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Student Spotlight – Julia Nakamura

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Fourth-year UCLA student researcher Julia Nakamura

Meet fourth-year UCLA student researcher Julia Nakamura!

Julia majors in Psychobiology with a minor in Gerontology and is in our Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. The title of her research project is “The Role of Social Support in the Association between Early Life Stress, Depression, and Inflammation in Older Adults.”

 

How did you first get interested in your research project?

UCLA’s Cluster course “Frontiers in Human Aging” initially sparked my interest in aging populations. Through a service learning project at ONEgeneration Adult Day Care Center, I directly witnessed the burden of chronic disease in later-life adults and realized the pressing need to understand the mechanisms underlying these adverse health outcomes. Through my coursework in psychology, I became interested in the psychological factors that influence biological mechanisms and have the potential to positively impact the trajectory of chronic disease outcomes.

I began research in psychology in Dr. Julienne Bower’s Mind-Body Lab under the direction of Dr. Kate Kuhlman. We study the effects of childhood adversity on biological and behavioral responses to psychological stress. My experiences in this lab led me to wonder what factors could mitigate adverse physical and mental health outcomes from stressful experiences, specifically in older adults. My honors research projects examines if social support moderates the relationship between early-life stress, depressive symptoms, and inflammation in older adults using data from the Health and Retirement Study.

What has been the most exciting aspect of your research so far?

Getting to test my own research questions has been the best part of this project. Specifically, it has been really exciting for me to run my own data analyses for the first time with Dr. Kuhlman’s guidance. Experiencing the “behind-the-scenes” of research and systematically moving through the steps of conducting an independent project has been really informative. This project has helped me to feel that I am truly developing the skill set of an independent researcher, which is very exciting!

What has surprised you about your research or the research process?

The immensely collaborative nature of research in academia was quite surprising to me when I first started on this project. Through my research, I’ve had the privilege of working with several scientists and professors who are experts in their respective areas of study. They have all welcomed me and helped to make my project as scientifically sound and comprehensive as possible. Research really builds on itself. Learning from other people’s projects and ideas, even if they are outside of your immediate area of study, can result in high levels of collaboration and really interesting research!

What is one piece of advice you have for other UCLA students thinking about doing research?

I would advise students interested in research to actively pursue research opportunities. There are plenty of amazing opportunities to be involved in research at UCLA, but you have to seek them out. It can be intimidating to take the initial steps to reach out to professors and discuss their research interests, but it is so worthwhile to find a lab and professor that are a good fit! I would recommend that students find an area of study that they are really passionate about. I think that your passion for your area of study and your continued curiosity will drive your research questions and help you get the most out of each research experience.

What effect do you hope your research has in your field, at UCLA, in your community, or in the world?

I hope to spend my life contributing to our understanding of the biobehavioral processes that promote mental and physical health across the lifespan. As the number of older adults (a majority of whom have at least one chronic disease) increase in our society, it is now more important than ever to identify potential intervention targets that can improve the trajectory of chronic disease outcomes.

This article originally appeared on the Undergraduate Research Center website.

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Activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim wins Pritzker Award for young environmental innovators

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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.

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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.