A photo of seniors who are part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates. From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes.

First labor studies graduates venture out ready to help and versed in struggle

A photo of seniors who are part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates. From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes.

From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes, all seniors and part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates at UCLA. (Photo Credit: Joey Caroni/UCLA)

The class of 2020 is stepping out of their UCLA studies into a world that is crying out for massive social change and racial justice amid an economic recession that is disproportionately affecting communities of color.

While for many people around the country this feels unprecedented, for UCLA’s first cohort of graduates to earn degrees in labor studies, an interdisciplinary major run by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, this is much like every other health or economic crisis they’ve studied.

They’ve spent the last few years learning about workers’ rights, wage theft, peaceful protest, labor organizing and issues of race, class and gender in the workplace. They’ve conducted research that interrogates the very institution they’ve been studying within.

They are curious, passionate about community building and cautiously hopeful about what is a decidedly murky near future.

They’ve spent the last months of their college experience physically separated from the community they have built, but remain committed to forging connections, and forging ahead.

Riya Patel started out majoring in economics, a subject she fell in love with as a high school student in Chino, which is 50 miles east of UCLA. But as a first-generation college student whose parents emigrated from India in the 1990s, she didn’t always see herself reflected in the students and faculty in that department.

An introductory course piqued her interest in labor studies, and there she found not only a program that will inspire her future, but a community of UCLA students whose experiences and perspectives were more like hers.

“I admit, it was kind of a culture shock at first,” she said. “I didn’t look like the traditional UCLA economics student. Then I found labor studies and found out I wasn’t alone at UCLA and I wasn’t alone in that feeling, that sense of ‘impostor syndrome’ that happens to so many first-gen or immigrant students.”

While economics coursework remained fascinating to Patel, she’s grateful for that first labor studies class that led her to double major.

“Economics is such a great degree because I felt like I could do anything with it: consulting, marketing, investment banking,” she said. “I come from a working class background — both of my parents work at a liquor store — so learning the history of the community was really personal to me. In labor studies, learning about working-class movements, you get to see the economy from workers’ perspective.”

Students in the program have been keeping in touch throughout quarantine, sharing resources for grant funding, coronavirus information, support for undocumented people, help with housing contracts and other advocacy efforts.

Patel is realistic about an uncertain job market. She’s hoping to get internships or take more online courses.

“I’m interested in public policy research and economic justice, nonprofit work or think tank work,” she said.

UCLA was Patel’s dream school from a young age, so being off-campus for her final quarter has been difficult.

“Ever since seventh grade when I visited on a class trip I just fell in love with UCLA,” Patel said. “I love the location, the people and I really didn’t think I would make it here, so when I got in, it was obvious that I would come to UCLA.”

Working-class students bring a valuable perspective

It’s a fascinating time to be an instructor, said Toby Higbie, who serves as chair of the labor studies major.

“It’s a different kind of curriculum and a different kind of student experience,” said Higbie, who is also a history professor. “It’s populated by an amazing group of students who are mainly first-gen from across the L.A. region, coming from working class families. Often they have experience as workers in the labor market already so they bring a different level of engagement on topics like farm workers, industrial regulations, labor law and labor history. They bring their personal experience to the classroom, which changes the conversation.”

The goal of the major is not just to impart knowledge, but to endow its students with the tools to become active in society in whatever way they want to whether that’s working for a union or as a lawyer, community leader or entrepreneur, Higbie said.

The community-building ethos of labor studies is a sentiment echoed by other graduating students.

Michelle Cervantes has spent much of her time during the pandemic volunteering to help with the hotel workers union by calling policymakers, working on a food drive and packaging food supplies for those out of work. She’s hoping her experiences with this group inspire UCLA to create paid fellowship programs that allow students to do this kind of work as part of their education.

Growing up in downtown L.A., a middle child of seven siblings, with a single mom who emigrated from Mexico, Cervantes said her childhood memories center around watching her mom work many hours at multiple jobs and multiple side hustles.

“But, still, we never had enough money,” Cervantes said. “I didn’t understand and it really stuck with me. My mom came to this country when she was 12 and her dream has been to see her kids go on to higher education.”

Cervantes is graduating with a double major in history and labor studies. After a gap year, she plans to go to law school, and post-graduation hopes to work at a litigation law firm to gain experience.  She also plans to devote her free time to volunteering with nonprofits that focus on immigration to round out her knowledge of legislation and how it can benefit or detract from social justice movements.

Early in her time at UCLA, Cervantes felt first-hand some of the struggles of low-income workers, witnessing wage theft and experiencing personal intimidation at a now-closed Westwood restaurant where she worked during her sophomore year. In part, this is what drew her to the labor studies major.

“It made me want to be part of history, it made me want to organize,” she said. “One day I would love to work in an immigration law firm and also do something with civil lawsuits, protecting people from wage violations. Eventually I’d like to be an elected official, a D.A. or appointed official in a position of power to make changes in immigration legislation, in labor law.”

Cervantes also served as campus engagement director for the immigrant youth task force at UCLA. In some of her last work for the major, she completed a case study on immigrant workers as essential workers during the pandemic.

Labor studies students connect real-world research with their community

Students in labor studies participate in a summer intensive research class run by Saba Waheed, research director at the UCLA Labor Center and Janna Shadduck-Hérnandez, professor of labor studies one of the center’s project directors. For the last several years they have been working with labor studies students collecting and analyzing data that tells stories of student workers throughout the higher education system.

