Picture of Kaplan Hall

50 Years of Comparative Literature at UCLA

Picture of Kaplan Hall

Kaplan Hall

By Margaret MacDonald (Adapted from an article by Megan Reusche)

This year, coinciding with UCLA’s centennial, the Department of Comparative Literature in the UCLA College celebrates 50 years of interdisciplinary and multilingual research and education in literary studies.

Professor emeritus Arnold Band, an expert in Jewish and modern Hebrew literature, helped establish the program in 1969 along with Ross Shideler, whose expertise was in Swedish and French literature. In the 1970s, two more faculty were appointed: Kathleen Komar, distinguished professor, and Katherine King, professor emerita of comparative literature and classics.

Today, the department is home to 24 faculty with literary, cultural and language expertise that spans the globe.

“Languages are the best way to gain a deeper understanding of other cultures and lives,” Shideler said. “It’s nice to read in translation but it’s really amazing if you know the language.”

Breaking down silos

In the 1970s, comparative literature departments at U.S. universities were a rarity; faculty from English, French, German, and classics departments had few opportunities for intellectual exchange. The creation of the program at UCLA helped break down disciplinary silos and provided a curricular framework for teaching comparative literature.

In the early years, faculty struggled to keep their space on campus and obtain funds for graduate students and programs. The program was authorized as a department in the early 1980s, opening new funding streams that allowed for new faculty hires, curriculum development and increased course offerings.

“It was a challenge convincing the university that comparative literature was a necessary and serious discipline that was different than an individual national literature,” Komar said. “We wanted to ensure that they knew it was crucial to look across national boundaries.”

UCLA’s department has always had diverse and broad expertise, in contrast to more typical comparative literature departments, which are primarily comprised of German, French and English literature scholars. The department also encourages interdisciplinary studies by combining literature with areas such as dance, music and technology.

Band said he is particularly proud of the graduate program.

“We’ve had over 170 graduate students graduate from our department,” he said. “It’s been very satisfying to train them and watch them go out into the world and get good jobs across various fields.”

Adapting to change

Shideler said that the curriculum is constantly being updated and expanded into a wider notion of world literature. Faculty must stay up to date with constantly changing critical theories and current events as well as adapt to changes in areas such as close reading, deconstruction and feminist criticism.

And then there’s technology.

“Technology has changed the way we think about the human component in writing literature,” Komar said. “From blogging and internet diaries that can be written based on fan reactions to cybernetic poets like Ray Kurzweil who create machine-generated poetry, how do we define literature moving forward?”

Read the full article here.

UCLA named No. 1 U.S. public institution by U.S. News & World Report for third consecutive year

UCLA consistently performs well in a broad range of national and international rankings.

UCLA once again tops the list of U.S. public universities in the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” rankings, which were published today. This is the third year in a row UCLA has captured this honor.

At just 100 years old, UCLA, which placed No. 20 among all private and public institutions, is the youngest of any public or private institution in the ranking’s overall Top 33.

“We are thrilled to once again be ranked the nation’s top public university, particularly as we celebrate our first 100 years,” Chancellor Gene Block said. “Even as UCLA becomes more competitive, we work hard to remain accessible to exceptional students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds who will help ensure our continued success in UCLA’s second century.”

UCLA also excelled in category-specific rankings published as part of the report. UCLA was ranked No. 1 for economic diversity among the top 25 universities, based on the number of undergraduate students receiving Pell Grants (36 percent at UCLA).

In addition, UCLA was named as the No. 1 public institution among the “best colleges for veterans,” and No. 4 among all universities. In 2018–2019, there were 572 members of the military enrolled at UCLA, the highest among the top 26 schools ranked in the category. UCLA is also among the list of colleges where students incur the least amount of debt.

Four other University of California campuses were among the top 10 public universities in the overall rankings: UC Berkeley (No. 2), UC Santa Barbara (7, tied), UC Irvine (9), and UC San Diego (10). UC Davis placed No. 11.

The top 19 institutions on the list are private universities, led by Princeton and Harvard, with Columbia, MIT and Yale tied for third.

The publication’s methodology includes factors that tend to favor private universities, such as endowment size, rate of alumni giving and student-faculty ratio. It also includes data related to academic reputation, student excellence and student retention and graduation rates, with a particular interest in students from lower income households.

