When using virtual reality as a teaching tool, context and ‘feeling real’ matter

People remember foreign vocabulary better when lessons are associated with distinct environments, UCLA study finds

Still image from a fairyland virtual reality environment

Subjects in the study were asked to learn Swahili or Chinyanja names for the objects they encountered in a fantasy fairyland, pictured here, or a science fiction landscape. | Courtesy of Jesse Rissman

Holly Ober | December 15, 2022

A new study by UCLA psychologists reveals that when VR is used to teach language, context and realism matter.

The research is published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

“The context in which we learn things can help us remember them better,” said Jesse Rissman, the paper’s corresponding author and a UCLA associate professor of psychology. “We wanted to know if learning foreign languages in virtual reality environments could improve recall, especially when there was the potential for two sets of words to interfere with each other.”

Researchers asked 48 English-speaking participants to try to learn 80 words in two phonetically similar African languages, Swahili and Chinyanja, as they navigated virtual reality settings.

Wearing VR headsets, participants explored one of two environments — a fantasy fairyland or a science fiction landscape — where they could click to learn the Swahili or Chinyanja names for the objects they encountered. Some participants learned both languages in the same VR environment; others learned one language in each environment.

Participants navigated through the virtual worlds four times over the course of two days, saying the translations aloud each time. One week later, the researchers followed up with a pop quiz to see how well the participants remembered what they had learned.

The results were striking: Subjects who had learned each language in its own unique context mixed up fewer words and were able to recall 92% of the words they had learned. In contrast, participants who had learned both sets of words in the same VR context were more likely to confuse terms between the two languages and retained only 76% of the words.


Jesse Rissman | Courtesy of Jesse Rissman

The study is particularly timely because so many K-12 schools, colleges and universities moved to develop online learning platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Apps like Zoom provide a rather bland context for learning,” Rissman said. “As VR technology becomes more ubiquitous and affordable, remote learners could be instantly teleported into unique and richly featured contexts for each class.”

The experiment was designed by Rissman and Joey Ka-Yee Essoe, the study’s first author who was a UCLA doctoral student at the time.

Rissman said a key predictor of the subjects’ ability to retain what they had learned was how immersed in the VR world they felt. The less a participant felt like a subject in a psychology experiment — and the more “at one” they felt with their avatar — the more the virtual contexts were able to positively affect their learning.

“The more a person’s brain was able to reconstruct the unique activity pattern associated with the learning context, the better able they were to recall the foreign words they had learned there,” Rissman said.

Psychologists have long understood that people tend to recall things more readily if they can remember something about the surrounding context in which they learned it — the so-called “context crutch” phenomenon. But when information is tied to contextual cues, people can have trouble recalling it later in the absence of those cues.

For example, students might learn Spanish in the same kind of classroom where they learn other subjects. When that happens, their Spanish vocabulary can be tied to the same contextual cues that are tied to other material they’ve been taught, like the Pythagorean theorem or a Shakespeare play. Not only does that similar context make it easier to mix up or forget what they have learned, but it also can make it harder to remember any of the information outside of a classroom setting.

“A key takeaway is that if you learn the same thing in same environment, you’ll learn it really fast,” said Essoe, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “But even though you learn fast, you might have trouble with recall. What we were able to harness in this research takes advantage of both learning fast and improving recall in new environment.”

To understand the brain mechanisms that support context-dependent learning, the researchers recruited a separate group of participants and scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. As the subjects attempted to recall foreign words while in the scanner, their brain activity indicated that they were thinking about the context in which they had learned each word.

That finding suggests that virtual reality can enhance learning if it is convincingly produced and if different languages or scholastic subjects are taught in highly distinctive environments.

Rissman said although the study only assessed how people learned a foreign language, the results indicate that VR could be useful for teaching other subjects as well. Similar approaches could also be used for mental and behavioral health therapies and to help patients adhere to doctors’ instructions after medical visits: Patients might be able to remember such guidance better if they’re in their own homes while chatting online with their doctors, for example.

Said Essoe: “Variable contexts can ground information in more environmental cues.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Making a difference through the power of storytelling

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

Arushi Avachat

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

Lucy Berbeo | December 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graduates wearing caps and gowns at the 2-18 American Indian Studies graduation ceremony at UCLA.

