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

Martin Monti/UCLA

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.

A photo of Royce Hall.

Match funds stimulate establishment of nine centennial term chairs

UCLA College donors gave gifts to establish nine endowed centennial term chairs in the final year of the Centennial Campaign, taking advantage of the opportunity to enhance the impact of their philanthropy through a $5-million dollar match fund.

A photo of Royce Hall.

The Centennial Term Chair Match Fund was set up by Dean of Physical Sciences Miguel García-Garibay using proceeds of UCLA’s sale of royalty interest in the prostate cancer drug Xtandi, which was developed by chemists in the UCLA College’s physical sciences division. The fund was intended to bolster efforts to hire and retain early-career faculty through the establishment of faculty term chairs. Centennial chair holders also will form a distinct cohort that brings College faculty together and advises the College deans on various initiatives.

Senior Dean of UCLA College David Schaberg said, “By ‘sharing the wealth’ through the match fund, Dean García-Garibay found an innovative way to spur investment in faculty throughout the College and engage donors who share our commitment to faculty excellence.”

Prestigious endowed chairs play a key role in recruiting and retaining premier faculty whose interdisciplinary research, commitment to mentoring students, and talent for teaching are essential to the university’s vitality and impact. UCLA vies with other top-tier universities, including many with much larger endowments, for the best faculty. Along with the prestige and recognition that come with an endowed chair, chair holders receive funds for research costs as well to support graduate students who teach and mentor undergraduates. Term chairs, while renewable, generally are awarded every five years to ensure representation of a cross-section of academic fields.

Below are the nine centennial term chairs established or committed:

Division of Humanities

– Theresa McShane Biggs and Henry P. Biggs Centennial Term Chair in Linguistics

– George P. Kolovos Family Centennial Term Chair in Hellenic Studies

 

Division of Life Sciences

– George and Nouhad Ayoub Centennial Chair in Life Sciences Innovation

– Kevin Love Fund Centennial Chair in Psychology*

 

Division of Physical Sciences

– Randy Schekman and Sabeeha Merchant Centennial Term Chair

– The Andrea M. Ghez Centennial Term Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics (gifts from Astrid and Howard Preston, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, and the Heising-Simons Foundation)

 

Division of Social Sciences

– Benjamin Graham Centennial Endowed Chair in Value Investing (gift from the Havner Family Foundation)

– Mark Itkin Centennial Chair in Communication honoring Andrea L. Rich* (gift from Mark Allen Itkin)

 

Division of Undergraduate Education

– Centennial Director for Philanthropy Education (gift from Madeline and Mark Asofsky)

 

*Pending approval by UCOP

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald. 

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

12 UCLA College scientists among world’s most influential researchers

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

A researcher in the lab. Photo Credit: iStock.com

Thirty-six UCLA scholars have been named as the world’s most influential scientific researchers. Twelve are from UCLA College.

Clarivate released its annual list of the most highly cited researchers, which includes dozens of UCLA scientists across various disciplines. The list is compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate using data based on scholarly publication counts and citation indexes. The selected researchers wrote publications that ranked in the top 1% by citations in their field for that year, according to the Web of Science citation index.

Current UCLA College faculty members and researchers who were named to the list, noted with their primary UCLA research field or fields, are:

For the full list and article, written by Max Gordy, please visit the UCLA Newsroom

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez wins 2020 Nobel Prize in physics

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics. Photo Credit: Elena Zhukova

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, today was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics.

Ghez shares half of the prize with Reinhard Genzel of UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The Nobel committee praised them for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” The other half of the prize was awarded to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

In July 2019, the journal Science published a study by Ghez and her research group that is the most comprehensive test of Albert Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy. Although she concluded that “Einstein’s right, at least for now,” the research group is continuing to test Einstein’s theory, which she says cannot fully explain gravity inside a black hole.

Ghez studies more than 3,000 stars that orbit the supermassive black hole. Black holes have such high density that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. The center of the vast majority of galaxies appears to have a supermassive black hole, she said.

