A photo of the UCLA campus.

Photoessay: The UCLA Campus during Coronavirus

A PHOTO ESSAY

Photos of UCLA’s beautiful campus, most of them taken on March 17, one week after classes moved to remote instruction in the face of the growing pandemic. We can’t wait to see Bruins back on Bruin Walk when it’s safe to return. In the meantime, be kind and be well. #bruinstrong

ROYCE HALL

A photo of Royce Hall.

© Christelle Snow

BRUIN WALK

A photo of Bruin Walk.

© Christelle Snow

JANSS STEPS

A photo of Janss Steps.

© Christelle Snow

POWELL LIBRARY

A photo of Powell Library.

© Christelle Snow

INSIDE POWELL LIBRARY

A photo inside of Powell Library.

© Christelle Snow

UCLA CAMPUS

A photo of the UCLA campus.

© Pete Saloutos

An employment among homeless graphic.

Nearly 75% of L.A. County’s homeless previously worked in California

An employment among homeless graphic.

Illustration of a retail employee superimposed over a Los Angeles street map. (Photo Credit: California Policy Lab)

report published Feb. 26 by the California Policy Lab at UCLA sheds light on people’s employment histories before, during and after they received homelessness services in Los Angeles County.

The report’s authors studied data for more than 130,000 people who received homeless services from Los Angeles County. They found that 74% of people who experienced homelessness had some work history in California and that 47% had worked in the four years prior to becoming homeless.

But only 19% had worked in the calendar quarter they became homeless, and the average annual earnings for people who worked before experiencing homelessness was only $9,970 in the year before they became homeless — just 16% of the Los Angeles area median income of $61,015.

“There’s often an assumption that people experiencing homelessness are not working,” said Till von Wachter, a co-author of the report and faculty director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA. “While it’s true that some individuals in our study had not worked in a long time, a substantial number — close to half — were working within four years before entering homelessness. These recent workers had a higher likelihood of returning to work after receiving services and their average earnings were also higher.”

Von Wachter, a UCLA economics professor, said the study’s findings — particularly those on who is most likely to work after enrolling for homeless services — could be used to tailor workforce programs that would help people who are receiving services to find employment and to increase the earnings of homeless service clients.

The study’s three main findings:

The likelihood of people finding employment after they enrolled in homeless services varied widely based on demographic factors and work history. For example, people who were recently employed before becoming homeless and younger people were more likely to be employed after homelessness. To a lesser degree, adults in families, and people without mental and physical health issues also had higher employment rates than the average for the entire sample. Understanding those differences could help officials better target services to those who are most likely to find gainful employment.

The employment rates for certain groups of people in the study improved within the two-year period after they enrolled to receive homeless services, although the authors pointed out that the relationship between the two facts may not be causal. For example, people in transitional housing and people who came from stable housing saw increases in employment rates after enrolling.

Sixty-five percent of the people in the study worked in four broad job categories prior to enrolling in homeless services: 28% in administrative support, waste management and remediation services; 14% in health care and social assistance fields; 12% in accommodation and food services; and 11% in retail. That finding could help inform the types of job training and placement programs that could help prevent homelessness or help people transition out of homelessness.

For the study, the researchers used data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority from 2010 to 2018 for people who were 18 to 70 years old at the time they enrolled for services, and state employment records from the California Employment Development Department for 1995 to 2018.

The authors wrote that although report should improve understanding of employment trends among people who receive homeless services in Los Angeles, more research is needed to develop specific policy recommendations. Future research should examine whether job loss is the direct cause of homelessness and for whom, and how workforce and training programs could either prevent homelessness or accelerate exits from homelessness.

The California Policy Lab creates data-driven insights for the public good. Based at UCLA and UC Berkeley, it partners with researchers at other University of California campuses, as well as with California’s state and local governments to generate scientific evidence that solves California’s most urgent problems, including homelessness, poverty, crime and education inequality.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

 

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

Creative thinkers put kindness on the menu at dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

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.

