A graphic of the predictive model.

UCLA model ID’s areas that should have priority for vaccine, other COVID-19 help

The predictive model can guide public health officials and leaders across the nation in harnessing local data that can help prevent infections and save lives, the UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: UCLA CNK-BRITE)

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, UCLA public health and urban planning experts have developed a predictive model that pinpoints which populations in which neighborhoods of Los Angeles County are most at risk of becoming infected.

The researchers hope the new model, which can be applied to other counties and jurisdictions as well, will assist decision makers, public health officials and scientists in effectively and equitably implementing vaccine distribution, testing, closures and reopenings, and other virus-mitigation measures.

The model maps Los Angeles County neighborhood by neighborhood, based on four important indicators known to significantly increase a person’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 infection — preexisting medical conditions, barriers to accessing health care, built-environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges.

The research data demonstrate that neighborhoods characterized by significant clustering of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households and unmet medical needs are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, specifically areas in and around South Los Angeles and the eastern portion of the San Fernando Valley. Communities along the coast and in the northwestern part of the county, which are disproportionately white and higher-income, were found to be the least vulnerable.

“The model we have includes specific resource vulnerabilities that can guide public health officials and local leaders across the nation to harness already available local data to determine which groups in which neighborhoods are most vulnerable and how to prevent new infections to save lives,” said research author Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Mays, who also directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy, worked with urban planner Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, to develop the indicators model, along with study co-authors Chhandara Pech and Nataly Rios Gutierrez. The maps were created by Abigail Fitzgibbon.

Utilizing data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s California Health Interview Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the researchers were able to determine how the four vulnerability indicators differentially predicted which racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County were the most vulnerable to infection based on their geographical residence.

Racial and ethnic groups with the highest vulnerability

Preexisting conditions. The authors found that 73% of Black residents live in neighborhoods with the highest rates of preexisting health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as poor overall health and food insecurity. This was followed by 70% of Latinos and 60% of Cambodians, Hmongs and Laotians, or CHL. Conversely, 60% of white residents live in areas with low or the lowest vulnerability.

Barriers to accessing services. Forty percent of Latinos, 29% of Blacks, 22% of CHL and 16% of “other Asians” reside in neighborhoods with the greatest barriers to health care, characterized by high proportions of non–U.S. citizens, poor English-language ability, a lack of access to computer broadband service, lower rates of health insurance and poor access to vehicles for medical purposes. Only 7% of whites live in these neighborhoods.

Built-environment risk. Sixty-three percent of CHL, 55% of Latinos, 53% of Blacks and 32% of whites live areas considered to be at high or the highest vulnerability due to built-environment challenges, which include high population density, crowded housing and a lack of parks and open spaces.

Social vulnerability. According to the Centers for Disease Control, neighborhoods with high social vulnerability are characterized by lower socioeconomic status and education attainment, a higher prevalence of single-parent and multigenerational households, greater housing density, poorer English-language ability and a lack of access to vehicles, among other factors. While only 8% of whites live in these neighborhoods, 42% of both Blacks and Latinos do, as do 38% of CHL.

How the model can help with COVID-19–mitigation efforts

“When the pandemic hit, we were slowed down by a lack of science and a lack of understanding of the ways in which health disparities in the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations made their risk of COVID-19 infection even greater,” Mays said. “We thought elderly and people in nursing homes were the most vulnerable, yet we found that lacking a number of social resources contributes to a greater likelihood of getting infected as well.”

► Read an interview with Mays on the how COVID-19 is affecting Black Americans and how better data can help prevent its spread.

And while nationwide statistics have shown that the virus has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities and communities of color, knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources and when to open or close areas, Mays and Ong said.

If, for example, English-language ability is a barrier to accessing health information and services in a vulnerable neighborhood, health officials should develop campaigns in Spanish or another appropriate language highlighting the availability of testing, the researchers stress. If access to a car is a barrier for families in an at-risk area, walk-up testing sites should be made available. When crowded housing in a high-risk neighborhood is the predominant housing stock, testing resources should be set up for entire households and hotel vouchers made available to help with quarantining after a positive test.

The data can also provide critical knowledge and insights to social service providers, emergency agencies and volunteers on where to direct their time and resources, such as where to set up distribution sites for food and other necessities. And importantly, identifying the areas and populations with the highest vulnerability will help decision-makers equitably prioritize vaccine-distribution plans to include the most vulnerable early.

In the longer term, the researchers say, the model will also provide valuable information to urban planners so that they can target specific areas for the development of less-dense housing and more parks and open spaces, creating healthier neighborhoods that can better withstand future pandemics while promoting equity in long-term health outcomes.