“I’m thrilled and incredibly honored to receive a Nobel Prize in physics,” said Ghez, who is director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. “The research the Nobel committee is honoring today is the product of a wonderful collaboration among the scientists in the UCLA Galactic Center Orbits Initiative and the University of California’s wise investment in the W.M. Keck Observatory.

“We have cutting-edge tools and a world-class research team, and that combination makes discovery tremendous fun. Our understanding of how the universe works is still so incomplete. The Nobel Prize is fabulous, but we still have a lot to learn.”

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block lauded Ghez for her accomplishments.

“The UCLA community is exceedingly proud of Professor Ghez’s achievements, including this extraordinary honor,” Block said. “We are inspired by her research uncovering the secrets of our universe and its potential to help us better understand the cosmos.”

David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said: “The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole.”

Ghez and her team have made direct measurements of how gravity works near a supermassive black hole — research she describes as “extreme astrophysics.”

Einstein’s general theory of relativity is the best description of how gravity works. “However, his theory is definitely showing vulnerability,” Ghez said in 2019. “[A]t some point we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.”

Less than two months after her publication in Science, she and her research group reported in Astrophysical Journal Letters the surprising finding that the supermassive black hole is having an unusually large meal of interstellar gas and dust — and they do not yet understand why.

“We have never seen anything like this in the 24 years we have studied the supermassive black hole,” she said at the time. “It’s usually a pretty quiet, wimpy black hole on a diet. We don’t know what is driving this big feast.”

In January 2020, her team reported the discovery of a new class of bizarre objects — objects that look like gas and behave like stars — at the center of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole.

Ghez and her team conducted their research at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. They are able to see the impact of how space and time get comingled near the supermassive black hole, which is some 26,000 light-years away.

“Making a measurement of such fundamental importance has required years of patient observing, enabled by state-of-the-art technology,” Richard Green, director of the National Science Foundation’s division of astronomical sciences, said in 2019.

“Andrea is one of our most passionate and tenacious Keck users,” Keck Observatory director Hilton Lewis said, also in 2019. “Her latest groundbreaking research is the culmination of unwavering commitment over the past two decades to unlock the mysteries of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.”

The National Science Foundation funded Ghez’s research for the past 25 years. More recently, her research has also been funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In 1998, Ghez answered one of astronomy’s most important questions, helping to show that a supermassive black hole resides at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The question had been a subject of much debate among astronomers for more than a quarter of a century.

Ghez helped pioneer a powerful technology called adaptive optics, which corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time and opened the center of our galaxy as a laboratory for exploring black holes and their fundamental role in the evolution of the universe. With adaptive optics at the Keck Observatory, she and her colleagues have revealed many surprises about the environments surrounding supermassive black holes, discovering, for example, young stars where none were expected and a lack of old stars where many were anticipated.

In 2000, Ghez and her research team reported that for the first time, astronomers had seen stars accelerate around the supermassive black hole. In 2003, she and her team reported that the case for the Milky Way’s black hole had been strengthened substantially and that all of the proposed alternatives could be excluded.

In 2005, Ghez and her colleagues took the first clear picture of the center of the Milky Way, including the area surrounding the black hole, at the Keck Observatory.

Ghez has earned numerous honors for her research, including election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; she was the first woman to receive the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize, and she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008. In 2019, she was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT in 1987 and a doctorate from Caltech in 1992, and she has been a member of the UCLA faculty since 1994. When she was young, she wanted to be the first woman to walk on the moon.

Ghez is the eighth UCLA faculty member to be named a Nobel laureate, joining Willard Libby (chemistry, 1960), Julian Schwinger (physics, 1965), Donald Cram (chemistry, 1987), Paul Boyer (chemistry, 1997), Louis Ignarro (physiology or medicine, 1998), Lloyd Shapley (economics, 2012) and J. Fraser Stoddart (2016). Stoddart was a Northwestern University faculty member when he received the honor, but much of the work for which he was recognized was conducted at UCLA from 1997 to 2008.

In addition, seven UCLA alumni have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Ghez is also the fourth woman to receive the physics prize, following Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.

