Ph.D. candidate Joshua McGuffie studies the biological effects of radiation in the mid-20th century

Lessons from—and for—an Atomic America

Ph.D. candidate Joshua McGuffie studies the biological effects of radiation in the mid-20th century

By Jonathan Riggs


Ph.D. candidate Joshua McGuffie studies the biological effects of radiation in the mid-20th century

Joshua McGuffie

Deep compassion and curiosity set Joshua McGuffie on his life’s work; a beaten-up ’99 Toyota Corolla got him there and back.

A native Angeleno and UCLA graduate, McGuffie originally went to seminary and became a Lutheran pastor serving two small churches in upstate New York. Although he found his work fulfilling, he realized he wanted to return to school. Conversations with members of his congregation—largely orchardists—inspired him to want to study the history of organic farming. However, his focus changed once he got to graduate school at Oregon State, not far from where the U.S. made all of its weapons-grade plutonium.

“So instead of organic farming, I ended up studying America’s nuclear past,” he says. “Now I’m a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at UCLA, researching the doctors and biologists who first studied the biological effects of radiation from the 1920s through the 1960s.”

Led by Stafford L. Warren, who would become the first dean of UCLA’s medical school (now the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA), these doctors and biologists faced a major challenge as they sought to understand the effects of radiation as the field raced forward, forcing them to grapple with the impact of things that had never existed before, such as fission reactors and atomic bombs. Beginning their work by exposing fish to X-rays, these researchers went on to travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki three weeks after the 1945 bombing, studying the survivors, known as hibakusha. They continued their work on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and at multiple sites in the United States, including a lab on UCLA’s campus.

“In some regards, these researchers could be considered sympathetic actors because they were trying to protect people from radiation exposure, but on the other hand, they made it possible for the United States to test atomic bombs for almost 20 years,” says McGuffie. “The fallout of that testing affected countless people as well as the environment. It’s a sad, tragic story, but there’s a lot to it that isn’t as well-known as it should be.”

More people should be aware of the full scope of victims of the nuclear arms race, he says. These include the Shoshone tribe in eastern Nevada who were exposed to test radiation; Navajo miners near Los Alamos who were not provided adequate protection during their work; and Marshall Islanders who had to be evacuated by Greenpeace after nuclear fallout made their original home atolls uninhabitable.

“The United States owes a real debt to all these people,” McGuffie says. “Scientific advances can offer so much amazing possibility, but we can never forget that there has been repeated precedent for marginalized people being further marginalized in the name of progress.”

Throughout his previous travels—from California to New York to Oregon and back—McGuffie drove that aforementioned Corolla, and he added another 5,000-plus miles to it on a UCLA-funded “atomic roadtrip” crisscrossing the western U.S.  Digging through documents in little reading rooms and recording oral histories, McGuffie was even briefly detained by sheriff’s deputies while taking photos outside the Nevada Test Site. 

A surprising but important supplement to his research came when McGuffie participated in UCLA’s Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC) Program, which offers resources, training and support for humanities educators to strengthen and expand their craft. In addition to connecting him with other educators engaging with environmental matters via various disciplines, it also helped him better understand how to bridge his work outside the classroom in dynamic ways.

“I loved how EPIC helped me think about turning my research into exciting teaching materials,” he says. “Right now I’m teaching a history of medicine course at Loyola Marymount, and for our unit on environmental justice and health, I’m working on bringing in members of the Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles (CCSCLA) who fought against the construction of a garbage incinerator in an impoverished neighborhood.”

Although the lessons of America’s radioactive past seem to augur a bleak future, McGuffie limits his despair to the occasional dark joke. Trained by the seminary to listen deeply to others, to search for empathy and answers, he believes there is hope for humanity.

It’s like the pickup game of soccer that’s been played every Sunday evening in his neighborhood for the past 10 years with people he’s known since he was a child and continues to this day, much to McGuffie’s joy. Every week he steps onto the field where all are welcome, no matter your skill level or how many years you’ve been away; every week he’s reminded that the only way to succeed is to trust, help and root for your teammates.

“In my heart of hearts, I think humanity has the potential to take real, positive actions to address issues of environment and health in equitable, effective ways we haven’t before,” McGuffie says. “I look at my children and I choose to be hopeful: there are solutions out there and we just have to get excited about finding them.”

