Seeking the universal in the specific

Doctoral student Rebecca Glasberg blazes new trails in the study of North African postcolonial French-language literature

Image of UCLA doctoral student Rebecca Glasberg

UCLA doctoral student Rebecca Glasberg

By Jonathan Riggs

As if earning your doctorate weren’t intense enough, try adding in the worldwide changes brought on by COVID.

“I defended the prospectus for my dissertation the day before UCLA shut down,” says Rebecca Glasberg, a Ph.D. student in the French Section of the Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies. “Now I’m working on writing my dissertation, but all my experiences doing this are during a pandemic.”

The fact that Glasberg’s dissertation charts new academic waters compounds the challenges she faces as she moves closer to completing her doctorate. Glasberg draws on interdisciplinary sources to examine representations of Jews and Jewishness in North African postcolonial French-language literature. In doing this, she investigates how authors of Muslim background have challenged dominant narratives of interreligious conflict in the area.

“The field of Jewish Studies is generally dominated by narratives of European Jewishness, so my focus on Jews from North Africa—and in particular authors writing about them who are non-Jewish—puts me in an unbelievably specific niche,” Glasberg says. “I’m very lucky to be at UCLA and have the support of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies to explore really interesting questions.”

Born and raised in Virginia, Glasberg grew up knowing she wanted to be an educator. Although she loved her seven years as a middle and high school French teacher, she was deeply inspired by the intellectual rigor and emphasis on curiosity she found while earning her master’s in an immersive French-language program at Vermont’s Middlebury College. The decision to proceed to UCLA, where she was impressed by faculty innovators and student collaborators, was easy—even if her subsequent research hasn’t always been.

“There’s no database of the authors who fit my criteria, so it’s a lot of reading to discover what could work, searching used bookstores, talking to other scholars and following seemingly unrelated tangents in search of stumbling onto something that could go into my dissertation,” Glasberg says. “It can be slow going, but the exploration and the questions it raises keep me going. It’s a fascinating knot to unravel.”

After earning the Fritz, Jenny & Gustav Berger Fellowship in Holocaust Studies, Glasberg has been able to add another layer to her research by studying Arabic to enrich her linguistic and cultural access to these texts. She hopes, too, to be able to conduct firsthand research in France and North Africa, but first there’s COVID to navigate—as well as the round-the-clock demands of teaching, research and, of course, actually writing her dissertation.

“It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to set boundaries on my academic work while I’m facing this huge, monstrous project with the world outside so uncertain,” she says. “What I’ve found is if I set a schedule and stick to it, I chug along steadily and keep my sanity. I love doing my nerdy academic thing, but it’s also important for me to get out of my head and go hiking, eat delicious doughnuts and talk to my friends and family about things beyond what it means to be a “French” or “Francophone” author.”

Keeping those real-life connections so alive helps her stay a sensitive, curious reader—after all, the universal aspects of the human experience are what all the authors she studies are writing about. Their books and words have power because they speak to greater truths that affect us all, especially those wise and willing enough to listen.

“One of the questions I keep thinking through is, ‘What does it mean when we talk about a text being authentic?’ It’s an important question, but we need to keep an open mind,” she says. “For example, you might not expect a contemporary Algerian author to write about the Holocaust, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t. So it’s important to remember to keep looking even in unexpected places to find value, significance and poignant understanding.”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Professor’s invention is a kid-friendly introduction to the chemistry of light

Ellen Sletten’s Photonbooth gives L.A. students a picture-perfect lesson in fluorescence

Image of students in the Photonbooth

Students from El Marino Language School in Culver City, California, in the Photonbooth. The exhibit has inspired hundreds of budding scientists to recognize that there is more to the world than what their eyes typically see. Photo credit: Courtesy of Ellen Sletten


By Jonathan Riggs

If you know how to look, our world can be wildly colorful. Under an ultraviolet light, once-familiar objects can take on dreamlike brilliance: Think neon green scorpions, hot pink flying squirrels and electric blue diamond rings.

Known as fluorescence, this ability of certain molecules to absorb light in one colored wavelength and emit it in another is a phenomenon many scientists, including UCLA professor Ellen Sletten, are still exploring.

And a few years ago, Sletten devised a clever way to make her research into fluorescence more accessible to non-scientists: the Photonbooth. A clever twist on the traditional photo booth that’s a staple of carnivals, arcades and parties, Photonbooth — the pun in its name a reference to the fundamental particle of light — has inspired hundreds of budding scientists to recognize that there is more to the world than what our eyes typically see, and that key scientific principles underpin everyone’s daily existence.

“It’s very clear right now, with the pandemic, that misinformation about science is dangerous for us all,” says Sletten, a chemical biologist. “Younger generations especially need us to focus on accurate, responsible scientific communication. Besides, everyone loves a photo booth, right?”