In addition:

  • UCLA tied for No. 7 among U.S. public universities (tied for 11 overall) for ethnic diversity.
  • UCLA tied for No. 8 among public universities’ engineering schools that offer doctorates (tied for 15 overall)

UCLA consistently performs well in a broad range of national and international rankings.

Earlier this month, UCLA was named the No. 1 U.S. public institution in the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings — also for the third year in a row. In addition, UCLA was recently ranked No. 2 among American public universities and No. 11 worldwide among public and private universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the No. 2 U.S. public university (9 overall) in the Times Higher Education Reputation Rankings. In April, UCLA was ranked the No. 4 best-value university by Forbes.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA is No. 1 public college in 2020 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education ranking

For the third consecutive year UCLA has been selected as the No. 1 public institution in the nation in the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings.

In addition, of the more than 800 public and private institutions that were assessed, UCLA placed fifth among all public and private colleges in the area of environment, No. 11 overall in the engagement category, No. 16 in terms of outcomes, and No. 25 overall.

The rankings focus on student success and learning in four key areas: student resources, student engagement, educational outcomes and learning environments. The results are based on data from the Times Higher Education U.S. Student Survey, which collected the opinions of more than 170,000 current university students, government data sources and findings from the Times Higher Education Academic Reputation Survey.

Leading the overall list of colleges were Harvard (No. 1), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 2) and Yale (No. 3). Among leading public universities, UCLA was followed by the University of Michigan, second (No. 27 overall), and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, third (No. 33).

Other University of California campuses included in the Top 10 public universities were UC Berkeley, fourth (No. 34 overall), followed by UC Davis, fifth (No. 36), and UC San Diego, sixth (No. 37).

UCLA consistently performs well in multiple rankings regardless of methodology or criteria. In 2018, UCLA was named the No. 1 U.S. public university in both the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges ranking and Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education survey. UCLA was also named the No. 2 U.S. public university (17 overall) by Times Higher Education in its 2019 World University Rankings and No. 2 (No. 9 overall) in its 2019 World Reputation Rankings.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

What wolves’ teeth reveal about their lives

Biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of large carnivores. Here she displays a replica of a saber-toothed cat skull. At left are the skulls of a spotted hyena (in white) and a dire wolf (the black skull). Photo credit: Christelle Snow/UCLA.

UCLA evolutionary biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of many species of large carnivores — including wolves, lions and tigers —  that lived from 50,000 years ago to the present. She reports today in the journal eLife the answer to a puzzling question.

Essential to the survival of these carnivores is their teeth, which are used for securing their prey and chewing it, yet large numbers of these animals have broken teeth. Why is that, and what can we learn from it?

In the research, Van Valkenburgh reports a strong link between an increase in broken teeth and a decline in the amount of available food, as large carnivores work harder to catch dwindling numbers of prey, and eat more of it, down to the bones.

“Broken teeth cannot heal, so most of the time, carnivores are not going to chew on bones and risk breaking their teeth unless they have to,” said Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who holds the Donald R. Dickey Chair in Vertebrate Biology.

For the new research, Van Valkenburgh studied the skulls of gray wolves — 160 skulls of adult wolves housed in the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Montana; 64 adult wolf skulls from Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior that are housed at Michigan Technological University; and 94 skulls from Scandinavia, collected between 1998 and 2010, housed in the Swedish Royal Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. She compared these with the skulls of 223 wolves that died between 1874 and 1952, from Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, Idaho and Canada.

Yellowstone had no wolves, Van Valkenburgh said, between the 1920s and 1995, when 31 gray wolves were brought to the national park from British Columbia. About 100 wolves have lived in Yellowstone for more than a decade, she said.

In Yellowstone, more than 90% of the wolves’ prey are elk. The ratio of elk to wolves has declined sharply, from more than 600-to-1 when wolves were brought back to the national park to about 100-to-1 more recently.

In the first 10 years after the reintroduction, the wolves did not break their teeth much and did not eat the elk completely, Van Valkenburgh reports. In the following 10 years, as the number of elk declined, the wolves ate more of the elk’s body, and the number of broken teeth doubled, including the larger teeth wolves use when hunting and chewing.

The pattern was similar in the island park of Isle Royale. There, the wolves’ prey are primarily adult moose, but moose numbers are low and their large size makes them difficult to capture and kill. Isle Royale wolves had high frequencies of broken and heavily worn teeth, reflecting the fact that they consumed about 90% of the bodies of the moose they killed.

