Dominic Thomas

UCLA’s Dominic Thomas wins international Gutenberg Research Chair honor

Dominic Thomas

Dominic Thomas, UCLA’s Madeleine L. Letessier Professor of French and Francophone Studies | UCLA

Jonathan Riggs | January 23, 2023

Last November, Dominic Thomas, Madeleine L. Letessier Professor of French and Francophone Studies in the UCLA Department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies, won the Gutenberg Research Chair. As part of his prize, he will serve as lead investigator on a project, “Ecology and Propaganda.”

“This honor is a testament to the remarkable timeliness, power and scope of Dominic Thomas’ work,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, dean of the UCLA Division of Humanities. “We are proud to have him representing our division, university and field on a global scale as he innovates new approaches to critically studying pressing environmental and ecological questions.”

Awarded to exceptional internationally renowned researchers, Gutenberg Chairs serve to spark scientific studies in the Alsace region of France. They are funded by the Greater East Region of France and Eurometropolis of Strasbourg at the recommendation of the Gutenberg Circle, which includes all of the Circle’s active members: the Institut de France, Collège de France, Institut Universitaire de France and an international, multidisciplinary jury of researchers.

“The Chairs were inaugurated in 2007 and have been awarded primarily to scientists,” said Thomas. “It is an honor to have been selected, but the fact that the selection committee has chosen to support a humanities project is therefore especially satisfying and, I believe, also indicative of the visionary qualities of the selection committee.”

With his interest in propaganda dating back to graduate school — not to mention it being the subject of both his first as well as his most recent books — Thomas will explore the paradox of how new technologies have simultaneously enhanced and undermined democratization. A transdisciplinary research project that investigates the legacies of colonialism on the environment, “Ecology and Propaganda” will be organized around five pillars (historical, intercultural, ethical, aesthetic and media/linguistic perspectives) and will correspond directly to priorities outlined by Sylvie Retailleau, the French minister for higher education.

“The transdisciplinary, transcultural scope of the project is indicative of a paradigm shift happening in the humanities,” said Todd Presner, chair of the department of European languages and transcultural studies. “UCLA is an engine of innovation for new, experimental humanities fields such as the environmental humanities.”

On the UCLA faculty since 2000, Thomas also created the UCLA Summer Paris Global Studies program, which he directed for 11 years, and will draw inspiration for his project from across UCLA’s global research leadership on ecology and the environment — and from an unwavering commitment to his field.

“The humanities have, arguably, perhaps never been so crucially important; they are relevant to all contemporary cultural, economic, political and social debates. In the face of assaults on democratic principles, the humanities help us improve intercultural understanding and encourage inclusivity,” said Thomas. “Ultimately, humanities provide the space in which to study the past, but also to delineate the contours of the future.”

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

Kanon Mori, wearing a nametag, speaks into a microphone

Leading the Japan-America Innovators of Medicine

UCLA student Kanon Mori works to improve health care while bridging cultures and disciplines

Kanon Mori, wearing a nametag, speaks into a microphone

Fourth-year UCLA student Kanon Mori, an organizer of the Japan-America Innovators of Medicine, speaks during a presentation last November to medtech entrepreneurs, investors, physicians and pharmaceutical executives at Awaji Island in Japan.

Lucy Berbeo | January 12, 2023

Many students embark on their college journey with the goal of finding a true sense of purpose. Kanon Mori found hers during her first year at UCLA — and spent her time as an undergraduate bringing that purpose to fruition.

Born in Los Angeles to parents from Japan, Mori grew up bilingual and passionate about bridging Japanese and U.S. culture. Excelling in STEM and interested in medicine, she chose to major in computational and systems biology, an interdisciplinary program in the UCLA College that trains students to solve biological problems by combining the sciences, math and computing.

In classes on public health and health policy, Mori learned about inequities in the U.S. health care system and decided to help change things on a global scale. “I realized the potential technological innovations can have to shake up the entire industry,” says Mori, who is set to graduate this June. “And UCLA is the gateway into the U.S. from Japan’s perspective. With its world-class medical research and technological innovations, I knew I had to take advantage of being a student here to initiate a project.”

Mori teamed up with students from Stanford University and medical schools in Japan, including those at the University of Tokyo, Osaka University and Kyoto University. Together, with support from academic institutions, companies and individuals, they spearheaded Japan-America Innovators of Medicine, or JAIM — a student-driven, entrepreneurial effort to tackle the global health care challenge of dementia and to foster U.S.-Japan collaboration in advancing medicine.

Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, is on the rise worldwide and especially in Japan, where more than a quarter of the population is 65 or older. JAIM leaders, including Mori and her counterparts at Stanford and Osaka, recruited nine students from Stanford and UCLA to participate in training bootcamps, then flew them to Japan to visit dementia care settings, observe the need firsthand and generate solutions. Returning to the U.S., the students spent the next four months working under JAIM supervision to develop prototype medical devices aimed at helping dementia patients and caregivers worldwide. By addressing the urgent need in Japan, JAIM aims to create solutions before the problem becomes severe in nations like the U.S.

