky Way galaxy is an extreme environment, unlike our less hectic corner of the universe.

“The Earth is in the suburbs compared to the center of the galaxy, which is some 26,000 light-years away,” Ghez said. “The center of our galaxy has a density of stars 1 billion times higher than our part of the galaxy. The gravitational pull is so much stronger. The magnetic fields are more extreme. The center of the galaxy is where extreme astrophysics occurs — the X-sports of astrophysics.”

Ghez said this research will help to teach us what is happening in the majority of galaxies.

Other co-authors include Randall Campbell, an astronomer with the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii; Aurelien Hees, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar, now a researcher at the Paris Observatory in France; and Smadar Naoz, a UCLA assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, W.M. Keck Foundation and Keck Visiting Scholars Program, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, Jim and Lori Keir, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In July 2019, Ghez’s research team reported on the most comprehensive test of Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the black hole. They concluded that Einstein’s theory passed the test and is correct, at least for now.

► Watch a four-minute film about Ghez’s research

►View an animation below of the orbits of the G objects, together with the orbits of stars near the supermassive black hole. Credit: Advanced Visualization Lab, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.