Image of Ellen Sletten

Ellen Sletten. Photo credit: Penny Jennings/UCLA

The concept evolved out of an attraction from her 2015 wedding reception. To echo her engagement ring, which her fiancé chose for its fluorescence (caused by a defect in the diamond’s lattice structure), Sletten envisioned black lights installed in a standard photo booth with fluorescent props for guests to pose with. Her party-phobic father, an engineer, jumped at the chance to pay tribute to his daughter’s life work and to help turn her plans into a reality.The Photonbooth was born.

“It was such a huge hit, even with the non-scientists,” Sletten says. “I realized it was very synergistic with many of my lab’s research goals and could be a perfect avenue for science outreach.”

When Sletten discussed the booth with members of her UCLA research team, her then-graduate student Rachael Day — now a biochemistry professor at Drury University in Missouri — was so inspired that she took it upon herself to build a version of the booth, and they immediately began using it at local parties and educational events, including Exploring Your Universe, UCLA’s annual hands-on science fair.

A typical Photonbooth presentation begins with a quick science lesson demonstrating the fluorescent properties of common household items such as tonic water or detergent, followed by a discussion of the biomedical uses of fluorescence. Attendees next create their own glowsticks, enter the booth with whimsical props they choose and pose for photos, first under normal light and then, to best show off their fluorescent items, under a black light.

“A lot of science — especially chemistry, where everything is nanoscale or smaller — can be difficult to comprehend,” Sletten says. “I really like using fluorescence because it’s so easy for kids to see. I also love how we can take something kids are familiar with, like a highlighter, and then help them realize there is this whole other side to it if they are curious enough to look and question.”

Image of a family in the Photonbooth at Exploring Your Universe

An adult and two children in the Photonbooth at UCLA’s Exploring Your Universe science festival. Photo credit: Courtesy of Ellen Sletten

Science education outreach is especially important to Sletten because it highlights the human connection that she says is so crucial to scientific progress. As she looks back on her lab’s first five years, she cites her relationship with her students and their growth among her most important accomplishments.

“My students are amazing, and I try hard to be an effective mentor who gets to know each of them well,” Sletten says. “In many ways, starting a lab is like starting a small company. You go through all the challenges and problem-solving together, which makes for strong bonds. It has been incredibly rewarding to be a part of my students’ journeys to becoming excellent scientists and communicators.”

At the same time, Sletten has attracted attention for the lab’s impressive progress toward developing diagnostic and therapeutic technologies. In 2020, she earned the Young Chemical Biologist Award from the International Chemical Biology Society, and in 2021, she received a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for her work on deep tissue imaging.

Sletten says the experience of children delighting in the Photonbooth experience mirrors the optimism she and her team share for the future of their own research.

“When I think about the videos of molecules flowing within mice which our lab has been able to produce with previously unattainable speeds, colors and resolutions, I can relate to how those kids feel stepping in the Photonbooth,” Sletten says. “The opportunity to see something new, the feeling of discovery and fun — I hope it inspires those kids to become science-savvy citizens or even future scientists.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit

The transformative power of travel

On and off the page, UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia seeks to span great distances

Image of UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia

UCLA doctoral student Thomas Ray Garcia

By Jonathan Riggs

The lure of the open road, the adventure of travel have long inspired and defined American writers who took “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country” to heart. In addition to being one of these journeymen himself, Thomas Ray Garcia, a UCLA doctoral student in the English Department, studies them, too.

“My dissertation focuses on literary representations of travel through the works of five 20th-century American writers I consider a chronological arc: Jack London, Jack Black, Carlos Bulosan, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac,” he says. “All of them wrote some sort of fictionalized memoir, so I’m analyzing how the genre helped them craft their travels as journeys — not only throughout the country, but also to the professional class.”

According to Garcia, these individuals show how the idea of American authorship transformed during the early 20th-century, from deskbound typists to vigorous vagabonds writing about and taking agency over their lived experiences. All five of these authors paint larger-than-life uniquely American self-portraits, from Jack London’s tales of survival to Jack Kerouac’s free-flowing Beat Generation politics.

Writing with bravado and a scope as vast as the idealized, untamed American West, all of these authors — including Jack Black’s criminal memoirs to Carlos Bulosan’s perspective as a Filipino immigrant to John Steinbeck’s empathetic wisdom — unsurprisingly turned their attention to California.

“California was always this mecca for them; they wanted to reach what they called ‘the end of the road,’” Garcia says. “Going to the Santa Monica Pier and seeing the symbolic end of Route 66 spoke to me, too. Knowing I’m at UCLA focusing on writers who have a special relationship to this place enables me to see their work and mine through a unique lens.”