LEARN MORE at Josh’s website:

Justin Dunnavant Underwater picture. Credit: Chris Searles

Under sea or on land, UCLA Assistant Professor Justin Dunnavant is writing the future of archaeology

The Adventure Continues

By Jonathan Riggs

Justin Dunnavant Underwater picture. Credit: Chris Searles

Justin Dunnavant Underwater. Photo Credit: Chris Searles

A lot of people—most notably comedian Craig Robinson on the Hulu docuseries “Your Attention Please”—have compared  Justin Dunnavant to Indiana Jones. In the battle of globetrotting archaeologists, the assistant professor of anthropology has a lot going for him—he skateboards, surfs, plays chess and doesn’t even mind snakes. But he prefers to be compared to a real-life legend.

“I like to think of myself more as Jacques Cousteau, actually,” laughs Dunnavant, who recently joined UCLA after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University. Conducting much of his current research underwater, Dunnavant is a certified American Academy of Underwater Sciences scientific scuba diver who explores shipwrecks to investigate the relationship between ecology and enslavement in the former Danish West Indies.

“We’ve been looking at different things, from soils to shoreline erosion to coral mining, to understand the environmental impacts of the slave trade,” he says. “Just thinking about archaeology and history occurring underwater, and how little it’s explored, was a big eye-opener to me. There’s only a handful of us doing this work, but there’s at least a thousand wrecks just off the coast of Florida alone.”

Dunnavant has always embraced adventure. Although he had never even been camping, he signed up as a 16-year-old Howard University freshman to spend six weeks helping excavate a Mayan plaza in the rainforests of Belize. Smitten with archaeology, he went on to complete a Fulbright in Jamaica, and got his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Florida, writing his dissertation on early kingdoms in southern Ethiopia.

While getting his doctorate, Dunnavant and his colleague Ayana Omilade Flewellen (now an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Riverside) founded the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA) in 2011. Starting with a listserv of 50 people, the organization has grown to more than 250 paid members around the world, creating new connections and collaborations, increased visibility and advocacy, and a scholarship program.

The duo’s SBA work led to the collaboration that motivated Dunnavant, who could barely swim across a pool at the time, to learn how to scuba dive.

“An organization called Diving with a Purpose approached us and said, ‘We’re a bunch of African American scuba divers who assist with archaeology; you have a group of archaeologists who don’t know how to dive. What would it look like if we joined forces?’” Dunnavant says. “Now we go all over the world with them, helping to map shipwrecks—some of them slave ships—while also doing annual workshops where we train recreational divers in basic archaeological methods.”

Unlike a Titanic-style shipwreck, where the mostly intact vessel rests on the ocean floor, Dunnavant frequently studies the remains of 18th and 19th century wooden ships, which have largely decomposed underwater. While the scope of maritime archaeology can be daunting, Dunnavant views each site he studies—and his mission to honor the people represented—as opportunities to not just look back, but to move forward to a more inclusive future.

“Part of the reason I got into this field was that I saw the potential for archaeology to really shed light on issues that marginalized communities without formally recorded histories faced,” he says. “Archaeology provides us with another way to explore questions about history and heritage, and the more people we have coming in from diverse backgrounds, the more it leads us to more innovative questions, interpretations and methods.”

In fact, Dunnavant wants to empower the next generation to see the study of the past as an incredible opportunity that is available—and impactful—to all. To this end, he is focused on helping students at UCLA, as well as local elementary, middle and high school students, to see how relevant archaeology is to their own lives by offering them weeklong training camps. Lighting this spark in others is just one of the many things Dunnavant loves about his work, even if he doesn’t have an iconic theme song like his cinematic counterpart…yet.

“What I do have is an undying curiosity. Nothing excites and inspires me more than how fresh and new the questions we’re exploring tend to be,” Dunnavant says. “There’s still so much out there to explore and discover.”

Assistant Professor Stephanie Correa and doctoral student Norma Sandoval are working together to advance science as well as equity at UCLA and beyond Photo

Assistant Professor Stephanie Correa and doctoral student Norma Sandoval are working together to advance science as well as equity at UCLA and beyond

Stronger Together

By Jonathan Riggs

Assistant Professor Stephanie Correa and doctoral student Norma Sandoval are working together to advance science as well as equity at UCLA and beyond Photo

From left to right: Assistant Professor Stephanie Correa and doctoral student Norma Sandoval

Science is anything but a solitary pursuit—breakthroughs are more likely to occur when established experts and rising scientists collaborate with and inspire one another.

Stephanie Correa, an assistant professor in UCLA’s Integrative Biology & Physiology department, and Norma Sandoval, a third-year grad student, are just such a combination. In addition to their shared love of scientific research, the two have much in common as first-generation college students and daughters of immigrants.