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A montage of photos: Clockwise from top left: Natalie Masuoka, Lorrie Frasure, Chad Dunn, Darnell Hunt and Matt Barreto.

In election salon, UCLA faculty discuss how to protect the right to vote

A montage of photos: Clockwise from top left: Natalie Masuoka, Lorrie Frasure, Chad Dunn, Darnell Hunt and Matt Barreto.

Clockwise from top left: Natalie Masuoka, Lorrie Frasure, Chad Dunn, Darnell Hunt and Matt Barreto.(Photo Credit: UCLA)

With less than two weeks until the election day, early voter turnout numbers continue to shatter records across the United States. But that doesn’t mean that Republicans or Democrats are ahead or that voters have easy decisions or safe options when it comes to casting their ballots, and that’s particularly true for people of color, according to a panel of UCLA voting rights experts who spoke Oct. 19.

“Right now, the right to vote is under attack,” Matt Barreto, professor of political science and the co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions, told the audience attending the webinar, “Protecting the Right to Vote in the 2020 Presidential Election.”

Barreto was one of four panelists discussing the right to vote that also included Lorrie Frasure, associate professor of political science and acting director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, Natalie Masuoka, chair of the Asian American studies department, and Chad Dunn, co-founder of the UCLA Voting Rights Project. The panel was moderated by Darnell Hunt, dean of UCLA College’s Division of Social Sciences.

“There is a lot of nervousness about the effort to suppress votes,” said Barreto, who is also a professor of Chicana and Chicano and Latin American Studies and is working for the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign. “The response we are seeing to that suppression is that over 27 million people have already voted. The fact that we are seeing such historic records during a pandemic is telling.”

But historic voter turnout doesn’t tell the whole story. This year marks the 55th anniversary of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices, but recent court rulings have severely weakened the act. The fundamental right to vote is not a federal law, and in the current political landscape, studies led by Barreto and Dunn note that suppression tactics are on the rise, effectively discouraging people of color to vote.

Frasure noted that Black voters, typically highly engaged in the political process, are more likely to feel their vote will be suppressed, particularly when it comes to mail-in ballots. They also are more likely to believe there will be trouble at the polls.

“In many states, Blacks know their ballot is more likely to be rejected if they mail it in, but there is a real fear about sickness in going out to the polls,” Frasure said. “This is heavy for voters. They are thinking: Am I six feet apart? Is my mask adjusted properly on my nose? They have all of these thoughts as they seek to be a part of the democratic process because they want to see change based on things they’ve seen in their own lives. It’s consequential.”

In terms of the Asian community, the experience may be different, but have no less of an impact.

“In many ways, for Asian Americans they have a different story. This community doesn’t have a longstanding history of seeing trustworthy and equity voting procedures,” said Masuoka, who pointed out that a higher percentage of Asians are immigrants than other minority groups and that more than 70% of whom are adults. “For many, this is their first election, and this is a problem example we’re setting for new voters about what it’s like to participate in American democracy. [Voter suppression tactics] are intimidating our new Americans and preventing them from casting ballots.”

Hunt and Dunn both noted that the notion we are in a post-racial period is not accurate. “We will never be in a place where we don’t need a law protecting the right to vote. Right now, we have more holes in the sail than we’ve ever had [in terms of protecting voting rights], but if we have enough of a wind, we can still be pushed forward. Vote denial only works in close elections. If we have enough people that vote early, we can turn this around.”

But just because early voter turnout is at an all-time high doesn’t mean either side is ahead, said panelists. Frasure pointed out that 90% of Blacks may lean Democratic, but that doesn’t mean they will turn out.

“Voters get complacent and say, ‘Look at the surge in early voting,’ and they decide to sit this one out,” Barreto said. “And none of us who believe in American democracy can afford to sit this one out. We are expecting a big number of votes, and while early numbers are encouraging, they are expected. No side is ahead right now. Don’t get complacent — push your community to get out and vote.”

On a final note, Dunn advocated for unity.

“Everybody’s vote counts,” he said. “The more we communicate that to our neighbors, the more that’s part of our public fabric, the better off we’ll all be as Americans.”

Voting tips:

-Cast your ballot early if you are going to vote by mail or if you plan to drop it off at an official ballot box. Track your ballot in California.

-If you are going vote in person, you will probably have to to stand in line. So wear a mask, bring food and a charged-up cell phone, and ask if friends or family can accompany you.

-Offer to help others fill out their ballot, particularly elderly or young people who have never voted before.