Garcia’s own travels have been just as life-changing as those of the authors he studies. Growing up 10 miles from Mexico in the border town of Pharr, Texas, Garcia was the first in his family to go to college. His experiences at Princeton — including gaining a new understanding of his Latino identity — helped inspire him to found the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP), a thriving Rio Grande Valley-based nonprofit that helps students reach and navigate higher education.

“I’m able to share my stories and my experiences with students, so they don’t have to struggle as much as I did,” Garcia says. “Several of the students I’m now helping apply to graduate school are the same ones I helped apply to undergrad. Helping my community like this lets me come full circle.”

A recipient of UCLA’s Carolyn See Graduate Fellowship in Southern California & Los Angeles Literature, Garcia is an accomplished creative writer, working on short stories and poetry about the U.S./Mexico border as well as co-authoring Speak with Style, a book series that helps children and young adults improve their public speaking. A project of particular importance to him is the historical memoir of Chicano activist Aurelio Montemayor he co-wrote, which has been peer-reviewed and approved by the faculty committee of Texas A&M University Press and is currently undergoing copyediting.

Now back in Texas, Garcia divides his time among academic work, creative writing and his nonprofit. He’s also a long-distance runner and likes to sneak in some nighttime miles whenever possible. His time spent under those endless Texas skies gives him the opportunity to think deeply about travel and distance — but also the importance of remembering where you’re from.

“People like me who were born and raised around this area recognize that it means something special to us. It informs who we are and all that we do,” he says. “This is a meaningful place for me to be and is definitely influencing how I’m approaching my dissertation – and everything that comes next.”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Living life like Brazilian poetry

Doctoral student Isaac Gimenez finds wisdom and whimsy in the exploration, analysis and joy of art and poetry

Image of Doctoral student Isaac Gimenez

UCLA Doctoral student Isaac Gimenez

By Jonathan Riggs

Literary translation is an art form that requires attention to detail, creativity and daring — after all, the challenges can be immense. But for doctoral student Isaac Gimenez, an adventurous artist with a bachelor’s degree in translation and interpreting and applied foreign languages, it can also be a lot of fun.

“You get to know the work really closely, and you can even take a playful approach, almost like a creative writing exercise,” says Gimenez, who was born in Spain. “It’s a dance between reproducing the original text with capturing the spirit of it in another language. You have to have a sense of humor about it all.”

After completing his undergraduate education at the University of Granada in Spain, Gimenez took various jobs in the service sector to save money and to improve his proficiency in English and French. He also worked as a freelance translator and interpreter, translating legal, technical, audiovisual and academic documents. He came to the U.S. with the goal of going to graduate school, landing a job teaching foreign language conversation at Pomona College, leading daily language labs and organizing student cultural activities. Already captivated by the arts and culture of Latin America, Gimenez was thrilled to enroll at UCLA to pursue his Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literatures with a focus on Brazil.

Today, he’s working on his dissertation on 20th– and 21st-century Brazilian poetry, tracing the country’s changing notions of authorship back to the first Modernist phase in the 1920s. Gimenez explores how these writers created what he calls “a poetry of errors” — a playful form of artistic civil disobedience embraced by both experimental and “marginal” poets.

“I am interested in poetic expressions in general and, arguably, Brazilian literary tradition is very rich in humoristic, experimental, transdisciplinary and politically engaged approaches to poetry. A lot of people have a misconception that poems has to be dense and solemn, and, consequently, inaccessible, for many” Gimenez says. “I am fascinated by poets who embody what they write about too. It’s a good lesson for all of us to engage with more poetry and live our lives poetically.”

Deeply inspired by the poetry he’s studying, Gimenez is also creating artistic works of his own. He created a video-poem titled “desterro/desmadre,” which he presented for the first time at the 2020 conference Letras Expandidas (2020), organized by PUC-Rio (Br). This video-poem served two purposes: it complemented his analysis of Camila Assad’s 2019 anthology Desterro (which inspired him to write an article published in the Portuguese literary magazine eLyra) and was also a personal reflection of what it meant to live in a global hub like Los Angeles while restricted to a smaller, screen-based scope of existence during the lockdown. “desterro/desmadre” will also be published in 2022 in Párrafo, the literary, artistic and cultural magazine of the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

“A professor of mine, Patrícia Lino, reminded me that academic writing is, in fact, a creative practice as well,” he says. “In that sense, critical readings and interpretations of literary works can be inspired by and in dialogue with other art forms and mediums.”

Supplementing his academic and creative work is Gimenez’s role as Editor-in-Chief of Mester, the journal of UCLA’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese graduate students. (Click here for Mester’s open access.) As he works on his dissertation, Gimenez is grateful for the support he earned from the Lorrine Rona Lydeen Fund since it has allowed him to devote considerable time and energy to this additional work — as well as to expanding his professional skills and nurturing new collaborations, both at UCLA (participating in two Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC) seminars) and through Mester, working closely with fellow scholars from Latin America and Europe. In fact, the journal will release its 50th issue later this year.

