A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

With record unemployment filings, federal stimulus will help, but more is needed

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

COVID-19 will plunge the United States economy into a recession. Photo Credit: by James Yarema on Unsplash

As an economist and director of the California Policy Lab, Till von Wachter is continually spearheading research projects and policy recommendations related to labor and employment as well as homelessness, education and crime.

As the U.S. economy further slows because of how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many businesses to close, UCLA Newsroom asked von Wachter, who is also the associate dean of research for the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, to help parse through current employment statistics, why the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package called the CARES Act — which was signed into law March 27 — is so critical and what its immediate and far-reaching effects might be for U.S. workers and the economy.

How do you interpret the unemployment numbers that came out April 2?

The number of new claims to unemployment insurance — 6.6 million — was deeply alarming because that number is so much higher than what we’ve seen in previous recessions. Moreover, these numbers do not capture the many people out of work that are self-employed, have low wages, or for some other reason do not qualify for unemployment insurance. As CNBC noted, even in the worst week of the Great Recession, the number of claims were only 665,000 in March of 2009. The highest since the 1960s was 1,073,500 in the 1982 recession. Having studied unemployment, recessions and the policy responses to them for most of my academic career, I’m deeply concerned that if policymakers don’t act quickly, we could see a recession the likes of which our country has never experienced before. It will impact Americans for decades to come. There is still hope that the economy will turn back to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic is contained, but prolonged large-scale unemployment may be hard to reverse.

What will this mean for the U.S. economy and Americans who could be laid off in the coming weeks?

I have studied a range of situations where workers were hit by a sudden shock in the labor market, such as a job loss when a business suddenly lays off a large number of workers. The key here is to compare people who lost their jobs to a counterfactual of luckier workers who kept their jobs and that otherwise would have looked like them. The result from my research is that a worker with a steady job at a good employer that loses their job during a mass layoff in a recession will die 1.5 years sooner than they would have if they had not been laid off.  When you extrapolate that to an expected unemployment rate of 10% (approximately 10 million additional unemployed workers, which given the most recent week’s numbers may be a conservative scenario), my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest a loss of 15 million life years. Beyond increased mortality, in separate research I have found these workers also suffer immediate and permanent earnings losses. Again, if those accrued to 10 million workers, it would amount to over $1 trillion dollars in earnings capacity lost over their lifetimes.

It’s also important to keep in mind more than 6 million individuals will graduate high school or obtain a college degree this year, and about 13 million workers age 16-24 are currently in the labor force. Hence about 20 million young individuals are of particularly high risk of exposure to a recession. Existing evidence suggests that unlucky labor market entrants suffer losses in earnings that last 10 to 15 years, depending on the severity of the recession. Yet, it appears their socioeconomic status declines again in middle age, and several studies have found that they experience higher rates of death over the long term. For example, entering the labor market during a large recession appears to reduce life-expectancy of young workers by about half a year. There would be an additional 10 million of life years lost from a prolonged recession.

Will the CARES Act help? 

The CARES Act is a good start. It includes significant funding spread out in a variety of ways to help sustain the economy while people practice safe distancing to defeat COVID-19. The additional pandemic unemployment assistance provided to the self-employed and others not covered by unemployment insurance benefits is of course an important aspect of the law. Yet, I argue in a recent proposal (PDF) that states need to act decisively and creatively to quickly scale up programs included in the CARES Act.

The funding Congress included for several programs that help firms to keep workers on their payroll could be a game-changer. This includes federal funding for “short-time compensation,” or STC, programs, sometimes also called work-sharing, as well as short-term emergency loans that include provisions for job stability.

In the same way that we are all “sheltering in place,” state employment departments — the agencies that administer unemployment benefits in every state — can use STC programs and equip companies to keep their employees in place. Under STCs, firms are able to reduce the hours of a large group of their employees (instead of laying just a few of them off), and employees can partially make up the difference in pay through receiving unemployment benefits. For a state like California that already has a functioning STC program, these STC benefits will be paid entirely by the federal government. This could lead to substantial saving for the state’s finances that will be likely very stretched in other ways.