-You can serve a role in the political process: Talk to your neighbors, set up zoom meetings or join text-banking efforts.

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

Astrophysicist France Córdova to deliver UCLA’s Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership

France Córdova, internationally renowned astrophysicist and the first woman to be appointed chief scientist for NASA, will deliver UCLA College’s fifth Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership on Nov. 10, titled “The Learn’d Astronomer Discovers the Policy World.” Córdova is the former director of the National Science Foundation and served in five presidential administrations.

A photo of Astrophysicist France Córdova.

Astrophysicist France Córdova (Photo Courtesy of France Córdova)

Córdova will discuss the world of science policy, which affects scientific progress as much as scientific discoveries themselves. Through examples such as the writing of the U.S. Constitution to the present day challenges faced by universities and federal science agencies, she will illustrate how difficult — and important — it can be to form good policy.

Registration is required for this virtual event, which is free and open to UCLA students, alumni and the general public. Following her talk, Córdova will take part in a moderated discussion informed by questions submitted by students and alumni.

“As an influential leader and trailblazer in science, engineering and education, France Córdova offers invaluable perspective on meeting the challenges of our rapidly changing world,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said.

During her career as a scientist, Córdova specialized in multi-spectral research on X-ray and gamma ray sources and in developing space-borne instrumentation. She was the first woman to be appointed president of Purdue University and the first Latina chancellor of UC Riverside. She previously served as vice chancellor for research at UC Santa Barbara. Córdova also served as chair of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution and on the board of trustees of Mayo Clinic. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology.

Among her numerous honors, Córdova is the recipient of NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal — the agency’s highest honor, and the Kilby International Award, which is presented for significant contributions to society through science, technology, innovation, invention and education. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a National Associate of the National Academies, an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Women in Science. She was appointed to the board of trustees of Caltech in June.

“France Córdova’s groundbreaking achievements are inspiring to all who value progress and discovery,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the UCLA College. “Her Luskin Lecture will undoubtedly motivate and challenge all of us to create a better world through education and exploration, as she herself as done.”

The Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership was established in the UCLA College by Meyer and Renee Luskin in 2011 as part of a transformative gift to UCLA. Their vision in establishing the endowed lecture series gives the UCLA College an opportunity to share knowledge and expand the dialogue among scholars, leaders in government and business, and the greater Los Angeles community.

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

Left image: The inaugural public event hosted by the Black Feminism Initiative, held in February, featured a conversation between local reproductive justice advocate Kimberly Durdin, left, and UCLA graduate student Ariel Hart. Top right image: Audience at the event. Bottom right from left: Kali Tambree and Jaimie Crumley, student co-coordinators of the Black Feminism Initiative.

Black Feminism Initiative meets the moment, in service of a more just future

Black Feminism Initiative collage. Left image: The inaugural public event hosted by the Black Feminism Initiative, held in February, featured a conversation between local reproductive justice advocate Kimberly Durdin, left, and UCLA graduate student Ariel Hart. Top right image: Audience at the event. Bottom right from left: Kali Tambree and Jaimie Crumley, student co-coordinators of the Black Feminism Initiative. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

If higher education can be thought of as a superhighway to success and social mobility, Black women have always had to manufacture their own vehicles to access it. They must navigate a system whose fastest on-ramps, most well-maintained lanes, bridges and sources of replenishment were founded and structured to best support those who are white, or male, or both.

Against the backdrop of rampant health, social and economic inequality, women studying and working at universities know that systemic inequities won’t change without radical thinking and eventually a radical restructuring of what the academy itself represents and how it functions.

To support that paradigm shift, in late fall 2019 UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, with backing from the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, launched the Black Feminism Initiative. The mission of the initiative is to support, develop and perpetuate Black feminist scholarship and ideas among the campus community. They do this by way of fellowships, mentorships, public programming and they are also developing collaborations with community organizations to advance these goals.

The need for such a group was acute, and the voices they can bring to the current cultural conversation around social justice are critical, said Sarah Haley, who directs the Black Feminism Initiative.

“In the current cultural moment Black feminism has a lot to teach us all about institutionalized modes of care, and institutionalized modes of harm,” said Haley, who also leads the anti-carceral research track in the Center for the Study of Women.

The initiative also serves as a means of mutual aid for the interdisciplinary approach and community-engaged research of its graduate students, which is often undervalued not only by the structures of academia writ large, but sometimes, members say, even by their own institution.