Seniors from the 2020 class said that real-world data gathering experience was invaluable.

“I fell in love with their way of teaching, their way of conducting research, their leadership as women,” said Mayte Ipatzi, who is graduating with a double major in sociology and labor studies.

Ipatzi is looking forward to the fact that data from this ongoing summer research project will be published soon, potentially by the end of June. It will also include information on how COVID-19 has affected working students.

“We’ve been analyzing identities and challenges for students who are enrolled full-time in L.A. County, and navigating also having to work,” Ipatzi said. “We’re looking at how this affects their mental health, and where do their paychecks go. I think the labor studies major does a really good job at inspiring us to really critique our economic systems.”

The lives of working students have changed dramatically over the last several decades as the cost of a college education wildly outpaces real wages.

Forty years ago, students who worked likely used some or all of that money for fun or leisure, but now paychecks are more likely going to tuition, housing, food, or even supporting their families, Ipatzi said.

Ipatzi has been serving as an academic peer counselor for UCLA, working 20 hours a week in spring quarter, along with her full course load and her internship with the Foundation for California Community Colleges

After commencement she has one last summer course to complete, then she plans to take a year off, study for the GRE to get into graduate school, and figure out the best trajectory for her goal to work as a counselor or social worker.

UCLA actually wasn’t her first choice, but Ipatzi got in to all of the schools she applied to, including UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. A first-generation student born in Mexico City, but raised in Oxnard, California, Ipatzi accepted the UCLA offer sight unseen, thanks to a generous financial aid package.

“I really took a leap of faith, orientation was my first day on campus,” she said. “It was probably was one of the best decisions I have ever made and the best decision I could have made.”

Ipatzi has a brother in community college, who she is helping navigate the higher education process. She and her family are understandably disappointed at the fact that there will be no commencement ceremony this spring to celebrate her accomplishments in person.

“It’s that moment you play over and over in your mind like a movie, and it’s hard to know it’s not happening this year,” she said, “But if there is a ceremony later, of course I will come back and be the star of that movie.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Image on the bottom left: A painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is an example of art in Europe before the bubonic plague. Other images show how art changed after the plague.

Faculty get creative to teach perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic

Image on the bottom left: A painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is an example of art in Europe before the bubonic plague. Other images show how art changed after the plague.

Art historian Charlene Villaseñor Black showed her class how art changed before and after the bubonic plague struck Europe to help her students see how artists might adapt their work to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The screen shows the familiar grid of small faces but everyone’s focused on the guest speaker, a student joining the class from his home in Wuhan, China, eager for their chances to ask questions.

“Can you describe the Chinese health care system and any differences you have experienced between its workings and that of the U.S. health care system?” Jonathan Gong asked Shengan Zhan. The UCLA geography graduate student was joining geography professor Michael Shin’s seminar class called “Global Experiences and Perspectives on COVID-19” via Zoom.

“It is usually very easy to see a doctor,” Zhan said. “However, with the coronavirus outbreak, the system was just flooded and overwhelmed by the high number of people seeking treatment.”

Gurugowtham Ulaganathan asked, “How has this affected you and your family personally?”

“The lock-down is inconvenient but most people are coping,” Zhan said. “My parents are professors at the university in Wuhan, and they are teaching online like we are here at UCLA.”

Hearing directly from Zhan the students see how COVID-19 has connected experiences around the world.

Opportunities like this, to participate in intimate conversations with someone who can share what it’s like to live in the global ground zero of the novel coronavirus pandemic are part of what make a UCLA education so special.

As the world grapples with COVID-19 and governments, institutions and individuals adapt to meet this moment, UCLA has been forced to change not only how it teaches — since late March, all courses have been conducted remotely — but just as importantly, what it teaches.

A shining example of how UCLA fulfills its mission

UCLA’s Fiat Lux seminar program has provided a platform to give faculty and students a global, multidisciplinary perspective of the pandemic, continuing a long tradition of teaching students to better understand the complexities of the world and forming community around current events. Founded in 2001, Fiat Lux seminars (named after the University of California’s Latin motto “Let there be Light”) were born in the wake of 9/11 as a way for students and faculty to explore, discuss and make sense of the terrorist attack.

Patricia Turner, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education and one of UCLA’s biggest Fiat Lux champions, said educators are always looking for teachable moments. Offering seminars about events like 9/11 and now COVID-19 provides students with an opportunity to research, discuss and make sense of these events.

A photo of Patricia Turner.

Patricia Turner (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“Each Fiat Lux provides its own lens through which to understand the virus’s impact on the world, whether the subject is public health, nutrition, sustainability or something else entirely,” Turner said. “Ideally, students will feel like they are in a caring academic community and come away with a perspective from which to examine their own feelings about the virus and its impact. It’s just one of the ways UCLA supports students in tumultuous times.”

With the support of Fiat Lux’s faculty advisory committee, a call for proposals went out at the end of winter quarter, but with a strict deadline: seminars would be taught the very next quarter which would begin in just a few weeks.

Pia Palomo, academic coordinator for undergraduate education initiatives in the UCLA College, and Scott Chandler, faculty advisory committee chair, said they thought they’d be lucky to receive 10 proposals. Instead, they got 25.