Even better, the CARES Act also included a substantial subsidy for firms that were impacted by COVID-19 to help pay their workers’ wages. A small to mid-size firm that pays average wages could reduce the hours of their workers by 50% through shared-time compensation and have up to half of the remaining 50% of wages paid for by the federal government. This would be an instantaneous reduction of their wage bill by 75% while workers are kept on the job instead of flooding unemployment offices. Some businesses may find it hard to pay for even part of their workforce, perhaps because of large reductions in revenues or substantial fixed costs. The CARES Act also provides struggling businesses with the option to apply for short-term emergency loans through the Small Business Administration that would help them pay rent, wages and other operating costs. The key is that the repayment of these loans can be waived if the firm refrains from laying off their workers. Overall, firms now have a range of options to adjust to the economic conditions without laying off their workers.

How would states use short-time compensation?

Twenty-six states, including California, already have STC programs, meaning about 70% of the U.S. workforce could be covered. There is also funding in the law for the administrative costs of expanding these programs. For those 26 states, the federal government agreed to pay 100% of the benefits under STC programs.

Unfortunately, many employers are not currently aware of the program. Yet, states can be proactive in making the STC more attractive than layoffs to employers. Typically, if a firm lays off workers who receive unemployment insurance benefits, its payroll tax increases to help offset the costs to the unemployment insurance system. Yet, states could choose to pass on some of the cost-savings (from the federal government paying 100% of STC benefits) by committing not to raise the payroll tax for those firms that use STC instead of unemployment insurance. This incentive would help states to make a strong case for employers to use this program.

The key is to dispatch these funds quickly because failure to do so will likely lead to skyrocketing claims for unemployment insurance and serious bottlenecks in processing claims. It can also lead to substantial long-term effects on the income and health of people who are losing their jobs, young labor market entrants and others directly affected by the economic crisis. Unfortunately, many states’ STC programs are understaffed, such that there is a concern that bottlenecks may arise. In a recent proposal, I outline a proposal as to how states could quickly enroll thousands of firms despite these issues, such that these problems could also be surmounted.

The CARES Act also included $100 million in start-up grants for states that do not yet have STC programs, and if they do create them, the federal government will fund 50% of the benefits. While this is less than existing programs receive, it is still a great deal for workers, for firms, and for states because it means fewer layoffs, lower payroll taxes, and lower program expenditures, respectively.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of students on the UCLA campus, with the Janss Steps and Royce Hall in the background.

UCLA raises $5.49 billion in one of most ambitious campaigns ever by a public university

A photo of students on the UCLA campus, with the Janss Steps and Royce Hall in the background.

Nearly 220,000 donors from all 50 U.S. states and 98 additional countries gave to advance causes across the UCLA campus and in communities in Southern California and around the world. Photo Credit: Patricia Marroquin/UCLA

The Centennial Campaign for UCLA, one of the most ambitious fundraising campaigns ever by a public university, has raised $5.49 billion. As UCLA enters its second century, the funds are already supporting a broad array of priorities, including student scholarships and fellowships, faculty research, and programs that enrich communities in Los Angeles and beyond.

The campaign launched publicly in May 2014 and closed in December 2019, in the midst of UCLA’s 100th year. During the initiative, nearly 220,000 donors from all 50 U.S. states and 98 additional countries gave more than 574,000 gifts to advance causes across campus and in communities in Southern California and around the world.

Approximately 95% of those gifts were less than $10,000, and 81% were less than $1,000, indicating the broad-based support for UCLA’s mission.

UCLA also received transformative philanthropic commitments of more than $100 million, including Marion Anderson’s giving for students, faculty and facilities at the UCLA Anderson School of Management; David Geffen’s gifts for medical student scholarships and the Geffen Academy at UCLA; Meyer and Renee Luskin’s giving to name the school of public affairs and build a campus conference center; and Henry and Susan Samueli’s gifts to expand engineering education and research.

“As we celebrate UCLA’s first hundred years, the Centennial Campaign for UCLA has exceeded its goals and engaged students, faculty, friends and leaders in setting up the university for an even more remarkable second century,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “We are so grateful to each and every person who has participated in this extraordinary effort.”

Campaign gifts cross campus, causes and communities

Funds raised through the campaign already are making a difference across the campus, including supporting students in a diverse range of fields. Such support includes humanities fellowships established by Jordan and Christine Kaplan and Ken Panzer; scholarships created by the cast and crew of hit television show “The Big Bang Theory” for students in science, technology, engineering and math fields; scholarships for dentistry students created by Bob and Marion Wilson; and scholarships for public health students established by Jonathan and Karin Fielding.