The idea for the Black Feminism Initiative originated from a course taught by Haley, a professor of gender studies and African American studies at UCLA . About 15 students are currently involved in the initiative, which is in the early phases and is not necessarily limited to Black women, or even just women. There are four affiliated faculty in this early phase and the group is working to expand.

Haley is proud that Black Feminism Initiative offers two graduate fellowships: one named for Alisa Bierria, a professor of African American studies at UC Riverside; and the other for Mariame Kaba, researcher in residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Bierria and Kaba are leaders of Survived and Punished, a group dedicated to advocating for the release of incarcerated women who are themselves survivors of violence.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about a variety of Black feminist research practices and what does it mean for us to be Black feminists at UCLA, but also what does it mean to do our research in a way that really values the lives and contributions of Black women personally,” said Jaimie Crumley, a fourth-year doctoral student in gender studies who serves as one of the initative’s student coordinators. Crumley’s work is historically based, about 19th century free Black women who were abolitionists.

“These days we call that anti-carceral feminism, but it’s really about abolition,” she said. “We’re having a lot of conversations about archives and the silence and the violence that is done to Black women just because of the way that our stories are remembered or captured in official state archives. We’ve also had a lot of conversation about digital life and how Black women are represented online.”

Thinking about care and community

Confronting the very visible disproportionality of care for Black women is also a major theme for members of the group, from how Black nurses and essential workers have been affected by COVID-19, to the vulnerabilities of Black women to violence, both state and individual, to the fact that Black women are so much more likely to die in childbirth than other women.

“The scholarship we’re doing is related to our own survival and the survival of people who are in communities that we care about,” Crumley said.

Maternal mortality was the theme of the group’s inaugural public event, held shortly before the safer-at-home order took effect. The initiative invited Kimberly Durdin, a midwife and founder of Kindred Space LA, to campus to have a discussion with initiative member Ariel Hart, who is working on her doctorate in sociology and her medical degree.

“We really want to be pioneering new forms of community-engaged scholarship,” Haley said. “We want to blur the lines between what counts as scholarship in the academy and foster scholarship via what serves the work of people in our communities.”

Initiative co-coordinator Kali Tambree, a fourth-year doctoral student in sociology, has had to find new approaches toward her dissertation without current access to the archives upon which she relies. The Black Feminism Initiative has become an invaluable part of her experience at UCLA.

“Sarah and Jaimie have done a lot of work to set the goals and standards and pressing questions,” said Tambree, who organized the 2019 Thinking Gender conference, titled “Feminists Confronting the Carceral State.” “I’ve never been in a space that is so joyful, and vulnerable and courageous. It just feels really good to be able to talk about how the world feels for you and what type of historically grounded writing and thinking can help guide us as we shape ourselves.”

Rethinking institutions and norms

Courage and vulnerability are part of the package for abolitionist thinkers, Tambree pointed out.

“An abolitionist organization existing within the academy must have some investment in undermining the academy’s continuation as is,” Tambree said. “Anyone who is interested in unraveling the world as we know it and imagining a new one can’t continue to support the old one.”

That means, the academy can no longer remain a privileged space, she said.

“Being in an academic space with other people who identify as Black feminist abolitionists allows for a really urgent and necessary conversation and collaboration — and kind of support system — as we individually and as a collective navigate that reality,” Tambree said.

Making higher education and UCLA more aware of the work of Black feminists of the past, present and future is an important part of the group’s mission, Haley said.

“Mentorship and grad support are a critical facet of the Initiative, but our broader vision is to circulate new ideas for all faculty, students and the community as well,” she said.

In a world that seems more ready than ever to confront the enduring logics and racist underpinnings of settler colonialism, capitalism, the hetero-patriarchy and anti-blackness, Initiative student leaders are looking to harness the current state of virtual learning to best effect.

“One thing that’s going to be really exciting for the group this year with us being more online is that some of our workshops might be more open to more people,” Crumley said. “We’ve been talking about scholars and activists and performance artists who can join us on Zoom and lead workshops with us.”

This story is part of a series highlighting UCLA women whose teaching, scholarship and research centers on racial and social justice.

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

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio Is Working to Make Disease and Infertility a Thing of the Past

UCLA College division of Life Sciences student Esmeralda Isabel Villavicencio wants to return some day to her home country of Ecuador as a genetics professor, leading pioneering research on complex diseases and neurological disorders. She already has a solid start at UCLA.

“My community has suffered from a tremendous lack of support for STEM research, and I want to contribute to change that,” says Villavicencio, a senior majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics with a Biomedical Research minor.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio in the lab. Photo credit: UCLA College/Reed Hutchinson

Villavicencio is gaining valuable experience in Dr. Amander Clark’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant, where her project working with stem cells is a part of a research effort that could one day help develop novel treatments for infertility. The possibility that her work will have impact is what drives her.