“Ray Knapp, professor of musicology, had talked with some other colleagues about, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to use the spirit of Fiat Lux to build community to talk about what’s happening, and there’s already a mechanism to do it,’” Palomo said. Faculty in other schools, including Kyle McJunkin in the Fielding School of Public Health, were also eager to begin teaching about COVID-19 as soon as possible.

The topics were as varied as the faculty who submitted them — from political science and public policy professor Susanne Lohman’s “The Ethics of Pandemics” to music professor Frank Heuser’s “Responding to Coronavirus Through Song.” Faculty in departments spanning English, gender studies, African American studies, sociology and education all taught COVID-19 seminars. Chancellor Gene Block even led a seminar titled “University Leadership During Pandemics.”

More than just classes

For faculty and students, the Fiat Lux COVID-19 seminars were not just an opportunity to study the pandemic. In fact, building community around this unprecedented and at times frightening crisis as Bruins are scattered across the world under quarantine and stay-at-home orders was equally if not more important.

Art history professor Charlene Villaseñor Black is a veteran in teaching Fiat Lux seminars and jumped at the chance to teach “Art in Times of Contagion,” which examines artistic responses to pandemics of past and present.

A photo of Charlene Villaseñor Black.

Charlene Villaseñor Black (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The course has included examinations of historical art, such as Mexican art in the 16th and 17th centuries during the wave of epidemics brought by European colonizers and artistic responses to the medieval European plague of the 14th century. Students also looked at modern examples including the 2013 film “World War Z” and engaged in a writing exercise to create their own artistic response to COVID-19.

“I want students to have an awareness that we’ve been here before and an awareness of how the arts can provide sustenance, respite, and hope for us,” Black said. “This is the moment to really think about how the humanities and the arts make us more human.”

As faculty-in-residence in Sproul Hall, it was the sight of her students moving out of their dorms as the campus shut down that most profoundly affected Black and motivated her to think about what she could do to help them.

“We couldn’t even help them move out really because of social distancing. So it was heartbreaking. I didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of people,” Black said. “I was thinking deeply about what is the role of the faculty-in residence in the current pandemic? How are we going to reach out to our students?”

She thought the idea to offer COVID-19-themed Fiat Lux seminars was “perfect.”

“I thought a lot about the arts at this moment,” she said. “We’ve seen so many arts offerings on social media, Facebook Live broadcasts, artists doing workshops, artists doing live talks about their practice. So I was struck by how the arts became a refuge for us.”

Seminars connect students forced into separation

Aileen Carey, a senior English major, took three Fiat Lux seminars including Black’s from her apartment in Westwood, where she decided to stay for her final quarter instead of going home to New Jersey. She also took Robert Kim-Farley’s “COVID-19 From the Perspective of a Public Health Medical Epidemiologist” and Caroline Streeter’s “Viral Media During a Viral Pandemic: Social Media, Music and COVID-19.”

Carey said listening to her professors discuss the pandemic from an academic point of view helped her get a more objective perspective on what she hears on the news every day. And it’s “oddly soothing” to spend time with fellow Bruins discussing the issues.

“It highlights that this is a collective experience because everyone in the class is here and wants to talk about it,” Carey said. “It’s surreal seeing my classmates sitting in their houses on Zoom but it helps show that these people are all going through the exact same thing I’m going through.”

Her art history seminar in particular has made Carey more aware of how art — including her own — is influenced by major events in history.

“That fascinates me because I wonder how my writing will change after COVID-19 and I wonder how mainstream media will change, because every industry is different now,” she said.

An image of COVID-19 cases in China as of April 9, 2020

COVID-19 cases in China as of April 9, 2020 (Photo Credit: Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash)

In his seminar about global experiences on COVID-19, Shin wanted to offer students the opportunity to meet people from around the world and hear directly from them about how their lives have been affected by the pandemic. He invited guest speakers including Zhan who is his former teaching assistant and professors at the University of Milan and Hong Kong University to share their experiences with the class and answer students’ questions.

Freshman human biology major Victoria Li was interested in taking Shin’s seminar to gain a more global perspective of COVID-19. The seminar has already inspired her to continue pursuing public health in her studies.

“In the U.S. we get a very one-sided story of this epidemic and we don’t get to hear how real people are living through the same thing but in a different way around the world,” Li said. “With this whole situation and the class on COVID, it’s reaffirmed my interest in public health and how to deal with situations like this.”

Both Li and Carey said they’re proud and grateful that, through Fiat Lux, UCLA is offering students the opportunity to learn about the COVID-19 pandemic, to think critically and lean on each other to get through it.

“Having this moment to appreciate the staff who are excited to talk about these issues and the students who are volunteering to learn shows the best of academia and what this institution could be,” Carey said.

Fiat Lux has always offered students and faculty alike a way to explore new areas of interest and expand their perspectives, said history professor Vinay Lal, who is teaching a Fiat Lux seminar on pandemics throughout history. As we all grapple with COVID-19 together, the Fiat Lux mission seems to adopt a new and urgent meaning.

“Fiat Lux is a way for the faculty to engage themselves, to indulge their intellectual curiosity. And for the students, it’s a chance to say, let me see if I can become intellectually aware of the world around me,” Lal said. “Coronavirus is something that is out of our realm of experience. And so we need to be able to find some way to comprehend it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Priscilla Stephanie Molina.