Steve Tisch and Shirley and Walter Wang both established scholarships for students from middle-income families; faculty member Ellen Carol DuBois donated to support transfer students; and the family of the late Bill Steinmetz, a UCLA alumnus and World War II veteran, gave to support student veterans.

Campaign giving for scholarships leveraged funds through matching challenges, such as those initiated by Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA College division of physical sciences, and Block, who designated student support as a campaign and continuing priority. Every new scholarship will help make a high-quality education affordable for high-achieving students of all backgrounds. UCLA already ranks No. 1 among the nation’s top-tier universities for enrolling low- to middle-income students, and more of its graduates move up two or more income levels, according to The Equality of Opportunity Project. During the Centennial Campaign, UCLA raised $665 million for student support.

Many other campaign gifts created endowed chairs to recruit and retain stellar faculty: Iris Cantor established the university’s 500th chair with a gift to the Iris Cantor–UCLA Women’s Health Center, and the Ralph and Shirley Shapiro family established several faculty chairs during the campaign — in dentistry, disability studies, law, nursing, pediatrics and other areas — bringing the total number of chairs they have established at UCLA to more than 20.

Other donors enhanced the campus with lead gifts for state-of-the-art facilities. With the Eugene & Maxine Rosenfeld Hall for medical education, the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center, the Mo Ostin Basketball Center and the Wasserman Football Center, construction has transformed UCLA during the course of the campaign. In Westwood and beyond, the arts have benefited from Marcy Carsey’s and Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s gifts to renovate the Hammer Museum at UCLA and Margo Leavin’s gift to refurbish graduate art studios in Culver City.

Throughout the campaign, philanthropists supported UCLA initiatives in a wide array of fields with real-world relevance:

  • Brain health: A gift from James L. and Phyllis Easton advanced research on the prevention and treatment of neurodegeneration, and concussion and traumatic brain injury. Wendy and Leonard Goldberg endowed a migraine research program, and Laurie and Steven Gordon funded faculty chairs, a new lab and research dedicated to curing Parkinson’s disease. Gifts to the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge made UCLA the first university to offer depression and anxiety screening for students and immediate connection to appropriate levels of care.
  • Cancer: Agi Hirshberg’s campaign gift created a center dedicated to, and supported seed grants for, pancreatic cancer research. Eli and Edythe Broad made a major new gift to their eponymous stem cell research center at UCLA, which will help researchers translate findings into clinical applications for cancer and other diseases. And Dr. Victoria Mann Simms and Ronald Simms gave to support the expansion of integrative psychosocial care for people with cancer and for their families at UCLA clinics throughout Los Angeles.
  • Humanities, culture and entertainment: Tadashi Yanai’s gift endowed an initiative for globalizing Japanese humanities, which supports students, faculty, international exchanges and public events. Jeff Skoll’s gift established a center for promoting social change through entertainment, and Kenneth Ziffren gave multiple gifts to establish an institute in entertainment law. The Patricia Mitchell Trusts not only partnered with Ziffren to support that institute, but also created endowments to support UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television students and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
  • Environment and sustainability: Dan and Rae Emmett added a matching gift for their namesake institute for climate change and environmental law, whose research regularly informs policy leaders and the media. Morton La Kretz has helped the UCLA College renovate its botany building and the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden, both in support of conservation education and research. Gifts to UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge helped produce valuable research and policy recommendations for the region.
  • Public outreach and service: The Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation established an interdisciplinary center for strengthening foster youth and families, and Matthew and Jennifer Harris established the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute. Campaign commitments enabled UCLA to found the Promise Institute for Human Rights and the Promise Armenian Institute, and many donors gave to UCLA Operation Mend, which provides medical and psychological treatment for service members, veterans and their family members.
  • Well-being for all ages: A major gift from Mattel Inc. advanced the local and international work of UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. Jane and Terry Semel endowed the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, spreading activities, resources and healthier habits across campus and encouraging similar initiatives at college campuses and other institutions across the nation. James and Carol Collins have advanced research and programs serving older adults, including creating a chair in geriatric medicine and supporting fellowships, residencies and training for medical students and physicians.

Alumni and friends invest in UCLA

The Centennial Campaign, which was co-chaired by Tony Pritzker and UCLA alumnus Garen Staglin, counted the contributions of nearly 220,000 donors, including nearly 127,000 first-time donors and more than 108,000 alumni donors.