“The work I’m doing now could eventually help people who suffer from infertility to conceive a child—people, for example, who become infertile after treatments for pediatric cancer, or due to developmental defects,” she says.

Villavicencio says the collaborative research environment at UCLA has prepared her for graduate school and a career as a scientist, from learning lab techniques to strengthening her critical thinking skills, discipline and resiliency.  This experience has helped her grow in her chosen career, and her hard work is also paying off in other ways.

Villavicencio’s drive and vision have been recognized by two UCLA Life Sciences scholarship awards that are helping her move closer to her goals. Last year, she was awarded the Kristen Hanson Memorial Scholarship, which honors a female undergraduate for academic accomplishment and a passion for science in addition to well-rounded interests, leadership, originality and commitment to engage with the world.  More recently, the COMPASS scholarship—from the Center for Opportunity to Maximize Participation, Access and Student Success—was presented to Villavicencio for her summer research.

“Knowing my hard work and enthusiasm stand out in such a top-tier school is encouraging, and receiving these honors also greatly alleviated my financial burden,” Villavicencio says. “I come from a low-income family and I’m able to attend UCLA in part thanks to a scholarship from my government. However, there are expenses it does not cover. The scholarships allow me to reduce my part-time job hours and focus more on my research and academic endeavors.”

Photo of Alain Mabanckou.

UCLA professor named one of 2019’s 100 most influential Africans

Photo of Alain Mabanckou.

Alain Mabanckou, professor of French and Francophone studies at UCLA. Credit: UCLA

Alain Mabanckou, literature professor in the UCLA Department of French and Francophone Studies, has been named one of 2019’s 100 most influential Africans by leading politics and culture magazine, “New African.”

A renowned novelist, poet and professor, Mabanckou is recognized for his contributions to the global literary scene. Known for his novels and non-fiction writing depicting the experience of contemporary Africa and the African diaspora in France, he is among the most recognized writers of Franco African contemporary literature. His most recent novel, “Black Moses,” winner of the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, follows the story of an orphan navigating his way through a poor and corrupt society.

The list recognizes Africans who have made large contributions to the continent and its culture, from reform-leading political figures to business pioneers and record-breaking athletes. The list includes the likes of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed and Kenyan world record breaking marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge. According to “New African,” those chosen to be on the list exemplify how African talent is impacting the world.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy

Astronomers discover class of strange objects near our galaxy’s enormous black hole

Photo of orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy

Orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy, with the supermassive black hole indicated with a white cross. Stars, gas and dust are in the background. Photo: Anna Ciurlo, Tuan Do/UCLA Galactic Center Group

Astronomers from UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative have discovered a new class of bizarre objects at the center of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. They published their research in the Jan. 16 issue of the journal Nature.

“These objects look like gas and behave like stars,” said co-author Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group.

The new objects look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole. Their orbits range from about 100 to 1,000 years, said lead author Anna Ciurlo, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher.

Ghez’s research group identified an unusual object at the center of our galaxy in 2005, which was later named G1. In 2012, astronomers in Germany made a puzzling discovery of a bizarre object named G2 in the center of the Milky Way that made a close approach to the supermassive black hole in 2014. Ghez and her research team believe that G2 is most likely two stars that had been orbiting the black hole in tandem and merged into an extremely large star, cloaked in unusually thick gas and dust.

“At the time of closest approach, G2 had a really strange signature,” Ghez said. “We had seen it before, but it didn’t look too peculiar until it got close to the black hole and became elongated, and much of its gas was torn apart. It went from being a pretty innocuous object when it was far from the black hole to one that was really stretched out and distorted at its closest approach and lost its outer shell, and now it’s getting more compact again.”

“One of the things that has gotten everyone excited about the G objects is that the stuff that gets pulled off of them by tidal forces as they sweep by the central black hole must inevitably fall into the black hole,” said co-author Mark Morris, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “When that happens, it might be able to produce an impressive fireworks show since the material eaten by the black hole will heat up and emit copious radiation before it disappears across the event horizon.”

But are G2 and G1 outliers, or are they part of a larger class of objects? In answer to that question, Ghez’s research group reports the existence of four more objects they are calling G3, G4, G5 and G6. The researchers have determined each of their orbits. While G1 and G2 have similar orbits, the four new objects have very different orbits.