Thanks to family, graduating senior is driven to bridge cultural gaps

Growing up in Los Angeles, Priscilla Stephanie Molina would frequently go to work with her parents, doing homework while her mom cleaned houses or her father fixed someone’s leaky pipes. While some may have seen them as laborers, she saw leaders.

A photo of Priscilla Stephanie Molina.

Priscilla Stephanie Molina (Photo Credit: Idriss Njike)

“My parents are both immigrants from Guatemala and I’m very proud of that,” said Molina, a first-generation college student graduating from UCLA June 12. “My mom runs her own housekeeping business. She has people who work for her and she organizes everything. My dad didn’t know much about plumbing, but he learned by working with his cousin, and then he started teaching people who now work under him.”

Whether at home, work or church, she saw her parents stepping in to lead the community and help those in need. Molina, who plans to attend medical school, has done the same at UCLA. She created cultural sensitivity training for her classmates before leading them on medical missions to Mexico, and she helped form a tutoring and mentorship program for K-12 students at her church who would be the first in their families to go to college. She served as a resident assistant for two themed floors in UCLA residence halls, helping build communities with activities like organizing empowering events for other first-generation college students one year, and cultural celebrations like a Dia de los Muertos event for the Chicanx/Latinx floor another year.

“My parents were a great example,” Molina said. “This is what we do. If my parents can lead, then I can, as well.”

Molina plans to become a psychiatrist so she can research and find better ways to support underserved communities that often lack psychiatric resources. Born and raised in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, she’s seen how obstacles like language barriers, poor cultural awareness by doctors, and a lack of access can harm families. One of her older brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia not long after she turned 10, and her parents didn’t know where to turn. Molina would join her mother at her brother’s doctor appointments to translate.

“They would give her information without explaining what it meant,” Molina said. “That has to change, and I want to help change it. We didn’t know what resources to connect to, what medicine to trust, or how to help my brother. I think a lot of that was because of cultural barriers. Public health, prevention and resources have to be culturally appropriate and meaningful to reach people. I want to be a doctor who is culturally sensitive.”

Molina’s sense of navigating and uniting two distinct worlds is apparent even in her name. Her parents and family friends know her by her middle name, Stephanie, while places that rely on registration forms use her first name, Priscilla.

“I always think of myself as Stephanie,” she said. “While Priscilla has always been my school-self. I enjoy it.”

By majoring in psychobiology and double-minoring in public health and in Latin American studies, Molina hopes to unite the three disciplines to address the problems she encountered growing up.

She already put her skills to use a few times with the Global Medical Missions Alliance. Her studies, combined with regular family summer trips to Guatemala, prepared her well to lead medical missions to Mexico. Though her friends in the university’s GMMA chapter prepared by studying Spanish, she didn’t see enough emphasis on learning about — and from — the people they were helping. She created cultural-sensitivity training for the group that was soon adopted by Global Medical Missions Alliance chapters in the United States, Australia and Canada.

“I wanted to emphasize how important it is to value the local people’s mindset, culture and knowledge, and not go in thinking we know better than they do,” Molina said. “There are things we can learn from them. The most important thing I advocated for was staying connected to the community’s leaders. They know best what their community needs.”

For her senior research project, she was able to combine all three of her academic interests in UCLA’s Psychology Research Opportunity Programs. Molina used a fotonovela, or graphic novel, in which a Latina character experiences symptoms of depression, and talks about it with her family and friends. She hoped that using this creative, culture-specific approach would make the Latino population she worked with more likely to seek out treatment themselves.

A photo of the Molina Family.

Courtesy of the Molina family

Her research found that people were more comfortable with the idea of seeking treatment if they had read the fotonovella showing someone from their culture. Unfortunately, she also found that readers with more barriers to mental health treatment still weren’t as likely to reach out for services as people who had fewer pre-existing barriers.

It’s an issue she hopes to research more. This summer, she has a paid position in a summer program with AltaMed Health Services, a health care provider that works in underserved communities. She hopes to either continue working with AltaMed or become an assistant resident director at UCLA while she takes some time off from school, and then apply to medical school.

Her parents always emphasized the importance of education, and encouraged her to think early on about a job that required education, she said.

“They always told me they didn’t want me to work a job the way they have to where they’re laborers,” she said. “And when I was little, I saw doctors as people who helped, and who made me feel better. So I wanted to be a doctor, but for a long time I didn’t really think I could.”

Living in the Valley, her schools had field trips to UCLA, and the university quickly became her goal. Though she’s disappointed that the current coronavirus pandemic and quarantine means there will be no graduation ceremony in Pauley Pavilion this June for her family to attend, she knows they are excited and proud of her for graduating.

“UCLA was my dream school,” Molina said. “I heard about all the optimistic goals. I knew I wanted to go into medicine, and you always hear that UCLA is one of the top schools for science and medicine and research. I felt like I belonged here. When I got in, it was a very happy moment for me and my family.”

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

For census season, these UCLA students want to make sure everyone counts

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

Students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia. (Photo Credit: Agustina Martinez Stordeur)

Two civic-minded UCLA undergraduate students have turned one of their courses into a platform for encouraging others to participate in the U.S. Census.