REMBUDS, one of the prototype medical devices created by JAIM participants

REMBUDS, one of the prototype medical devices created by JAIM participants, were designed to electrically stimulate the transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve and reduce sleep-related injuries in Lewy Body dementia patients with REM sleep behavior disorder.

The rigorous program’s success, Mori says, owes much to the drive and dedication of everyone involved. “We all poured our passions into this project,” she says. “Each one of us brought our own respective strengths to the table, and we all had an unwavering confidence that what we were doing was valuable to the world.”

Since completing their prototypes in November, several participants have presented and garnered interest at national and international conferences. In February, Mori says, JAIM will attend the UCLA MedTech Partnering Conference hosted by the UCLA Technology Development Group in order to seek mentorship and resources to launch their prototypes into production.

Mori describes leading JAIM as “challenging to say the least” — she and her team spent a year developing the program, which she says felt like running a startup in addition to being a full-time student — but found it incredibly fulfilling.

“My life mission is to bridge Japan and the U.S. by connecting resources and people in the field of medicine,” she says. “And entrepreneurship is fascinating to me — through the many failures and the endless uphill battle, I feel most alive.”

The same spirit drives Mori’s winning efforts as part of UCLA’s triathlon team. “You can find us gasping for air while inching our way up the steep hills of Malibu with our road bikes on an early Saturday morning, or charging into the crashing waves of Santa Monica to practice open water swimming before heading back to campus for class,” she says. “It’s a group of fit, quirky and driven people who make the challenging sport of triathlon into an enjoyable one.”

Mori’s ultimate goal, she says, is to develop a product or service that will make health care more accessible, affordable and efficient through technological innovation in business. She envisions herself working as a product manager, international business development manager or possibly even the creator of her own startup. For now, as she finishes senior year, she’s enjoying the many opportunities UCLA has to offer.

“There really is no place like it,” she says. “It’s so exciting to be here, just imagining what can start up in such an environment. I’m grateful for every professor, expert and fellow student who has changed my life in a profound way.”

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

Miguel García-Garibay in the Royce Hall portico

Leading the College: A conversation with new senior dean Miguel García-Garibay

Miguel García-Garibay

Miguel García-Garibay, Dean of Physical Sciences and Senior Dean of the UCLA College

By Jonathan Riggs

A UCLA chemistry and biochemistry faculty member since 1992 and dean of physical sciences since 2016, Miguel García-Garibay celebrated another milestone last November when he was named senior dean of the UCLA College.

“Taking on this additional role at the No. 1 public university in the nation is one of the greatest honors any academic leader could aspire to,” said García-Garibay. “The vision of all my fellow College division deans and UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt includes sustained excellence and impact for the College. With their support, I am excited to accept the challenge.”

As he looks ahead to a new year and a new chapter in his remarkable Bruin career, García-Garibay spoke with us about his past achievements and future goals.

What are your top priorities as senior dean?

The primary mission of the College is to provide the best liberal arts education and research opportunities to our remarkably diverse, talented and accomplished undergraduates. There is no doubt that UCLA’s reputation comes from the exceptionally strong educational services offered by our creative faculty and our dedicated staff.

Now that our campus is committed to becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution, one of our goals is to make UCLA even more accessible, not only to talented Hispanic students, but to talented students from all backgrounds across the state and nation. To accomplish that, the College will engage members of the community for the development and creation of endowed fellowships and resources that enhance the educational experience of our students, including bridge programs and summer research and community engagement opportunities for incoming freshmen and transfer students.

How will your longtime experience as a faculty member and dean serve you in this additional role?

Academic deans can help their departments attract creative, talented faculty who are among the very best in their fields and who bring diverse perspectives and life experiences to their scientific and educational work. One critical aspect of my job as dean of physical sciences has been to make sure that our faculty have the means and infrastructure needed to carry out their research, attract talented graduate students, and successfully deploy research and educational initiatives guided by community and societal needs. As the senior dean, I will have an opportunity to help strengthen the common goals of the College and to make sure that we are ready to support the goals of each division.

Since 1992, I have experienced an environment where faculty and students have the climate, intellectual resources and physical infrastructure to succeed. At a personal level, I have made many friends among the faculty and staff, and I have had many long-lasting interactions with former students and other College alumni. Over the last 10 years, I have had the privilege of serving in leadership roles that have given me a stronger appreciation of the impactful vision developed by our campus leaders, and how UCLA stands out among many other excellent institutions of higher education. I am proud to be a longtime faculty Bruin.

What’s your favorite advice to share with students, or anyone else?

UCLA is a remarkably resourceful institution that convenes some of the brightest minds and the most interesting people. It is up to every one of us to explore it and to make the most of it. We have experts in all areas of research and scholarship, and every hallway conversation can lead to transformative ideas and productive collaborations. We have the resources to plan and execute challenging experiments, to collect and analyze complex data or to create impactful art. We have the opportunity and obligation to help create a better society. On a personal note, I also feel that it is wise to have a healthy work-life balance and family support in order to attain greater personal fulfillment and satisfaction.

Is there a fun or little-known fact about you that we could share?

