A photo of Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas

Linguistics student fulfills dream at UCLA

A photo of Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas

Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas, a third-year graduate student, says, “By going to America to get my Ph.D., I would have better opportunities to expand my learning, my cultural awareness and my life.” (Courtesy of Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas)

In honor of International Women’s Day 2021 on March 8, the UCLA International Institute is publishing a series of profiles of female Bruins.

Abeer Ali Abdullah Al-Abbas, a UCLA graduate student in linguistics who hails from Saudi Arabia, grew up in the Farasan Islands, a group of coral islands in the Red Sea. A star student throughout her school years, Abeer set her sights on a college education as a young girl with her mother’s strong support.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Abeer had to move to mainland Saudi Arabia to attend college. She chose linguistics among the majors open to her because she felt it would help her learn foreign languages. She began her studies at Jeddah University, but received her bachelor’s degree at Jazan University in 2011.

She soon found a job at her alma mater as a linguistics lecturer, but she was required to continue her higher education. “I had heard how the United States had the biggest and greatest universities in the world, and I felt that my place was there,” Abeer says.

In 2018, Abeer completed her master of arts degree at Cal State Long Beach. She was accepted into a number of doctoral programs in linguistics, including UCLA. Now in her third year of study at UCLA, the Bruin graduate student is on the cusp of submitting her thesis to become an official Ph.D. candidate and hopes to become a teaching assistant this spring or fall.

“I’ve gained something bigger than just an education by studying in America,” she says. “It’s made me more open to the world. I value that people from other cultures and religions are now my close friends — that was the greatest thing I learned here,” she says.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Office of International Studies and Global Engagement’s website. Click to read the full article.

 

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

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

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher incomes and achievement offer Black men little relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A: David Paige on the Mars Perseverance landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A photo of David Paige.

David Paige (Courtesy of David Paige)

What are you hoping to discover?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your role in the research? 

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

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

Are UCLA students involved?

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

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

A photo of the Sloan winners: Ravi Netravali, Pavel Galashin, Kai-Wei Chang and Harold Pimentel.

Pavel Galashin awarded 2021 Sloan Research Fellowship

A photo of the Sloan winners: Ravi Netravali, Pavel Galashin, Kai-Wei Chang and Harold Pimentel.

Clockwise from top left: Ravi Netravali, Pavel Galashin, Kai-Wei Chang and Harold Pimentel. Photo Credit: UCLA and Alison Yin/HHMI (Pimentel)

Four young UCLA professors are among 128 scientists and scholars from 58 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada selected today to receive 2021 Sloan Research Fellowships.

“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple” said Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “To receive a fellowship is to be told by the scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”

UCLA College’s 2021 recipient is:

Pavel Galashin
Galashin, an assistant professor of mathematics, conducts research in algebraic combinatorics. He is particularly interested in its unexpected applications to other areas of math and physics, such as magnetism, knot theory and the physics of scattering amplitudes. He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and recently received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Other UCLA 2021 recipients are:

Kai-Wei Chang
Chang, an assistant professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, conducts research broadly in artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing. With the exponential growth of text data available in various domains, language-processing techniques have been incorporated into many real-world applications used by billions around the world. Chang’s research group develops fundamental statistical approaches to enhancing the efficiency, robustness, inclusion and fairness of human language–processing technology. His research tackles problems of major technical and social relevance.

Ravi Netravali
Netravali, an assistant professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, conducts research broadly in computer systems and networking. His recent focus has been on building practical systems to improve the performance and debugging of large-scale, distributed applications for both end users and developers. His research has been recognized with a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a Google Faculty Research Award, an Association for Computing Machinery Symposium on Cloud Computing Best Paper Award and an Internet Research Task Force Applied Networking Research Prize.

Harold Pimentel
Pimentel, an assistant professor of computational medicine and human genetics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA — the department of computational medicine is also affiliated with the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering — and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna H. Gray Fellow, conducts research on gene regulation by building broadly applicable computational tools. His laboratory develops data-driven models using computer science and high-dimensional statistics to advance biomedical discovery.