Amy Bugwadia and Kaumron Eidgahy were inspired to action by a UCLA course on the census taught by UCLA political science professor Natalie Masuoka. The course, which ended in March, required students to undertake a community engagement project related to the census.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy both came away with a new appreciation for the need to boost participation in Los Angeles County, which historically has been undercounted in the survey. Both have served as UCLA resident assistants, and one of their efforts has centered on communicating the importance of the census to students who have relocated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the campus’s recent shift to remote learning.

The California Complete Count committee, a state entity helping to conduct the census, has encouraged students who had planned to be living in UCLA residence halls as of April 1 to count themselves as campus residents.

“Whether or not students are able to actually be on campus right now, UCLA has been our home for years, and making sure we get counted will benefit [students] who will be here 10 years from now,” Bugwadia said.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy are both second-generation immigrants, and both have adopted roles as trusted messengers of political and cultural information for their extended families.

“I am extremely passionate about making sure people of color are counted,” Eidgahy said. “I have this tradition with my mom. Every time there is an election, we sit down and spend a couple of hours going through the ballot. I saw this very clear parallel with the census, even though I’d never had that experience before.”

For Masuoka’s course, Bugwadia and Eidgahy decided their work in the community would focus on inspiring high schoolers in two of Los Angeles County’s vulnerable neighborhoods to become trusted messengers for their families and communities. So the UCLA students developed a curriculum and presented it with their class team at two San Fernando Valley high schools, El Camino Real Charter and Canoga Park, shortly before the county’s safer at home protocols went into effect.

While it has historically been difficult to produce accurate census counts for Los Angeles County, Masuoka said the coronavirus pandemic is likely making it even more challenging in 2020.

“We live in one of the most hard-to-count counties in the country, thanks to a confluence of factors,” she said. “It is a populous county and is geographically spread out, which means counting is exacerbated by the multiple socioeconomic and racial groups within it. And there’s every indication that it will be even harder this year.”

Dispelling myths and fears is a big job for families’ “trusted messengers,” especially in immigrant communities, said Bugwadia, a fourth-year student majoring in political science and minoring in disability studies.

“Being a trusted messenger particularly important in the current political climate,” she said. “It can be frustrating and maybe even terrifying for a lot of folks who come from underrepresented communities, but those are the communities who really do benefit from the census.”

Bugwadia said the campaign was aimed not only at students, but also at teachers. “They, too, are trusted messengers. That was our experience growing up in the school system.”

Eidgahy is a third-year student majoring in political science and communication. His family emigrated from Iran, and he has spent time recently quelling their fears about the census by explaining the provisions for how census information is used — including that only non-personally identifiable data is released to government institutions or outside organizations. And he explained the Title 13 confidentiality protections that were put into place after census information was used to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy have continued to make virtual connections with campus and local community groups as part of a spring quarter independent study project under Masuoka’s tutelage. Both students are aspiring social scientists, and they recognize the importance of accurate census data for people working at research institutions like UCLA.

Other students in Masuoka’s course focused on efforts to reach different populations, including people with disabilities and individuals experiencing homelessness. The students made videos, stickers and graphics to promote participation in the census, and they collected a total of nearly 2,000 pledge cards from community members who promised to complete the questionnaire.

Those cards were meant to be displayed in Kerckhoff Hall during spring quarter as a way to inspire more people to complete the census questionnaire. Fortunately, Masuoka’s syllabus for the class had already included a plan to create a website that would house information and images from the students’ projects and continue their pledge effort.

The course materials and website were funded through an instructional improvement program grant from the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Masuoka said it was important to her to create a politically engaged learning environment that lent itself to a range of political viewpoints.

“The census is nonpartisan; it’s something everyone can and should care about regardless of their position on politics or government policies,” she said. “The class went even better than I could have imagined. I’m new to UCLA and this was a great example of the kind of talented students we have here.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Join UCLA College for the Virtual Celebration

Graduating members of the College’s Class of 2020 as well as family members and friends will be able to view the livestreamed airing of UCLA College’s Virtual Celebration by going to https://college.ucla.edu/commencement at 3:00pm PDT on Friday, June 12, 2020.  Viewers need only a web browser and Internet access to attend. There is no registration necessary.


The UCLA College will host a virtual celebration for spring centennial graduates on Friday, June 12, at 3 p.m., featuring an address from actor, social justice activist, bestselling author and social media star George Takei.

“George Takei is an example to all Bruins of the power of perseverance despite adversity. He has shown without a doubt that by following one’s dreams it is possible to make an enormous impact for the betterment of all,” said Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College and vice provost for undergraduate education. “I know our students and their guests will be inspired as we virtually celebrate this tenacious class of students.”

“I’m deeply honored to help launch this celebration of my fellow Bruins,” said UCLA alumnus George Takei. Courtesy of George Takei

The virtual celebration is the launch of the class of 2020’s recognition for their accomplishments, which will culminate with an in-person event during the 2020–21 academic year, when it is again safe to gather. The College has worked with graduating students to craft the virtual event, which will celebrate the end of the academic year and the conferral of degrees for this year’s centennial class. The program will include remarks by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, Takei, a class of 2020 student speaker and others.

“I’m deeply honored to help launch this celebration of my fellow Bruins,” Takei said. “It feels so right to be with this group of extraordinary young people for UCLA’s very first virtual celebration because I too spent a good part of my career boldly going where no one had gone before!”

