Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

A UCLA researcher prepares to lower a specialized bottle into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Cruz Island to capture samples of eDNA. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

Researchers used to need to scuba dive to find out which fish live in any given area of the ocean. Now, a new UCLA study has found that environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be used to identify marine organisms living in a certain space.

Environmental DNA is the term for the DNA from cells that are constantly released by organisms into their environments — much like the hair and skin people normally shed in the shower. In the past decade eDNA technology has advanced rapidly, making it a competitive tool for assessing ecosystem biodiversity.

The findings, which were published in PLOS One, could have major implications for monitoring of marine protected areas, sections of ocean where fishing and other activities are prohibited to conserve marine life and habitat.

In 2012, California established 124 marine protected areas covering about 16% of state waters. Regular monitoring of those areas is critical for understanding if marine life is being protected successfully, said UCLA ecologist Paul Barber, the study’s senior author. Before eDNA, the only way to tell if marine protected areas were working was for scuba divers to count and identify every fish they saw, a method known as visual surveying.

“These surveys typically require experienced divers with specific training to spend hours and hours underwater,” said Barber, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Now we can simply lower a bottle into the ocean from the side of a boat.”

The researchers compared which species were detected using eDNA and which were counted using visual surveying during summer 2017 at three sites inside and outside of the State Marine Reserve near Santa Cruz Island. Using eDNA, they identified nearly all of the same species as the visual surveys.

The only fish that did not show up using the technique were five species of rockfish — an issue the researchers said could be easily fixed by tweaking the genetic test to recognize that specific DNA when it appears in water samples.

A photo of a garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California's marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island.

A garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California’s marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

The eDNA also revealed an additional 30 species that had been seen in the same areas in previous years but that were not spotted during the 2017 visual surveys.

“We demonstrated that that we can use eDNA as a tool to monitor these ecosystems,” said Zachary Gold, the study’s lead author, a former UCLA doctoral student who is now a researcher at the University of Washington and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an opportunity going forward to expand the scope and scale of monitoring marine protected areas.”

Wider use of eDNA could help scientists overcome some of the challenges of visual surveying as a technique for monitoring marine species. For one, the new method could be far less expensive than the current one: Each eDNA sample costs around $50, while the National Park Service spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to survey 33 sites in the Channel Islands.

And in part because of those costs, visual surveys are conducted only once a year, which means seasonal variations in fish species have rarely been studied.

Another current challenge is that visual surveying is only performed in waters up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep, which means the technique cannot be used in more than 99% of California’s marine protected areas.

To analyze eDNA, researchers run the water they collect through a filter that captures the cells and DNA of marine organisms. Those filters are frozen on the boat and taken to a lab, where researchers extract DNA from the cells, sequence it and identify which species the DNA belongs to using a reference database.

For the PLOS One study, Gold used a reference database called the Anacapa Toolkit, which was developed previously by UCLA scientists.

The authors acknowledge that eDNA surveys won’t completely replace visual surveys, because the newer method can’t reveal the sex, size, abundance or behavior of the fish being studied — all of which are important elements of a complete assessment. “There will always be value to having eyes in the water,” Barber said.

But the simplicity of eDNA could create opportunities for community science — research in which nonscientist members of the public can participate. For example, Gold set up a program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Heal the Bay that teaches volunteers how to collect water samples. The combination of eDNA tools and a wider network of people collecting samples could dramatically improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

Gift from Astrid and Howard Preston will Fund Renovation of UCLA’s Remote Observing Facility

Howard and Astrid Preston in front of a painting by Astrid in the UCLA Luskin Conference Center. (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

The UCLA College’s Division of Physical Sciences has received a gift of $500,000 from alumni Astrid and Howard Preston to renovate and expand the facility that allows prominent UCLA astronomers and research scientists to observe distant galaxies and stars without leaving campus.

Galaxy: Stellar orbits. (Photo courtesy of NCSA, UCLA / Keck)

Renamed in honor of the couple, the Astrid and Howard Preston Remote Observing Facility in Knudsen Hall provides remote access to the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the Lick telescope in Northern California, and, when completed, will also link to the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.

The division matched the Prestons’ gift at 50%, bringing the total investment to $750,000.

Dean of physical sciences Miguel García-Garibay said, “We are incredibly grateful for this generous gift, which will enhance remote observing capabilities for world-renowned research groups in our division for decades to come. It’s yet another impactful example of the Prestons’ long record of leadership and philanthropy in support of the Department of Physics & Astronomy.”

The Preston Remote Observing Facility is used by four leading astronomy UCLA research groups:

-The Galactic Center Group, led by 2020 Physics Nobel Laureate Andrea Ghez, studies the formation and evolution of galaxies and their central supermassive black holes.