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, earth science and physics. The philanthropic, New York–based foundation was established in 1934.

Fifty-one Sloan Research Fellows have won Nobel Prizes, including Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, in 2020, and 17 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics.

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

Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Startup to Social Change: UCLA’s Blackstone Launchpad Social Impact Fellows

Photos from top left: Shelby Kretz of Little Justice Leaders, Diondraya Taylor of Mindsets & Milestones; Bottom from left: Michael Sesen-Perrilliat of TIED, Shae Koberle and her team member of Robinswing. (Photos courtesy of the depicted)

From top left: Shelby Kretz of Little Justice Leaders, Diondraya Taylor of Mindsets & Milestones; Bottom from left: Michael Sesen-Perrilliat of TIED, Shae Koberle and her team member of Robinswing. (Photos courtesy of Kretz, Taylor, Sesen-Perrilliat and Koberle)

Startup companies have introduced innovative technology, unique products and even new social networks. At UCLA, four startups are also addressing some of society’s most important challenges, from reaching swing voters to inspiring leadership skills in adolescent girls.

Last fall, Startup UCLA’s Blackstone Launchpad and Techstars network hosted the Social Impact Fellowship Program, focused on student-run companies with clear social impact missions. Out of 40 teams selected from across the country, four originated from UCLA – a reflection of Bruins’ dedication to community engagement and social change through entrepreneurship.

During the program, student fellows took part in coaching sessions with LaunchPad campus directors, received mentoring and learned about team management, digital marketing, fundraising, and more. Each fellow also received $5,000 in grant funding to advance their startup companies. Each of the four UCLA student-run companies was inspired by a variety of needs reflected in their communities.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Diondraya Taylor ’20, founder of Mindsets & Milestones, started her company as an undergraduate psychobiology major at UCLA and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in education. Mindset & Milestones creates educational materials to develop entrepreneurial skills in middle and high school girls. So far, Taylor’s company has produced a workbook, created an online course and more recently, launched an ambassador program for girls. Taylor was inspired to create Mindsets & Milestones to help tackle the confidence dips experienced by adolescent girls that can cause them to question their capabilities.

She recalled a particular conversation with a student in which they were discussing the organizational structure of the student’s team. In response, the student drew a circle, not a typical top-down organizational chart, explaining that she wanted everyone to work together. After some gentle probing by Taylor, the student admitted that she wasn’t sure if she was capable of leading people, despite her record demonstrating leadership potential.

“It was baffling to me. This student knew enough and had the vision, yet she couldn’t see herself as a leader,” Taylor said.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Shelby Kretz, who like Taylor is working on her Ph.D. in education, is the founder of Little Justice Leaders, a monthly subscription box aimed at elementary school children that creates opportunities for parents to talk their kids about topics such as social justice, environmental sustainability, immigration, racism and feminism. Each box contains an age-appropriate book on a single topic, a hands-on activity, lessons and worksheets, information cards and a nonprofit spotlight. Little Justice Leaders does more than serve children, it also engages parents and teachers, and facilitates learning in the community about social justice issues.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Shae Koberle is a third-year political science student who came up with her business idea last July, when she came across a document circulating on social media purporting to show the costs incurred by the LAPD to police demonstrations in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. During that time, she noted that while many individuals had the best intentions in mind, no real change was being made because the information tended to circulate in the same social circles and wasn’t being forwarded to the opposing side.

“To change local policy, you must engage the other side,” Koberle said. “You have to engage someone who doesn’t believe in defunding the police. That got me to think, ‘How can I reach those people’?”

To reach people across the opinion spectrum, Koberle founded Robinswing, an app that anonymously connects swing voters to canvassers without the hassle of soliciting. The app lets users anonymously learn about and follow local propositions and candidates, no strings attached. Koberle envisions Robinswing expanding to more conservative areas, citing the benefits of its anonymous user capabilities, which allow individuals who feel they might be persecuted due to their political stance or identity to become informed without fear of being harassed.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Michael-Sesen Perrilliat ’17 is a political science alumnus and founder of Tapped In: Equitable Development (TIED). TIED aims to create access and opportunities for people who are new to startups or need more resources to drive their startups to success. Founders connect with TIED through word of mouth or social media, and submit a form that analyzes the stage of their startup. TIED then assigns tasks to help the startup further develop their concept before connecting them with mentors and consultants who can support these entrepreneurs.