Right after college and before graduate school, I worked three years as a truck driver (and I loved it!). It took that long — lots of back-and-forth snail mail — for my wife (also a Ph.D. in chemistry and a college professor) and me to earn admission to a graduate chemistry program. (We went to the University of British Columbia.) We shared parenting responsibilities as graduate students and as postdocs, demonstrating there are ways for supporting family teams to have parallel careers in higher education.

What keeps you inspired and passionate about your work and field? 

I am still amazed that chemists are able to design and construct molecules by bonding together a few atoms at a time, that we have the tools to see how those atoms are connected and how they move, and that we can change their properties by switching one or more atoms at a time. In particular, I am passionate about exploring chemical reactions in crystalline solids and to see how they may play a role in the design of crystalline molecular machines. There is nothing quite as exciting and rewarding as practicing and teaching science.

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

Recent UCLA grad helped Wikipedia set the record straight on ‘Rain Man’ and autism

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a casino in scene from Rain Man | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as Raymond Babbitt and Charlie Babbitt in “Rain Man.”

Lucy Berbeo | December 21, 2022

The 1988 film “Rain Man” won four Academy Awards, earned millions at the box office and moved audiences with its depiction of a central character with autism, played by Dustin Hoffman.

But at least some of that depiction obscured or misrepresented aspects of autism spectrum disorder. And because the movie has reached such a wide audience, those discrepancies have informed how generations of viewers perceive the condition. Until recently, many of the same issues also lived on in the Wikipedia entry about “Rain Man.”

That’s where Madeline Utter comes in. Before she graduated from UCLA in June, Utter took a course called “Performance and Disability Studies,” taught by visiting professor Elizabeth Guffey. As part of the course, Utter watched the film for the first time, and she was struck by elements that seemed to misrepresent autism spectrum disorder and savant syndrome. The latter is a condition in which a person with a developmental disorder shows remarkable brilliance in a specific area, such as music or math — the film’s protagonist, Raymond Babbitt, for example, is able to quickly perform complex mathematical calculations.

Madeline Utter

Madeline Utter | Courtesy of Madeline Utter

For a course project, Guffey tasked her students with researching and rewriting Wikipedia entries about representations of disability in performance to ensure they reflected the latest disability studies research. Utter chose “Rain Man” — and saw an opportunity to right a few things that the film, as well as the Wikipedia entry, had gotten wrong.

Wikipedia allows any user to edit articles directly with the proviso that revisions and additions must be attributable to reliable sources or they may be removed by other users. Utter revised the “Rain Man” article, adding context about how the film’s portrayal of neurodivergent conditions led to public misunderstanding.

Wikipedia bills itself as the world’s largest reference website, and the “Rain Man” entry typically receives about 2,500 visitors a day. Since Utter updated the page in May, it has been viewed more than 465,000 times. Utter has two brothers with autism, so the opportunity to improve the public’s understanding of the condition has been especially meaningful for her.

“From watching the film through a critical lens, to getting feedback from my peers on the article, to finally seeing the published article, I learned so much,” said Utter, who graduated in June with a major in communication and a minor in film studies. “The biggest impact that this project had on me was to start to be able to recognize the places in film where disability representation can be improved.”

UCLA’s disability studies program comprises courses in a range of academic subjects, from media arts to anthropology to nursing. Students play an active role in advancing creative approaches to service and advocacy, from improving health care for people with disabilities to creatively reimagining assistive technology using 3D modeling.

“Our students in UCLA Disability Studies are future leaders in their fields, and they are already helping to create a more inclusive society,” said Adriana Galván, dean of undergraduate education in the UCLA College. “By participating in projects such as this one, they are making a real-world impact.”

A program operated by Wiki Education invites college students to write Wikipedia entries through their coursework. The nonprofit profiled Utter’s project on its website.

This article originally appeared at UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

UCLA’s Jim Varney Scholarship pays the actor’s generous legacy forward

 Jim Varney, as the beloved character Ernest P. Worrell, holds a portrait of himself.

Emmy-winning actor and comedic icon Jim Varney played the beloved character Ernest P. Worrell. | Courtesy of Paganomation

Jonathan Riggs | December 20, 2022

The Kentucky-born comedian Jim Varney cared deeply about young people and their dreams.

Millions of kids — and kids at heart — delighted in the onscreen antics of the Emmy-winning actor, in and out of his beloved character of Ernest P. Worrell.

Before he died of cancer in 2000, Varney took his compassion one step further by laying the groundwork for a scholarship to support promising, financial-aid-eligible students from two states that meant a great deal to him personally: Kentucky and Tennessee. Recipients of the Jim Varney Scholarship must also plan to complete an undergraduate degree in the UCLA College and have an interest in the performing arts.

“This is one of UCLA’s few full-ride scholarships, and every single one of the students I’ve worked with who received it has had a phenomenal experience,” said Angela Deaver Campbell, director of the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center. “It’s so special, not just because it is a life-transforming opportunity for students and for their families, but also because we are honoring the final wishes of Mr. Varney, who wanted to make this opportunity possible.”

There have been 11 Varney Scholars so far, including the most recent, Joshua Hays, a current second-year biology major from Louisville, Kentucky whose dream is to become a physician specializing in pediatric orthopedics.