A well-known UCLA alumnus, Takei has had an impressive career spanning more than six decades. He has appeared in more than 40 feature films and hundreds of television roles, most famously as Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” and has used his success as a platform to fight for social justice, LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. His advocacy is personal: During World War II, Takei spent his childhood in U.S. internment camps along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans.
Takei has a strong social media following, injecting humor into his approach to life. He also has penned a number of bestselling books. He serves as chairman emeritus of the Japanese American National Museum’s board of trustees and is a member of the US–Japan Bridging Foundation board of directors. Takei also served on the board of the Japan–United States Friendship Commission under President Bill Clinton and in 2004 was honored with the Gold Rays with Rosette of the Order of the Rising Sun by the emperor of Japan for his contribution to U.S.–Japan relations. Takei received both bachelor and master of arts degrees from UCLA (’60, ’64).

Takei was invited to be the class of 2020 commencement speaker after being chosen by the 2020 Commencement Committee, comprising UCLA students, faculty and administrators, prior to the postponement of the event due to COVID-19. Takei graciously agreed to deliver the keynote address for the virtual celebration.

“At this moment in history, where many individuals and families are experiencing unprecedented challenges, this virtual celebration is an opportunity to take a celebratory pause, laud our students’ achievements with friends and family, and provide a moment of joy and inspiration,” Turner said.

The UCLA College, which will host the virtual event, includes the divisions of humanities, life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and undergraduate education and comprises about 83% of UCLA’s undergraduate population.

The first-ever virtual gathering of seniors also marks the end of UCLA’s celebration of its centennial year. More information about the virtual celebration and the upcoming in-person event during the 2020–21 academic year can be found at the UCLA College commencement website.

A photo of Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer and Hieu Nguyen.

UCLA’s 2020-2021 Beckman Scholars Announced

A photo of Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer and Hieu Nguyen.

From left: Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer and Hieu Nguyen (Photo Courtesy of UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry)

Undergraduate researchers Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer (Tolbert Group) and Hieu Nguyen (Torres group) have been selected as 2020-2021 Beckman Scholars.

The 2020-2021 Beckman Research Scholarship at UCLA is directed through the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and administered by the Undergraduate Research Center (URC)-Sciences. The scholarship is awarded to outstanding undergraduate researchers who are majoring in Chemistry, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics; or Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, and who are committed to completing an honors thesis or a comprehensive 199 project under the supervision of a UCLA Beckman Faculty.

The $21,000 award will be distributed over one academic year and two summers, plus $2,800 for travel and research supplies.

Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer is a third-year chemistry major conducting research in Professor Sarah Tolbert’s laboratory where her research focuses on tuning superparamagnetic nanocrystals for use in multiferroic composite materials where magnetism can be fully switched on and off using an applied electric bias. Sasha is a transfer student from Schoolcraft Community College. While at Schoolcraft, she gained experience researching metal-organic frameworks at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. “I immediately fell in love with the challenging, yet rewarding, work that research demands,” Sasha said. “I have always had a deep appreciation for the sciences and I strive to share this passion by pursuing a career in academia. I hope to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and lead research that will contribute to the global environment.”

“Beckman Scholars is an outstanding program for undergraduate researchers, and Sasha is the kind of capable, passionate student who will make the most of this opportunity,” said her research advisor Professor Sarah Tolbert.

Hieu Nguyen is a third-year Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology (MCDB) major conducting research in Professor Jorge Torres’ laboratory where his research focuses on identifying novel drugs that will guide senescent cells away from their current state. “The discovery of these compounds will increase the efficacy of DNA-damaging drugs by preventing the formation of tumor-promoting environments induced by cell senescence,” Hieu explained. Outside of his laboratory work, Hieu also competes for UCLA’s archery team, works as a CPR instructor, and volunteers both for UCLA’s Mattel Childrens’ Hospital and at a student shelter. He intends to pursue a career in pediatric oncology which is rooted both in research and clinical practice.

“I am extremely proud of Hieu,”said his research advisor Professor Jorge Torres. “Hieu represents the best that UCLA undergraduate researchers have to offer. He has a contagious curiosity and a keen interest in understanding complex biological systems at the molecular level. Hieu’s outstanding intellectual, critical thinking and research abilities have prepared him to carry out his independent studies successfully and I look forward to seeing the great things that he can accomplish.”

This article originally appeared on UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry’s website

 

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

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.”

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Changes make it easier than ever for Bruins to vote

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Students, faculty, staff and even members of the public will be able to vote at the Ackerman Union beginning Feb. 22, and at the Hammer Museum beginning Feb. 29.

When it comes to voting, there can be a litany of excuses as to why someone doesn’t make it to the polls on Election Day — you forgot, too busy to get there that day, working too far from your polling place, among others.

To erase as many barriers as possible to voting, Los Angeles County is implementing sweeping changes for voters leading up to the March 3 primary, and the UCLA campus community will be a major benefactor as the site of two vote centers — Ackerman Union and the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

The biggest change is that voters will have multiple days to cast their ballots. Voting begins Feb. 22 at Ackerman, and the Hammer Museum will be open for voting beginning Feb. 29.

For campus and county officials, bringing vote centers to UCLA was a no-brainer.

