A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio Is Working to Make Disease and Infertility a Thing of the Past

UCLA College division of Life Sciences student Esmeralda Isabel Villavicencio wants to return some day to her home country of Ecuador as a genetics professor, leading pioneering research on complex diseases and neurological disorders. She already has a solid start at UCLA.

“My community has suffered from a tremendous lack of support for STEM research, and I want to contribute to change that,” says Villavicencio, a senior majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics with a Biomedical Research minor.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio in the lab. Photo credit: UCLA College/Reed Hutchinson

Villavicencio is gaining valuable experience in Dr. Amander Clark’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant, where her project working with stem cells is a part of a research effort that could one day help develop novel treatments for infertility. The possibility that her work will have impact is what drives her.

“The work I’m doing now could eventually help people who suffer from infertility to conceive a child—people, for example, who become infertile after treatments for pediatric cancer, or due to developmental defects,” she says.

Villavicencio says the collaborative research environment at UCLA has prepared her for graduate school and a career as a scientist, from learning lab techniques to strengthening her critical thinking skills, discipline and resiliency.  This experience has helped her grow in her chosen career, and her hard work is also paying off in other ways.

Villavicencio’s drive and vision have been recognized by two UCLA Life Sciences scholarship awards that are helping her move closer to her goals. Last year, she was awarded the Kristen Hanson Memorial Scholarship, which honors a female undergraduate for academic accomplishment and a passion for science in addition to well-rounded interests, leadership, originality and commitment to engage with the world.  More recently, the COMPASS scholarship—from the Center for Opportunity to Maximize Participation, Access and Student Success—was presented to Villavicencio for her summer research.

“Knowing my hard work and enthusiasm stand out in such a top-tier school is encouraging, and receiving these honors also greatly alleviated my financial burden,” Villavicencio says. “I come from a low-income family and I’m able to attend UCLA in part thanks to a scholarship from my government. However, there are expenses it does not cover. The scholarships allow me to reduce my part-time job hours and focus more on my research and academic endeavors.”

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.

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Changes make it easier than ever for Bruins to vote

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Students, faculty, staff and even members of the public will be able to vote at the Ackerman Union beginning Feb. 22, and at the Hammer Museum beginning Feb. 29.

When it comes to voting, there can be a litany of excuses as to why someone doesn’t make it to the polls on Election Day — you forgot, too busy to get there that day, working too far from your polling place, among others.

To erase as many barriers as possible to voting, Los Angeles County is implementing sweeping changes for voters leading up to the March 3 primary, and the UCLA campus community will be a major benefactor as the site of two vote centers — Ackerman Union and the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

The biggest change is that voters will have multiple days to cast their ballots. Voting begins Feb. 22 at Ackerman, and the Hammer Museum will be open for voting beginning Feb. 29.

For campus and county officials, bringing vote centers to UCLA was a no-brainer.

“We are really glad that California, specifically L.A. County, is pursuing a modernizing of the voting process,” said Karen Hedges, deputy director of campus life for UCLA Student Affairs. “There is often talk of students, faculty and staff trying to squeeze in their vote on Election Day. Having a vote center in the middle of campus at Ackerman Union, and having it open for 11 days, I think, will really encourage people to make voting less of a hassle and more of a prideful opportunity.”

The new L.A. County Vote Centers not only allow for up to 11 days of voting, but also commuters with limited time can rejoice. The new rules no longer force people to vote at the one place in their neighborhoods. Instead people now can cast their ballots at any voting center location in the county.

The new system also emphasizes accessibility. Voters can make the text larger on the screen, toggle between 13 languages, change the contrast of the screen and request an audio ballot. The system is also secure — it is not connected to the internet or any network and still produces a paper ballot.

“One of the goals to moving to the vote center model was to meet voters where they are, and UCLA is an amazing university centrally located to thousands of voters who live on campus or nearby,” said Mike Sanchez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Registrar. “We’re thrilled to have UCLA and other universities, colleges and high schools act as vote centers for the upcoming March primary election.”