“I truly believe in UCLA as a unique public research institution that benefits students from every walk of life, the city of Los Angeles and the world at large,” said Pritzker, who is not a UCLA alumnus but serves as a tireless benefactor and champion of the campus. “Ensuring a successful start to its second century is an investment not only in the university and its students but in everyone’s future.”

Staglin and his wife, Shari, launched the organization One Mind, which bridges gaps in mental health research and patient support, and they have been strong advocates for the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge. “UCLA is leading the way in so many areas, and it has been a privilege to see alumni and friends come together to support causes close to their hearts while advancing education, research and service that change lives,” he said.

UCLA makes its mark in higher education fundraising

At the time of its launch, the Centennial Campaign’s $4.2 billion goal was the most ambitious fundraising goal ever announced by a U.S. public university, and UCLA surpassed that target 18 months ahead of schedule. Since then, the higher education sector has continued to see an upturn in fundraising and campaigns. According to the Voluntary Support of Education survey, giving to colleges and universities grew 6.1% in 2018–19.

The same survey ranked UCLA the No. 1 public university in philanthropic funds raised for 2017–18, and the campus was included in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s special report on multiyear campaigns in April 2019. The feature highlighted the proliferation of such fundraising drives across the country, including at several other high-profile institutions across Los Angeles.

“In a philanthropic landscape overflowing with opportunities to give, the success of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA speaks to donors’ generosity and their belief in UCLA’s mission,” said Rhea Turteltaub, UCLA’s vice chancellor for external affairs. “We take the responsibility to steward their trust very seriously, and we will continue working to ensure students’ access to education, secure resources for research and deliver on our commitment to public service every day.”

To view campaign results, read stories about gifts and beneficiaries or learn more about giving to UCLA, visit the Centennial Campaign for UCLA site and UCLA Newsroom.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Image of Kabuki actor performing

UCLA receives $25 million from Uniqlo founder for Japanese literature and culture studies

Image of Kabuki actor performing

Renowned Kabuki actor Nakamura Kyozo performing the role of a lion in “Shujaku jishi” at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater in an event for students co-sponsored by the Yanai Initiative and the Japanese Ministry of Culture (November 14, 2019). (Credit: Ning Wong Studios)

UCLA has received a $25 million gift from Tadashi Yanai, the chair, president and CEO of Japan-based Fast Retailing and founder of clothing company Uniqlo. The funds will endow the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, which will bolster UCLA’s status as a leading center for the study of Japanese literature, language and culture.

The gift is the largest from an individual donor in the history of the UCLA College’s humanities division. A previous donation of $2.5 million from Yanai in 2014 created the Yanai Initiative, a collaboration between UCLA and Waseda University, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities. The program supports academic and cultural programming and enables student and faculty exchanges between the two universities. This latest gift will ensure the initiative’s long-term future.

“Mr. Yanai’s extraordinary gifts are a testament to UCLA’s long-standing commitment to educate global citizens who can thrive in careers — and cultures — anywhere in the world,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “The Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities will have a profound and lasting impact on this campus.”

Photo of Tadashi Yanai

UCLA has received a $25 million gift from Tadashi Yanai, the chair, president and CEO of Japan-based Fast Retailing and founder of clothing company Uniqlo. (Credit: Fast Retailing Co., Ltd.)

The Yanai Initiative is housed in the UCLA College department of Asian languages and cultures and directed by Professor Michael Emmerich. The latest gift will fund and establish an endowed chair in Japanese literature and will fund conferences, public lectures, faculty research, cultural performances and community outreach. It will support graduate and postdoctoral fellowships and undergraduate awards.

“It has been inspiring to see all of the creative, innovative programming — both academic and cultural — that this project has realized over the past five years,” Yanai said. “Now that we are making it permanent, I’m excited to see how it will continue to transform the Japanese humanities in a global context. At the same time, I hope this gift will give others a chance to remember how crucial the humanities are, and, in their own way, to recommit.”

The gift also triggers matching funds from the Humanities Centennial Match and the UCLA Centennial Scholars Match to support UCLA graduate students in Japanese humanities and other areas of study.

“Mr. Yanai’s gift is a visionary investment in a field of increasing interest to humanities scholars, students and people everywhere,” said David Schaberg, UCLA’s dean of humanities. “Thanks to his generosity, UCLA will lead the way in research and teaching in Japanese humanities, bringing new attention to a rich culture that has captured people’s imaginations for centuries.”