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

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

UCLA faculty couple leaves nearly $9 million for psychology and other programs

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel outside Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Andrews)

UCLA has received more than $8.7 million from the estate of the late Bernice Wenzel and Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey, UCLA professors who were well known for their longtime commitment to the university.

More than $4.5 million of their gift will support four faculty chairs, scholarships, fellowships and colloquia in the UCLA College’s psychology department. The couple had previously endowed the department’s annual Jeffrey Lecture series and the Wendell Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel Term Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“Bernice Wenzel and Wendell Jeffrey were incredible supporters of UCLA Psychology and firm believers in collaborative education and research among students and faculty alike,” said department chair Annette Stanton. “We are deeply grateful for their own contributions to science and society and for their continuing commitment to training talented students and retaining exceptional faculty.”

The rest of the funds will support the Hammer Museum at UCLA, the UCLA Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center and the UCLA Library, along with the annual Henry J. Bruman Chamber Music Festival in the UCLA College’s division of humanities. The range of benefiting areas highlights Wenzel’s and Jeffrey’s diverse interests. Lifelong learners, the two led distinguished careers as scientists but also enjoyed music, art and travel together, giving not only to UCLA but also to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Ojai Music Festival.

The couple maintained a unique connection with UCLA, where they spent significant portions of their careers. Wenzel was a professor in the department of physiology and the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and served as an assistant dean for educational research at the medical school from 1974 to 1989. Known for her groundbreaking discovery that pigeons smell and use sight and sound to guide themselves, she also helped break the glass ceiling as part of the first generation of female professors.

Jeffrey was a developmental psychologist in the psychology department, studying the learning processes of young children and mentoring graduate students by supervising research, facilitating collaboration and introducing them to well-known experts. Many of his protégés went on to become professors themselves.

The two hosted numerous student gatherings on campus and at their home, and they remained deeply engaged with UCLA after their retirement. They regularly visited campus, and Wenzel served as president of the emeriti association in 1994–95. She also was part of the Wednesday Group, a group of retired faculty and campus leaders that continued to meet weekly at the Faculty Center. Jeffrey died in 2015 and Wenzel in 2018.

“Bernice and Wendell were Bruins through and through, and their investment in education and the arts at UCLA will remain a fitting testament to their generosity and wisdom,” said Lynn Andrews, the couple’s niece, who recalls visiting her aunt and uncle on campus and benefiting from their philanthropic and artistic influences. “Having them in the family — whether my own or UCLA’s — was always an extra-special blessing.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness (Photo Credit: Juliette Borda)

With so many people hurting in this turmoil-filled year — be it physically, economically, socially or psychologically — it’s hard to imagine a time when acts of kindness, both large and small, were in greater demand. For anyone resolving to contribute to a more compassionate and just planet, there’s good news: Kindness is contagious.

UCLA anthropology professor Daniel M.T. Fessler has led studies demonstrating that when we witness altruistic acts, the uplifting emotional experience motivates us to follow suit. Idealists are the most strongly affected, with cynics — those who tend to see others as self-interested — harder to move. What’s more, the effect appears to be cumulative. “We have good reason to believe not just that kindness is contagious in the moment,” Fessler says, “but that repeated experiences of kindness or unkindness shape people’s expectations, and those expectations in turn shape their behaviors.”

Fessler is the inaugural director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, established last fall as an effort to better understand kindness through evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. In addition to supporting research, the institute aims to translate findings in ways that promote kindness — which it defines as actions intended to benefit another party wherein the benefit is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

If kindness is contagious, fear of a different contagion poses barriers. The era of COVID-19 has placed constraints on physical contact and face-to-face interactions, often dulling the experience of giving and receiving kind acts. We wear masks that hide emotional expressions and veer away from strangers on sidewalks. On the other hand, Fessler points out that at no other time in human history could we communicate with anyone, instantly, and provide benefits so easily without leaving our homes. “Even as there are pragmatic constraints to the emotional experience that’s an important part of kindness, there is enormous opportunity for positive interactions,” he says. “People need to work together, recognizing that our common humanity is important not only in this moment, but in solving major challenges to come.”

Idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness.

For those of us contemplating how to help create a kinder world, Fessler offers the following advice:

Acknowledge strangers

Spreading kindness starts with the everyday encounters we have with people we don’t know. “There is research showing that positive small-talk interactions, like the chat you have with the cashier at the grocery store, enhance well-being,” Fessler notes. In the era of COVID-19, making such connections might require a little more effort. Exchanging smiles with the individual crossing your path isn’t possible if you’re both wearing masks, but a wave or a head nod can suffice. When no-contact food delivery was instituted as a safety precaution, the transaction became faceless, but “people can still leave a sign on the door saying, ‘I appreciate your making it possible for me to stay home,’ as a way of breaking down the anonymity,” Fessler says.

Make a connection

At a time when many are feeling socially isolated, among the kindest acts is to reach out to family, friends, neighbors and anyone else who might benefit from some company, even if it’s via phone, text or Zoom. Older adults in particular are at high risk for loneliness, especially during the pandemic. “Recording their experiences in a different kind of world can have inestimable value in the future, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an elderly person who didn’t like to tell stories from the past,” Fessler suggests. “It’s emotionally powerful for both interviewer and interviewee, and the technology affords it like never before.”

Watch your media consumption

The finding that idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness has led Fessler to examine the effects of media consumption in shaping our perceptions of those around us. “We know, for example, that people who consume a lot of local news overestimate the probability of being victimized by violence,” he says. “If you’re constantly hearing messages that people are bad, it’s probably going to affect not only your mental well-being and physical health, but also how you view other people.” In addition to curating a media diet that’s less focused on the darker aspects of human behavior, choosing to surround ourselves with kind people will likely increase our own kindness quotient.

Play to your strengths

With unlimited possibilities for kindness, determining how to act often involves thinking about people’s practical needs and matching them up with your own interests and talents. “Volunteering to deliver groceries to people who can’t get out because they’re at greater risk of the virus — that’s a beautiful thing,” Fessler says. Other pandemic-era examples: sewing masks for neighbors or offering virtual tutoring sessions for children whose parents are struggling to meet work/family obligations. “People need to look at their skill sets,” Fessler says. “Some are naturally garrulous, while others are not as comfortable interacting with people, but they’re good musicians and can entertain neighbors or people online playing guitar.” Of course, kindness can extend far beyond our immediate community. “One thing made clear by this pandemic is that everyone on the planet is connected,” Fessler asserts. “People can think creatively about ways to provide benefits to those they would otherwise never interact with.”

Start small

The universe of kind acts is infinite, and organizations such as the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have aggregated the possibilities. “Everyone needs to assess their own situation in terms of their health, obligations to other people, financial resources and so on, and decide what they’re able to do,” Fessler says. “If you can give money, obviously there are many causes that can benefit enormously. But if you’re not in a position to do that, maybe you have oranges or avocados from your yard that you can bring to a food pantry.” And those who are motivated to find new ways to practice kindness should feel free to start small. Fessler’s expectation is that the satisfaction we derive from making even small gestures will prompt us to increase our investments in altruistic actions. “The vast majority of people who try to do things that benefit others will find those things rewarding,” Fessler says. “That’s how we’re wired.”

Remember, it’s the thought that counts

Fessler is quick to point out that actions don’t have to be great to be kind. Is that fruit from your backyard bruised? It’s still a kind act to share it. You’re just a so-so musician? Your friends or neighbors might still enjoy listening to you perform. The bottom line, Fessler explains, is that kindness is defined in terms of the intended actions, not the results. “We are very attuned to discerning the genuineness of others’ actions,” he says. “If we see that someone’s emotions suggest they are genuinely motivated simply to help others, we admire them and are motivated to be kind ourselves. Not every well-intentioned action will succeed, but only some of them have to in order to make the world a better place.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of the magazine cover.

UCLA College Magazine Special Centennial Issue

UCLA College Magazine 2020

UCLA College Magazine 2020

Little did we know that, barely a year after the start of our centennial year, we would be publishing the special centennial issue of the UCLA College Magazine in the midst of such extraordinary, generation-defining times.