To enhance Indigenous scholarship, UCLA formally establishes American Indian studies department

The goal is eventually to increase the Native student, faculty and staff populations

Graduates wearing caps and gowns at the 2-18 American Indian Studies graduation ceremony at UCLA.

Even before achieving departmental status, the American Indian studies program has helped scholars thrive, as seen in this 2018 commencement photo. | UCLA American Indian Studies

Jonathan Riggs | December 15, 2022

As they look ahead to the end of their senior years, both Desirae Barragan (Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians) and Lorraine Mazzetti (Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians) have a lot to be proud of — including the news that UCLA’s American Indian studies interdepartmental program will become a full-fledged department.

“Many generations of Native Bruins, including myself, have provided their voices, energy and advocacy efforts to prove the need to departmentalize American Indian studies,” said Barragan, who is double majoring in American Indian studies and human biology and society. “As a Gabrieleno student studying on my ancestral homelands, it is an absolute privilege to be the first of my tribal community to be graduating from UCLA this spring.”

Said Mazzetti, who is double majoring in American Indian studies and political science: “I’m very excited that American Indian studies is becoming a department. American Indian studies has given me the space to talk about my experiences living on the reservation and to learn about other Native students’ experiences in a single classroom.”

The goal is eventually to increase the Native student, faculty and staff populations while deepening UCLA’s commitment to research and scholarship into Indigenous studies. The change to department status marks a transformation from the program that created one of the world’s first master’s degrees in American Indian studies in 1982 and draws its roots from UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, which was established in 1969.

“I’ve been the American Indian studies chair off and on for nearly 30 years, and this has been a goal for as long as I can remember. To say I’m delighted would be an understatement,” said Paul Kroskrity, interim chair of American Indian studies and professor of anthropology. “This represents a reprioritization by UCLA and the UC system to do the best job they can for Native American students and the field itself. I’m proud we can build this department in the proper way.”

The existing American Indian studies program offers an undergraduate major, a minor and a master’s degree and seeks to merge the concerns and aims of higher education with those of Indigenous communities.

With its new status, the department will be able to hire its own faculty and staff and to make key decisions on its own. When it was an interdepartmental program, American Indian studies faculty and staff were hired by and held appointments in other departments. Although the new American Indian studies department looks forward to continuing and expanding these rich engagements and collaborations, having this autonomy will make a big difference, both symbolically and in practice.

“This is really exciting, important and a long time in the making,” said Shannon Speed (Chickasaw Nation), director of the American Indian Studies Center in UCLA’s Institute of American Cultures and a professor of anthropology and gender studies. “It puts us on par with UCLA’s other ethnic studies centers, which have all departmentalized, and it gives us a little more freedom to create our own future.”

The move is the third in a series of initiatives that signal increased resources, opportunities and representation for Native American communities and voices at UCLA and beyond, including the University of California’s Native American Opportunity Plan and UCLA’s Native American and Pacific Islander Bruins Rising Initiative.

“This is a landmark moment that will give us a greater platform to elevate research and scholarship, recruit more Native and non-Native students, and propel our ascension in terms of being the place to do American Indian studies in the United States,” said Angela Riley (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), director of UCLA School of Law’s Native Nations Law and Policy Center and a professor of law and American Indian studies.

Tim Topper (Cheyenne River Sioux), a student services advisor in the new department, echoed others in saying that departmental status sends a powerful message of inclusion and investment.

“American Indian studies becoming a department is a huge deal because it represents a foundation for us to better recruit and retain Native faculty and staff,” said Topper, who noted how excited he was to come to UCLA to work directly with California Indigenous communities. “It can be hard for Native students to find that mentor they can connect with, and I think we’ll set our students up even better for success when they can see themselves more reflected in and out of the classroom. It’s going to take time, but we’re creating a pipeline for true change.”

And word can travel fast across Indian country, Topper added, where many people are deeply connected to and invested in what colleges and universities are doing in this field. Both at UCLA and far beyond, this formal recognition reflects a renewed commitment to further elevating Native American representation in higher education.