“I think it is quite remarkable that this issue builds bridges between scholars engaging with the Hispanic and Lusophone traditions from different continents and in different languages: English, Spanish and Portuguese,” says Gimenez.

It all adds up to why UCLA is such a special place for someone like Gimenez, who has traveled the globe.

“It means so much to be living in Los Angeles, a vibrant city that supports and is in continuous dialogue with artists, authors, intellectuals and cultural producers from Latin America and all over the world,” he says. “And most of all, being part of the UCLA community enhances those opportunities to access resources and meet scholars and professionals who inspire our work.”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Reimagining the scope and approach of the UCLA Center for Early Global Studies

Zrinka Stahuljak embraces the role of ‘fixer’ as she directs the center’s transformation

By Jonathan Riggs

Photo credit: Janja Ružić

Zrinka Stahuljak in front of a 15th-century relief of the winged lion of Venice. Each quarter, she guides students through explorations of paintings, sculptures and architecture, encouraging them to find deeper meaning about the people who created them. Photo credit: Janja Ružić

Journalists, businesspeople and politicians working in foreign countries often depend on fixers — resourceful, problem-solving guides with a sophisticated grasp of local languages, cultures and customs.

Zrinka Stahuljak has long considered herself a fixer, both literally — she was a wartime interpreter in her native Croatia during the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia — and metaphorically, in her role at UCLA.

“I’m fascinated and inspired by the transcultural work of fixers, who ultimately help people make transformative connections,” she says.

It’s in that spirit that Stahuljak has overseen the thoughtful transformation of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies into the UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies. As the center’s director since 2019, Stahuljak has aimed to honor the center’s illustrious past — founded in 1963, it’s one of the oldest such centers in North America — and ensure its dynamic future.

While the center’s purview will still span the third to the 17th centuries, its new name represents an expanded focus, which now takes a global perspective extending far beyond the Eurocentric view that once defined the field. As part of its new approach, research is centered around five axes: sustainability and repurposing, fluidity and permanence, bodies and performance, conversion and mobility, and communication and archive.

“This collaborative platform allows faculty studying various parts of the globe over almost 1,500 years to exchange effectively from within their fields or work together innovatively across them,” says Stahuljak, a professor of European languages and transcultural studies and of comparative literature.

The transformation makes UCLA’s center one of the first major entities in the field to adopt the new, more inclusive approach, and to employ the new methodologies and interdisciplinary orientations that come with it.

“The key to it all is recognizing and proceeding with the knowledge that none of us is alone in this world,” she says. “That’s something the study of the past can give us: an overwhelming sense of relationality to others who have lived and who will live.”

In the wake of its relaunch, the center already has begun to forge new collaborations with partners from across campus, including scholars at the departments of anthropology, Asian languages and cultures, Near Eastern languages and cultures, and world arts and cultures/dance, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Charles E. Young Research Library.

It’s work worthy of a world-class fixer like Stahuljak, who recently wrote two books on fixers: “Les Fixeurs au Moyen Age: Histoire et Littérature Connectées” (“Fixers in the Middle Ages: Connected History and Literature”), which was published in September by Éditions du Seuil, and “Medieval Fixers: Translation in the Mediterranean (1250–1500),” forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

Stahuljak researched and wrote both volumes in 2017 and 2018, when she was a Guggenheim fellow.

Staying connected to Europe and her own past richly informs all Stahuljak does. Born to musician parents who valued education, she grew up with a gift for learning multiple languages, including the two she would later adopt professionally, French and English.

Her time as a wartime interpreter — including a frightening night navigating mountain paths alone after the Croatian–Slovenian border closed — interrupted her college education for a year, but it also taught her much about injustice and the need for an international community of scholarship. Stahuljak went on to earn her master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from Emory University; after four years at Boston University, she joined UCLA in 2005.

To open her students’ eyes and intellects and perhaps inspire their empathy, Stahuljak starts each quarter by guiding them through explorations of paintings, sculptures and architecture, encouraging them to find deeper meaning about the people who created them and those who have absorbed them over centuries. Her goal: to help students connect with the subjects they’re studying, no matter the historical distance.

That thoughtful approach carries over to her vision for the Center for Early Global Studies. Even with the campus having resumed in-person instruction, Stahuljak plans to continue offering a range of programs online, too, to maintain the growing global audience it cultivated during the pandemic. She’s also investing in the next generation of scholars, for example by holding manuscript workshops to shepherd junior faculty through the often overwhelming process of producing their first books, and she is directing more funds to support graduate students in both traditional and underrepresented areas of study.