Scandinavian wolves presented a different story. The ratio of moose to wolves is nearly 500-to-1 in Scandinavia and only 55-to-1 in Isle Royale, and, consistent with Van Valkenburgh’s hypothesis, Scandinavian wolves consumed less of the moose they killed (about 70%) than Isle Royale wolves. Van Valkenburgh did not find many broken teeth among the Scandinavian wolves. “The wolves could find moose easily, not eat the bones, and move on,” she said.

Van Valkenburgh believes her findings apply beyond gray wolves, which are well-studied, to other large carnivores, such as lions, tigers and bears.

Extremely high rates of broken teeth have been recorded for large carnivores — such as lions, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats — from the Pleistocene epoch, dating back tens of thousands of years, compared with their modern counterparts, Van Valkenburgh said. Rates of broken teeth from animals at the La Brea Tar Pits were two to four times higher than in modern animals, she and colleagues reported in the journal Science in the 1990s.

“Our new study suggests that the cause of this tooth fracture may have been more intense competition for food in the past than in present large carnivore communities,” Van Valkenburgh said.

She and colleagues reported in 2015 that violent attacks by packs of some of the world’s largest carnivores — including lions much larger than those of today and saber-toothed cats — went a long way toward shaping ecosystems during the Pleistocene.

In a 2016 article in the journal BioScience, Van Valkenburgh and more than 40 other wildlife experts wrote that preventing the extinction of lions, tigers, wolves, bears, elephants and the world’s other largest mammals will require bold political action and financial commitments from nations worldwide.

Discussing the new study, she said, “We want to understand the factors that increase mortality in large carnivores that, in many cases, are near extinction. Getting good information on that is difficult. Studying tooth fracture is one way to do so, and can reveal changing levels of food stress in big carnivores.”

Co-authors are Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, professors of forest resources and environmental science at Michigan Technological University; and Douglas Smith and Daniel Stahler, wildlife biologists with the National Park Service.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Park Service.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernández awarded MacArthur Fellowship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA receives $20 million to establish UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute

Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris ‘84.

The Bedari Foundation, established by philanthropists Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris, has given $20 million to the UCLA College to establish the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.

The institute, which is housed in the division of social sciences, will support world-class research on kindness, create opportunities to translate that research into real-world practices, and serve as a global platform to educate and communicate its findings. Among its principal goals are to empower citizens and inspire leaders to build more humane societies.

“Universities should always be places where we teach students to reach across lines of difference and treat one another with empathy and respect — even when we deeply disagree,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “The UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute will bring the best thinking to this vital issue and, I think, will allow us to have a real social impact on future generations.”

The institute, which will begin operating immediately, will take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding kindness — through evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. It will focus on research about the actions, thoughts, feelings and social institutions associated with kindness and will bring together researchers from across numerous disciplines at UCLA and at external organizations.

The inaugural director of the institute is Daniel Fessler, a UCLA anthropology professor whose research interests include exploring how witnessing acts of remarkable kindness can cause an uplifting emotional experience that in turn motivates the observer to be kind. Studies by Fessler and his colleagues have shed light on why some people are open to that type of “contagious kindness” experience.

The Bedari Foundation is a private family foundation whose aim is to enable significant cultural shifts in the fields of health and wellness, community displacement and environmental conservation.

“Our vision is that we will all live in a world where humanity discovers and practices the kindness that exists in all of us,” said Matthew Harris, the foundation’s co-founder and a 1984 UCLA graduate. “Much research is needed to understand why kindness can be so scarce in the modern world. As we seek at Bedari to bridge the divide between science and spirituality, through the establishment of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute we hope to educate and empower more and more people in the practice of kindness.”

Already, a range of researchers at UCLA are studying the types of questions that will be the basis of the institute’s work. For example, UCLA anthropologists are examining how kindness spreads from person to person and group to group. UCLA sociologists are analyzing how people who regularly act unkind might be encouraged to engage in kind acts instead, and UCLA psychologists are researching how kindness can improve people’s moods and reduce symptoms of depression. Others are pursuing research on changes in neurobiology and behaviors resulting from mindfulness, and how those changes can influence kindness and people’s mental, physical and social well-being.

“In the midst of current world politics, violence and strife, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute seeks to be an antidote,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA division of social sciences. “Rooted in serious academic work, the institute will partner and share its research on kindness broadly in accessible formats. The Bedari Foundation’s extraordinary gift is truly visionary and we are grateful for its support and leadership.”