They work together in Correa’s lab, which aims to understand how reproductive hormones affect temperature and energy balance, and in particular, how changing estrogen levels act on the hypothalamus during menopause. For her particular project, Sandoval is focused on the role played by the reprimo gene (RPRM) in heat generation. This work could reveal the mechanisms involved in hot flashes, one of the most common symptoms of menopause.

It’s groundbreaking research, partly because for a long time, most studies were conducted on males, whether that be humans or mice. But Correa’s lab is working head-on to address the historic deficits in women’s health research, even if that means pushing against established thought.

“The effects of hormones are a lot more dynamic than we used to think, so it’s exciting whenever we interpret our data and see something unexpected,” Correa says. “We have a lot of open-minded people in the lab who are always on the lookout for results that point to bigger ideas.”

“First of all, we want to expand the knowledge of how hormones work and how their function differs between the sexes,” says Sandoval. “Ideally, one day we hope our work will have an impact on medicine—it would be great to have new drugs to treat the symptoms related to menopause.”

Correa says that Sandoval’s work could definitely lead to this. “Norma’s doing basic research to understand how the reprimogene could be mediating some of the effects of estrogens on temperature,” she says. “If it’s doing what we suspect, then this gene could be a good thing for drug developers to target. It’s really exciting to think that Norma could be the person who discovered this.”

What makes their success even more impressive is that neither realized that “scientist” was a career path open to them until they were college students—Correa at Pomona College, Sandoval at Santa Monica College before transferring to UCLA. Now, each is on a personal mission to open doors and empower others.

“I’m on the board of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) at UCLA, and as outreach coordinator, I am committed to efforts aimed at broadening participation in science for historically marginalized students” Sandoval says. “Obviously, nowhere is perfect, but I feel that at UCLA, my voice is heard and I have the resources available to be the scientist that I want to be.”

“I’ve always felt that it’s really cool that at UCLA, we provide an environment where students can see representations of themselves at all levels,” says Correa.

After giving birth to twin daughters in 2016 and embarking on the juggling act necessary to simultaneously be a parent, world-class scientist, lab leader and mentor—especially in the age of COVID—Correa says she is proud of how her field continues to evolve.

“Science, too, is becoming more accepting and encouraging for people to be their full selves,” she adds. “There’s still a lot to be done to make all our environments more inclusive, but we’ve made amazing strides. And the ones who are pushing us are students like Norma.”

Although she’s still early in her career, Sandoval has already earned a slew of prestigious honors, including the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship. As she looks to the future, she’s grateful for all that she’s learning from Correa—and the feeling is mutual.

“From the first day that I met Stephanie, I was in awe of her as a scientist and as a compassionate leader,” Sandoval says. “Stephanie truly understands my struggles when it comes to research and life, and she is an incredible mentor who gives me the freedom in the lab to grow.”

“Norma’s so special, doing such exciting science and always so focused on helping others,” Correa says. “Balancing all the different things she wants to do with her life is always going to be a challenge, so I try to advise her not only on the science, but on how to make it all work—because I’m trying to do the exact same thing for myself.”

Professor Marissa López examines Robert Becker’s "Diseños of California Ranchos: Maps of thirty-seven Land Grants if 1822-1846 from the Records of the United States District Court, San Francisco" in the Rare Books room at Central Library downtown. PHOTO CREDIT: Yvonne Condes

UCLA Professor Marissa López’s Summer Writers’ Workshop empowered young attendees to map out their unique vision of L.A.’s future history—and their role in it

What Gets Remembered

By Jonathan Riggs

Professor Marissa López examines Robert Becker’s "Diseños of California Ranchos: Maps of thirty-seven Land Grants if 1822-1846 from the Records of the United States District Court, San Francisco" in the Rare Books room at Central Library downtown. PHOTO CREDIT: Yvonne Condes

Professor Marissa López examines Robert Becker’s “Diseños of California Ranchos: Maps of thirty-seven Land Grants if 1822-1846 from the Records of the United States District Court, San Francisco” in the Rare Books room at Central Library downtown. PHOTO CREDIT: Yvonne Condes

There has never been one definitive Los Angeles. Spanning hundreds of years and countless cultures, the city represents something different for everyone. It belongs to us all, as young participants in the Summer Writers’ Workshop discovered in July.

An annual offering by creative writing nonprofit 826LA, the program featured something new this year: a collaboration between 826LA, UCLA and Professor of English and Chicana/o Studies Marissa López’s Picturing Mexican America project. The weeklong workshop brought middle and high school students together to examine—and imagine—both the future history of L.A. and their roles in that history, focusing on the questions, “Who makes decisions about what gets remembered?” and “How can we bring unseen or ignored things to light?”