Joshua Hays, Varney Scholar

Joshua Hays, Varney Scholar

“Receiving this scholarship was one of the greatest honors and blessings in my life — I am the fifth of six children, and so the Varney Foundation’s generosity relieves such a burden from my family,” Hays said. “I am and will always be forever grateful to the Varney Foundation’s generosity for making the dreams of some kid from Kentucky a reality. I hope to pay it forward one day, following Mr. Varney’s example in changing lives.”

Over the course of his career, the Shakespearean-trained Varney built an impressive resume that includes more than 3,000 commercials, nine Ernest movies and originating the role of Slinky Dog in the “Toy Story” franchise. His career almost didn’t get started, though, due to an actors’ strike when he first came to Hollywood, forcing Varney to return to Kentucky and earn a living driving a truck.

“Jim always said if he’d had a college education, he could have stuck it out here sooner, and that a college education was the key to achieving your dreams,” said Jane Varney, president of the Varney Foundation, which funds the scholarship. “Jim wanted to pay his success forward and ensure that kids from Kentucky and Tennessee would have the opportunity to make it at a world-class school like UCLA.”

Without exception, that is what each scholarship recipient has done.

“Each year, the Varney Scholars thrive academically, bring diverse artistic expression and follow their passions as a result of these generous awards that honor Jim Varney’s remarkable legacy,” said Adriana Galván, dean of the division of undergraduate education. “We deeply value our longstanding partnership with the Jim Varney Foundation and look forward to many more years of working together to celebrate Jim and foster future generations of bright young change-makers at UCLA.”

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

Making a difference through the power of storytelling

UCLA undergraduate student Arushi Avachat on writing and publishing her first novel

Arushi Avachat

Arushi Avachat, a third-year English and political science student at UCLA, will see her debut novel hit bookstore shelves in fall 2023. | Photo by Haven Hunt

Lucy Berbeo | December 16, 2022

Now in her third year as an English and political science student at UCLA, Arushi Avachat is celebrating an extraordinary milestone: the forthcoming publication of her debut novel, which is set for release in fall 2023. “Arya Khanna’s Bollywood Moment,” a work of young adult fiction inspired by Bollywood dramas from decades past, was picked up by Wednesday Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group at Macmillan.

Avachat, a Bay Area native who finished drafting the novel during her first year at UCLA, also works in political communications and as an organizer for progressive social causes. She spoke with the UCLA College about writing through the pandemic, navigating the publishing world — and why storytelling is a powerful means to create social change.

What was it like writing a novel while navigating life as an undergraduate student?
I finished the first draft of “Arya” during the winter quarter of my first year at UCLA. As a COVID freshman, writing my novel was often a meaningful escape from the stress and uncertainties of that time. Virtual school also meant I had a lot more time to devote to writing. I was able to write for several hours each day in addition to coursework, which would definitely not be possible anymore!

What does it mean to you to see your first book slated for publication? What were some of your inspirations and challenges on this journey?
It feels so exciting and still so unbelievable! I have wanted this for as long as I can remember. The biggest challenge for me was definitely finishing my first draft. I have been a writer for most of my life, and from middle school onward, I was never not working on a novel-in-progress — “in progress” being the operative phrase, as I inevitably abandoned each manuscript in pursuit of a new, shinier idea. It was one of my proudest moments to finally complete my novel. I found a lot of inspiration from prominent South Asian writers such as Sanjena Sathian, Roshani Chokshi and Sabaa Tahir, whose careers I deeply admire and who were all so generous with advice during my publishing journey.

How has your experience at UCLA influenced your journey as a writer?
My time at UCLA has completely reinforced my desire to pursue a career as a writer. I am a third-year English student, and I am hoping to concentrate in creative writing. The fiction workshops I’ve taken so far have been really rewarding — it’s so exciting to belong to a community of writers, and I’ve loved learning from professors who have built long-lasting careers for themselves as authors. Workshop has also forced me to write much more than I typically do. By nature, I am a very slow writer, and having to produce a new short story every week (while challenging!) has helped me get into the habit of writing daily — and being comfortable with bad first drafts.

What inspired “Arya Khanna’s Bollywood Moment,” and what do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
When I was fourteen, I wrote a short story about two sisters and their mother that I was very attached to. I felt like I had a lot more to say about those characters, and slowly, a novel idea started to emerge. I had the thought that I wanted this book to read like my favorite Bollywood dramas from the ‘90s and 2000s, and the wedding backdrop and cinematic structure evolved from there. My protagonist Arya’s older sister is home for the first time in three years to plan her wedding, and shaadi season is filled with family conflict, gossipy aunties and a rivals-to-lovers romance in the school setting.

Sisterhood is at the heart of this novel. While drafting, I spent a lot of time thinking about the moment when an elder sibling leaves home, and the younger sibling becomes a de facto only child. There can be a lot of resentment and messy feelings attached to this shift, especially if one’s home life is far from perfect. I wanted to explore this dynamic deeply. I also just had a lot of fun drafting this dramatic, hopeful, joyful book. I hope “Arya” will bring readers the same comfort that writing it brought me.

“In addition to creative writing, I have also worked extensively in political communications. Both fields have helped me realize how storytelling works to generate empathy, shape public opinion, and help people feel seen. I hope to contribute to this cause through my novels, which will always center the voices of Indian women, who remain largely underrepresented in literature.”