Schaberg said another benefit of the gift is that it will deepen UCLA’s partnership with Waseda.

In addition to funding fellowships, symposia, lectures and academic workshops, Yanai’s previous donation supported a range of cultural programs, including a five-day series of events featuring actor Nomura Mansaku, who was designated a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government; a retrospective of films by Palme d’Or recipient Hirokazu Kore-eda; and “The Art of the Benshi,” which introduced Los Angeles audiences to the early 20th century performance art in which narrators bring silent movies to life with live music accompaniment.

“During the past five years, Mr. Yanai’s generosity has enabled us to do so much for students and for the Japanese humanities not just at UCLA, but across the country and around the world,” Emmerich said. “We’ve been able to organize major cultural events across Los Angeles, drawing thousands of participants. I never imagined I would be able to say that all this was only the beginning. I can’t express how grateful we all are to Mr. Yanai for his generosity, his incisive advice and his commitment.”

The gift was facilitated through a designated donations program run by the Japan Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting cultural and intellectual exchange with Japan. Over the past three decades, the foundation has helped advance and fund numerous cultural programs at UCLA.

View this release in Japanese

That Supermassive Black Hole in our Galaxy? It has a Friend.

Two black holes are entwined in a gravitational tango in this artist’s conception. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Christopher Go

Smadar Naoz is an associate professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College. She wrote this article for The Conversation.

Do supermassive black holes have friends? The nature of galaxy formation suggests that the answer is yes, and in fact, pairs of supermassive black holes should be common in the universe.

I am an astrophysicist and am interested in a wide range of theoretical problems in astrophysics, from the formation of the very first galaxies to the gravitational interactions of black holes, stars and even planets. Black holes are intriguing systems, and supermassive black holes and the dense stellar environments that surround them represent one of the most extreme places in our universe.

The supermassive black hole that lurks at the center of our galaxy, called Sgr A*, has a mass of about 4 million times that of our sun. A black hole is a place in space where gravity is so strong that neither particles or light can escape from it. Surrounding Sgr A* is a dense cluster of stars. Precise measurements of the orbits of these stars allowed astronomers to confirm the existence of this supermassive black hole and to measure its mass. For more than 20 years, scientists have been monitoring the orbits of these stars around the supermassive black hole. Based on what we’ve seen, my colleagues and I show that if there is a friend there, it might be a second black hole nearby that is at least 100,000 times the mass of the sun.

Supermassive black holes and their friends

Almost every galaxy, including our Milky Way, has a supermassive black hole at its heart, with masses of millions to billions of times the mass of the sun. Astronomers are still studying why the heart of galaxies often hosts a supermassive black hole. One popular idea connects to the possibility that supermassive holes have friends.

To understand this idea, we need to go back to when the universe was about 100 million years old, to the era of the very first galaxies. They were much smaller than today’s galaxies, about 10,000 or more times less massive than the Milky Way. Within these early galaxies the very first stars that died created black holes, of about tens to thousand the mass of the sun. These black holes sank to the center of gravity, the heart of their host galaxy. Since galaxies evolve by merging and colliding with one another, collisions between galaxies will result in supermassive black hole pairs – the key part of this story. The black holes then collide and grow in size as well. A black hole that is more than a million times the mass of our sun is considered supermassive.

If indeed the supermassive black hole has a friend revolving around it in close orbit, the center of the galaxy is locked in a complex dance. The partners’ gravitational tugs will also exert its own pull on the nearby stars disturbing their orbits. The two supermassive black holes are orbiting each other, and at the same time, each is exerting its own pull on the stars around it.

The gravitational forces from the black holes pull on these stars and make them change their orbit; in other words, after one revolution around the supermassive black hole pair, a star will not go exactly back to the point at which it began.

Using our understanding of the gravitational interaction between the possible supermassive black hole pair and the surrounding stars, astronomers can predict what will happen to stars. Astrophysicists like my colleagues and me can compare our predictions to observations, and then can determine the possible orbits of stars and figure out whether the supermassive black hole has a companion that is exerting gravitational influence.

Using a well-studied star, called S0-2, which orbits the supermassive black hole that lies at the center of the galaxy every 16 years, we can already rule out the idea that there is a second supermassive black hole with mass above 100,000 times the mass of the sun and farther than about 200 times the distance between the sun and the Earth. If there was such a companion, then I and my colleagues would have detected its effects on the orbit of SO-2.