This is especially important to Barragan and Mazzetti, who hope to see the department tackle new priorities, such as reimagining the curriculum to include additional undergraduate courses in traditional ecological knowledge, tribal leadership and federal Indian law.

“It is hard for Native students to relearn generational trauma and apply it to our essays for a grade, and I hope the new department realizes that they are teaching the next tribal leaders,” Mazzetti said. “I am ready to see what the department will bring to UCLA and what they provide to the next generation of Native students.”

“I look forward to the new opportunities that future generations of Native Bruins will get to experience,” Barragan said. “I am honored to contribute to Indigenizing UCLA and hope that as an institution, it will amplify and uplift Native voices, wants and needs while supporting Native-led initiatives.”

Ensuring that this milestone development runs smoothly is a priority for many beyond the new department as well.

“The sky is the limit for what AIS can accomplish in this new chapter,” said Abel Valenzuela, interim dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College. “We are very fortunate to build on our base of excellence in AIS where we have some of the best — if not the very best — American Indian studies faculty, staff and students in the country.”

This article originally appeared at UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim

Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim ’16 named UCLA’s fourth Schwarzman Scholar

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim has been named a Schwarzman Scholar and will study in Beijing next year.

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim ’16 has been named a Schwarzman Scholar, receiving one of the world’s most prestigious graduate awards. As part of a cohort of 151 distinguished young candidates selected from nearly 3,000 applicants worldwide, Lim will receive a fully funded scholarship to complete a one-year master’s degree and leadership program in global studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

Established in 2016 by Stephen A. Schwarzman of Blackstone and inspired by the Rhodes Scholarship, the Schwarzman Scholars program seeks to prepare future leaders from a variety of fields and backgrounds to respond to pressing geopolitical challenges and to foster cross-cultural understanding between China and the rest of the world.

“I am excited and grateful for this amazing opportunity,” said Lim, who studied political science at UCLA and hails from South Korea and the U.S. “China has one of the world’s most developed fintech economies, its economy is largely cashless, and its technology ecosystem has grown at an incredible rate. My goal is to leverage the expansive Schwarzman Scholar and Tsinghua network to learn as much as I can about the technological innovation happening in China.”

As an immigrant, entrepreneur and product leader in fintech, Lim hopes to leverage financial technology to better lives. After graduating from UCLA, he cofounded the blockchain company DApperNetwork, building a community of students and mentors that have gone on to create enormous value in blockchain protocols and applications. Currently a director of product at Sure, a top 100 fintech company, he previously served as a crypto entrepreneur-in-training at FJ Labs. He is a Riordan Fellow with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and has served as an advisor to UCLA’s blockchain lab.

Lim is the fourth UCLA graduate to be named a Schwarzman Scholar. He will enroll in August 2023 as part of the program’s 2023–2024 cohort, which comprises candidates from 36 countries and 121 universities around the world. Each year, Schwarzman Scholars are selected based on a variety of factors including “their leadership qualities and the potential to understand and bridge cultural and political differences,” according to the program’s website; the program’s international network of scholars now includes more than 1,000 members.

“I’m proud to be a UCLA alumnus — the communities and education I got access to during my time as a student have been formative building blocks for me,” Lim said. “Many years ago, UCLA was a launchpad for my entrepreneurial journey, and I am excited to represent my alma mater at such a renowned program as I continue on that journey.”

For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Prineha Narang, physical sciences professor in the UCLA College of Letters and Science

Quantum matter pioneer Prineha Narang appointed 2023 US Science Envoy

Narang is the first appointed in the field of quantum science and technology

Prineha Narang, physical sciences professor in the UCLA College of Letters and Science

Prineha Narang, professor of physical sciences in the UCLA College

UCLA quantum matter pioneer Prineha Narang has been appointed a 2023 US Science Envoy by the State Department.

Narang, on the faculty in Physical Sciences, will help initiate new partnerships with countries that are building their own quantum programs. Narang is the first science envoy to be appointed in the field of quantum science and technology. Narang joins the first cohort of Science Envoys since the covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.