You’ve said that you see storytelling as an important means to achieve social change. Can you share more about this?
In addition to creative writing, I have also worked extensively in political communications. Both fields have helped me realize how storytelling works to generate empathy, shape public opinion, and help people feel seen. I hope to contribute to this cause through my novels, which will always center the voices of Indian women, who remain largely underrepresented in literature.

I was eighteen the first time I read a YA novel by an Indian author (“When Dimple Met Rishi” by Sandhya Menon), and I still remember the wonder and excitement I felt reading a story about a girl that looked like me. During my childhood, the books I had access to were overwhelmingly white, as was the publishing industry at large. Only recently has that begun to shift, and the young adult category in particular has led the charge in creating space for diverse stories.

I feel really proud to belong to that change. It’s so important for young people specifically to see themselves positively represented in media and to know they deserve to have their voices centered, not relegated to the sidelines as has historically been the case. I have much respect and admiration for the South Asian authors who came before me and made my career a possibility, and I’m hopeful that the book industry will continue to grow truly representative of its readers in the years to come.

What advice would you give to other young writers navigating the publishing world?
Really internalize the message that your publishing goals are a matter of when, not if. In an industry where nothing is guaranteed but rejection, and lots of it, it’s so important to have a strong sense of self-confidence in your work. I received over 40 nos from agents before receiving my first offer of representation. It was easy to get anxious during this time, but I kept reminding myself that I would always be a writer, and if not this book, then the next, or the next, would get me published. Having this mentality helped take some of the stress away from the process and kept my love for writing untainted by insecurity.

What’s next on your horizon?
It’s surreal to remember that this is just the beginning of my career — in so many ways, publishing “Arya” feels like a culmination of something; this is the end goal I have worked toward for so long. But I have so many more books left in me, and I feel so exhilarated by the variety of projects I have planned for the future. After “Arya,” I have a second young adult contemporary novel slated to release with Wednesday Books. Beyond that, I have ideas for a YA high fantasy, a YA historical fiction, an adult rom-com, and a middle grade contemporary. At some point in my life, I would love to write a murder mystery, too.

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

Portraits of Marinza Marzouk - Monica Soliman - Samuel Zamora

3 UCLA undergrads receive prestigious NIH scholarships

Portraits of Marinza Marzouk - Monica Soliman - Samuel Zamora

Marinza Marzouk (left), Monica Soliman and Samuel Zamora will complete summer internships in NIH labs and have full-time jobs there upon graduation. | UCLA

Jonathan Riggs | November 3, 2022

Only 16 students nationally were chosen to receive prestigious National Institutes of Health undergraduate scholarships for 2022–23.

And three of them are Bruins.

Fourth-year students Marinza Marzouk of Covina, California, and Monica Soliman of Los Angeles, and third-year student Samuel Zamora of San Diego were chosen from a national pool of applicants. The scholarship is meant to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue education and career opportunities in biomedical research.

Each of the UCLA honorees will receive up to $20,000 per year for up to four years. In exchange, they will complete 10-week, paid summer internships in NIH laboratories and, after they graduate from UCLA, work as full-time employees in NIH labs for one year per year of scholarship support they receive.

“I am proud of these three remarkable students and all they have accomplished thus far,” said Adriana Galván, UCLA’s dean of undergraduate education. “This scholarship is an inspiring vote of confidence on the national stage for their future potential, and I have no doubt they will exceed all expectations.”

Marzouk is a neuroscience major who transferred to UCLA from Pasadena City College. She moved with her family to the U.S. from Egypt when she was 13.

“It was very overwhelming, especially with the language barrier, and I had a lot of self-doubt — I never even thought I could dream of going to UCLA,” Marzouk said. “But I kept challenging myself to get here.”

Marzouk volunteers in the research lab of Professor Edythe London, a UCLA psychiatrist and biobehavioral scientist. She hopes to continue her studies in medical school, with the goal of becoming a psychologist or neurologist.

“It means a lot to me to have gotten this scholarship,” she said. “I still cannot process that I am where I am, and doing what I am doing, but I am just so happy to be making my parents and myself proud. My parents sacrificed a lot for me, and this scholarship shows them that their efforts were not in vain and that I am taking advantage of all the opportunities available to me here in America.”

Soliman is majoring in human biology and society and minoring in Arabic studies. Like Marzouk, she came to the U.S. from Egypt at a young age; Soliman was 10, and her family was seeking religious asylum after the 2011 revolution there.

“Coming from a country where women do not always have the opportunity to pursue higher education, I was determined to become one of the first in my family to receive a college degree,” she said. “Coming to UCLA helped me find community and a sense of belonging.”

Soliman hopes to enroll in an M.D.–Ph.D. program in sports medicine. An intern with the UCLA Athletics sports medicine staff, Soliman has also served as a field research assistant for the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program and an NIH-funded project to improve concussion assessment and treatment in children and teens.

“I feel honored to have been selected to earn such a competitive scholarship and to have the opportunity to work at the NIH and develop skills that are necessary for my journey,” Soliman said. “UCLA provided an environment that has allowed me to grow, and I’m grateful.”