Yet here we are. If anything, this look back at the College’s defining moments over the past 100 years reminds us of the determination and resilience of generations of Bruins who have built the College’s legacy of excellence despite obstacles and challenges — and who will undoubtedly continue to do so throughout our second century.

We hope you enjoy this issue of the magazine. May it be a source of pride, joy and hope for a bright future. Fiat lux! Go Bruins!

For the full magazine click here >>

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

How conspiracy theories emerge – and how their storylines fall apart

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

Researchers produced a graphic representation of the narratives they analyzed, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A new study by UCLA professors offers a new way to understand how unfounded conspiracy theories emerge online. The research, which combines sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured, explains how unrelated facts and false information can connect into a narrative framework that would quickly fall apart if some of those elements are taken out of the mix.

The authors, from the UCLA College and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, illustrated the difference in the storytelling elements of a debunked conspiracy theory and those that emerged when journalists covered an actual event in the news media. Their approach could help shed light on how and why other conspiracy theories, including those around COVID-19, spread — even in the absence of facts.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, analyzed the spread of news about the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey — an actual conspiracy — and the spread of misinformation about the 2016 “Pizzagate” myth, the completely fabricated conspiracy theory that a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring that involved prominent Democratic Party officials, including Hillary Clinton.

The researchers used machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to analyze the information that spread online about the Pizzagate story. The AI automatically can tease out all of the people, places, things and organizations in a story spreading online — whether the story is true or fabricated — and identify how they are related to each other.

Finding the puzzle pieces

In either case — whether for a conspiracy theory or an actual news story — the narrative framework is established by the relationships among all of the elements of the storyline. And, it turns out, conspiracy theories tend to form around certain elements that act as the adhesive holding the facts and characters together.

“Finding narratives hidden in social media forums is like solving a huge jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication of noise, where many of the pieces are just irrelevant,” said Vwani Roychowdhury, a UCLA professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in machine learning, and a lead author of the paper.

In recent years, researchers have made great strides in developing artificial intelligence tools that can analyze batches of text and identify the pieces to those puzzles. As the AI learns to identify patterns, identities and interactions that are embedded in words and phrases, the narratives begin to make “sense.” Drawing from the massive amount of data available on social media, and because of improving technology, the systems are increasingly able to teach themselves to “read” narratives, almost as if they were human.

The visual representations of those story frameworks showed the researchers how false conspiracy theory narratives are held together by threads that connect multiple characters, places and things. But they found that if even one of those threads is cut, the other elements often can’t form a coherent story without it.

A conspiracy theory unravels: The researchers found that with Wikileaks relationships removed as the “glue” for the false narrative, other elements of the Pizzagate myth quickly disconnected from one another. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“One of the characteristics of a conspiracy theory narrative framework is that it is easily ‘disconnected,’” said Timothy Tangherlini, one of the paper’s lead authors, a professor in the UCLA Scandinavian section whose scholarship focuses on folklore, legend and popular culture. “If you take out one of the characters or story elements of a conspiracy theory, the connections between the other elements of the story fall apart.”

Which elements stick?

In contrast, he said, the stories around actual conspiracies — because they’re true — tend to stand up even if any given element of the story is removed from the framework. Consider Bridgegate, for example, in which New Jersey officials closed several lanes of the George Washington Bridge for politically motivated reasons. Even if any number of threads were removed from the news coverage of the scandal, the story would have held together: All of the characters involved had multiple points of connection by way of their roles in New Jersey politics.

“They are all within the same domain, in this case New Jersey politics, which will continue to exist irrespective of the deletions,” Tangherlini said. “Those connections don’t require the same ‘glue’ that a conspiracy theory does.”

Tangherlini calls himself a “computational folklorist.” Over the past several years, he has collaborated regularly with Roychowdhury to better understand the spread of information around hot-button issues like the anti-vaccination movement.

To analyze Pizzagate, in which the conspiracy theory arose from a creative interpretation of hacked emails released in 2016 by Wikileaks, the researchers analyzed nearly 18,000 posts from April 2016 through February 2018 from discussion boards on the websites Reddit and Voat.