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.

Photograph of homeless tent encampment.

L.A. could better target homeless prevention services with predictive analytics

Photograph of homeless tent encampment.

Photo credit: California Policy Lab

Each year, 2 million single adults receive housing, health, and emergency services from Los Angeles County. About 2% of them — around 76,000 people — will become homeless. Predictive modeling could help address the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles County, according to a report by researchers from the California Policy Lab at UCLA, and the Poverty Lab at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

Using data from seven Los Angeles County agencies about services they provided to county residents between 2012 and 2016 — the residents’ names and personally identifiable information were omitted and each person was assigned an ID number for the study — researchers developed a model to predict which 3,000 residents were most likely to become homeless in 2017.

The researchers then checked the accuracy of their predictions against county records, and found that 46% of the people predicted by the model to be at risk for first-time homelessness or a repeat spell of homelessness did in fact become homeless at some point during 2017.

“Bringing together data from multiple county agencies gave us a more nuanced understanding about what’s happening to people right before they slip into homeless and how services can be better targeted to prevent that from happening,” said Till von Wachter, a UCLA economics professor and co-author of the report.  Von Wachter is also faculty director at the California Policy Lab.

The California Policy Lab pairs UCLA and other UC researchers with policymakers to solve urgent social problems, including homelessness, poverty, crime and education inequality.

The research informed an action plan that was developed by the county-led Mainstream Systems Homelessness Prevention Workgroup. That plan, which was submitted to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 16, recommends that the county use predictive models to intervene with adults who are identified as having a high risk for homelessness before they reach a crisis.

It also suggests that the county launch a multidisciplinary homelessness prevention unit that includes representatives of the county’s departments of mental health, health services and social services, and the sheriff and probation offices. The unit would accept referrals from the risks lists generated by the predictive models, identify which programs or services would be most helpful for each individual, and then reach out to people to connect them to those services.

The plan is expected to receive $3 million in funding during 2020 from Measure H, a sales tax approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2017 to help address the homeless crisis, in addition to drawing some existing resources from Los Angeles County departments.

“Last year, despite providing housing to tens of thousands of people, we saw more and more individuals and families becoming homeless,” said Phil Ansell, the director of the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative. “The county is focused on using strategic approaches to preventing homelessness, and these groundbreaking models will make it possible to reach those who need us the most before they reach the crisis point and fall into homelessness.”

The models allowed researches to identify warning signs that could help local governments intervene early, especially for residents living in deep poverty, said Harold Pollack, the Helen Ross Professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and a co-author of the study. The research that led to the new recommendations was begun at Chicago.

“The models suggest that sharp spikes in service use, increasingly frequent service use and the receipt of multiple services from a single agency are all warning signs that someone is at high risk for homelessness,” Pollack said. “We’re now diving deeper into the models with our Los Angeles County partners to learn more and to see how these results can help focus public health and social services to this vulnerable population.”

Janey Rountree, executive director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA, said using the predictive models could go a long way toward making sure homeless prevention services reach the right people at the right time.

“Predictive modeling can help ensure that happens, before they’re in a full-blown crisis,” she said. “We look forward to seeing its impact in connecting people to the help they need.”

The study also found:

  • Effectively serving the 1% of county clients who have the greatest risk for a new homeless spell would prevent nearly 6,900 homeless spells in one year.
  • County residents who have the highest risk for homelessness are interacting with multiple agencies.
  • Falling into homelessness happens very quickly, typically within six months of a precipitating event, meaning that Los Angeles County and service providers must react quickly.

The research was provided at no cost to the county. Financial support was provided by Arnold Ventures and the Max Factor Family Foundation.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim.

Activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim wins Pritzker Award for young environmental innovators

Picture of Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim reacts to the award announcement as UCLA professor Magali Delmas (left) looks on. Photo: Jonathan Young/UCLA

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability presented the 2019 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award to Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of Chad’s Mbororo indigenous semi-nomadic community.