“As a fixer, I see my role as making this a community: a collective platform to empower UCLA’s extraordinary researchers, scholars and teachers,” she says. “My goal is to put myself out there and ask, ‘What do you want to do, and how can I help you make it happen?’”

Stahuljak sees her work relaunching the center as an opportunity to marry her rich understanding of the past with her hopeful view of a humane future for all.

“We cannot understand the present without the past — the contrast allows us to analyze differences, successes and failures and, ideally, to find innovation to build an informed and thoughtful future,” she says. “The CMRS Center for Early Global Studies has an investment in making the past contemporary. These lessons help us do what we fixers always seek to do: invent and make real change.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Illuminating their Empire State experience

Doctoral student Marissa Jenrich explores the lives of 19th-century Black women in New York City

By Jonathan Riggs

Image of UCLA doctoral student Marissa Jenrich

UCLA doctoral student Marissa Jenrich

We know quite a bit about the lives of some of America’s most famous Black women of the 19th century, including civil rights legends Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. But what about the lives of the millions of Black women who weren’t famous?

“When we look to the past, so often we are captivated by the stories of extraordinary individuals, who we want to serve as emblems of the period,” says Marissa Jenrich, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History whose work is supported by the Nickoll Family endowment. “But what I really love is when we focus on working class, everyday people — and when their stories make their way into the public imagination. History is the story of everyone, not just a remarkable few, and should be accessible to all.”

Narrowing her focus to 19th-century New York City, Jenrich seeks to give voice to the experience of these everyday women, especially how their lives were affected by the mechanisms of state power during one of the most turbulent eras in American history.

“It was a time of tremendous promise, but also tremendous constriction and fear before, during and after the Civil War. New York was not the bastion of liberty that we like to think of it today,” she says. “So much of New York’s economy was contingent on the slave trade that the mayor at the time, Fernando Wood, tried to get the city to secede. Obviously, Black New Yorkers had to walk a line between what rights they had in theory versus in reality.”

Guided by her advisor, Brenda E. Stevenson, the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History, Jenrich is particularly interested in exploring the tensions between Black women and the New York Police Department during an era of unprecedented systemic expansion as well as corruption.

“From the 1870s until 1894, the police force grew into an organization that many New Yorkers felt was abusive,” she says. “I agree with the assessment of one historian who described it as seeking to violently ‘over-control’ the population.”

Although this “over-control” affected all races, Jenrich found that Black women and men experienced excessive engagement with and harassment by police while being denied access to reform or rehabilitation programs frequently offered to their non-Black counterparts. This distinction echoed all the more in light of the 2020 murders by police of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the subsequent—and ongoing—protests.

“In some ways, it’s true that history is a conversation with the present, but we shouldn’t forget that today is not necessarily a carbon copy of the past, although there are similar undergirding impulses,” Jenrich says. “But until we understand the precedent of sentencing laws and the growth of the prison industrial complex and their roots in these earlier periods, we won’t be able to really reckon with some of the crises we see today, including the disproportionate numbers of women of color being incarcerated.”

Two deeply personal connections inspired Jenrich to focus on her specific area of research: a transformative Civil War course at California State University, Long Beach with her mentor, Jane Dabel, and Jenrich’s firsthand knowledge of her partner’s lived reality.

“My partner was born in Mexico but grew up in the U.S. with no legal standing here as an undocumented student. I saw parallels between his experience and the tenuous legal status of Black women in New York City during the 19th century,” she says. “Bridging these similar experiences across space and time really brought the struggle to life for me, of people who had to say, ‘This is the only country I know, but at the same time I don’t have any rights here, so how do I navigate these systems and make them work for me the best way I can?’”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

The power of two: collaboration empowered groundbreaking sleep research

Life scientists from different fields inspired each other and pushed science forward

By Jonathan Riggs

Gina Poe and Van Savage

It can be easy for even the best ideas to get lost in a busy professor’s email inbox — the amount of correspondence, requests and paperwork that continually vie for attention is staggering.

But when Gina Poe, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology who has conducted sleep research for more than 30 years, noticed a message in her inbox from Van Savage, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of computational medicine, it immediately caught her eye.

“Van contacted me about a paper he was co-authoring, specifically about some feedback from the peer review process,” she says. “One of the reviewers had responded that there was no REM sleep except in human adults—I wrote Van back immediately and said, ‘That’s crazy.’”

“It was terrific talking to Gina, not just because she knows way, way more about sleep than the rest of us, but because she was so open-minded about her expertise and willing to explore our theories,” Savage says. “It was a huge turning point to get someone like her aboard.”

That conversation — and their subsequent research — led to them developing the most comprehensive, mechanistic and mathematical analysis of sleep to date, showing that mammals (including humans) depend on REM sleep to build their brain’s infrastructure in infanthood, and to heal and “declutter” it throughout life.