López and her graduate students Efren Lopez (no relation), Robert Mendoza and Gabriela Valenzuela, as well as their partners at 826LA, including program coordinator Cecilia Gamiño, created the workshop to empower young writers to think about their city in new ways and about themselves as active participants in history.

“Working together on this project underscored how the process of rewriting a history of Los Angeles must be a collaborative project rather than an individual endeavor,” Mendoza says. “We made sure to let our students know that we were excited to be coworkers with them in the production of a new type of history.”

The program began with López sharing research from her Picturing Mexican America project. Actor and writer Xavi Moreno then came in to help the students develop an “I am…” poem that described their Los Angeles—and themselves.

Examples of collaborative maps the students drew using Zoom's whiteboard feature.

Examples of collaborative maps the students drew using Zoom’s whiteboard feature.

“Hearing Xavi read his poem about the sights, smells and sounds of growing up in Boyle Heights literally gave me goosebumps,” López says. “At the end of the week, we recorded the students reading their poems. Their writing was … moving, sharing such personal fears, hopes and joys. It was a remarkable experience.”

The workshop also included a session titled “Imagining Space,” led by Valenzuela, in which students plumbed the California State Archives’ Diseño Collection, a free digital resource of 493 hand-drawn maps (diseños) of nineteenth-century land grants, to compare them with surveyors’ maps of the same places after the Mexican-American War.

“I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and it was important to me to remind 826LA students, many of whom are students of color, that they have as much a right as anyone else to learn firsthand about the city in which they live,” Valenzuela says. “I hope that working with the diseños showed them that L.A. has always been a place held up by people of color, despite what systematic erasure tells us.”

She then asked students to think about what being from Los Angeles meant to them, and what places and resources they would want to archive as they drew their own maps of the city. The resulting diseños showcased local grocery stores, favorite landmarks, beloved homes and even major freeways, painting unique portraits of life in 21st-century Los Angeles.

“It was interesting to see what was important to them and how that translates to scale, which helped them understand cartographic features of the diseños in ways that connect them on a personal level,” says López. “After all, the diseños were made by real people who lived, laughed and loved on this land that first was taken from the Tongva, then was taken from Mexican families, and now is home to things like the Glendale Galleria. Engaging with space in this deeply personal way helped the students understand land as a narrative object and to see themselves as people with world-making story power.”

After thoughtfully examining the past and the present, participants next looked to the future, exploring how artists across multiple mediums have envisioned the L.A. of tomorrow. Then, guided by Efren Lopez, students created their own vision of the future of their city, while also writing about themselves and their lives from the perspective of historians working centuries ahead.

“This project taught me that the type of historical research I do—and the public humanities overall—are translatable to other communities outside of academia and to all ages,” Lopez says. “More than ever, it is important that we give students space to think critically and historically about the world they are in, and the world they will build.”

As impactful as the workshop was for the attendees, it proved even more so for Marissa López and her graduate students.

“First and foremost, Efren, Robert and Gabriela are brilliant scholars and excellent teachers with deep roots in and powerful commitments to the city and people of Los Angeles,” she says. “As the director of Efren’s and Gabriela’s dissertations and a member of Robert’s committee, I saw the workshop experience as an occasion for career development: they were able to build out the public engagement aspects of their dossiers, broaden their professional networks and gain valuable perspective on their future career trajectories.”

Much like the students they taught, López’s graduate students came away with a renewed vision for their unique roles in shaping the future, including helping to dispel the myth that a humanities higher education only equips students to teach.

“There is a wide world of work out there and a large market for their skills. After all, our field at its core is discovering, communicating, building community and imagining new worlds into being,” López adds. “That is what scholarly research and writing is all about; it is also what organizations like 826LA do. The advanced training of a humanities Ph.D. can produce problem-solving visionaries uniquely equipped to make the world a better place in ways that we can’t even begin to imagine.”

Participant Rami Gross remixed archival photos to tell his own, speculative history using an image of Margarita Reyes, daughter of Jose Isidro Reyes and Maria Antonio Villa de Reyes who owned a large tract of land in Orange County during the 19th century (from UC Irvine Library, ca 1875) engaged in a lightsaber duel on the Death Star with "A youngster wearing traditional Chinese clothing" standing next to a Chinese banner in Chinatown (from LA Public Library, ca 1900). “One of the things we asked the students to think about is what kinds of images we have in the archives and how they're described,” says Professor Marissa López. “Why do we know Margarita's name but the youngster is just a ‘youngster’? What does it mean to see and be seen, to be named or unnamed in the historical record?”