Ghez believes all six objects were binary stars — a system of two stars orbiting each other — that merged because of the strong gravitational force of the supermassive black hole. The merging of two stars takes more than 1 million years to complete, Ghez said.

“Mergers of stars may be happening in the universe more often than we thought, and likely are quite common,” Ghez said. “Black holes may be driving binary stars to merge. It’s possible that many of the stars we’ve been watching and not understanding may be the end product of mergers that are calm now. We are learning how galaxies and black holes evolve. The way binary stars interact with each other and with the black hole is very different from how single stars interact with other single stars and with the black hole.”

Ciurlo noted that while the gas from G2’s outer shell got stretched dramatically, its dust inside the gas did not get stretched much. “Something must have kept it compact and enabled it to survive its encounter with the black hole,” Ciurlo said. “This is evidence for a stellar object inside G2.”

“The unique dataset that Professor Ghez’s group has gathered during more than 20 years is what allowed us to make this discovery,” Ciurlo said. “We now have a population of ‘G’ objects, so it is not a matter of explaining a ‘one-time event’ like G2.”

The researchers made observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and used a powerful technology that Ghez helped pioneer, called adaptive optics, which corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time. They conducted a new analysis of 13 years of their UCLA Galactic Center Orbits Initiative data.

In September 2019, Ghez’s team reported that the black hole is getting hungrier and it is unclear why. The stretching of G2 in 2014 appeared to pull off gas that may recently have been swallowed by the black hole, said co-author Tuan Do, a UCLA research scientist and deputy director of the Galactic Center Group. The mergers of stars could feed the black hole.

The team has already identified a few other candidates that may be part of this new class of objects, and are continuing to analyze them.

Ghez noted the center of the Milky Way galaxy is an extreme environment, unlike our less hectic corner of the universe.

“The Earth is in the suburbs compared to the center of the galaxy, which is some 26,000 light-years away,” Ghez said. “The center of our galaxy has a density of stars 1 billion times higher than our part of the galaxy. The gravitational pull is so much stronger. The magnetic fields are more extreme. The center of the galaxy is where extreme astrophysics occurs — the X-sports of astrophysics.”

Ghez said this research will help to teach us what is happening in the majority of galaxies.

Other co-authors include Randall Campbell, an astronomer with the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii; Aurelien Hees, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar, now a researcher at the Paris Observatory in France; and Smadar Naoz, a UCLA assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, W.M. Keck Foundation and Keck Visiting Scholars Program, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, Jim and Lori Keir, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In July 2019, Ghez’s research team reported on the most comprehensive test of Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the black hole. They concluded that Einstein’s theory passed the test and is correct, at least for now.

► Watch a four-minute film about Ghez’s research

►View an animation below of the orbits of the G objects, together with the orbits of stars near the supermassive black hole. Credit: Advanced Visualization Lab, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Unearthing Easter Island’s Moai

Two Moai are shown during excavations by Jo Anne Van Tilburg and her team at Rano Raraku quarry on Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island. Photo credit: Easter Island Statue Project

Rapa Nui (or Easter Island, as it is commonly known) is home to the enigmatic Moai, stone monoliths that have stood watch over the island landscape for hundreds of years. Their existence is a marvel of human ingenuity — and their meaning a source of some mystery.

Ancient Rapanui carvers worked at the behest of the elite ruling class to carve nearly 1,000 Moai because they, and the community at large, believed the statues capable of producing agricultural fertility and thereby critical food supplies, according to a new study from Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, recently published in Journal of Archaeological Science.

Van Tilburg and her team, working with geoarchaeologist and soils specialist Sarah Sherwood, believe they have found scientific evidence of that long-hypothesized meaning thanks to careful study of two particular Moai excavated over five years in the Rano Raraku quarry on the eastern side of the Polynesian island.

Van Tilburg’s most recent analysis focused on two of the monoliths that stand within the inner region of the Rano Raraku quarry, which is the origin of 95 percent of the island’s more than 1,000 Moai. Extensive laboratory testing of soil samples from the same area shows evidence of foods such as banana, taro and sweet potato.

Van Tilburg said the analysis showed that in addition to serving as a quarry and a place for carving statues, Rano Raraku also was the site of a productive agricultural area.

“Our excavation broadens our perspective of the Moai and encourages us to realize that nothing, no matter how obvious, is ever exactly as it seems. I think our new analysis humanizes the production process of the Moai,” Van Tilburg said.

Van Tilburg has been working on Rapa Nui for more than three decades. Her Easter Island Statue Project is supported in part by UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. Tom Wake, a Cotsen Institute colleague, analyzes small-animal remains from the excavation site. Van Tilburg also serves as director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive.