Zamora, who’s majoring in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, moved to California with his family from Tijuana, Mexico, when he was 10.

“Like many other first-generation students, my parents didn’t attend college and knew nothing about the process, which meant I had no sense of direction and struggled to find resources,” he said.

Key to helping him adjust to campus life and find his path, Zamora said, was his involvement with Hermanos Unidos de UCLA, a student organization that helps male Latino and Chicano students bond over their academic successes, community service and personal growth.

Zamora has gained experience in multiple research labs on campus. He’s currently a research intern in the lab of Professor Xiaojiang Cui, where he’s studying the implications of RNA splicing on breast cancer development. Although he hasn’t ruled out medical school, he also has an interest in continuing his clinical laboratory research.

“Earning this scholarship gives me a feeling of victory,” Zamora said. “Aspiring to make a change in this world through the beauty of science is the reason I push myself.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Photo illustration of Oleg Itskhoki surrounded by floating currencies

Oleg Itskhoki is a rising star in economics

Professor earlier this year won the John Bates Clark Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in his field

Oleg Itskhoki, UCLA’s Venu and Ana Kotamraju Professor of Economics, surrounded by floating currencies.

The John Bates Clark Medal committee honored Oleg Itskhoki for “his masterful application of empirical and theoretical tools” that offering insights into important phenomena in international economics. | UCLA

Jonathan Riggs | October 13, 2022

Why do nearly 80 countries choose to fully or partially peg their exchange rates against the U.S. dollar, and how much independence of their monetary policy do they give up by doing so?

Answers to queries like these can be elusive, whether you’re someone who feels like conversations about macroeconomics on the nightly news go over their head, or even an academic economist.

“Without having an empirically relevant model of exchange rates, it is impossible to credibly answer questions that concern, for example, the costs and benefits of common currency areas, such as the Euro Zone, which eliminate exchange rate fluctuations between their country-members,” said Oleg Itskhoki, UCLA’s Venu and Ana Kotamraju Professor of Economics. “Similarly, questions about the optimal exchange rate policy and the costs and benefits of partially managed exchange rates require such a theoretical framework as well.”

In new research, Itskhoki has developed new frameworks that will drive considerable thought in the field going forward. For these ideas, the 39-year-old whose research focuses on macroeconomics and international economics won the John Bates Clark Medal from the American Economic Association. The award is given to an economist under age 40 who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.

“This is the first time a UCLA faculty member has won this prestigious award,” said Jinyong Hahn, chair of the economics department. “Oleg Itskhoki is a star in the field of international economics who solved important puzzles in exchange rates and made it possible to understand the relationship between foreign trade and income inequality.”

Although he hailed from a family of physicists and inherited the family interest in the field, Itskhoki was born in the Soviet Union and grew up during the turbulence of transition-era Russia, during which the legacy of government control over science cast a long shadow. Seeing his older sister’s success in the more stable field of economics, Itskhoki followed in her footsteps.

He appreciated the opportunity to delve into scientific work that left his professional options open, giving him the security of knowing his economics research qualified him for a broader scope of work outside of academia than high-level physics specialization might have. And the puzzles and problems inherent in international economics policies fascinated him more and more the deeper he got into exploring them — especially since the field granted him more independence to follow his curiosity than he might have as part of a lab with rigidly established priorities.

“I truly enjoyed the work and as I went through school, I found myself more and more absorbed by it,” said Itskhoki, who came from Princeton University to UCLA in 2019. “I still am today — I feel so lucky having made what feels like a hobby I love into my life.”

In the official award citation listing Itskhoki’s research highlights, the association emphasized his key insight that financial market noise, rather than economic fundamentals, may be the main driver of exchange rates. This idea offers a unifying theory that solves five of the field’s major exchange-rate puzzles and provides a framework that many believe will serve as the definitive lens through which economists examine these issues going forward.

“Through his masterful application of empirical and theoretical tools, Itskhoki has revisited classic questions in both international finance and international trade, resolving long-standing puzzles and offering new economic insights into important phenomena in international economics,” the committee concluded.

Although the Clark Medal does not include a monetary award, it reflects an enormous vote of confidence from the entire field of economics. The Clark Medal is considered second only to the Nobel Prize in terms of prestige and it has long served as a precursor to winning that honor as well. Earning such a visible sign of respect from his peers means a lot to Itskhoki.

“It’s completely crazy — these things don’t happen. Well, they happen to somebody, but you never expect it to be you,” Itskhoki said. “The biggest, most pleasant part of it all is hearing from so many people that they were teaching my papers — and enjoying teaching them! I am so grateful to hear my work is influential in some ways.”

Crediting his mentors, colleagues and predecessors in the field, Itskhoki chooses to view his victory as a communal rather than personal victory. (His family, including his sister who inspired his professional journey with her own, couldn’t be prouder, he said.) Itskhoki is especially delighted to see “UCLA” now appear among the home institutions of Clark Medal winners, a list which has long been dominated by schools like Harvard and MIT.

“UCLA is a very special place, where public service, research and teaching are deeply valued,” Itskhoki said. “I find that so inspiring, and I couldn’t be prouder to see schools like us and UC Berkeley coming into their own as top national institutions for economics.”