At UCLA, services like Startup UCLA and the venture consulting offered through Blackstone Launchpad allow students to develop their ideas, which increasingly include nonprofit ventures and social impact businesses. To meet the demands of UCLA’s growing community of social impact-oriented creators and entrepreneurs, Startup UCLA recently hired Rachael Parker-Chavez, an entrepreneur, lecturer and consultant with extensive experience with human-centered design and building up social impact businesses and nonprofits.

To learn more, visit https://startupucla.com.

This article was written by Shirley Li. 

Gift from Astrid and Howard Preston will Fund Renovation of UCLA’s Remote Observing Facility

Howard and Astrid Preston in front of a painting by Astrid in the UCLA Luskin Conference Center. (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

The UCLA College’s Division of Physical Sciences has received a gift of $500,000 from alumni Astrid and Howard Preston to renovate and expand the facility that allows prominent UCLA astronomers and research scientists to observe distant galaxies and stars without leaving campus.

Galaxy: Stellar orbits. (Photo courtesy of NCSA, UCLA / Keck)

Renamed in honor of the couple, the Astrid and Howard Preston Remote Observing Facility in Knudsen Hall provides remote access to the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the Lick telescope in Northern California, and, when completed, will also link to the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.

The division matched the Prestons’ gift at 50%, bringing the total investment to $750,000.

Dean of physical sciences Miguel García-Garibay said, “We are incredibly grateful for this generous gift, which will enhance remote observing capabilities for world-renowned research groups in our division for decades to come. It’s yet another impactful example of the Prestons’ long record of leadership and philanthropy in support of the Department of Physics & Astronomy.”

The Preston Remote Observing Facility is used by four leading astronomy UCLA research groups:

-The Galactic Center Group, led by 2020 Physics Nobel Laureate Andrea Ghez, studies the formation and evolution of galaxies and their central supermassive black holes.

-The Infrared Laboratory develops techniques and applications of infrared imaging devices for astrophysics, including infrared cameras and spectrometers for Lick Observatory, Keck Observatory, Gemini Observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Observatory, and NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

– Extrasolar planets and planetary science faculty study the dynamics and physical properties of the interiors, surfaces and atmospheres of Earth, planets, moons and other solar system objects.

– Cosmology, galaxies and galaxy evolution faculty study the nature of galactic nuclei and quasars, the first generation of galaxies and the structure of the early universe.

Following the renovation project, which is due to begin later this year, the facility will comprise 750 square feet with two distinct remote observing areas equipped with state-of-the-science technology, which can open to one shared area to optimize functionality of the space. Also included in the plans are areas for video conferencing, group discussion, food preparation, and even sleeping, since most observing time is scheduled during night and early morning hours.

Ghez, who holds the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics, said, “I can’t emphasize enough how critical the remote observing facility is to our work. It allows us convenient real-time access to precious telescope time so that we can collect the observational data that advances our research. The renovation made possible by the Prestons’ gift will not only make a huge difference to all of us who use the facility but also will facilitate the technical development of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Keck telescopes and the Lick telescope.”

Any funds remaining after completion of the project will be used to create an endowment to cover ongoing costs related to the space, including computational analysis, future renovations and maintenance, and technology upgrades.

The Prestons have supported the Department of Physics & Astronomy for more than 20 years. They previously established the Howard and Astrid Preston Term Chair in Astrophysics and the Preston Family Graduate Fellowship in Astrophysics. Howard serves on UCLA’s Galactic Center Group Board of Advisors and Physical Sciences Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund. Astrid is on the board of Women & Philanthropy at UCLA and the Department of English board of visitors. The couple met as UCLA undergrads in 1963. After earning a doctorate in physics, Howard founded Preston Cinema Systems, maker of high-tech camera and lens control systems for film and television. Astrid, who graduated with a B.A. in English, is an acclaimed painter.