“We are really glad that California, specifically L.A. County, is pursuing a modernizing of the voting process,” said Karen Hedges, deputy director of campus life for UCLA Student Affairs. “There is often talk of students, faculty and staff trying to squeeze in their vote on Election Day. Having a vote center in the middle of campus at Ackerman Union, and having it open for 11 days, I think, will really encourage people to make voting less of a hassle and more of a prideful opportunity.”

The new L.A. County Vote Centers not only allow for up to 11 days of voting, but also commuters with limited time can rejoice. The new rules no longer force people to vote at the one place in their neighborhoods. Instead people now can cast their ballots at any voting center location in the county.

The new system also emphasizes accessibility. Voters can make the text larger on the screen, toggle between 13 languages, change the contrast of the screen and request an audio ballot. The system is also secure — it is not connected to the internet or any network and still produces a paper ballot.

“One of the goals to moving to the vote center model was to meet voters where they are, and UCLA is an amazing university centrally located to thousands of voters who live on campus or nearby,” said Mike Sanchez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Registrar. “We’re thrilled to have UCLA and other universities, colleges and high schools act as vote centers for the upcoming March primary election.”

A major push from UCLA students, faculty and staff is underway ahead of the Feb. 18 voter registration deadline. The BruinsVOTE! organization will be hosting get-out-the-vote events and its website relaunched this week to include extensive information on voter registration, events, FAQs and more.

“Culturally, we’re trying to weave voting into the fabric of campus life — this is what Bruins do,” Hedges added. “Bruins are civically engaged and civically minded. Our volunteer work, our service work — it all falls into alignment with this. I think it is a True Bruin Value to vote.”

As UCLA celebrates its centennial, campus officials also point out two other important anniversaries: The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s constitutional right to vote and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing men the right to vote regardless of race.

“These milestones should be reminders to all of us not to take for granted the hard-won right, responsibility and privilege we have to participate in our nation’s democracy,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to the campus community. “I hope you will get civically engaged and show the world that #Bruinsvote.”

On March 3 at 5:30 p.m., the Hammer Museum will host Super Tuesday Bash 2020, during which people can watch election returns and pundits’ analyzing what unfolds on big screens in the courtyard.

In the meantime, BruinsVOTE! members will work to continue the gains made in student participation during the past several elections. Organizers will be canvassing Bruin Walk and promoting voting at UCLA athletics events, to name a few efforts.

“I think the biggest change is now you have 11 days to vote instead of one,” said Joshua Avila, third-year political science major and co-director of the BruinsVOTE! initiative. “This is definitely a big improvement, and we are excited to see more student turnout because of that. If it’s just one day, students might be busy that day or they just forget.”

Although there is an emphasis on registering to vote by Feb. 18, the vote center will allow for same-day conditional registration, which is a major plus, officials touted.

“If you think about it, registering to vote is the last of the antiquated processes that you can’t just do instantly,” Hedges said. “That does not resonate with our students, who are last minute and who are used to being able to do something right now. In our last few elections we’ve had long lines of provisional ballot people in hopes that their votes will still count.”

Having 11 days and same-day registration should lessen voter congestion, she said.

The UCLA campus voice can and will be a vital one, said Elisa Chang, graduate student studying education and BruinsVOTE! co-director.

“If we want to be able to shape the future that we’re going to literally be inheriting, then we all actually do need to vote and make ourselves heard,” Chang said.

VOTE CENTERS

Ackerman Union
308 Westwood Plaza
Bruin Reception Room, second floor
11-day Vote Center
Feb. 22–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Hammer Museum at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Annenberg Terrace, third floor
Four-day Vote Center
Feb. 29–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Hundreds of UCLA students publish paper analyzing 1,000 genes involved in organ development

A team of 245 UCLA undergraduates and 31 high school students has published an encyclopedia of more than 1,000 genes, including 421 genes whose functions were previously unknown. The research was conducted in fruit flies, and the genes the researchers describe in the analysis may be associated with the development of the brain, eye, lymph gland and wings.

The fruit fly is often the object of scientific research because its cells have similar DNA to that of human cells — so knowledge about its genes can help researchers better understand human diseases. The UCLA study should be useful to scientists studying genes involved in sleep, vision, memory and many other processes in humans.

The research is published in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics. The study’s senior authors include researchers Cory Evans and John Olson, who taught UCLA’s Biomedical Research 10H, the course in which the studies were conducted.

“I expect this will be a highly cited paper and a valuable resource to life scientists,” said Tracy Johnson, director of UCLA’s biomedical research minor, which offers the course the students all took. “It’s inspiring to know all of this really important research came from freshmen and sophomores. It’s beautiful, high-quality research.”

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Visible on this page are images of fruit flies’ eyes (top), wings and lymph glands, showing which genes are active (red) or were previously active (green). (Download the full image to also see scans of the brain.) Photo credit: Cory Evans

The students studied short DNA sequences to learn how specific genes are turned on and off and understand how those genes control the functions of various cell types. Although all cells have essentially the same collection of genes, specific genes are turned on or off depending on the cells’ needs, Evans said.

Each student studied several genes, ultimately producing a total of more than 50,000 microscopic images; the researchers then posted their analysis on an online database where other scientists can study the genes’ roles.

“This shows not only which genes are turned on, but the history of which genes have been turned on,” Johnson said.