“Quantum science and technology is an area not only of critical importance nationally but requires international partnerships,” Narang said. “Part of my role will be to connect scientists in these countries what we’re doing here at UCLA, what our National Quantum Initiative centers are doing, and how to get started. This is an incredible opportunity to initiate new partnerships with countries that are building their own quantum programs, and strengthen collaborations with existing partners.”

Through the Science Envoy Program, eminent U.S. scientists and engineers apply their expertise and networks to forge connections and identify opportunities for sustained international cooperation. Science Envoys focus on issues of common interest in science, technology, and engineering fields and usually serve for one year. They travel as private citizens and help inform the Department of State, other U.S. government agencies, and the scientific community about opportunities for science and technology cooperation.

“We are honored that the State Department has recognized UCLA’s strengths in the field of quantum materials with the appointment of Professor Narang as US Science Envoy. She is a perfect choice to forge the international relationships necessary to realize the potential of this new field of science,” Chancellor Gene Block said.

Narang’s groundbreaking research is at the intersection of computational science, quantum matter, and quantum information science. Her work has been recognized with international awards from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Max Planck Society, American Physical Society, among others. In 2017, she was named by Forbes Magazine on their “30 under 30” list for her work in atom-by-atom quantum engineering.

Narang designs materials at the smallest scale, using single atoms, to enable the leap to quantum technologies. Quantum materials are used in emerging computing and communications technologies with capabilities that far surpass conventional technologies but still face many scientific and practical challenges.

“International collaborations are crucial in driving the field forward. I am delighted to see Professor Narang taking on this prestigious role building on her leadership across science, workforce development, and industry relations in the quantum domain,” Miguel García-Garibay, dean of physical sciences and senior dean of the College, said.

One of the personal goals Narang has set is to get students interested in quantum science at early stages in their education, including through exchange programs. She will give public lectures for early career scientists, budding engineers, and people interested in STEM about how to get involved in quantum science and engineering.

Black Americans’ COVID vaccine hesitancy stems more from today’s inequities than historical ones

UCLA study urges medical community to pursue changes that build better trust

Woman receives vaccine shot

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Holly Ober | October 27, 2022

Key takeaways:
• Doctors and distrust.
Black Americans are more likely than whites to report poor interactions with their physicians.
• Not history but here and now.
These personal experiences — rather than wrongs of the past — tend to heighten their distrust of the health care system and lead to skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccination rate in the Black community lagged well behind that of whites, a gap many in the media speculated was the result of fears based on historical health-related injustices like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

But new research by UCLA psychologists shows that vaccine hesitancy and mistrust of medical professionals among Black Americans may hinge more on their current unsatisfactory health care experiences than on their knowledge of past wrongs.

The findings, the researchers say, clearly illustrate the need for both broad and specific changes within the medical community to improve experiences and build better trust with Black patients. The research is published in the journal Health Psychology.

“History is important, no doubt, but Black Americans do not have to reach into the past for examples of inequity in health care — many have experienced it themselves,” said Kimberly Martin, who led the research as a UCLA doctoral student and is now a UC President’s Postdoctoral Scholar at UC San Francisco.

In the first of two studies, Martin and her UCLA colleagues surveyed approximately 300 Black and white participants in December 2020, just as vaccines were becoming available. Black respondents expressed less trust in medical professionals and reported significantly less positive experiences with the health care system than their white counterparts. They were also less likely to report an intention to get vaccinated.

Participants were also queried about their familiarity with the 1932–72 Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which the U.S. government studied Black men with syphilis without their informed consent and intentionally withheld treatment, leading to medical complications, fatalities and transmission of the disease to family members. Some 66% of Black participants and 62% of white participants said they were familiar with the study, though Black participants generally knew more about it. Familiarity, however, was not associated with greater medical mistrust or vaccine hesitancy in either group, the researchers found.

Ultimately, the authors concluded, Black respondents’ trust in medical professionals had been undermined by a lack of positive health care experiences, contributing to a hesitancy to get vaccinated.

“A damaging narrative suggested in popular media has been that Black Americans were less likely to want a COVID-19 vaccination primarily because of the Tuskegee study,” said Martin, who along with her co-researchers found that the study had been mentioned 168 times in TV news reports on vaccine hesitancy between October 2020 and November 2021. “However, Tuskegee is only one of many relevant historical examples of medical mistreatment toward Black Americans, and this framing completely disregards current inequity and injustice in health care.”