Teaching remains a passion for Itskhoki — in addition to doctoral courses in macroeconomics at both the national and international level, Itskhoki also teaches an international finance course for third- and fourth-year undergraduates.

“Economics are in the news every day — for example, they were a big part of the COVID crisis conversation — and we discuss it all: the trade war with China, tax reform, inflation, food prices and the best way for governments to respond to it all,” he said. “The models we created cited by the American Economic Association has answers to some of these questions, and I try to keep everything grounded in real-world events. Whether or not we know it, economics affects us all so it’s important to see the state of thinking on these topics.”

As he looks to the future, Itskhoki doesn’t think in terms of awards or honors; he focuses on the next challenges he wants to tackle in his research.

“There is still a lot of work to be done on exchange rates; in particular we are now studying optimal exchange rate policies for the government using the insights from our earlier work,” Itskhoki said. “I am also fascinated by the topic of the new high-tech industries and AI technologies and the associated questions of productivity and welfare measurement in the world with proliferation of AI.”

Economists with UCLA ties have a history of top honors

Lloyd Shapley, professor emeritus of economics and mathematics, received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in October 2012. Shapley, who joined UCLA in 1981, was honored for his research on “matching theory,” which aims to improve the performance of markets by, for example, connecting prospective students with schools or aligning patients who need organ transplants with donors.

Guido Imbens, a Stanford University professor who was a UCLA faculty member from 1997 to 2001, won the 2021 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Two alumni have won the Nobel in economics: William Sharpe in 1990 and Elinor Ostrom in 2009.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Alex Stern

Humanities for the 21st century: A conversation with incoming dean Alex Stern

Alexandra Minna Stern

Alexandra Minna Stern | Photo by Yeidy Rivero

Jonathan Riggs | October 11, 2022

Alexandra Minna Stern will become UCLA’s dean of humanities on Nov. 1, succeeding David Schaberg, who has helmed the division since 2011 and will return to teaching and research full time after a sabbatical.

For Stern, who was most recently the associate dean for the humanities and the Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, the move is a homecoming — she grew up in California, earned her master’s degree in Latin American studies from UC San Diego and was an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz.

In her two decades at Michigan, Stern held academic appointments in history, women’s and gender studies, and obstetrics and gynecology. She is widely recognized as an expert on the history of eugenics, genetics, society and justice in the United States and Latin America.

As she prepares to begin her tenure, Stern spoke with us about this new chapter for her and for the division.

What does it mean to you to lead the UCLA Division of Humanities?

It is a great honor to follow in the footsteps of David Schaberg, who has managed this division with a steady hand and inspiring vision of the humanities. I’m excited to join my counterpart deans in the UCLA College and the leadership team at the university.

For me, this is both a return home to California, where lived many years before my two decades in the Midwest, and a new adventure in Los Angeles, a city where I’ve never resided but am eager to explore. I’m deeply committed to public higher education, and I can’t imagine a better place to pursue transformational work than UCLA.

I look forward to getting to know the university community as I represent and advocate for the humanities on campus and beyond. Coming from Michigan, it will be quite an experience to morph from Wolverine to Bruin!

What qualities of the division do you feel make it unique and impactful?

UCLA Humanities is an extraordinary division with a talented, diverse faculty whose research encompasses a wide range of topics, chronologies, regions and approaches. The division is very interdisciplinary, which has allowed it to lead in many areas, including urban humanities and digital humanities. By virtue of being located in a vibrant and polyphonic city, humanities at UCLA has been public-facing, contributing to and benefiting from an amazing artistic, cultural and creative milieu. The full breadth of UCLA’s humanities appeals greatly to me and resonates with my vision of engaged humanities in the 21st century.

What are your top priorities as dean?

My priorities will evolve over time as I familiarize myself with the humanities community and the university as a whole. Generally speaking, I’ll seek to maintain strength in longstanding areas and energize new initiatives. For example, I want to ensure the viability of global languages, including less commonly taught languages, and build capacity for experimental programs such as health humanities and disability studies.

As a fierce advocate for the humanities, I welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their relevance to the pressing questions of humanity, society, democracy and culture today. I’m keen to support the entire humanities community — students, staff, faculty and alumni — and to work together toward shared goals, retaining my signature optimism without overlooking the serious challenges faced by the humanities in academia in our current moment.

What keeps you inspired and passionate about your work and field?

Much of my research has focused on the history and legacy of eugenics, especially in California, and I’m actively involved in projects related to reproductive justice and injustice, reparations and memory today. The lab I founded, the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab — which will now most likely be based at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics — works with California state agencies to help verify sterilization survivors who are eligible for monetary compensation through a recently approved program, and it collaborates with activists and scholars on anti-eugenics projects that are community-based and guided by the tenets and goals of social justice. I remain passionate about my research; it is rewarding when it contributes to addressing past historical harms and contemporary social inequities.

Is there a little-known fact about yourself we could share?

I spent much of my early 20s living in San Francisco and reading poetry at the Cafe Babar at 22nd and Guerrero, and that kind of creative energy sustains me to this day. Unfortunately, I have lost most of the poems I wrote during that raucous and heady period of my life. I frequently turn to poetry, in English and Spanish, for intellectual and emotional nourishment because of my love of language, metaphor, cadence and its irresistible sublimity.