Participant Rami Gross remixed archival photos to tell his own, speculative history using an image of Margarita Reyes, daughter of Jose Isidro Reyes and Maria Antonio Villa de Reyes who owned a large tract of land in Orange County during the 19th century (from UC Irvine Library, ca 1875) engaged in a lightsaber duel on the Death Star with “A youngster wearing traditional Chinese clothing” standing next to a Chinese banner in Chinatown (from LA Public Library, ca 1900). “One of the things we asked the students to think about is what kinds of images we have in the archives and how they’re described,” says Professor Marissa López. “Why do we know Margarita’s name but the youngster is just a ‘youngster’? What does it mean to see and be seen, to be named or unnamed in the historical record?”

Photo of Woody Brown

English major Woody Brown, a precise prose stylist diagnosed with autism at age 2, wins the Christopher Zyda Creative Writing Award

About the Author

By Jonathan Riggs

Photo of Woody Brown


Aspiring novelist Woody Brown is going to have quite the author’s bio on a future dust jacket.

“I grew up a mighty weird autistic kid who was presumed to be retarded because I couldn’t speak,” he says. “My intelligence was not fully acknowledged until I went to Pasadena City College, where they accepted me and my upward trajectory began.”

Communicating using a letter board transcribed by his mother, Mary, his tireless champion and comic foil to his clever asides, Brown describes how his path to education, higher or otherwise, wasn’t always assured.

In fact, his mother had to wage a daily battle in and out of the classroom to get Brown the opportunity to earn an actual high school diploma, rather than a certificate of completion. Even after he proved himself and achieved this milestone, the question remained how he would fare at the college level.

“After Woody wrote his very first college paper, the professor asked to keep it to show future students,” Mary says. “Three years later Woody graduated with a 4.0 and honors, and got accepted to UCLA. Even now, when I think of where we came from—where people told me he’d never be able to learn—to where we are now, it’s indescribable.”

From his writerly beginnings as a child, making up stories about his heroic alter ego “Cop Woody,” Brown has always drawn creative inspiration from his journey and from the challenges he has and continues to overcome. In his first published work, a 2020 essay titled “Emerson and Me,” he explores the famed transcendentalist’s concept of self-reliance from the perspective of someone who seems anything but.

In this excerpt, Brown writes: “I am truly new in nature, and no one knows what I can do or where I can go, not even me. Who could have imagined, when I was a frustrated child refusing to cooperate with conformist therapists, or a frustrated adolescent throwing chairs at the ceiling of my conformist classroom, that I would become a college honors student? Emerson didn’t have someone like me in mind when he wrote about the merits of self-reliance, but I think I embody his ideal man perfectly.”

Today, Brown celebrates the “intellectual revelation” he’s experienced at UCLA as an English major, now in his senior year. Even though he hasn’t had the chance to spend time on campus due to the pandemic, being a Bruin has meant everything to him, especially after the English department honored him with the 2020-2021 Christopher Zyda Creative Writing Award.

“I was more speechless than usual—it felt like Christmas, my birthday and a miracle in one,” he says. “I had gotten good feedback on my writing from professors and classmates, but it never occurred to me that I could compete with neurotypical writers on anything near a level playing field.”

For his creative writing honors thesis, he’s working on a collection of short stories revolving around the myriad voices from an adult day care facility for people with autism. Brown recently completed final revisions on the collection’s gripping first story, “The Eloper,” narrated by a reluctant, observant client whose perspective occasionally mirrors his own.

In the story, Brown’s unnamed narrator shares, “As much as I wish I could just type my thoughts independently, that’s not how it works for most nonspeaking spellers. Our brains have trouble getting all the motor planning lined up to perform the complex actions involved in typed communication. Most people don’t even consider how many parts of the brain are activated when they speak or type. If your electronic impulses resist firing in the right order, like mine do […], the message gets lost somewhere between the thought and the finger hitting the keyboard.”

After graduating from UCLA, Brown hopes to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Columbia or NYU and to eventually support himself as a full-time author. Although he’s focusing his craft on short stories at the moment, he dreams one day of penning longer literary fiction from his unique perspective to spark empathy, inspiration and, ultimately, action.

“I am so happy that people are interested in my story,” Brown says. “Not only am I acting as a tour guide to my world for those who are unfamiliar with it, but I also have a larger mission. I want to act as a role model for others like me, to show that the door to success in the mainstream world is not locked against us.”