But that doesn’t mean that a smaller companion black hole cannot still hide there. Such an object may not alter the orbit of SO-2 in a way we can easily measure.

The physics of supermassive black holes

Supermassive black holes have gotten a lot of attention lately. In particular, the recent image of such a giant at the center of the galaxy M87 opened a new window to understanding the physics behind black holes.

The proximity of the Milky Way’s galactic center – a mere 24,000 light-years away – provides a unique laboratory for addressing issues in the fundamental physics of supermassive black holes. For example, astrophysicists like myself would like to understand their impact on the central regions of galaxies and their role in galaxy formation and evolution. The detection of a pair of supermassive black holes in the galactic center would indicate that the Milky Way merged with another, possibly small, galaxy at some time in the past.

That’s not all that monitoring the surrounding stars can tell us. Measurements of the star S0-2 allowed scientists to carry out a unique test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In May 2018, S0-2 zoomed past the supermassive black hole at a distance of only about 130 times the Earth’s distance from the sun. According to Einstein’s theory, the wavelength of light emitted by the star should stretch as it climbs from the deep gravitational well of the supermassive black hole.

The stretching wavelength that Einstein predicted – which makes the star appear redder – was detected and proves that the theory of general relativity accurately describes the physics in this extreme gravitational zone. I am eagerly awaiting the second closest approach of S0-2, which will occur in about 16 years, because astrophysicists like myself will be able to test more of Einstein’s predictions about general relativity, including the change of the orientation of the stars’ elongated orbit. But if the supermassive black hole has a partner, this could alter the expected result.

Finally, if there are two massive black holes orbiting each other at the galactic center, as my team suggests is possible, they will emit gravitational waves. Since 2015, the LIGO-Virgo observatories have been detecting gravitational wave radiation from merging stellar-mass black holes and neutron stars. These groundbreaking detections have opened a new way for scientists to sense the universe.

Any waves emitted by our hypothetical black hole pair will be at low frequencies, too low for the LIGO-Virgo detectors to sense. But a planned space-based detector known as LISA may be able to detect these waves which will help astrophysicists figure out whether our galactic center black hole is alone or has a partner.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Image of interstellar comet.

New NASA image provides more details about first observed interstellar comet

Image of interstellar comet.

The interstellar comet Comet 2I/Borisov (blueish image at right) near a spiral galaxy (left), in an image taken Nov. 16. Photo credit: NASA, ESA and David Jewitt/UCLA

A new image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope provides important new details about the first interstellar comet astronomers have seen in our solar system.

The comet, called Comet 2I/Borisov (the “I” stands for interstellar), was spotted near a spiral galaxy known as 2MASX J10500165-0152029. It was approximately 203 million miles from Earth when the image was taken on Nov. 16.

“Data from the Hubble Space Telescope give us the best measure of the size of comet 2I/Borisov’s nucleus, which is the really important part of the comet,” said David Jewitt, a UCLA professor of planetary science and astronomy who analyzed and interpreted the data from the new image.

Jewitt collaborated on the new analysis with colleagues from the University of Hawaii, Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. The scientists were surprised to learn that the nucleus has a radius measuring only about half of a kilometer — or less than one-fifteenth the size that earlier investigations suggested it might be.

“That is important because knowing its size helps us to determine the total number, and mass, of other similar objects in the solar system and the Milky Way,” Jewitt said. “2I/Borisov is the first known interstellar comet, and we would like to learn how many others there are.”

The comet is traveling at a breathtaking speed of 110,000 miles per hour — one of the fastest comets ever seen, Jewitt said. More commonly, comets travel at about half that speed.

Crimean astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered the comet on Aug. 30, using a telescope he built. Based on precise measurements of its changing position, the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center calculated a likely orbit for the comet, which shows that it came from elsewhere in the galaxy. Jewitt said its precise point of origin is unknown.

A second Hubble Space Telescope image of the comet, taken on Dec. 9, shows the comet even closer to Earth, approximately 185 million miles from Earth, he said.

Comets are icy bodies thought to be fragments left behind when planets form in the outer parts of planetary systems.