As exciting as their findings were, Poe and Savage found it even more inspiring to work together across interdisciplinary lines, an opportunity they wish more of their colleagues could experience.

“It really teaches you that you can be a global expert in your field, but you can’t be an expert in everything — there is so much we all can learn from one another,” Savage says. “You have to be patient and brave as you basically learn a new language from your collaborator and teach them one, too. Building that groundwork alone teaches you so much about your own work before you ever get to the real questions.”

“It’s also wonderful fuel to keep you curious and passionate, which is how you become distinguished in your field in the first place,” says Poe. “I love to learn new things every day, and projects like this are an incredible way to keep yourself refreshed, engaged and excited to go to tackle challenge questions every day.”

The two are continuing their research collaboration, expanding on their previous project by focusing on the effect of temperature on sleep. The effect of temperature isn’t very pronounced on warm-blooded creatures like mammals and birds, but it’s hugely impactful on cold-blooded animals, like amphibians, reptiles, fish and insects — so Savage and Poe’s theory is that temperature affects the latter group’s sleep.

“Fortunately, in the past few years, people have been studying the sleep of more diverse organisms. One of these getting a lot of attention is fruit flies,” Savage says. “And we do see a pattern where more sleep is needed at higher temperatures. So now we’re trying to mathematically look at and quantify that, and what modifications we need in order to ask more and bigger questions.”

According to Poe, UCLA is perhaps the most qualified place possible to foster these breakthroughs.

“UCLA has been a world leader in sleep research for 50 years, for as long as the field has existed. Whenever I see a picture of our team in 1988, I laugh because that was basically everyone on earth doing sleep research at the time,” Poe says. “It means a lot that today, we are actively still pushing the envelope for the field, so much so that we can now theorize so knowledgeably about sleep across almost all animals.”

Both Savage and Poe remain incredibly ambitious, thinking ahead in terms of not just one step, but dozens…or more.

“Gina’s and my expertise and skills have been so complementary that our work has been strengthened more than we could have hoped. Our collaboration has been a huge boon both to science and to us personally,” says Savage. “And there’s so much more we can do. What we want to tackle could take us to the ends of careers and beyond — and that’s how we like it.”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.


From left to right: Isita Tripathi and Nisarg Shah

$100,000 Leadership Scholarships Awarded to Recent Grads

Currently in med school, Isita Tripathi ’20 and Nisarg Shah ’20 named inaugural Samvid Scholars

By Jonathan Riggs

From left to right: Isita Tripathi and Nisarg Shah

From left to right: Isita Tripathi and Nisarg Shah

In addition to enrolling at medical schools at their institutions of choice (Harvard and Yale, respectively), UCLA alumni Isita Tripathi ’20 and Nisarg Shah ’20 have another reason to celebrate. The two were recently selected from over 700 applicants to join the inaugural class of 20 Samvid Scholars. A new, merit-based graduate scholarship for future changemakers committed to effecting a positive change in society, the Samvid Scholars program offers two years of leadership development programming and supports up to $100,000 for graduate study.

“It’s a huge privilege and honor to be part of this community,” Tripathi says. “It has been really inspiring and thought-provoking to discuss the different approaches that each of us hopes to take to produce social change.”

“I’m excited to be working with everyone, sharing ideas, and figuring out how we can help each other achieve our goals,” adds Shah. “I feel very grateful to be part of this inaugural cohort.”

For helping them earn this honor, Tripathi and Shah say they owe a debt of gratitude to the UCLA Scholarship Research Center, a free service available to all Bruin students. Primarily assisting undergraduates, the SRC provides invaluable scholarship information, resources and support services that benefit students throughout their time at UCLA and beyond.

How did UCLA prepare you for medical school?

ISITA TRIPATHI: I really loved my education at UCLA. It was the first time I felt like I was educated about history and social inequities from the perspective of the oppressed, which motivated many of my community volunteering efforts. Those experiences helped me better understand the trauma and the systemic factors that play into someone’s experiences with the healthcare system, and made me passionate about helping people navigate it successfully.

NISARG SHAH: I think the most helpful part of my education was meeting people in classes and student groups who came from different backgrounds and learning from their diverse ways of thinking. It made me realize that the healthcare system needs to be able to accommodate many varied individual experiences. I felt motivated to pursue medicine in order to bridge those gaps, especially in terms of access to care and cost of services.

How did your minors complement your majors?

IT: Pairing my neuroscience major with a disability studies minor allowed me to understand both the biological and sociopolitical factors around neurodiversity, which shaped much of my work in the autism community. So much injustice and suffering have come from the medical field toward people with disabilities. Seeing that tension has really shaped my perspective on accessibility in healthcare, and allowed me to pursue research and advocacy that merges the social model of disability with existing medical interventions.