A major push from UCLA students, faculty and staff is underway ahead of the Feb. 18 voter registration deadline. The BruinsVOTE! organization will be hosting get-out-the-vote events and its website relaunched this week to include extensive information on voter registration, events, FAQs and more.

“Culturally, we’re trying to weave voting into the fabric of campus life — this is what Bruins do,” Hedges added. “Bruins are civically engaged and civically minded. Our volunteer work, our service work — it all falls into alignment with this. I think it is a True Bruin Value to vote.”

As UCLA celebrates its centennial, campus officials also point out two other important anniversaries: The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s constitutional right to vote and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing men the right to vote regardless of race.

“These milestones should be reminders to all of us not to take for granted the hard-won right, responsibility and privilege we have to participate in our nation’s democracy,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to the campus community. “I hope you will get civically engaged and show the world that #Bruinsvote.”

On March 3 at 5:30 p.m., the Hammer Museum will host Super Tuesday Bash 2020, during which people can watch election returns and pundits’ analyzing what unfolds on big screens in the courtyard.

In the meantime, BruinsVOTE! members will work to continue the gains made in student participation during the past several elections. Organizers will be canvassing Bruin Walk and promoting voting at UCLA athletics events, to name a few efforts.

“I think the biggest change is now you have 11 days to vote instead of one,” said Joshua Avila, third-year political science major and co-director of the BruinsVOTE! initiative. “This is definitely a big improvement, and we are excited to see more student turnout because of that. If it’s just one day, students might be busy that day or they just forget.”

Although there is an emphasis on registering to vote by Feb. 18, the vote center will allow for same-day conditional registration, which is a major plus, officials touted.

“If you think about it, registering to vote is the last of the antiquated processes that you can’t just do instantly,” Hedges said. “That does not resonate with our students, who are last minute and who are used to being able to do something right now. In our last few elections we’ve had long lines of provisional ballot people in hopes that their votes will still count.”

Having 11 days and same-day registration should lessen voter congestion, she said.

The UCLA campus voice can and will be a vital one, said Elisa Chang, graduate student studying education and BruinsVOTE! co-director.

“If we want to be able to shape the future that we’re going to literally be inheriting, then we all actually do need to vote and make ourselves heard,” Chang said.

VOTE CENTERS

Ackerman Union
308 Westwood Plaza
Bruin Reception Room, second floor
11-day Vote Center
Feb. 22–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Hammer Museum at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Annenberg Terrace, third floor
Four-day Vote Center
Feb. 29–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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.

Image of Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall to deliver Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership at UCLA on April 1

Image for Luskin Lecture featuring Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, will deliver the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership at UCLA’s Royce Hall on April 1, 2020, as part of the celebration of UCLA’s Centennial year. The renowned animal behavior expert and conservationist is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a U.N. Messenger of Peace.

During the lecture, which marks the 60th anniversary of the start of her pioneering research, Goodall will discuss her journey from groundbreaking researcher of wild chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, to internationally renowned activist. She will also share her reasons for hope for the future, talk about the work of the Jane Goodall Institute and the organization’s Roots & Shoots youth program, and encourage audience members to make a difference every single day.

Following her remarks, Goodall will be joined by a moderator for a discussion drawing from questions submitted by UCLA students and alumni. The UCLA College lecture is a ticketed event.

Goodall began her pioneering research on wild chimpanzees in 1960 in what is today known as Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Goodall was the first person to formally observe and better understand wild chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom; her research revealed remarkable insights about chimpanzee behavior and humankind.

Since then, Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute have maintained what is now the world’s longest running study of wild chimpanzees. Through her critical work, Goodall has not only championed the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction, but she also has pioneered community-centered conservation through JGI, putting local people at the center of conservation decisions and action, across the chimpanzee range in Africa. Through JGI’s Roots & Shoots program, she empowers young people to improve their communities through service projects, ensuring that they become better stewards of the environment than previous generations.