Observations by numerous telescopes show that the comet’s chemical composition is similar to that of comets previously observed in our solar system, which provides evidence that comets also form around other stars, Jewitt said. By mid-2020, the comet will have zoomed past Jupiter on its way back into interstellar space, where it will drift for billions of years, Jewitt said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of a valley oak tree.

One of California’s iconic tree species offers lessons for conservation

Picture of a valley oak tree.

The valley oak, the largest oak in California, grows to over 100 feet tall and provides habitat and food for a variety of animals. Photo credit: Victoria Sork/UCLA

 

With increasing regularity, Californians are witnessing firsthand the destructive power of wildfires. But not everyone sees what happens after the flames die down, when debris is cleared, homes and lives rebuilt — and trees replanted to help nature recover.

New research led by UCLA evolutionary biologist Victoria Sork examines whether the trees being replanted in the wake of California’s fires will be able to survive a climate that is continuing to warm.

The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, focuses on California’s iconic valley oak. The research is among the first to demonstrate the potential of using genomics to inform conservation strategies — essentially giving species an evolutionary boost. The study showed that planting trees that are genetically better suited to higher temperatures makes them more likely to survive and grow to maturity.

“When we think about managing ecosystems under rapidly changing climates, we have to realize trees need to be able to survive past 50 years,” Sork said.

The paper also discovered something surprising: The valley oak, an essential component of many ecosystems in California, is already poorly adapted to its environment — even considering climate conditions in 2019.

“They actually seem to grow better in cooler climates than they’re in right now,” said Luke Browne, a postdoctoral scholar at the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science and the study’s lead author. “They might grow better if climates were more like they were 21,000 years ago, during the last ice age.”

During the peak of the last ice age, summer temperatures were about 4 to 5 degrees Celsius colder, and ice covered most of Canada and mountainous areas of the U.S.

In the fields of conservation and land management, it is a common assumption that plants and animals are adapted to their environments — that’s how evolution and natural selection are supposed to work. The new research casts doubt on that assumption.

The study is part of an ongoing project initiated by Sork and Jessica Wright, an expert in conservation genetics at the USDA Forest Service, more than 10 years ago.

Researchers gathered 11,000 seeds from 94 locations throughout the trees’ range, which stretches from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Cascade foothills in the northern part of the state. They grew them to saplings in a greenhouse and planted them in two large experimental gardens, in Chico and Placerville, California. They tracked how well trees from different locations grew, and sequenced the genomes of their mother trees to link genetic information and growth rates.

The researchers then identified which genetic variants would be more likely to thrive as climate change continues to warm California. They predicted that, under predicted future warmer temperatures, trees containing beneficial genetic variations would have 11% higher growth rates than the average for all of the trees in the experiment, and 25% higher growth rates than the trees without the beneficial variations.

Information like that could help the U.S. Forest Service, for example, in its efforts to restore forests with species that have the best chance for long-term survival.

“Studies like this one provide valuable insights that help land managers make informed decisions on reforestation projects,” Wright said. “When planting trees in a particular location, managers have to decide where to collect the acorns.”

By 2070, average temperatures in the state are projected to be up to 4.8 degrees warmer than they were during the mid- to late 20th century.

“That’s going to have consequences for how fast these trees grow,” Browne said. “We’re at a challenging time to figure out the best way to do conservation science. This paper shows one approach we could use that takes advantage of modern genomics.”

The study did not determine why valley oaks are not well adapted to their environment. It might be because the climate has already warmed up so much, the trees’ long lifespans — up to 500 years — or some other, unknown factor.

The valley oak is the largest oak in California; it grows to over 100 feet tall, and has dark green leaves and a deeply grooved trunk. It is considered a foundational species because it provides habitat and food for a variety of animals, including squirrels, birds, deer and insects. In parts of the state, it is one of the only species of tree that exists. Valley oaks provide benefits to humans, too: filtering water and providing shady places to escape the heat.

Although it focuses on the oak, the paper has broader implications for conservation science in a changing climate — especially for species that evolve and adapt slowly. That’s what Sork and Wright were thinking when they initiated the project.

At the time, they hoped to find conservation strategies that could eventually be implemented using genetic information alone — without extensive field experiments.