The Kindness Institute will provide seed funding for research projects that examine the social and physical mechanics of kindness and how kindness might be harnessed to create more humane societies. It also will provide mindfulness awareness training to students, faculty and staff and in underserved Los Angeles communities, and host an annual conference at which presenters will examine new discoveries in kindness research, among other activities.

“The mission of the Kindness Institute perfectly aligns with that of the division of social sciences, where engaging the amazing diversity and social challenges shaping Los Angeles routinely inspires research that has the potential to change the world,” Hunt said.

The gift is part of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which is scheduled to conclude in December.

Disabled dancers learn to redefine the aesthetics of movement at UCLA

Photo of two women performing a dance duet.

Harmanie Taylor, left, and Vanessa Cruz perform a duet during the Dancing Disability Lab at UCLA. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

As the 10 dancers moved across the studio floor in Kaufman Hall, their instructor closely watched how each dancer’s body movements transitioned from one to the next.

Victoria Marks, associate dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and professor of choreography, offered encouragement and challenged the dancers to pay closer attention to the way they could shape space both individually and in pairs. Two dancers in wheelchairs faced each other, raising their arms in intricate patterns. Others incorporated crutches or a chair into their actions.

“You are a mover and a maker. You can make us see things,” Marks said to the group, her voice the only sound in the studio as the dancers worked without music. “You have that power, not just in what you’re doing but how you’re doing it.”

The dancers, hailing from around the world, came together for a week in June for UCLA’s Dancing Disability Lab, which was hosted by world arts and cultures/dance and the disability studies minor. They spent their time discussing disability activism and performance, developing their movement skills, creating choreography and exploring how dance can transform and challenge ideas about the body and personhood.

The UCLA Disability Inclusion Lab is a cross-disciplinary initiative designed to reframe cultural understanding and practices around the concept of disability through academic courses and community engagement. Each lab will build and strengthen networks of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and community leaders to transform the discourse and awareness surrounding disability. The Dancing Disability Lab was UCLA’s second such project following the Autism Media Lab in the spring.

“I felt from the conception that UCLA was in a position to do something very different from what dance companies across the country are doing for dancers with disabilities,” Marks said. “Because we have a disability studies minor and a dance major, I thought UCLA could combine those resources, making dances and also talking about how what they create engages and changes ideas about disability.”

Each day included seminars on the history of disabled dance and performance, which included watching clips of dance and performance art made by disabled artists and discussions on topics such as access and the use of mobility aids in dance. In one discussion, the dancers and instructors debated whether mobility aids like wheelchairs and crutches could be considered “costumes” (while some supported the idea, others were staunchly opposed).

After the daily seminar, the dancers attended workshops on movement development and choreography. They practiced breathing techniques and explored how their experiences inform their dancing.

Mel Chua, a postdoc in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech, said she was hesitant to apply for the program because she assumed that her previous dance training (through classes and a contemporary dance company as an undergraduate) wasn’t advanced enough. But Chua came to realize that she only felt unqualified precisely because, as a deaf person, she hasn’t ever had access to dance training like what she experienced at UCLA.

American Sign Language interpreters provided for her throughout the week enabled Chua to engage in spoken, scholarly discussions about dance for the first time, she said.

“I’ve mostly followed dance classes in the past through sight, just watching and copying, but I don’t know the language for dancing since I don’t know how people talk about dancing in English,” Chua said. “Having access to the rhetoric of dance, the way we talk about dance in English — the terminology — in discussion for the first time was amazing because I got to be part of dancers discussing dance, and that’s something I never get to do.”

Another first for Chua and many other dancers was getting to dance with a group of exclusively disabled dance artists. Instead of being the only disabled person in the class, feeling pigeonholed by their disability or having to translate choreography designed for non-disabled dancers, they were united in how they each expanded dancing conventions, Chua said.

Photo of a group of dancers performing on stage,

Instructor Alice Sheppard, left, performs a piece with the Dancing Disability Lab participants at the public showcase. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Vanessa Cruz, a dance major at Cal State Long Beach who has arthrogryposis (a condition in which the joints are fixed or their movement is restricted) and scoliosis, said she has only ever trained with non-disabled dancers and is accustomed to figuring out how to fit into an art form that caters to people without disabilities, which can be lonely.

Being in a dance workshop where everyone had a disability was empowering and eye-opening.