As a global activist traveling nearly 300 days a year, she has devoted her life to inspiring all people to take action to improve the well-being of people, other animals and the natural world we share.

“Dr. Goodall’s focus on giving people, particularly young people, the knowledge and confidence to make an impact by being part of something bigger than themselves makes her an example to emulate,” said Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College. “She has moved beyond her role as a scientist to encourage all of us to become active partners in the future of our world.”

Goodall’s talk will be the fifth Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership. The series was established in the UCLA College by Meyer and Renee Luskin in 2011 as part of a transformative gift to UCLA. Their vision in establishing the endowed lecture series gives the UCLA College an unprecedented opportunity to share knowledge and expand the dialogue among scholars, leaders in government and business, and the greater Los Angeles community. Previous speakers have included former President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

About the lecture

This event is now sold out.

Are you a UCLA student? Win the incredible opportunity to meet Jane Goodall. Contest details can be found at the Luskin Lecture Contest website.

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 Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker.

UCLA psychology department receives $30 million from Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation

Photo of Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker.

Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker at the Hammer gala in 2019. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Pritzkers)

UCLA has received a $30 million commitment from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation to support a major renovation of the Psychology Tower on the UCLA campus. In recognition of the gift, the building has been named Pritzker Hall.

Tony Pritzker served as co-chair of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which concluded in December. The campaign exceeded its original $4.2 billion fundraising goal 18 months ahead of schedule.

“Tony’s visionary leadership and unwavering support has inspired unprecedented philanthropy to UCLA throughout the campaign, helping cement a strong foundation for our second century,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Now, thanks to Tony and Jeanne’s latest extraordinary gift, UCLA Psychology will be primed for decades of trailblazing research and exceptional teaching.”

The $30 million commitment is the second largest in the history of the UCLA College’s life sciences division, which is home to the psychology department. Of the total amount, $10 million will create the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Endowment for Excellence, which will provide faculty and student support and fund ongoing infrastructure needs.

Photo of an architect’s rendering of Pritzker Hall from above.

An architect’s rendering of Pritzker Hall from above. (Photo courtesy of CO Architects)

“We have tremendous confidence in UCLA, as a public university, to move society and the world forward, which is why we invest our time and resources there,” Tony Pritzker said. “We are pleased to build upon our foundation’s earlier commitments to UCLA, while strengthening the extraordinary reputation that the psychology department’s research and scholarship have rightfully earned.”

The donation bookends the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation’s Centennial Campaign giving to the UCLA College; the foundation also gave $15 million to the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability in 2013, before the campaign’s public launch. The Pritzker Foundation’s total giving to UCLA, which also includes major gifts to athletics, law, medicine, neuroscience, education, public policy and programs to support foster youth on campus, now stands at just under $100 million.

“We are immensely grateful to Tony and Jeanne Pritzker for taking the lead in investing in a new era for UCLA Psychology,” said Victoria Sork, dean of life sciences. “I am especially heartened by this gift, because the values the Pritzkers espouse align with our own values of service and investment in our communities.”

“Their generous gift will help us transform Pritzker Hall into a space for breakthroughs — a collaborative, modern teaching and research space befitting one of the top psychology departments in the United States.”

The tower was designed by celebrated Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams and completed in 1967. Work on seismic upgrades began in 2018 and the full renovation is expected to be completed this year.

Sork said the endowment created by the Pritzkers’ gift will strengthen the department’s ability to recruit and retain top-notch faculty and students, a crucial factor in maintaining its excellence. UCLA Psychology faculty are pursuing research in a wide range of areas, including anxiety and depression; substance abuse and addiction; human relationships; stress, resilience and health; neuroscience; and cognition and consciousness, all focusing on how to improve people’s daily lives.

“This gift will be of incalculable benefit to faculty, students and members of the community for many decades to come,” Sork said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.