Co-author Annette Stanton, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA, said implications that Black Americans can and should “get over the past” as a means to reducing health inequities are not only offensive but misguided, given the findings.

“The findings point to Black Americans’ present-day experiences in the medical system as an important factor among multiple contributors to inequities, and physicians and health systems can indeed take action to improve these experiences,” she said. “Respectful, competent and caring medical professionals can be agents of change.”

A second study, conducted several months after the first, surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 12,750 Black and white Americans and found no statistically significant racial difference in the proportion of those who had been vaccinated or were intending to get vaccinated. But once again, Black participants reported less medical trust than whites. Black respondents also reported feeling less cared-for by their physicians than white respondents, which the researchers said contributes to lower levels of trust.

Among those who were not yet vaccinated, both Black and white participants who had less trust in the medical community and felt less cared-for by their personal physician were also less likely to report an intention to get vaccinated.

The current studies add to an extensive body of research showing that Black Americans have worse health care experiences than whites. And while the vaccination gap between Blacks and whites has decreased, issues of inequitable treatment and medical mistrust remain and need to be addressed in the context of present-day experiences, the researchers emphasized.

“Characterizing race-related disparities in health care experiences as a relic of the past excludes current medical experiences and absolves the current health care system from making needed change,” said co-author Kerri Johnson, a UCLA professor of communication and psychology.

Johnson and the other authors said that going forward, health care professionals and researchers need to identify and implement changes that could provide Black Americans with more equitable and satisfying health care experiences.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Shirlee Smith, UCLA alumna and creator of Black Boyle Heights Facebook group

UCLA alumna seeks to preserve history of Black Boyle Heights

Shirlee Smith wants you to know about the Black community that used to live in the neighborhood: ‘We were there.’

Shirlee Smith, UCLA alumna and creator of Black Boyle Heights Facebook group

Shirlee Smith wrote a book about parenting titled “They’re Your Kids, Not Your Friends.” | Courtesy of Shirlee Smith

Nancy Gondo | November 7, 2022

Though Boyle Heights has a storied history as a multi-ethnic enclave of the 20th century, Shirlee Smith has noticed the Black community there often gets overlooked — something the UCLA alumna hopes to change.

“I’ve spent my adult years closing gaping mouths when asked where I’d grown up and my reply was Boyle Heights,” said Smith, 85. “People saw Boyle Heights as Jewish, as Latina, as Japanese. And so, the feedback has been, ‘Oh yes, the world needs to know: We were there.’”

The former Boyle Heights resident is working on a project to document and preserve the history of the Black people who used to live in the neighborhood. In some ways, Smith’s mother had started the legwork by collecting stories from families and entrusting them to one of her granddaughters.

“I read the 20 or so masterpieces and knew our stories had to be brought to light,” Smith said. She published some of the stories in Brooklyn and Boyle magazine, started the Black Boyle Heights Facebook group and in February, organized a virtual event with more than 50 people gathered online to share memories and honor their elders.

‘I’ll Take You There’

The event, called “I’ll Take You There,” honored four former residents who ranged in age from 93 to 101. Smith plans to turn the event into an annual celebration. She’s also collecting photos and stories, locating people, reviewing census data and getting in touch with local historians. Black Boyle Heights’ goals include publishing a directory of where the Black residents lived, setting up a podcast to tell their stories and creating a museum exhibit.

Boyle Heights drew a diverse mix of people in the early 20th century because the neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River was one of the few without restrictive racial covenants. Smith remembers hearing mariachi music up and down the block and walking past the Japanese Baptist church at the intersection of Evergreen and 2nd Street.

She didn’t think much about the diversity of Boyle Heights as a kid. But “as I grew up and interacted with a wide range of people, I discovered that fond memories were the opportunity to know up close people from so many cultures and be part of their traditions,” Smith said.

The close-knit Black community provided a built-in value system. Her next-door neighbor taught her how to knit and embroider; hairdresser Dolores Jones made house calls with straightening combs and curling irons in hand; Daddy Fred and Ma’ Bessie helped watch the neighborhood kids. But if anyone was caught acting out of line, word spread quickly.