Camille Gaynus

Camille Gaynus: Marine Scientist on a Mission

A photo of Camille Gaynus

Camille Gaynus. Ph.D. ‘19 Biology, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

By Bekah Wright

This belief led Camille Gaynus to earn her Ph.D. in biology from UCLA in 2019. There was an equally important mission to tackle: diversity in the sciences. “When I think about science, it’s not just about the methodology; it’s about getting it to the populations where it’s needed.”

A lifelong swimmer, Gaynus has always been in her element in water. During a high school summer internship, the Philadelphia native learned about Marine and Environmental Science (MES) and knew she’d found her calling. Enrolling in the MES program at Virginia’s Hampton University, a Historically Black College or University (HCBU), sealed the deal.

The summer after junior year, Gaynus jumped at the chance to get SCUBA-certified in Indonesia through a UCLA-HCBU program called The Diversity Project/Pathways to Ph.D.s in Marine Science.

That experience, coupled with meeting Professors Paul Barber and Peggy Fong, led her to apply to UCLA’s Ph.D. program and work in Fong’s research lab. While at UCLA, her field research took Gaynus to the coral reefs of Moorea, French Polynesia. Closer to home, she tutored youth at Inglewood’s Social Justice Learning Institute. “I remember talking to the students about nature and the ocean. With the ocean being in their backyard, I naively thought they must visit all the time.”

To introduce the kids to the world outside their neighborhoods, Gaynus raised a grant and organized a field trip to the UCLA Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. After a tour of the campus, Bruin graduate students joined the high schoolers for lunch to share their college experiences. Determined to get the word out even farther, Gaynus gave talks at K-12 schools throughout Los Angeles, scuba gear in tow.

Gaynus was awarded the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2019 and joined the University of Pennsylvania’s post-doctoral program. This summer, she’ll be stepping into the role of lecturer at Penn State Brandywine. Her other mission is still going strong, too.

Over a conversation with Dr. Tiara Moore, Ph.D. ’19, a fellow classmate from Hampton and UCLA, the duo shared frustration over being two of only a few people of color in their field. “It started off as, ‘We want our colleagues to know we’re here, and we want a space where we can just exist as Black marine scientists.” Black in Marine Science (BIMS) was born.

Initially, BIMS was slated as a week of events featuring Black marine scientists. BIMS success saw Gaynus and Moore using the leftover funds to establish it as a nonprofit. Budgeted, too, was money to pay honoraria to minority academics asked to speak on panels. And then there was the launch of BIMS Bites, a YouTube channel where Black marine scientists share nuggets of marine science knowledge. On the horizon… “We want to create a BIMS Institute,” Gaynus says. “A marine research space for Black marine scientists, along with a large citizen-science program for people in the community.”

Gaynus and Moore also created A WOC (pronounced A Woke) Space, a place for women of color to support one another and address areas such as the workplace where they’d like to see change. “One thing that unites us is seeing a problem and trying to be a part of the solution,” Gaynus says. “We really want to help women of color, and Black marine scientists, to survive and thrive.”

Reflecting on her journey, Gaynus can’t help but notice a theme. “When I look at the things I’ve done — like Black in Marine Science and A WOC Space — I feel they’re all about one thing: uniting.” Mission accomplished.


See full magazine

Back to UCLA College Magazine page


A photo of Michael Carli and Christopher Zyda

The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and ’90s forms the backdrop for written works by two Bruins, born generations apart

As part of his senior thesis, English major Michael Carli is putting the finishing touches on “Malfunction,” a short story about two gay men living in New York City from 1984 to 1986, and English alumnus Christopher Zyda ’84 recently published his memoir “The Storm: One Voice from the AIDS Generation” (Rare Bird Books), centered on losing his partner to AIDS in 1991.

Carli will interview Zyda on January 26 as part of an online author discussion hosted by the UCLA Creative Writing Program and moderated by Assistant Professor Justin Torres.

For Carli, writing about the AIDS epidemic stemmed from wanting to examine the era from the unique perspective of his generation.

A photo of Michael Carli and Christopher Zyda

From left: Michael Carli, Christopher Zyda

“I grew up with the worst of the AIDS epidemic behind me, but in a period in which my contemporary artistic heroes, particularly when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, were the ones who were left, who had witnessed the destruction [caused by AIDS] firsthand,” Carli said. “It’s important for me to examine that history now because I feel in a way that it’s been forgotten or misunderstood by my own generation.”

Like so many writers, Carli has always been a voracious reader. It was his love of literature that lured him back to school after a stint selling shoes at a Jimmy Choo boutique in Boston. Six years ago, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as a nanny and chef for a family in Santa Monica while attending community college. In 2019, he transferred to UCLA and discovered his passion for creative writing.