Ibrahim promotes environmental protections for indigenous groups through work with international organizations, including as a member of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Partnership’s policy board. She also leads a community-based environmental coalition in the region surrounding Lake Chad, a critical water source that has shrunk 90% since 1980 — in part because temperatures in the area rose 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past century. Violent conflict has occasionally broken out among groups competing for the vital resource.

The annual award carries a prize of $100,000, which is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Ibrahim said the award, which was presented Nov. 7 at UCLA’s Hershey Hall, will help amplify the voices of 370 million indigenous people around the world.

“The voices of indigenous people are being heard here — through me, through all of you and through this prize,” Ibrahim said. “We are all together. We will win this battle, I am so confident.”

University researchers, Pentagon experts and others have found that rapid climate change — driven largely by human-caused carbon emissions — have contributed to a growing number of armed conflicts. The phenomenon is expected to particularly affect regions that are already unstable.

To prevent and reduce conflict in the Lake Chad basin, Ibrahim developed a program that gathers information on natural resources from farmers, fisherman and herders in more than a dozen African ethnic groups, and then produces 3D maps of those natural resources that their communities can share. The effort is intended to reduce the chance for conflict among the groups.

“It’s amazing to see women and men who have never been to school working jointly to build 3D maps that share critical knowledge, like where fresh water can be found even in the worst days of a drought,” Ibrahim wrote in her award application. “But the most interesting aspect of this project is that it helps to reduce conflict and tension between communities.”

Hindou is an official adviser to the UN Secretary General in advance of a major climate summit taking place in Glasgow in September 2020. She also advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s rights and environmental justice in high-profile global forums, including as a National Geographic Explorer and a senior indigenous fellow for Conservation International.

Picture of a group taking a selfie.

Shawn Escoffery, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Foundation, with the 2019 Pritzker Award finalists, May Boeve, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim and Varshini Prakash. Photo: Jonathan Young/UCLA

The Pritzker Award is open to anyone working to solve environmental challenges through any lens — from science to advocacy and entrepreneurism. But all three finalists for this year’s award were activists, which may reflect the global trend of young people taking a more vigorous role in fighting against climate change. In addition to Ibrahim, the finalists were May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, and Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement. Finalists were selected by a panel of UCLA faculty from 20 candidates who were nominated by an international group of environmental leaders.

Ibrahim was chosen as winner by five distinguished judges: Shawn Escoffery, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Foundation; sustainability and marketing expert Geof Rochester; philanthropists Wendy Schmidt and Nicolas Berggruen; and Kathryn Sullivan, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the first American woman to walk in space.

Peter Kareiva, director of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the Pritzker Award’s biggest value is that it brings together a community of candidates, past winners, UCLA faculty and the environmental leaders who serve as judges and nominators.

“We’re way beyond the time where a single innovation is going to do it, a single policy is going to do it. We’re way beyond that,” Kareiva said.

After receiving the award from Tony Pritzker, Ibrahim echoed that sentiment and called the other finalists up to the podium.

“We need action, and this action can only happen if we all join hands,” Ibrahim said. “We will make it all together.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Narrowing the gap between physics and chemistry

Eric Hudson

Eric Hudson

By Stuart Wolpert

UCLA physicists have pioneered a method for creating a unique new molecule that could lead to many useful applications in medicine, food science and other fields. Their research, published in the journal Science, also shows how chemical reactions can be studied on a microscopic scale using tools of physics.

For the past 200 years, scientists have developed rules to describe chemical reactions that they have observed, including reactions in food, vitamins, medications and living organisms. One of the most ubiquitous is the “octet rule,” which states that each atom in a molecule that is produced by a chemical reaction will have eight outer orbiting electrons. (Scientists have found rare exceptions to the rule).

The molecule created by professor Eric Hudson and colleagues violates that rule. Barium-oxygen-calcium, or BaOCa+, is the first molecule ever observed by scientists that is composed of an oxygen atom bonded to two different metal atoms.