NS: The academically rigorous classes and invaluable research experiences in my Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics (MIMG) major helped me think about science more critically. But I wanted to understand medicine not just as a science, but also examine the critical social and personal components affecting health. With my public affairs minor, I felt challenged to think about how I could apply science to address issues in global health and public policy, which is something that I hope to continue at Yale.

How will you pay your Samvid Scholar experience forward?

IT: This program is about teaching people to play to their strengths and become visionaries in their fields, so I would love to cultivate that in future premeds, despite how rigid or prescribed the path to medicine can feel. In addition to mentorship, I want to fulfill the responsibility that has been given to me as a scholar by centering innovation for the good of society at the core of my work.

NS: Mentorship is very important to me — the mentors in my life are the reason that I was able to get to where I am and to keep moving toward my future goals. I hope to serve as a mentor for anyone who might need it. I also know how lucky I am to be getting such a great education, and I want to improve access to higher education and experiential training, especially for those in underserved communities.

What’s your advice for other Bruins to follow in your high-achieving footsteps?

IT: Being at UCLA can feel like you’re in a bit of a bubble, but it helps to get out in the community beyond campus and stay connected to the reason you wanted to pursue your major. If you are looking to take a creative route that is unusual for people in your field, don’t take “no” for an answer — find the faculty members who will nurture your growth and confidence while using criticism to understand the roadblocks you might face. In general, it can feel very tough to find your own opportunities without a lot of support at such a large institution, but that tenacity and self-starter mentality will help you so much in the future. Remember that you are valued and loved!

NS: UCLA is a great school, but also a big school. That means there are tons of opportunities, but it can be difficult to navigate. Be persistent — don’t give up even if what you’re working toward is hard to reach. Sometimes the most accessible resources are your peers, so make sure that you lean on them and ask for help. For example, I got great advice from students in classes above me just by asking what strategies they had used and what they would have done differently. And lastly, make sure that you are taking time to rest, and investing in your hobbies and health. Playing basketball and being around my friends helped me find the balance I needed to push forward.

What’s a special UCLA place for you?

IT: UCLA, hands down, has the most gorgeous campus. I was always a big fan of the Music Café in particular. Since I used to play flute in high school, it made me feel connected to a different part of myself, which was a nice escape from pre-med stress. Plus, when the doughnuts at Bombshelter sold out by 10 a.m., I could always find them at the Music Café.

NS: I met a lot of people in Dogwood and the dorms near De Neve who are still my friends today. It will always be a special place that reminds me of a fun freshman year and a lot of interesting people. I encourage everyone to make the most of their first-year experience —  those relationships will keep you grounded through all of the ups and downs of college.

To learn more about the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center, click here.

Aomar Boum believes in the power of stories to unite

UCLA’s newly appointed Maurice Amado Professor of Sephardic Studies says sharing narratives is a key to understanding, tolerance

By Jonathan Riggs

Photo of Aomar Boum

Aomar Boum is an internationally respected socio-cultural anthropologist with expertise in Sephardic Jewish history and culture. Photo Credit: Joel Mason-Gaines/USHMM

Aomar Boum is convinced that we are all connected through our stories.

As a professor of anthropology and of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA, Boum takes a global perspective on the history of Jews from Morocco, including those who settled in Los Angeles, New York or Montreal, while also examining the larger context of minorities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Although he initially encountered some resistance as a Muslim scholar studying the traditions and history of a different faith, Boum has always believed in the importance of research to bridge conceptual gaps and bring together different communities.

“Stories, connections and communities are at the root of everything I do, and they inspire me deeply,” Boum said. “Beyond the research, beyond the books I write, what ultimately matters most is sharing these stories of how Jewish and Muslim families lived and continue their lives in Morocco, Iraq, Egypt —anywhere — so others can learn something from them, share it with someone else and so on.”

Raised on a subsistence farm in southeastern Morocco, Boum is an internationally respected socio-cultural anthropologist with expertise in Sephardic Jewish history and culture. An affiliated faculty member of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, Boum was recently newly appointed UCLA’s Maurice Amado Professor of Sephardic Studies.

“I see this appointment as an honor, opportunity and obligation,” he said. “It is an honor because this is one of the most important chairs of Sephardic Studies in the United States. It’s an opportunity because it will allow me to push the scope of research in this field to dig deeper from the perspective of Muslim–Jewish relations. And it’s an obligation to add to the incredibly rich work in this area by faculty and students both around the globe and here at UCLA.”

The author and co-editor of four books, including “Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco” and “The Holocaust and North Africa,” Boum sees great potential in what his appointment will mean for his work, both on campus and beyond — including the new Moroccan Jewish studies program he’s helping launch at the Leve Center. He is also excited for Los Angeles’ annual Morocco Day celebration on Nov. 19.