“It made me feel like I have a voice in this crazy world,” Cruz said. “It was the first time I felt like I belonged anywhere.”

Cruz and Chua both said they are not looking to inspire others or receive sympathy for the challenges they face. Although the idea of inclusion often focuses on bringing disabled and non-disabled people together, Chua believes it’s important for disabled people to have spaces that are just their own. Dancing Disability was exactly what she and her fellow participants needed to advance the field of dance and disability.

“It’s only when we figure out our own maturation of our own practice that we can come out from that place of having our own disabled practice and engage with yours,” Chua said. “There is something that abled people cannot give us, and they don’t need to understand or see what it is, but they need to trust that something is there and that it is important and they should support us having it, even if they never see it or perceive themselves as benefiting from it or learning from it.”

For Cruz, the lab gave disabled artists a chance to be heard and seen differently than what some might be accustomed to — a necessary step in ensuring that non-disabled people will be allies who provide ongoing support for equal access and inclusion.

“People need to know we exist. Dance is the perfect platform to allow our humanity to come through,” Cruz said. “People are either inspired by me or they feel sorry for me because that’s how the media has shaped our identity, but dance can change that.”

Dancing Disability was co-taught by Marks, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor of English and bioethics at Emory University and co-director of the Emory College Disability Studies Initiative, and Alice Sheppard, a disabled dancer and choreographer. The week concluded with a public showcase at Kaufman Hall’s black box theater on June 28.

Marks said the lab showed her how much disabled dancers have to offer to an ever-changing exploration of what dance is and can be.

“There was a sense of full-bodied moving and a ton of imagination — the wit, intelligence and signature of each of the artists,” Marks said. “These artists have so much to offer all of us in terms of opening ourselves to what it means to be human and to be joyous and witty and funny and live life in all the complexities that life offers.”

She also recognized the need for disabled people to be leaders in discussions about inclusion and equal access, which is what the Dancing Disability Lab was designed to facilitate.

“UCLA has always been at the forefront of social justice movements and has recognized the need to address diversity, equity and inclusion, and so this lab is part of what UCLA continues to do,” Marks said. “It’s a tremendous contribution to the field of dance, and if dance represents people and our values and ideas, then it becomes part of that larger civic conversation about who we are.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Study shows how serotonin and a popular anti-depressant affect the gut’s microbiota

Senior author Elaine Hsiao says researchers hope to build on their current study to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

A new study in mice led by UCLA biologists strongly suggests that serotonin and drugs that target serotonin, such as anti-depressants, can have a major effect on the gut’s microbiota — the 100 trillion or so bacteria and other microbes that live in the human body’s intestines.

Serotonin — a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger that sends messages among cells — serves many functions in the human body, including playing a role in emotions and happiness. An estimated 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, where it influences gut immunity.

The team — led by senior author Elaine Hsiao and lead author Thomas Fung, a postdoctoral fellow — identified a specific gut bacterium that can detect and transport serotonin into bacterial cells. When mice were given the antidepressant fluoxetine, or Prozac, the biologists found this reduced the transport of serotonin into their cells. This bacterium, about which little is known, is called Turicibacter sanguinis. The study is published this week in the journal Nature Microbiology.

“Our previous work showed that particular gut bacteria help the gut produce serotonin. In this study, we were interested in finding out why they might do so,” said Hsiao, UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College; and of digestive diseases in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Hsiao and her research group reported in the journal Cell in 2015 that in mice, a specific mixture of bacteria, consisting mainly of Turicibacter sanguinis and Clostridia, produces molecules that signal to gut cells to increase production of serotonin. When Hsiao’s team raised mice without the bacteria, more than 50% of their gut serotonin was missing. The researchers then added the bacteria mixture of mainly Turicibacter and Clostridia, and their serotonin increased to a normal level.

That study got the team wondering why bacteria signal to our gut cells to make serotonin. Do microbes use serotonin, and if so, for what?

In this new study, the researchers added serotonin to the drinking water of some mice and raised others with a mutation (created by altering a specific serotonin transporter gene) that increased the levels of serotonin in their guts. After studying the microbiota of the mice, the researchers discovered that the bacteria Turicibacter and Clostridia increased significantly when there was more serotonin in the gut.