Normally, one metal atom (either barium or calcium) can react with an oxygen atom to produce a stable molecule. However, when the UCLA scientists added a second metal atom to the mix, a new molecule, BaOCa+, which no longer satisfied the octet rule, had been formed.

Ultra-cold physics tools
Other molecules that violate the octet rule have been observed before, but the UCLA study is among the first to observe such a molecule using tools from physics – namely lasers, ion traps and ultra-cold atom traps.

Hudson’s laboratory used laser light to cool tiny amounts of the reactant atoms and molecules to an extremely low temperature – one one-thousandth of a degree above absolute zero – and then levitate them in a space smaller than the width of a human hair, inside of a vacuum chamber. Under these highly controlled conditions, the scientists could observe properties of the atoms and molecules that are otherwise hidden, and the “physics tools” they used enabled them to hold a sample of atoms and observe chemical reactions one molecule at a time.

The ultra-cold temperatures used in the experiment can also be used to simulate the reaction as it would occur in outer space. That could help scientists understand how certain complex molecules, including some that could be precursors to life, came to exist in space, Hudson said.

The researchers found that when they brought together calcium and barium methoxide inside of their system under normal conditions, they would not react because the atoms could not find a way to rearrange themselves to form a stable molecule. However, when the scientists used a laser to change the distribution of the electrons in the calcium atom, the reaction quickly proceeded, producing a new molecule, CaOBa+.

The Hudson group’s approach is part of a new physics-inspired subfield of chemistry that uses the tools of ultra-cold physics, such as lasers and electromagnetism, to observe and control how and when single-particle reactions occur.

Practical applications
Graduate student Prateek Puri, the project’s lead researcher, said the experiment demonstrates not only how these techniques can be used to create exotic molecules, but also how they can be used to engineer important reactions. The discovery could ultimately be used to create new methods for preserving food and developing safer medications.

“Experiments like these pave the way for developing new methods for controlling chemistry,” Puri said. “We’re essentially creating ‘on buttons’ for reactions.”

Food decays, he said, when undesired chemical reactions occur between food and the environment. Similarly, many medicines induce chemical reactions that can cause harm to the body. Perhaps in the future, scientists could prevent these types of reactions from occurring, or reduce their frequency, Hudson said.

Hudson said one key to the success of the new study was the involvement of experts from various fields: experimental physicists, theoretical physicists and a physical chemist.

Co-authors of the study are Christian Schneider, a UCLA research scientist; Michael Mills, a UCLA graduate student; Ionel Simbotin, a University of Connecticut physics postdoctoral scholar; John Montgomery Jr., a University of Connecticut research professor of physics; Robin Côté, a University of Connecticut professor of physics; and Arthur Suits, a University of Missouri professor of chemistry. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and Army Research Office.

Findings lead to new areas of study
“We realized we could create molecules in ways we had not appreciated before,” Hudson said. “That led us to start thinking about designing molecules differently.”

As an outgrowth of this insight, a research team involving Hudson and led by Wesley Campbell, associate professor of physics, has been awarded a three-year, $2.7 million U.S. Department of Energy Quantum Information Science Research Award. The emerging, multidisciplinary field of quantum information science is expected to lay the foundation for the next generation of computing and information processing, as well as many other innovative technologies.

Quantum computers, once fully developed, will be capable of solving large, extremely complex problems that are beyond the
capacity of today’s most powerful supercomputers. Among other applications, quantum systems hold the promise of potentially
exquisitely sensitive sensors, with a variety of possible medical, national security and scientific applications.

With this funding, faculty in chemistry and physics will develop and study “molecules functionalized with optical cycling centers,” accelerating research into next-generation chemical systems for quantum information storage and processing.

The primary investigators of this grant are Campbell; Hudson; Justin Caram, a UCLA assistant professor of chemistry; Anastassia Alexandrova, UCLA associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Anna Krylov, USC professor of chemistry; John Doyle, Harvard University professor of physics; and Nick Hutzler, Caltech assistant professor of physics.