“When you did wrong, it wasn’t just that Shirlee Pickett did wrong. It was the Pickett family,” Smith, née Pickett, said. “So when Dolores Jones came to your house to do your hair, you had to be polite. You may not have wanted to get your hair done, but you had to appreciate her.”

The neighborhood makeup started to change in the back half of the 1900s as racial covenants in Los Angeles lifted and families moved out of Boyle Heights. Today, few Black families remain in the now predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Meeting UCLA

Most minority students in Boyle Heights at the time weren’t being prepped for college, according to Smith. There were four paths, called “tracking” — academic, commercial, shop and home economics. Black and Latino girls were often tracked into home economics and commercial, where they would learn how to file papers. Few were put on the academic track.

“UCLA was not on my menu — there was no history,” Smith said. But in 1969, UCLA established the high potential program (now part of the Academic Advancement Program) to identify Black and Chicano students who might not meet the general entry criteria but are likely to succeed at the university. She applied and was accepted. “And that’s how I met UCLA,” she said.

The program started with a year of preparing students for university life. Smith wasn’t your typical college student fresh out of high school. She was a single mother of five children ranging in age from 7 months to 11 years.

“I was 30 years old when I hit the campus, and I had my youngest child in a stroller,” Smith said. “I took her to class with me, and that did not happen in 1968. There was no old lady on campus with a baby.”

As if that wasn’t tough enough, she got a C- on the first paper she wrote. She went to see the instructor, who told her she could redo the paper and gave her a copy of an A+ paper. That was a pivotal learning moment — Smith went on to graduate in 1973 with the distinction Department Scholar in Sociology.

Smith has since worked as a columnist for the Pasadena Star News, produced and hosted a cable TV show and written a book about parenting.

“Without UCLA, I doubt seriously that I would have had the courage to pursue any of my many accomplishments,” she said. “It’s really the reason I became a writer.”

If you’d like to contact Shirlee Smith regarding the Black Boyle Heights project:
(626) 296-2777

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Professor’s book spotlights legacy of Mexican political organizers in the American West

Kelly Lytle Hernández’s ‘Bad Mexicans’ comes at a time when L.A.’s politics reckon with racism

Bad Mexicans book cover and Kelly Lytle Hernández

Kelly Lytle Hernández, author and Thomas E. Lifka Professor of History at UCLA.

Madeline Adamo | November 29, 2022

Editor’s note: This page was updated on Nov. 30 to correct the name of the center that organized the talk.

Written with the pacing and drama of a spy novel, historian Kelly Lytle Hernández’s latest book, “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands,” aims to illuminate the far-too-overlooked story of the magonistas, a group of dissidents who were organizing in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century to oust dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Led by radicalized journalist Ricardo Flores Magón, who communicated with his followers through Regeneración, the newspaper he founded in 1900, the magonistas fled Mexico after years of suppression and regrouped in the U.S. borderlands. Most of them set up in Los Angeles, where they relaunched their rebel newspaper and incited an army of migrant workers and cotton pickers — a cause of great concern for governments in the U.S. that had great investments in Díaz’s Mexico.

Díaz, who called the magonistas “bad” Mexicans (or malos Mexicanos), pursued their leader with the help of the U.S. government. Flores Magón evaded capture until 1907, after which he spent his final years in and out of prison. Though his story isn’t widely known, historians have long credited the magonistas’ efforts with eventually leading to Díaz’s ousting.

“‘Bad Mexicans’ tells the story of how (the magonistas) built their social movement here in the United States,” Lytle Hernández told the audience (some who joined virtually from regions around Mexico) at a recent event focused on her book. “And probably more important, it’s the story of that cross-border counterinsurgency campaign that tried to stop them, but they were successful, and they incited the outbreak of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.”

The UCLA Center for Mexican Studies invited Lytle Hernández, who is the the Thomas E. Lifka Professor of History at UCLA, to speak with Fernando Pérez-Montesinos, assistant professor of history, who dove into why the historian chose to write about Mexican “reveltosos.”