What’s your favorite advice to share with students and others?

I believe active listening and humility can go a long way. Wherever or however we step into academia, we should strive to be lifelong learners. For me, leadership is less about giving advice and more about modeling and enacting empathy and advocacy within an interdependent and generative community.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Portrait of Abel Valenzuela

Engaging with the world: Q&A with Abel Valenzuela, interim dean of social sciences

Abel Valenzuela in front of door reading "UCLA"

Abel Valenzuela | UCLA

Jonathan Riggs | October 5, 2022

Abel Valenzuela Jr. has been a faculty member in the UCLA College’s Division of Social Sciences for nearly three decades, serving as a professor of labor studies, Chicana/o and Central American studies, and urban planning. He was also the director of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and is a nationally recognized authority on labor issues, immigration, and urban poverty and inequality.

Last month, Valenzuela took on the role of interim dean of social sciences following the appointment of the division’s former dean, Darnell Hunt, to the post of executive vice chancellor and provost. He will remain in the position through the end of the 2023–24 academic year.

Valenzuela spoke to us about to us about charting a path forward for the division, the importance of public engagement and how working as a dishwasher and “carwashero” in his early years instilled a work ethic that still drives him.

What does it mean to follow in the footsteps of former Dean Hunt?

Darnell Hunt is a longstanding faculty member and a gifted administrator and scholar who has pushed his discipline and the social sciences division on a formidable pathway of local and civic engagement, problem-solving and driving policy. He’s done this by drawing on UCLA’s greatest talent — its faculty and student body.

During my own leadership of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, I was able to enhance our well-established reputation for engaging Los Angeles through empirical, policy-driven research and by providing our students with research opportunities on topics important to their own lives. In my work, I often consulted with Dean Hunt to share benchmarks, discuss opportunities and ensure that our work was aligned and supported by the division. He was instrumental to our growth and success.

As I look ahead to this next chapter, I feel honored to continue his mission, and I’m confident that our shared efforts will enhance and strengthen UCLA’s public mission and dedication to excellence in problem-solving in academic research, public policy and other areas that impact the world and people’s lives.

What qualities make the social sciences division special?

The division is large and robust and includes nearly 20 academic departments and programs — and it’s driven by brilliantly accomplished faculty and students who engage deeply and thoughtfully with each other.

That idea of engagement is paramount — not only within the university but, importantly, with the broader world. The research being done in our division engages every corner of our city and our world, and it has a formidable impact. I continue to be amazed, as I reflect on my 30 years at UCLA, at all the accomplishments and discoveries our division makes on a regular basis. When I travel, I marvel at the impact our alumni are having in the world — their reach is seemingly everywhere you turn.

What are your top priorities as interim dean?

Dean Hunt was an excellent steward of the division, and his visionary and steadfast focus on changing the world through local engagement and on promoting social science that matters and that focuses on the public good are all priorities that align with my own work and philosophy. In my new leadership role, that vision will continue.

In addition, his dedication to faculty recruitment and retention and to advocating for our division with senior leadership are priorities I will be embracing as interim dean.

And finally, I intend to devote my attention to two key matters: staff morale and workplace issues, and graduate student funding — both critical to maintaining excellence in our division, as well as our competitive edge.

How can the members of the division show support now and going forward?

We can build community through reaching out to each other and also by being cognizant of the fact that we are navigating uncertain times. We need to be patient, respectful of others and kind to a fault in supporting one another.

Secondly, if you have the resources and are able to give, give to UCLA so that we can redistribute your generosity in the form of fellowships, summer internships, and in other ways that build community and support our students through research and similar opportunities.

You’ve been a teacher for a long time. What does teaching mean to you?

Teaching is connecting. It’s gratifying and exhilarating. It’s also a lot of hard work. Teaching is reciprocal — you learn when you teach. Some of the best teachers and classes in the world are here at UCLA.

My favorite advice to share with students when we discuss civic, cultural and other types of interventions is that the research process is long, and when you’re trying to impact policy, that impact is incremental. Patience is a virtue, and if you have it, you can use it in meaningful and effective ways. Small, steady steps and forward movement are the key to winning — our work is a marathon, not a race.

Is there an interesting or little-known fact about you we could share?

As a teenager, I worked at McDonald’s; as a Union 76 “carwashero” — a vacuum attendant, to be precise; as a dishwasher at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights; and shortly after high school graduation, I became a bank teller. Hard work and multiple skill sets have always been a part of my experience and will guide my work ethic for the division.

How will you determine whether you’ve been successful?

Beyond the standard metrics UCLA uses to evaluate deans, I’ll leave it up to my colleagues — department chairs, research unit directors, faculty members and students — to say if my work as interim dean surpassed their expectations and standards. At UCLA, we’re all very vocal!

Finally, I’ll constantly remind myself that enhancing student success and excellence in academic outcomes is a primary catalyst in all of my decision-making.

I’m honored, humbled and thankful to the campus’s senior leadership and to Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Hunt for their confidence in me as I undertake this new leadership assignment.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.