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.


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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.”

Professor Seeks to Provide All Students with a Pathway to Research Success

A photo of Professor Tracy Johnson.

Professor Tracy Johnson, Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in the Life Sciences, with undergraduate students in her research lab. (Photo credit: UCLA Strategic Communications.)

When Tracy Johnson was an undergraduate working in a lab at the University of California at San Diego, she found herself suddenly jolted. Conducting research on gene function using fruit flies, she realized she was involved in something deeper and more fulfilling than a traditional classroom experience. “The idea that I was learning things that nobody else knew, that I could make some contribution,” she says now, “that was a game-changer.”

Professor Johnson arrived at UCLA College’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in 2014, aiming to bring this same sense of purpose to others. She founded the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success, a program that seeks to give students from diverse backgrounds an “authentic research experience, early on, and in a prolonged way.” For years, she says, students of color and those who were the first in their family to attend college pursued STEM degrees at equal rates as other students but left STEM majors at a higher rate.” “I think that has less to do with preparation,” she says, “and more to do with not seeing themselves as part of a scientific community. Pathways was designed to rethink that.” The goal was to help students understand they belonged and had important contributions to make.

In building the program, Johnson looked around the country to find what worked best, and bring it to UCLA. She was interested not just in lab work but in mentoring as well.

Pathways students participate in a lab course dedicated to Johnson’s field, gene expression. The DNA in every cell of a given plant or animal are identical. Expression is the process by which specific segments of the DNA, genes, get turned on.  This process allows cells to perform specific functions. For example this process can tell a cell to become part of a muscle, part of the bran, and so on.

It’s a lot to throw first-year students into, she acknowledges. “They’re freshmen, on campus for barely 10 weeks if it’s winter quarter. Some have never taken AP biology. It’s ambitious, but they rise to the occasion.”

In fact, she’s expecting to publish some of the student research in an academic journal in 2020. Pathways has now enrolled close to 100 students, and they’ve taken on more and more responsibility as the years have passed. Some have gone on to doctoral programs, others to medical school. “There isn’t anything quite like what we do,” she says. “I think it’s a model for how to think about student success.”

Find out more about UCLA College’s innovative Pathways program.

Esmeralda Villavicencio Is Working to Make Disease and Infertility a Thing of the Past

UCLA College division of Life Sciences student Esmeralda Isabel Villavicencio wants to return some day to her home country of Ecuador as a genetics professor, leading pioneering research on complex diseases and neurological disorders. She already has a solid start at UCLA.

“My community has suffered from a tremendous lack of support for STEM research, and I want to contribute to change that,” says Villavicencio, a senior majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics with a Biomedical Research minor.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio in the lab. Photo credit: UCLA College/Reed Hutchinson

Villavicencio is gaining valuable experience in Dr. Amander Clark’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant, where her project working with stem cells is a part of a research effort that could one day help develop novel treatments for infertility. The possibility that her work will have impact is what drives her.

“The work I’m doing now could eventually help people who suffer from infertility to conceive a child—people, for example, who become infertile after treatments for pediatric cancer, or due to developmental defects,” she says.

Villavicencio says the collaborative research environment at UCLA has prepared her for graduate school and a career as a scientist, from learning lab techniques to strengthening her critical thinking skills, discipline and resiliency.  This experience has helped her grow in her chosen career, and her hard work is also paying off in other ways.

Villavicencio’s drive and vision have been recognized by two UCLA Life Sciences scholarship awards that are helping her move closer to her goals. Last year, she was awarded the Kristen Hanson Memorial Scholarship, which honors a female undergraduate for academic accomplishment and a passion for science in addition to well-rounded interests, leadership, originality and commitment to engage with the world.  More recently, the COMPASS scholarship—from the Center for Opportunity to Maximize Participation, Access and Student Success—was presented to Villavicencio for her summer research.

“Knowing my hard work and enthusiasm stand out in such a top-tier school is encouraging, and receiving these honors also greatly alleviated my financial burden,” Villavicencio says. “I come from a low-income family and I’m able to attend UCLA in part thanks to a scholarship from my government. However, there are expenses it does not cover. The scholarships allow me to reduce my part-time job hours and focus more on my research and academic endeavors.”