Carli said, “Years ago I was afraid to admit to wanting to write novels. The creative writing program has changed things for me. Not only do I feel secure in the education itself and the technical skills I’m attempting to master here, but I feel more confident I can do it. I’d read works by [my professors] Mona Simpson and Justin Torres before I came to UCLA, and it’s really a dream to be in the same room with them. All of my professors in the Department have been incredibly instructive and supportive.”

After graduating from UCLA, Carli plans to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing and complete his first novel. Through his fiction writing, he hopes to have a positive impact on environmental issues such as climate change.

“Moving through this century, facing ecological collapse, those of us working in the humanities have a special responsibility to engage with and respond to the work that scientists are doing. We have the power to translate, as it were, that work to the public by appealing more directly to readers’ emotions,” Carli said. “I hope to do that with my writing.”

Like Carli, Chris Zyda planned to write for a living after graduating from UCLA, but he ended up setting aside his book-writing ambitions for more than 35 years.

Zyda came of age in the early years of the AIDS epidemic and, like most, had no idea of the devastation to come. Then in 1986, his partner Stephen was diagnosed with AIDS. Knowing that sky-high medical expenses were on the horizon, Zyda decided to obtain his MBA from the UCLA Anderson School and pursue a career in corporate finance. He went on to serve in high-level financial roles for industry giants like The Walt Disney Company, Amazon, and eBay before founding his own boutique investment management firm, Mozaic LLC, in 2007.

The idea for “The Storm” began with a journal entry in 2011 on the 20th anniversary of Stephen’s death, but Zyda didn’t start writing the book until 2017, a disciplined process that took only six months alongside running his business. In the book, he recounts the highs and lows of his life through the lens of family dysfunction, Stephen’s battle with AIDS, grief, the gay rights movement, the scientific quest to understand the virus, and the big cultural moments of the era.

Zyda said, “When I first started, one of my fears was that I wouldn’t remember what had happened because I had spent 26 years trying to forget it and stuffing it all away. Fortunately, I am a packrat and save receipts, ticket stubs, photos, and letters. I also made a playlist of music from that time to help me remember. Writing “The Storm” became a cathartic, healing experience.”

As for the central message of “The Storm,” Zyda said, “At some point in life, everybody has to deal with some version of what I call ‘the storm.’ Whether it’s divorce or losing a loved one or losing a job or any other personal challenge in life, remember that you can get through it. My book is a story of survival, of coming through a really challenging situation and having a wonderful, positive life afterwards.”

Author discussion with Chris Zyda: Tuesday, January 26, at 4:00 p.m. To register, please click here.

UCLA’s English department has offered creative writing courses for more than 40 years, including undergraduate concentrations in fiction and poetry writing, as well as workshops in fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and creative nonfiction. Learn more:

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald.

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Diagnosing Hidden Brain Injuries Drives Student Success

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Hana Abdirahman (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Hana Abdirahman has always focused hard on something: In high school it was sports. Later on, it was work. But she wasn’t ready for college when she tried, right out of high school, and she dropped out pretty quickly. A few years later – in her mid-20s – she decided to try focusing on higher education for real, on her own terms. Two years at a community college showed her she could succeed as an undergraduate; she just needed to find the next step if she was going to study the brain, a subject of longtime fascination, at a high level. She was looking for a large university, with a hospital and network of labs, to get deep into the subject.

That’s when she found UCLA’s highly regarded neuroscience program and the Division of Undergraduate Re-entry Scholarships, which allow students past the traditional undergraduate age to return to school when they’re better suited to a university’s rigor. Abdirahman was able to help support her own education as the recipient of several re-entry scholarships from donors to the division of Undergraduate Education.

“What’s expected of people is to go to college right after high school,” Abdirahman says. “The reentry scholarship gives older students an incentive to go back to school: at UCLA, there’s no one path to higher education.”

When Abdirahman enrolled at UCLA, she was able to take advantage of a university lab on brain injury. Brain injury had interested her ever since she’d heard about an athlete who’d had part of her brain removed because of seizures, and who went on to compete after the operation. Her work in the lab led to a research project, in which Abdirahman measures proteins in the bloodstream, a process that helps doctors diagnose injuries they can’t see in an MRI. Some of the findings will be part of a paper she and her colleagues expect to publish; and the research also became the basis of her senior honors thesis.