“Not everyone in the world is going to be able to collect 11,000 seeds and plant them in a common garden,” Sork said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernández awarded MacArthur Fellowship

Kelly Lytle Hernández, a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, is one of 14 UCLA faculty to be chosen for the honor. Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

UCLA professor Kelly Lytle Hernández, an award-winning author and scholar of race, mass incarceration and immigration, was announced today as a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Lytle Hernández, who is a professor of history and African American studies, is the director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, which under her leadership has focused on supporting research into two critical themes in the modern black world — work and justice. The Bunche Center is home to Million Dollar Hoods, which maps the fiscal and human cost of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. Lytle Hernández is the director and principal investigator on the project.

“Lytle Hernández’s investigation of the intersecting histories of race, mass incarceration, immigration, and cross-border politics is deepening our understanding of how imprisonment has been used as a mechanism for social control in the United States,” the foundation said.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to people the foundation deems “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals.” Fellows are chosen based on three criteria: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of accomplishments, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. Lytle Hernández is one of 26 individuals the foundation selected for fellowships in 2019.

“As a scholar, I both work deeply alone and deeply in community, but until very recently the scholarly communities I’ve worked in — immigration and the carceral state — have been fairly separate,” said Lytle Hernández, who holds the Thomas E. Lifka Chair in History at UCLA. “I hope my work has helped people understand immigration as another aspect of mass incarceration in the United States and that my award further helps people understand that these two regimes are intertwined. This award will help us continue this work across communities and shine a light on this kind of thinking that unites these two crises that others often see as distinct.”

Lytle Hernández, 45, received a her bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego in 1996 and earned her doctorate in 2002 from UCLA.

For her first book, “MIGRA! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Lytle Hernández pored over historical records to illuminate the border patrol’s nearly exclusive focus on policing unauthorized immigration from Mexico.

In “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles,” she began zeroing in on another dimension of race and law enforcement, specifically what forces shaped Los Angeles so that it came to operate the largest jail system in the United States.

“What I found in the archives is that since the very first days of U.S. rule in Los Angeles — the Tongva Basin — incarceration has persistently operated as a means of purging, removing, caging, containing, erasing, disappearing and otherwise eliminating indigenous communities and racially targeted populations,” Lytle Hernández said in an interview about the book.

The MacArthur Fellowship, which is commonly referred to as the “genius grant,” is according to the foundation, intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations.

Lytle Hernández joins 13 other UCLA faculty as MacArthur fellows, including mathematician Terence Tao, choreographer Kyle Abraham, director Peter Sellars, astrophysicist Andrea Ghez and historian of religion Gregory Schopen.

While unsure of her specific plans for the award, Lytle Hernández said that she will continue to expand the scope and scale of her social justice scholarship, including with partners outside of UCLA.

“I’d like to create a space for myself and others — especially community organizers and movement-driven scholars — to write,” she said, noting that these people’s calendars tend to be jammed by the “urgency of their work.” “I’d like to create space that allows myself and others to process the work that we’re doing and to share it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

College Senior José Gonzalez is on a Mission to Understand Autism

L to R – Megan McEvoy, Jose Gonzalez, Gina Poe,

UCLA senior José Gonzalez is on a mission to move the needle on autism research. With the support of COMPASS, his family and his mentors, he is well on his way.

The California native was raised in a small Central Valley town in the heart of the state’s agricultural greenbelt. All five of José’s siblings earned college degrees—a point of great pride for his parents, who were unable to receive an education past the sixth grade.

“My parents always stressed the importance of higher education as the way to move up,” Jose said.

José’s father, originally from Mexico, works as a foreman in the citrus orchards of The Wonderful Company, which provides college scholarships and other incentives for their employees’ children who maintain good GPAs. That financial assistance helped the Gonzalez children pay for college.

In his sophomore year, José began participating in COMPASS and received the Life Sciences Dean’s Award, which provides stipends allowing students to pursue research work rather than work at part-time jobs. He has benefited from the invaluable guidance and mentorship of UCLA faculty and COMPASS co-directors Megan McEvoy and Gina Poe, scientists who have helped José navigate the challenges of a science degree.

Now a senior, José works in the lab of one of the world’s leading autism experts, Dr. Daniel Geschwind, studying genes that regulate developmental pathways integral to brain development. José’s decision to study autism was spurred when his nephew was diagnosed with the disorder, and he says the experience has been transformative.

“Without COMPASS, I would not have had the chance to work in Dr. Geschwind’s lab or be on the career trajectory I’m on now,” he said.

José’s goal is to become a pediatric neurologist with his own lab at a university, much like his mentor, Dr. Geschwind.