If these bacteria increase in the presence of serotonin, perhaps they have some cellular machinery to detect serotonin, the researchers speculated. Together with study co-author Lucy Forrest and her team at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the researchers found a protein in multiple species of Turicibacter that has some structural similarity to a protein that transports serotonin in mammals. When they grew Turicibacter sanguinis in the lab, they found that the bacterium imports serotonin into the cell.

In another experiment, the researchers added the antidepressant fluoxetine, which normally blocks the mammalian serotonin transporter, to a tube containing Turicibacter sanguinisThey found the bacterium transported significantly less serotonin.

The team found that exposing Turicibacter sanguinis to serotonin or fluoxetine influenced how well the bacterium could thrive in the gastrointestinal tract. In the presence of serotonin, the bacterium grew to high levels in mice, but when exposed to fluoxetine, the bacterium grew to only low levels in mice.

“Previous studies from our lab and others showed that specific bacteria promote serotonin levels in the gut,” Fung said. “Our new study tells us that certain gut bacteria can respond to serotonin and drugs that influence serotonin, like anti-depressants. This is a unique form of communication between bacteria and our own cells through molecules traditionally recognized as neurotransmitters.”

The team’s research on Turicibacter aligns with a growing number of studies reporting that anti-depressants can alter the gut microbiota. “For the future,” Hsiao said, “we want to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease.” Hsiao wrote a blog post for the journal about the new research.

Other study co-authors are Helen Vuong, Geoffrey Pronovost, Cristopher Luna, Anastasia Vavilina, Julianne McGinn and Tomiko Rendon, all of UCLA; and Antoniya Aleksandrova and Noah Riley, members of Forrest’s team.

The research was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health’s Director’s Early Independence Award, Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award, and David & Lucile Packard Foundation’s Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Arthur Ashe’s Most Impactful Serve – The National Junior Tennis League

Fifty-one years ago, Arthur Ashe became the first (and last) African American man to win the U.S. Open, which begins tomorrow. As is fitting, last year the tennis community celebrated this remarkable achievement. This year, however, marks a 50-year milestone that likely meant much more to Ashe, and has truly shaped America’s communities with a positive and lasting effect that extends far beyond the sport of tennis, yet has received far less attention.

If we are looking to impact, and the ability to make a difference for young people from families of modest means, Ashe’s most meaningful contribution to the world – and there were many – arguably came as a result of a partnership with his fellow UCLA alum, Charles “Charlie” Pasarell and Sheridan “Sherry” Snyder (UVA) in the form of the National Junior Tennis League, now National Junior Tennis and Learning.

The three friends and accomplished athletes decided 50 years ago that the sport of tennis deserved the presence and participation of all Americans, including those who didn’t belong to country clubs or with the means to travel or hire coaches, all the accoutrements of success desirable in those days, and the result was the establishment of the NJTL. Ashe insisted that the organization be more than about bringing the talent of the inner city to tennis courts; he advocated for the creation of academic support programs for each chapter. This was idea was transformative.

Building the NJTL was not an easy feat – the founders had to convince the mayors of cities to endorse using their tennis courts for this programming. They convinced companies like Coca-Cola, Chase and many others to become financial sponsors. The friends diligently recruited competent coaches willing to work for a pittance with young people less privileged than those they may have coached in the past. Children of color had to be encouraged to see themselves as tennis players. To its credit, in 1985 the United States Tennis Association (USTA) took over the administration of NJTL, but Ashe, Pasarell and Snyder remained, as we say today, “all in.”

One of Ashe’s protégés shared with me the story of having Ashe himself watch him play tennis when he was a young man. As a black college student, he hoped tennis would be his ticket to success.  Ashe watched him play several times and several times the tennis phenom couched his assessment that while the young man would be a good tennis player, he didn’t have the skill set to thrive at the professional level by saying, “So you are keeping up your grade point average, right?” The protégée took the hint, kept his GPA high and with that coaching, became a successful business man who now keeps up his tennis game at the country club where he holds a membership. This of course, is just one small example of Ashe’s personal impact.

To be sure, it is challenging to single out which of Arthur Ashe’s many accomplishments is the most significant. Because I teach a focused freshman seminar called Fiat Lux on Arthur Ashe and oversee the Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund at UCLA, I am often asked to weigh in on what he should be most remembered for. Given what he packed in during his 49-year life, this is a bit of a fool’s errand.  After all, his tennis accomplishments are etched in the record books—in addition to the U.S. Open, he was the first (and last) African American male to win the finals at Wimbledon (1975).