Abdirahman has made an impact at UCLA doing what she loves, and hopes to use her skills to help others. She couldn’t have done it without the Scholarship Resource Center, a no-charge support program established to provide scholarship information, resources, and support services to all UCLA students, regardless of financial aid eligibility.  “The Center connects you with a counselor; it really helps people like me who haven’t had the normal college experience. Every quarter I would go in and talk with them about how I was doing.”

Now, after graduating from UCLA this past June, Hana is still on track to succeed.  She’s pursuing her dream as a first-year medical student, hoping to specialize in neurology or surgery. Both the Re-entry Scholarship and the Scholarship Resource Center paved the way for her future success.

“The support I received helped me stay on course at UCLA as an undergraduate.”

Photograph of Abel Valenzuela.

UCLA professor leads research on issues impacting vulnerable workers

Photograph of Abel Valenzuela.

Abel Valenzuela

“Los Angeles is the harbinger for the future. It’s a city that has driven the national debate on workforce issues such as the minimum wage, wage theft, youth employment and immigration. These key issues are shaping the conversation about the future of work nationwide.”

So says Abel Valenzuela, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Valenzuela is an expert on day laborers, immigration and labor markets, urban poverty and inequality, and immigrant settlement patterns. His work focuses on understanding the social position and impact of immigrants in the United States, especially in Los Angeles.

Valenzuela, who serves as special advisor to the chancellor on immigration policy and is a professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies in the UCLA College, has studied how different groups of workers compete for low-wage, low-skill jobs; the local economic and employment impacts of immigration; and job search and commuting behavior among racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles.

Since its founding in 1945, the Institute has played an important role in the intellectual life of the university and in the national conversation on labor and employment issues. It forms wide-ranging research agendas on issues impacting workers on the margins including immigrant workers, Black workers, gig workers, young workers and domestic workers. The Institute’s studies have advanced policy changes related to the minimum wage, wage theft, and paid sick leave. Last fall, the Institute launched the labor studies major, the first of its kind at the University of California.

As local and national economies grapple with the unprecedented impacts of COVID-19, the Institute’s research will be critical to rebuilding a more racially equitable economy that prioritizes the most vulnerable workers.

Says Valenzuela, “UCLA is in the business of discovery and science and using that science to make change. My colleagues who study the impacts and intervention related to cancer are serious about finding a cure for cancer. In that same spirit, at the Institute we use social science to ensure workers live dignified lives and are able to support their families.”

Bringing Notre-Dame and Other Buildings Back to Life, UCLA Professor Reconstructs the Lost Monuments of Medieval Paris

A photo of Notre-Dame.

Notre-Dame (Photo Credit: Cassie Gallegos / Unsplash)

When Notre-Dame burned last April, people all over the world – Catholics and atheists, French people and Australians – felt it like a body blow. One of them was Meredith Cohen, associate professor of art history at UCLA. “I didn’t believe it was happening,” she says. “It was terrifying.”

Buildings, as Californians know all too well, burn all the time. But Notre-Dame has a special place in cultural history. Constructed primarily from the 11th to 13th centuries, Notre Dame’s early years coexisted, Cohen says, with the consolidation of Paris as “a center of wealth and cultural power.” Its religious weight – the cathedral is consecrated to the Virgin Mary and houses the Biblical crown of thorns – is just as substantial.

Now, centuries later, the question of how to restore the cathedral after the fire, which destroyed a 300-foot spire and badly damaged its wooden roof, is generating strong opinions. Journalists are seeking Cohen’s point of view; she’s also a member of the Scientifiques de Notre-Dame association, a scholarly group that advocates for a responsible restoration to the French government.

Cohen, grew up on L.A.’s Westside and was pleasantly surprised – after a decade in New York and Europe – to find herself returning to California in 2011 to take a post at UCLA. Besides teaching, research and her public role in the restoration, she is the Principal Investigator of a project called Paris, Past & Present, a site that allows her, with help from students, to virtually reconstruct the city’s medieval monuments.

“The majority of these buildings are lost,” she says. “Many were destroyed in the French Revolution. But we have a lot of information on them – fragments of drawings and engravings. I piece them together like puzzles in a 3-D environment.”

As for Notre-Dame, there is no consensus on the route forward. Because some of its iconic status arrived thanks to Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which rescued the Gothic style from disfavor, some want to return the cathedral to its brooding 19thcentury grandeur. Others want to leave it as is, damage included. “There are different schools of thought,” Cohen says. Her view is nuanced, and tries to honor both past and present without faking anything: In short, don’t pretend it’s 1860. “Rebuild it in a way that’s of our time,” she says, “but still respect the building’s proportions.”