Howard Preston said, “Astrid and I have followed the exciting progress of UCLA’s astronomy research groups for some time, and we know how important this facility is to their work. We are absolutely delighted that we can support this much-needed renovation and expansion, and we are eager to see what discoveries are around the corner.”

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald. 

UCLA establishes Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies

Dominic Thomas, UCLA’s Madeleine L. Letessier Professor of French and Francophone Studies, has been appointed chair of the new department. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

In a move that defies a national trend toward diminishing higher-education language instruction, UCLA has renewed its commitment to languages by establishing the Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies, or ELTS.

The new department brings together the existing departments of Germanic languages, French and Francophone studies, Italian and Scandinavian, but aims to offer a wider and more holistic course of study, focusing on the breadth of languages and cultures across Europe.

The term “transcultural” emphasizes shared European roots and an expanded focus on the perspectives of filmmakers, writers and theorists from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and elsewhere. This approach allows for a more pointed, rigorous and comprehensive understanding of history and a more accurate contextualization of the European experience and legacy in the world.

“This merger allows us to train an interdisciplinary lens on the rich and varied cultures of Europe while preserving the first-rate language instruction for which UCLA is known,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the UCLA College and dean of humanities. “If we truly want our students to be active participants in an intellectual, multilingual and globalized world, we must be prepared to make bold changes such as this.”

Over the past decade, traditional university language departments have been hit hard by shrinking budgets, faculty retirements and a drop in enrollment. According to the Modern Language Association, from 2013 to 2016, U.S. universities cut 651 foreign language programs: French lost 129 programs, followed by Spanish at 118, German at 86 and Italian at 56.

UCLA currently offers courses in 37 languages, and major departments include Asian languages and cultures and Near Eastern languages and cultures. Students enrolled in ELTS courses will, in addition to language training, benefit from an interdisciplinary humanistic approach, notably in the experimental humanities, which include digital, environmental, medical and urban studies, as well as culture, literature, film, postcolonial studies, philosophy, critical theory, media studies, Jewish studies, and gender and sexuality studies.

The new department is the culmination of extensive consultation among campus leaders and faculty in the departments involved, who voted unanimously in favor of the action.

Dominic Thomas, UCLA’s Madeleine L. Letessier Professor of French and Francophone Studies, has been appointed chair of the new department.

“UCLA students have the opportunity to achieve a well-rounded education and to pursue advanced research in a challenging intellectual environment with superior research facilities,” Thomas said. “Our goal is to explore how different fields not only overlap with one another in intellectually exciting ways but also transcend geography and history.

“In addition to a solid grounding in at least one language, students will develop some knowledge of each of the areas that constitute our discipline and how these are in conversation with the broader study of the past and present, in addition to how they have flourished in the humanities over the centuries,” he said.

Undergraduate students in the ELTS major and minor will soon be able to take interdisciplinary courses in European cultures and histories, as well as study individual languages such as Dutch, French, German, Italian, Swedish and Yiddish.

Thomas added, “The combination of cultural literacy, language prowess and analytical and writing skills will encourage research on human rights, diversity, and religious tolerance, while also giving ELTS students an edge in graduate school and in careers ranging from international law and business to education, the arts, media and journalism.”

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

A photo of Martin Monti.

Scientists jump-start two people’s brains after coma

A photo of Martin Monti.

Monti said two patients exhibited “behaviors [that] are diagnostic markers of emergence from a disorder of consciousness.” (Photo Credit: Ivy Reynolds)

In 2016, a team led by UCLA’s Martin Monti reported that a 25-year-old man recovering from a coma had made remarkable progress following a treatment to jump-start his brain using ultrasound.

Wired U.K. called the news one of the best things that happened in 2016. At the time, Monti acknowledged that although he was encouraged by the outcome, it was possible the scientists had gotten a little lucky.

Now, Monti and colleagues report that two more patients with severe brain injuries — both had been in what scientists call a long-term “minimally conscious state” — have made impressive progress thanks to the same technique. The results are published online in the journal Brain Stimulation.