Van Tilburg, in partnership with members of the local community, heads the first legally permitted excavations of Moai in Rano Raraku since 1955. Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, a noted Rapanui artist, is project co-director.

The soils in Rano Raraku are probably the richest on the island, certainly over the long term, Sherwood said. Coupled with a fresh-water source in the quarry, it appears the practice of quarrying itself helped boost soil fertility and food production in the immediate surroundings, she said. The soils in the quarry are rich in clay created by the weathering of lapilli tuff (the local bedrock) as the workers quarried into deeper rock and sculpted the Moai.

A professor of earth and environmental systems at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., Sherwood joined the Easter Island Project after meeting another member of Van Tilburg’s team at a geology conference.

She wasn’t originally looking for soil fertility, but out of curiosity and research habit, she did some fine-scale testing of samples brought back from the quarry.

“When we got the chemistry results back, I did a double take,” Sherwood said. “There were really high levels of things that I never would have thought would be there, such as calcium and phosphorous. The soil chemistry showed high levels of elements that are key to plant growth and essential for high yields. Everywhere else on the island the soil was being quickly worn out, eroding, being leeched of elements that feed plants, but in the quarry, with its constant new influx of small fragments of the bedrock generated by the quarrying process, there is a perfect feedback system of water, natural fertilizer and nutrients.”

She said it also looks like the ancient indigenous people of Rapanui were very intuitive about what to grow — planting multiple crops in the same area, which can help maintain soil fertility.

The Moai that Van Tilburg’s team excavated were discovered upright in place, one on a pedestal and the other in a deep hole, indicating they were meant to remain there.

“This study radically alters the idea that all standing statues in Rano Raraku were simply awaiting transport out of the quarry,” Van Tilburg said. “That is, these and probably other upright Moai in Rano Raraku were retained in place to ensure the sacred nature of the quarry itself. The Moai were central to the idea of fertility, and in Rapanui belief their presence here stimulated agricultural food production.”

Van Tilburg and her team estimate the statues from the inner quarry were raised by or before A.D. 1510 to A.D.1645. Activity in this part of the quarry most likely began in A.D.1455. Most production of Moai had ceased in the early 1700s due to western contact.

The two statues Van Tilburg’s team excavated had been almost completely buried by soils and rubble.

“We chose the statues for excavation based on careful scrutiny of historical photographs and mapped the entire Rano Raraku inner region before initiating excavations,” she said.

Van Tilburg has worked hard to establish connections with the local community on Rapa Nui. The project’s field and lab teams are made up of local workers, mentored by professional archeologists and geologists.

The result of their collective efforts is a massive detailed archive and comparative database that documents more than 1,000 sculptural objects on Rapa Nui, including the Moai, as well as similar records on more than 200 objects scattered in museums throughout the world. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with most of the island’s sacred sites protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

This is the first definitive study to reveal the quarry as a complex landscape and to make a definitive statement that links soil fertility, agriculture, quarrying and the sacred nature of the Moai.

Van Tilburg and her team are working on another study that analyzes the rock art carvings that exist on only three of the Moai.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Professor’s book about Sephardic Jews chosen as a best of 2019

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Photo credit: Caroline Libresco

Adding to the chorus of critics’ raves, The Economist has named “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century,” a new book from UCLA professor of history Sarah Abrevaya Stein, to its best of 2019 list.

Stein’s latest work explores the intertwined histories of a single family (the Levys), Sephardic Jewry, and the dramatic ruptures that transformed southeastern Europe and the Judeo-Spanish diaspora. It has received glowing reviews from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), the Los Angeles Review of Books and more.

Stein, who holds the Maurice Amado Endowed Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA, spent a decade researching this work, a journey that took her to a dozen countries, dozens of archives, and into the homes of a Sephardic clan that constituted its own, remarkable global diaspora.

The phrase “Sephardic Jew” refers to those of Spanish or Hispanic background. Stein’s new book begins with a family originally from old Salonica, a Mediterranean seaport of the Ottoman Empire, now Thessaloniki, Greece. In the late 19th century it was home to a large community of Spanish Jews.

The idea to tell the story of the Levy family came as Stein researched another book, an English-language translation of the first Ladino (which refers to a background of mixed Spanish, Latin American or Central American heritage) memoir ever written, “A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel A-Levi.”

“He spent the last years of his life writing a Ladino-language memoir to air a lifetime’s worth of grievances,” said Stein, who is also the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.

Her book traces the history of a collection, how one family archive came to be built and preserved.