“When we looked at the layers and structure of the narrative about Pizzagate, we found that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up,” Tangherlini said. “In this conspiracy, the Wikileaks email dump and how theorists creatively interpreted the content of what was in the emails are the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

The data generated by the AI analysis enabled the researchers to produce a graphic representation of narratives, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers.

Quick build versus slow burn

Another difference that emerged between real and false narratives concerned the time they take to build. Narrative structures around conspiracy theories tend to build and become stable quickly, while narrative frameworks around actual conspiracies can take years to emerge, Tangherlini said. For example, the narrative framework of Pizzagate stabilized within a month after the Wikileaks dump, and it stayed relatively consistent over the next three years.

“The fact that additional information related to an actual conspiracy emerged over a prolonged period of time (here five and half years) might be one of the telltale signs of distinguishing a conspiracy from a conspiracy theory,” the authors wrote in the study.

Tangherlini said it’s becoming increasingly important to understand how conspiracy theories abound, in part because stories like Pizzagate have inspired some to take actions that endanger other people.

“The threat narratives found in conspiracy theories can imply or present strategies that encourage people to take real-world action,” he said. “Edgar Welch went to that Washington pizzeria with a gun looking for supposed caves hiding victims of sex trafficking.”

The UCLA researchers have also written another paper examining the narrative frameworks surrounding conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. In that study, which has been published on an open-source forum, they track how the conspiracy theories are being layered on to previously circulated conspiracy theories such as those about the perceived danger of vaccines, and, in other cases how the pandemic has given rise to completely new ones, like the idea that 5G cellular networks spread the coronavirus.

“We’re using the same pipeline on COVID-19 discussions as we did for Pizzagate,” Tangherlini said. “In Pizzagate, the targets were more limited, and the conspiracy theory stabilized rapidly. With COVID-19, there are many competing conspiracy theories, and we are tracing the alignment of multiple, smaller conspiracy theories into larger ones. But the underlying theory is identical for all conspiracy theories.”

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

A photo of three UCLA students studying physics and engaging in their lab work.

Instructors’ foresight leads to remote learning success for physics labs

A photo of three UCLA students studying physics and engaging in their lab work.

Thanks to off-the-shelf kits, UCLA students studying physics could do their lab work in their homes and design their own experiments. (Photo Courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka)

When UCLA announced on March 10 that the final weeks of winter quarter — and later the entire spring quarter — would be taught remotely because of COVID-19, it immediately tested everyone on campus, but in particular students and faculty who had to figure out on the fly new ways to learn and teach.

Adapting was understandably easier for some classes, like introductory courses which could more simply turn a live lecture in a big hall into a video lecture delivered through Zoom. But what about classes built around in-person group work, or the performing arts, or science and engineering labs that require the use of equipment and materials for hands-on learning?

Fortunately for the students taking the Physics 5AL/5BL/5CL series (physics for life sciences majors) or the Physics 4AL/4BL series (physics for scientists and engineers), their professors and teaching assistants in the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy were uniquely prepared for this forced period of remote instruction.

For the past few years, the department has explored ways to improve engagement for the 3,000-plus students who take these classes each year by making the labs for these courses more student-oriented. The transition to remote learning made figuring out the best ways to do that more urgent than ever, and the department’s head start on adapting the class to better fit students’ needs helped make the transition much easier.

“The key to giving a satisfying experience to students working remotely is to offer real-time solutions as quick as possible,” said Katsushi Arisaka, professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College and also of electrical and computer engineering in the Samueli School of Engineering, who emphasized how much of a team effort this has been. “That’s why we need such a good group of TAs behind the scenes.”

For Arisaka, restructuring these classes has always been about finding new ways to prepare students for future success. He has worked with teaching assistants Javier Carmona, Shashank Gowda, Erik Kramer, Grant Mitts, Pauline Arriaga and many others, to find ways to give students more control over the labs, while introducing them to concepts and skills, such as writing computer code.