“I consider this new result much more significant because these chronic patients were much less likely to recover spontaneously than the acute patient we treated in 2016 — and any recovery typically occurs slowly over several months and more typically years, not over days and weeks, as we show,” said Monti, a UCLA professor of psychology and neurosurgery and co-senior author of the new paper. “It’s very unlikely that our findings are simply due to spontaneous recovery.”

The paper notes that, of three people who received the treatment, one — a 58-year-old man who had been in a car accident five-and-a-half years prior to treatment and was minimally conscious — did not benefit. However, the other two did.

One is a 56-year-old man who had suffered a stroke and had been in a minimally conscious state, unable to communicate, for more than 14 months. After the first of two treatments, he demonstrated, for the first time, the ability to consistently respond to two distinct commands — the ability to drop or grasp a ball, and the ability to look toward separate photographs of two of his relatives when their names were mentioned.

He also could nod or shake his head to indicate “yes” or “no” when asked questions such as “Is X your name?” and “Is Y your wife’s name?”

Small but significant improvement

In the days following the second treatment, he also demonstrated, for the first time since the stroke, the ability to use a pen on paper and to raise a bottle to his mouth, as well as to communicate and answer questions.

“Importantly,” Monti said, “these behaviors are diagnostic markers of emergence from a disorder of consciousness.”

The other patient who improved is a 50-year-old woman who had been in even less of a conscious state for more than two-and-a-half years following cardiac arrest. In the days after the first treatment, she was able, for the first time in years, according to her family, to recognize a pencil, a comb and other objects.

Both patients showed the ability to understand speech.

“What is remarkable is that both exhibited meaningful responses within just a few days of the intervention,” Monti said. “This is what we hoped for, but it is stunning to see it with your own eyes. Seeing two of our three patients who had been in a chronic condition improve very significantly within days of the treatment is an extremely promising result.”

The changes the researchers saw are small, but Monti said even the smallest form of communication means a way to reconnect. One powerful moment during the study was when the wife of the 56-year-old man showed him photos and asked whether he recognized who he saw.

“She said to us, ‘This is the first conversation I had with him since the accident,’” Monti said. “For these patients, the smallest step can be very meaningful — for them and their families. To them it means the world.”

Using acoustic energy

Scientists used a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain.

The scientists used a technique called low-intensity focused ultrasound, which uses sonic stimulation to excite the neurons in the thalamus, an egg-shaped structure that serves as the brain’s central hub for processing. After a coma, thalamus function is typically weakened, Monti said.

An image of a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain

Scientists used a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain. (Photo Credit: Martin Monti/UCLA)

Doctors use a device about the size of a saucer creates a small sphere of acoustic energy they can aim at different brain regions to excite brain tissue. The researchers placed the device by the side of each patient’s head and activated it 10 times for 30 seconds each in a 10-minute period. Each patient underwent two sessions, one week apart.

Monti hopes to eventually translate the technology into an inexpensive, portable device so the treatment could be delivered not only at state-of-the-art medical centers, but also at patients’ homes, to help “wake up” patients from a minimally conscious or vegetative state.

The treatment appears to be well tolerated; the researchers saw no changes to the patients’ blood pressure, heart rate or blood oxygen levels, and no other adverse events. Monti said the device is safe because it emits only a small amount of energy, less than a conventional Doppler ultrasound.

While the scientists are excited by the results, they emphasize that the technique is still experimental and likely will not be available to the public for at least a few years. For now, there is little that can be done to help patients recover from a severe brain injury that results in either a chronic vegetative state or a minimally conscious state, Monti said.

Monti said his team is planning additional studies to learn exactly how thalamic ultrasound modifies brain function; he hopes to start those clinical trials once the researchers and patients are assured of being safe from COVID-19.

The study’s lead author is Josh Cain, a UCLA graduate student in psychology, and a co-senior author is Caroline Schnakers, a former UCLA researcher who is now assistant director of research at Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare in Pomona, California. The work was funded by the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation and the Dana Foundation.

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