The key to spreading knowledge and ultimately tolerance and progress, Boum said, is sharing stories with one another. To that end, he’s writing a graphic novel with graphic artist Nadjib Berber, telling the true story of a German Jew who fled the Nazis during World War II and comes into contact with other refugees with their own powerful stories to share.

“Especially today, with antisemitism and Islamophobia and different kinds of group-based hatred so prevalent, it’s crucial to reach people however you can — in their own language — to tell these stories of our shared humanity,” Boum said. “Ultimately, I believe that’s our mission at the Leve Center and at UCLA, to keep creating and sharing exceptional scholarship to counter misinformation and ignorance.”

As a storyteller and a literature lover, Boum draws deep inspiration from the character studies and finely crafted plots of classic novels. Not surprisingly, he recognizes the same creative, shaping hand in the tale of his own life. His first grant came from the namesake of the chair he now holds, the Maurice Amado Foundation, and launched his research career.

“I am an anthropologist who believes in the power of historical narratives to bring us all together, no matter who we are,” Boum said. “My family still lives in the community in which I grew up, and I love taking my daughter to see them. Opening minds and hearts — whether you live in an affluent L.A. neighborhood or a poor place across the world with no drinkable household water — allows us to see that, without a doubt, all of our stories here on Earth are ultimately intertwined.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

For more of Our Stories at the College click here.

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Reconstructing What Was

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

By Jonathan Riggs

Founded early in the sixth century, rebuilt in the twelfth and dismantled in the nineteenth after the French Revolution, the glorious Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture, but exists now only in legend.

In her dissertation, UCLA art history doctoral student Tori Schmitt hopes to shed more light on this medieval church, named after the patron saint of Paris and originally located where the neoclassical Panthèon now stands on the Left Bank.

“There’s not a building to work with, just sculptural fragments, drawings, watercolors and accounts by people. So that mystery intrigued me the more I read and learned about it,” says Tori Schmitt, a UCLA doctoral student in art history. “I’ve always loved 3-D modeling, drafting and trying to imagine what might have been, so I found it an exciting puzzle.”

Photo of Tori Schmitt

Tori Schmitt

Schmitt’s interest in historical reconstructions was first piqued when she served as an undergraduate research assistant to Professor Meredith Cohen on the digital humanities project Paris Past & Present. After earning her master’s at Columbia University, Schmitt returned to UCLA to once again work closely with her mentor, earning the inaugural Diane C. Brouillette Graduate Fellowship in Art History along the way.

“Diane C. Brouillette also worked on early Gothic architecture and sculpture; she wrote her dissertation on Senlis Cathedral,” says Schmitt. “I am honored to hold a fellowship in her name and add to the field.”

The fellowship will allow Schmitt to conduct research abroad in France, scouring Parisian archives and libraries in addition to viewing sculptural fragments of the abbey in the collections of Musée de Cluny, Musée Carnavalet and the Louvre. Crucially, she will be able to travel to other significant French sites of early Gothic architecture and sculpture, such as Chartres, Sens and Senlis, as well as museum collections throughout the country, and to gain a deeper understanding of the abbey’s enduring power across French culture and history.

This opportunity means everything to the Southern California native, who has long drawn inspiration from the architecture of Los Angeles and of UCLA’s campus. During the pandemic, Schmitt took up amateur photography, snapping images of interesting and surprising buildings she encountered on her bike rides, including quite a few L.A. Gothic-inspired, 1930s-era ‘storybook’ bungalows. For Schmitt, it’s a reminder that architecture doesn’t just belong to history or scholarship, but to everyone.

“Whenever I’m teaching undergrads, I try to remind them that they shouldn’t be intimidated by the study of architecture, because they’ve been interacting with it their entire lives,” she says. “They don’t have to become Gothic art historians like me, but I want them to be interested and engaged and to have open eyes for all the spaces they’ll enter throughout their lives. Ultimately, architecture is about people.”

Looking at history through this hands-on lens of wonder and curiosity is key to Schmitt’s approach in both her research and her teaching. After all, it’s one thing to ask a question of Google and receive thousands of results; it’s quite another to travel in person to a historical site and view a single document preserved for thousands of years. It helps bring the past—and most importantly its people—alive, and in a broader, more vivid context that connects us all. This is something Schmitt thinks about frequently, especially when she’s in the physical presence of the architectural creations that deserve to be thought of as much more than just buildings.

“When I went to Notre-Dame for the first time and climbed to the top, I was overwhelmed. It was so big, so beautiful it blew my mind,” Schmitt says. “They built it with no power tools—it was all relational math, highly complex geometry—and the skill on display is beyond belief. Gothic cathedrals were constructed to be awe-inspiring, and when you think about the people behind the place, that power is multiplied.”