The research was conducted as part of a UCLA life sciences course that was developed in the early 2000s by Utpal Banerjee, a UCLA distinguished professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and a senior author of the paper. The course received initial funding from the HHMI.

“Research on science education says that one of the best way to teach science is by having authentic research experiences embedded in a course,” said Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in the Division of Life Sciences and is an HHMI Professor. “Professor Banerjee understood years ago when he envisioned the class that students learn more by doing science. They learn how to design experiments, how to think like scientists, how to write about science and how to present their research.”

Johnson said the approach is analogous to teaching a sport. “If a kid wants to play soccer, you don’t say, ‘Don’t touch the soccer ball yet. You have to first learn all of the rules, watch other people play and read about the soccer greats, and maybe in a couple of years, we’ll let you kick the ball.’ No, bring out the soccer balls! So we need to get science students in the lab.”

The students completed two other research projects, one of which Evans expects will be published this year. In that study, the undergraduates studied the effects of turning off specific genes in fruit flies using a scientific technique called RNA interference. They then determined which of those 4,000 genes, when turned off, affect the proper development of blood cells.

“We teach students how to do research, not fly biology,” said Evans, who is now an assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University. “Their science literacy is high, and they know how to evaluate evidence.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of group of volunteers at first mobile health clinic.

Student launches mobile health clinic to increase access to care

Photo of group of volunteers at first mobile health clinic.

Ahmad Elhaija, center, with International Collegiate Health Initiative medical staff, volunteers and student team members at the organization’s first mobile health clinic. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

On a sunny autumn Saturday at the Southeast-Rio Vista YMCA in the city of Maywood, kids colored drawings and played Jenga while their parents and other family members underwent basic health screenings conducted by volunteer nurses.

After their bloodwork and other tests were done, the people met with doctors from medical centers in southeast Los Angeles County to discuss their results. Aided by Spanish-language translators, the doctors also gave advice about everything from medications to old injuries — anything the patients wanted to know.

The free event, attended by about 40 community members plus their children, was the first mobile community health clinic hosted by the International Collegiate Health Initiative. Founded two years ago by UCLA junior psychobiology major Ahmad Elhaija, the initiative aims to increase access to affordable, high-quality medical care in low-income and refugee communities in Los Angeles through mobile community health clinics and social advocacy.

“I thought, what can we do here that’ll make a big impact, where we can affect the statistics of a community, their health outcomes?” he said.

Elhaija drew inspiration for the project from two aspects of his youth in Anaheim — growing up frequently sick without consistent health insurance and his volunteer work assisting Arab and Muslim refugees.

Given the need for this kind of service, Elhaija applied for the annual Donald A. Strauss Foundation scholarship to help implement his vision. Each year, the Strauss Foundation awards 10 to 15 students from across 14 California colleges a $15,000 scholarship which is divided between the student’s educational costs and a grant for the public service project they propose in their application.

Elhaija was the only UCLA student to win the $15,000 scholarship in 2019. In 2018, two UCLA students won the Strauss scholarship; their projects helped transfer students prepare for doctoral programs, and provided therapy and support for K-12 students who stutter.

Photo of Ahmad Elhaija

Ahmad Elhaija Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

As part of the scholarship, Elhaija was assigned a mentor to advise him on his project. Elhaija’s mentor, Marc Anthony Branch, is a program officer for sustainable development for the United Methodist Committee on Relief and an expert in grant writing. Elhaija relied on Branch’s knowledge to improve his grant writing skills.

“I set him up with my grant-writing team, and he was really pivotal in actually getting us moving forward,” Elhaija said. “Before him, we didn’t really have much progress in grant writing, so having him on board and him giving his expertise was really cool. He knows what grant-giving organizations are looking for and he has some good contacts in that realm as well.”

Growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Anaheim, Elhaija was frequently sick from asthma and a rare blood disorder called cyclic neutropenia. His family didn’t always have health insurance, and although they worked hard to support and care for him, they were often left with high hospital bills.

While his family’s difficulty navigating his health care opened his eyes to the importance of providing affordable care, as a teenager Elhaija also volunteered at the nonprofit Access California Services, which provides support and resources to Arab and Muslim refugees in Anaheim. He said that volunteering with the organization and seeing the services for refugees that were still lacking inspired him to think of ways he could help.

So when Elhaija got to UCLA in 2017, he formed the International Collegiate Health Initiative with the goal to provide medical care to refugees in countries like Syria and Palestine. Through his volunteer work and visiting his own family in the Middle East, Elhaija learned that college campuses would be the safest places to provide medical services in the region.

However, finances and logistics made it more productive for Elhaija to focus his efforts on refugee and low-income communities closer to home. So he switched the initiative’s focus to offering mobile community health clinics in southeast Los Angeles.

The initiative is managed by a team of 20 students, a board of directors and professional advisers who offer guidance and medical services for the clinics. The clinic in Maywood, held on Nov. 16, was the organization’s first mobile health clinic. Another is planned for the city of Bell in February.

The ICHI’s ultimate goal is to raise enough money for a mobile clinic van, and to expand to other cities in California or even overseas.

“The idea is that we could have our full blown mobile clinic running in the fall of next year, where we can provide basically every type of care that a standard clinic can provide,” Elhaija said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.