But aside from his well-known successes on the court, off the court he was never still. He was a quiet but effective friend to the Civil Rights movement in the United States and became an ardent and respected advocate for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  His commitment to social justice causes was life-long; within months of his death he was arrested for protesting what he had concluded was the unfair treatment of Haitian immigrants.

When Ashe was afflicted with heart disease in his mid-30s, he agreed to tell his story for the American Heart Association as part of its campaign to encourage Americans to know the warning signs of cardiac disease. While such a public proclamation seems tame today, in the 1970s, there was significant reputational risk in letting the public know of his weakened condition. His HIV-AIDS diagnosis in 1988 coincided with the dark early days when the disease and those who suffered from it endured enormous and often intractable stigma. While he didn’t immediately go public with his situation, once he did, he was all in as a spokesperson for research and fair treatment for sufferers.  Prior to his death and thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife following it, millions of dollars were secured for research.

And yet, according to the many members of the NJTL community that are celebrating this 50-year anniversary, Ashe was to the very last devoted to the cause of raising up young people in diverse communities. He was as willing to run drills with and coach during the first years of the program, when he was a tennis star himself, as he was in the last summers of his life, when he was afflicted with HIV.

No male African American has surpassed Ashe’s tennis achievements—a dispiriting fact that would sadden him profoundly. But his other legacy, off the court, is just as compelling, if not more so, than his profound achievements as an athlete. It is not an exaggeration to say that because of the shared passion and unflagging engagement of Ashe, Pasarell and Snyder, tens of thousands of young people from New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and other cities went from their playgrounds to college to positions and lifestyles commensurate with their highest goals.

Ashe never stopped championing equality and community through the NJTL – a remarkable legacy that has resounding and relevant impact even today.

 

Patricia Turner is senior dean of the UCLA College, and dean and vice provost of UCLA’s Division of Undergraduate Education. Turner is an expert in World Arts and Cultures and African-American Studies, and teaches a freshman seminar on Arthur Ashe’s significant accomplishments.

Minds Matter: Raising the Curtain on Depression and Anxiety

Photo of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love and UCLA College’s Clinical Psychology expert Michelle Craske.

Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love and UCLA College’s Clinical Psychology expert Michelle Craske.

UCLA students, community members and supporters joined Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love and UCLA College’s Clinical Psychology expert Michelle Craske for a standing-room only hybrid class and public lecture on Monday, August 19, for “Minds Matter: Raising the Curtain on Depression and Anxiety,” a free hour-long discussion on the causes of depression and anxiety, public stigma, and potential advances for the future. The series was the first in an ongoing exploration of brain health that will continue with additional events focusing on bullying, aging well, and other topics.

Love, an NBA Champion and five-time NBA All-Star for the Cleveland Cavaliers, has publicly discussed his struggle with panic attacks and anxiety and his decision to seek therapy, and has become a leading voice in mental health advocacy and founded the Kevin Love Fund in 2018 with the mission of inspiring people to live their healthiest lives while providing the tools to achieve physical and emotional well-being.

“Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing, it’s an issue that affects everyone in some way. The more we can normalize the conversation around mental health, the more we can do to help those that are struggling,” said Love. “My goal in sharing my personal experience is to connect with others who are going through something and keep this dialogue top of mind.”

Michelle G. Craske is a UCLA Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, Director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center, and Associate Director of the Staglin Family Music Center for Behavioral and Brain Health. Craske has published extensively in the area of fear, anxiety and depression.

“We need to work together to bring anxiety and depression out of the dark. People who suffer will only seek help when they can do so without fear of shame. Event series such as ‘Minds Matter’ aim to shed a light on these critical issues, and to help make a positive breakthrough,” said Craske.

Craske also is Director of the Innovative Treatment Network within the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a campus-wide effort to cut the global burden of depression in half. The innovative treatment component, which Craske leads, seeks to develop novel and more effective treatments for depression and anxiety and increase the scalability and accessibility of existing evidence-based treatments.

The “Minds Matter” series leverages the strengths of UCLA College’s Psychology faculty as well as high-profile guests who provide specialized insight about the discussion topic. Upcoming sessions will include discussions on addiction, adolescent brain development and behavior, bullying, healthy aging, and thriving under stress. The “Minds Matter” series is made possible through the longstanding UCLA College and Geffen Playhouse partnership and the generous support of donors.

Check back for information on future “Minds Matter” events at  https://www.college.ucla.edu/minds-matter/.