To make these lab classes work from home, students needed access to the right tools, which also meant affordable equipment, such as the Arduino UNO Starter kit for Physics 4AL and 4BL and the Snap Circuit Kit for Physics 5CL, which Arisaka and his teaching assistants have been using for a couple of years.

Arduino and Snap Circuit kits provide dozens of basic hardware components that allow those without backgrounds in electronics and programming to create low-cost scientific instruments, to prove chemistry and physics principles, or to get started with programming and robotics. Students have been able purchase these kits online or the UCLA Store and their wide availability has also made the transition easier.

Students were grouped to work together remotely via Zoom breakout rooms from day one. The highlight of the course was to conduct their group final projects during the last three weeks and present the results by Zoom video-recording. It seems the only limit to students’ projects was their imagination.

Projects included: comparing human versus automated coin flips; measuring the effect of music on human reaction time; observing the energy lost by a bouncing ball; predicting the trajectory of basketball shots; comparing use of force across five sports; studying how the shape of a rolling object affects its acceleration as it rolls down an inclined surface and comparing the observations with physics theory.

“Students seem to be enjoying it, and as TAs we enjoy their creativity,” said Gowda, graduate student researcher in UCLA’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center, who noted that these types of ideas will improve student learning even once in-person instruction resumes. “They develop experiments and projects that we wouldn’t even think of.”

While previous versions of the class covered the necessary material, said Kramer, their structure seemed antiquated. “The move to this more modern hardware platform, using the coding language Python, and Arduino, has really inspired students to do amazing final projects,” he said.

According to Carmona, the way these labs were previously run just didn’t capture the imagination of students as much as they should. Speaking on the transition, he says it was a difficult task, but one that was well worth the effort.

Teaching assistant Javier Carmona, left, leads a Zoom class on how to use the Arduino kits.

Teaching assistant Javier Carmona, left, leads a Zoom class on how to use the Arduino kits. (Photo Courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka)

“It required a lot of work to get to where it’s at, but I’m glad we put in the work because now we have hundreds of students who didn’t miss out on a hands-on laboratory they could do at home,” Carmona said.

To make the hands-on, labs-at-home work the instructors “flipped” the class, encouraging students to design and test their own experiments rather than making them follow strict guidelines from teaching assistants and professors. Abandoning the old ways for physics labs proved positive according to student responses.

Among the comments from students provided as part of the course feedback: “You all are doing great, by far the most fun class I have this quarter, thank you for all the effort you guys have been putting into this, I figure it’s got to be really hard putting together a remote lab, but you guys are doing a pretty dang good job :)”

“We are learning marketable skills with Arduino and Python and the course development team is very receptive to feedback and constantly tries to make the class better. Thank you!”

Another change that the group is proud of is asynchronous operation — which allows students to learn at their own pace. This switch has given students flexibility to work at a rate they feel comfortable with, a change that can be beneficial for students who may be struggling with the material.

“The videos demonstrating how to use python and how to set up experiments have been extremely helpful, especially to someone like myself who has no experience with this as I’ve not taken 4AL,” wrote another student.

At the same time, Arisaka said, letting students work at the own pace also allows students who really understand the material to finish their work faster, and he encourages them to go back and help their peers.

Arisaka, who has been teaching physics for more than 30 years, also said it’s time to move away from the notion that students should be competing with one another for grades.

“They can boost their grade if they do better, it has nothing to do with the student next to them, and this message is very important so they can learn something useful,” said Arisaka, who noted that students’ mastery of skills was better than ever this quarter, even though labs were conducted at home.

These changes to the lab structure were possible thanks, in part, to funding and support provided from the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching. “That transition to students having ownership of the experiment is the kind of high-level learning experience that we seek for UCLA students, so we were happy to support that work,” said Adrienne Lavine, associate vice provost for the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a professor of mechanical engineering.

For Lavine, the move to remote instruction has created an opportunity for faculty to reflect on their teaching and how that affects student learning. “I think there’s a lot of faculty out there who are doing an incredible job of being thoughtful in how to handle this, and they will learn lessons that can be taken back into in-person instruction,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

For census season, these UCLA students want to make sure everyone counts

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

Students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia. (Photo Credit: Agustina Martinez Stordeur)

Two civic-minded UCLA undergraduate students have turned one of their courses into a platform for encouraging others to participate in the U.S. Census.