The existence of Sa’adi’s personal memoir, one sole copy written in written in soletreo (the unique handwritten cursive of Ladino), outlived wars; the collapse of the empire in which it was conceived; a major fire in Salonica; and the Holocaust, during which Jewish texts and libraries as well as Jewish bodies were targeted by the Nazis for annihilation.

Stein was fascinated by the fact that this manuscript passed through four generations of Sa’adi’s family, traveling from Salonica to Paris, from there to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to Jerusalem.

“It somehow eluded destruction or disappearance despite the collapse of the Salonican Jewish community and the dispersal of the author’s descendants over multiple countries and continents,” she said. “It knit together a family even as the historic Sephardi heartland of southeastern Europe was unraveling.”

Stein’s book traces decades of family correspondence and shared memories to reveal what became of Sa’adi’s 14 children and their far-flung descendants. Most fled Salonica after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, or attempted to flee later in 20th Century, when 37 members of the Levy family perished in the Holocaust.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of melting ice in body of water.

Arctic Ocean could be ice-free for part of the year as soon as 2044

Picture of melting ice in body of water.

The fate of Arctic sea ice is a key topic for climate scientists because of its role in temperatures around the rest of the world. Photo: NASA

It’s hard to imagine the Arctic without sea ice.

But according to a new study by UCLA climate scientistshuman-caused climate change is on track to make the Arctic Ocean functionally ice-free for part of each year starting sometime between 2044 and 2067.

As long as humans have been on Earth, the planet has had a large cap of sea ice at the Arctic Circle that expands each winter and contracts each summer. The knowledge that sea ice is on the decline is not new: Satellite observations show that since 1979, the amount of sea ice in the Arctic in September — the month when there is the least sea ice, before water starts freezing again — has declined by 13 percent per decade.

Scientists have been attempting to predict the future of Arctic sea ice for several decades, relying on an array of global climate models that simulate how the climate system will react to all of the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. But the models’ predictions have disagreed widely. Among the current generation of models, some show ice-free Septembers as early as 2026; others suggest the phenomenon will begin as late as 2132.

The UCLA study, which was published in Nature Climate Change, focuses the predictions to a 25-year period.

The study’s lead author is Chad Thackeray, an assistant researcher at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Center for Climate Science. He said one reason predictions about sea ice loss diverge so much is that they differ in how they consider a process called sea ice albedo feedback, which occurs when a patch of sea ice completely melts, uncovering a seawater surface that’s darker and absorbs more sunlight than ice would have. That change in the surface’s reflectivity of sunlight, or albedo, causes greater local warming, which in turn leads to further ice melt.

The cycle exacerbates warming — one reason the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

For their study, Thackeray and co-author Alex Hall, a UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, set out to determine which models are most realistic in how they weigh the effects of sea ice albedo feedback, which they figured would lead them to the most realistic projections for sea ice loss.

Luckily — for research purposes, at least — sea ice albedo feedback not only happens over long periods of time due to climate change; it also happens every summer when sea ice melts for the season. And satellite observations over the past few decades have tracked that seasonal melt and resulting albedo feedback.

Thackeray and Hall assessed 23 models’ depiction of seasonal ice melt between 1980 and 2015 and compared them with the satellite observations. They retained the six models that best captured the actual historical results and discarded the ones that had proven to be off base, enabling them to narrow the range of predictions for ice-free Septembers in the Arctic.

The approach of using an observable process in the current climate to evaluate global climate model projections of future climate was pioneered by Hall and his group in 2006, in a study focused on snow albedo feedback. (As the name implies, snow albedo feedback is similar to sea ice albedo feedback but involves snow loss uncovering a darker land surface.) It has since become widely used in climate science as researchers try to improve the precision of their projections.

The fate of Arctic sea ice is a key topic for climate scientists because of its role in temperatures around the rest of the world.

“Arctic sea ice is a key component of the earth system because of its highly reflective nature, which keeps the global climate relatively cool,” Thackeray said.

There are other environmental and economic implications to ice loss as well. Sea ice is critical to the Arctic ecosystem, and to the fishing industry and indigenous peoples who depend on that ecosystem. And as Arctic ice is lost, more waters are used for commercial shipping and oil and gas exploration, which presents economic opportunity for some nations, but which also contributes to further greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

“The changes to come will have broad environmental, ecological and economic implications,” Thackeray said. “By reducing the uncertainty in when we’ll see those changes, we can be better prepared.”

The research is line with the goals of UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, an initiative that aims to transition Los Angeles County to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent locally sourced water and enhanced ecosystem health by 2050.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.