-The Infrared Laboratory develops techniques and applications of infrared imaging devices for astrophysics, including infrared cameras and spectrometers for Lick Observatory, Keck Observatory, Gemini Observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Observatory, and NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

– Extrasolar planets and planetary science faculty study the dynamics and physical properties of the interiors, surfaces and atmospheres of Earth, planets, moons and other solar system objects.

– Cosmology, galaxies and galaxy evolution faculty study the nature of galactic nuclei and quasars, the first generation of galaxies and the structure of the early universe.

Following the renovation project, which is due to begin later this year, the facility will comprise 750 square feet with two distinct remote observing areas equipped with state-of-the-science technology, which can open to one shared area to optimize functionality of the space. Also included in the plans are areas for video conferencing, group discussion, food preparation, and even sleeping, since most observing time is scheduled during night and early morning hours.

Ghez, who holds the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics, said, “I can’t emphasize enough how critical the remote observing facility is to our work. It allows us convenient real-time access to precious telescope time so that we can collect the observational data that advances our research. The renovation made possible by the Prestons’ gift will not only make a huge difference to all of us who use the facility but also will facilitate the technical development of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Keck telescopes and the Lick telescope.”

Any funds remaining after completion of the project will be used to create an endowment to cover ongoing costs related to the space, including computational analysis, future renovations and maintenance, and technology upgrades.

The Prestons have supported the Department of Physics & Astronomy for more than 20 years. They previously established the Howard and Astrid Preston Term Chair in Astrophysics and the Preston Family Graduate Fellowship in Astrophysics. Howard serves on UCLA’s Galactic Center Group Board of Advisors and Physical Sciences Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund. Astrid is on the board of Women & Philanthropy at UCLA and the Department of English board of visitors. The couple met as UCLA undergrads in 1963. After earning a doctorate in physics, Howard founded Preston Cinema Systems, maker of high-tech camera and lens control systems for film and television. Astrid, who graduated with a B.A. in English, is an acclaimed painter.

Howard Preston said, “Astrid and I have followed the exciting progress of UCLA’s astronomy research groups for some time, and we know how important this facility is to their work. We are absolutely delighted that we can support this much-needed renovation and expansion, and we are eager to see what discoveries are around the corner.”

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald. 

A photo of Andrea Ghez receiving her Nobel Prize citation and medal.

Andrea Ghez delivers Nobel Lecture, receives Nobel medal

A photo of Andrea Ghez receiving her Nobel Prize citation and medal.

Ghez received her Nobel Prize citation and medal on Dec. 9 in Beverly Hills. (Photo Credit: Annette Buhl)

Editor’s note: This news release was updated Dec. 10 with a new headline and photographs covering the presentation of the Nobel medal. The video of her medal ceremony was added Dec. 11.

“How do you observe something you can’t see?”

Andrea Ghez, who in October won the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics, answers that question and many others in her Nobel Lecture.

Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, shared the prize for her discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, where the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere made it difficult to see much of anything.

In the talk, Ghez discusses the research she conducted at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, which houses the world’s largest telescopes. She also recounts a huge leap forward she made in the 1990s, when she helped to pioneer adaptive optics, a powerful technology that corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghez delivered her lecture in a mostly empty Lani Hall at UCLA. (Photo Credit: UCLA Broadcast Studio/Nobel Prize Outreach)

And she shares the story of how her initial proposal to conduct the research that led to the Nobel Prize was turned down. “People didn’t think it would work,” she recalled. Ghez wrote another proposal to better explain that it would work.

Her lecture, titled “From the Possibility to the Certainty of a Supermassive Black Hole,” was delivered in UCLA’s Lani Hall. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the auditorium was mostly empty at the time. Traditionally, Nobel laureates travel to Stockholm — or Oslo, Norway, in the case of the Peace Prize — to receive their awards. This year, because of the pandemic, their medals are being brought to them.

Ghez received her Nobel diploma and medal Dec. 9 in the backyard of Leichtman and Levine’s home in Beverly Hills. Today, she will participate in a “Nobel Minds” discussion that will stream live on the organization’s website at 12:35 p.m. PST, and she will be interviewed about her research for a Nobel Prize podcast.

Andrea Ghez with Lars-Erik Tindre, representing the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., at the presentation of Ghez’s Nobel medal in Beverly Hills on Dec. 9. (Photo Credit: Annette Buhl)

Ghez and fellow Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor of biochemistry, were joined by UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter for a webinar on Dec. 16 at 9 a.m. PST. They discussed the science behind their Nobel-winning discoveries, their current research and the significance of their Nobel Prizes for women and young aspiring scientists.

You can view the webinar on the UCLA Connections website.

Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her role in the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a powerful genome editing breakthrough that allows scientists to rewrite DNA in any organism, including human cells.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, 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.