Amy Bugwadia and Kaumron Eidgahy were inspired to action by a UCLA course on the census taught by UCLA political science professor Natalie Masuoka. The course, which ended in March, required students to undertake a community engagement project related to the census.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy both came away with a new appreciation for the need to boost participation in Los Angeles County, which historically has been undercounted in the survey. Both have served as UCLA resident assistants, and one of their efforts has centered on communicating the importance of the census to students who have relocated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the campus’s recent shift to remote learning.

The California Complete Count committee, a state entity helping to conduct the census, has encouraged students who had planned to be living in UCLA residence halls as of April 1 to count themselves as campus residents.

“Whether or not students are able to actually be on campus right now, UCLA has been our home for years, and making sure we get counted will benefit [students] who will be here 10 years from now,” Bugwadia said.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy are both second-generation immigrants, and both have adopted roles as trusted messengers of political and cultural information for their extended families.

“I am extremely passionate about making sure people of color are counted,” Eidgahy said. “I have this tradition with my mom. Every time there is an election, we sit down and spend a couple of hours going through the ballot. I saw this very clear parallel with the census, even though I’d never had that experience before.”

For Masuoka’s course, Bugwadia and Eidgahy decided their work in the community would focus on inspiring high schoolers in two of Los Angeles County’s vulnerable neighborhoods to become trusted messengers for their families and communities. So the UCLA students developed a curriculum and presented it with their class team at two San Fernando Valley high schools, El Camino Real Charter and Canoga Park, shortly before the county’s safer at home protocols went into effect.

While it has historically been difficult to produce accurate census counts for Los Angeles County, Masuoka said the coronavirus pandemic is likely making it even more challenging in 2020.

“We live in one of the most hard-to-count counties in the country, thanks to a confluence of factors,” she said. “It is a populous county and is geographically spread out, which means counting is exacerbated by the multiple socioeconomic and racial groups within it. And there’s every indication that it will be even harder this year.”

Dispelling myths and fears is a big job for families’ “trusted messengers,” especially in immigrant communities, said Bugwadia, a fourth-year student majoring in political science and minoring in disability studies.

“Being a trusted messenger particularly important in the current political climate,” she said. “It can be frustrating and maybe even terrifying for a lot of folks who come from underrepresented communities, but those are the communities who really do benefit from the census.”

Bugwadia said the campaign was aimed not only at students, but also at teachers. “They, too, are trusted messengers. That was our experience growing up in the school system.”

Eidgahy is a third-year student majoring in political science and communication. His family emigrated from Iran, and he has spent time recently quelling their fears about the census by explaining the provisions for how census information is used — including that only non-personally identifiable data is released to government institutions or outside organizations. And he explained the Title 13 confidentiality protections that were put into place after census information was used to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy have continued to make virtual connections with campus and local community groups as part of a spring quarter independent study project under Masuoka’s tutelage. Both students are aspiring social scientists, and they recognize the importance of accurate census data for people working at research institutions like UCLA.

Other students in Masuoka’s course focused on efforts to reach different populations, including people with disabilities and individuals experiencing homelessness. The students made videos, stickers and graphics to promote participation in the census, and they collected a total of nearly 2,000 pledge cards from community members who promised to complete the questionnaire.

Those cards were meant to be displayed in Kerckhoff Hall during spring quarter as a way to inspire more people to complete the census questionnaire. Fortunately, Masuoka’s syllabus for the class had already included a plan to create a website that would house information and images from the students’ projects and continue their pledge effort.

The course materials and website were funded through an instructional improvement program grant from the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Masuoka said it was important to her to create a politically engaged learning environment that lent itself to a range of political viewpoints.

“The census is nonpartisan; it’s something everyone can and should care about regardless of their position on politics or government policies,” she said. “The class went even better than I could have imagined. I’m new to UCLA and this was a great example of the kind of talented students we have here.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.