“I’m a border-lander,” said Lytle Hernández, who recalls being alarmed that she was only just learning about the magonistas and their rebel movement as a doctoral student at UCLA. She recognized the importance of their place in American history and was concerned that people currently living in the borderlands — generally people of color, laborers and organizers — didn’t know these stories.

The book’s origin story comes from Lytle Hernández’s previous book, “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965,” which was a compelling account that places contemporary issues of mass incarceration and mass deportation within a much broader historical context.

Using archival evidence, Lytle Hernández established that Los Angeles — “a hub of incarceration” that imprisons more people than any other city in the country that imprisons the most people in the world — has been the site of various manifestations of human caging. In documenting how this reality is inextricably bound to conquest, settler colonialism, institutional racism and structural assaults on the working poor, irrespective of race or ethnicity, Lytle Hernández had all the research and material she needed to write “Bad Mexicans.”

While “Bad Mexicans” arose from a personal place for Lytle Hernández, she says the book also served as a response to politics at the time of the project’s genesis. More specifically, the 2016 presidential debate, when former president Donald Trump famously referred to Mexican immigrants as “bad hombres” while speaking about his plan for a southern border wall.

“When Trump made his disparaging remarks about Mexican migrants who are doing nothing but trying to secure a better life for themselves, he was stirring up that rhetorical pot of racial violence,” said Lytle Hernández, who is also the director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

The historian chose “Bad Mexicans” as the title of her book, playing off Trump’s remark in hope that the general public would understand that by using that kind of language, the former president was setting the stage for anti-Mexican and anti-Latino racial violence.

To connect the reader to a form of racial violence they might be familiar with, Lytle Hernández opens the book with the scene of the 1910 lynching of Antonio Rodríguez in Texas.

“They lit the pyre and watched him burn,” said Lytle Hernández, reciting the first sentence of her book to show how the scene is used as an “anchor” for American readers. She hopes readers use what they know about lynching to make the connections to Mexican themes and experiences and their important place in the “American story,” she said.

The story goes on to use a Hollywood-like approach to smuggle in Mexican history; including armed battles, deciphering of secret codes, betrayals and love affairs. In doing so, Lytle Hernández says that “Bad Mexicans” rebuilds the legacy of Mexican and Mexican American identity in the country’s canon of history.

“Where do Mexicans fit in the U.S. racial dynamics?” said Lytle Hernández. “That has been a contest around whiteness and non-whiteness in particular.”

At the heart of the book, Lytle Hernández invites further conversations on race formations in the U.S., which she says have been largely defined by struggles over land and politics.

“What is the relationship of Mexicanas to Black folks? To Indigenous folks? Where are they going to fall in this historical set of relationships and power?” she said.

Despite the book being published in May, the discussion was particularly relevant because of the recent outcry in Los Angeles over racist comments made by three Latino city council members.

“This crisis is an opportunity for people to get really clear about where they stand in relationship to capitalism and white supremacy, among other things,” said Lytle Hernández, tying the recent politics back to the topics her book engages with.

The second half of the discussion, which was followed by an audience Q&A, explored the history of relations between Blacks and Latinos, focusing on connections between the Black freedom struggle and the suppression of Mexican radicals like the magonistas.

“We share a history. We share a story and no one ever wants to tell us about it,” Lytle Hernández said. “That’s the power of our amnesia, of our forgetting, is that we struggled to build community today because we don’t know how we built it in the past.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

An image from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Webb Space Telescope reveals birth of galaxies, how universe became transparent

UCLA astrophysicists shed light on how hydrogen fog burned away after the Big Bang

An image from the James Webb Space Telescope

An image from the James Webb Space Telescope. A pair of UCLA-led studies demonstrate some of the scientific advances that the telescope is making possible. | NASA

Holly Ober | November 17, 2022

Key takeaways:
• UCLA astrophysicists are among the first scientists to use the James Webb Space Telescope to get a glimpse of the earliest galaxies in the universe.
• The studies reveal unprecedented detail about events that took place within the first billion years after the Big Bang.
• The UCLA projects were among a small number selected by NASA to test the capabilities of the Webb telescope.

The earliest galaxies were cosmic fireballs converting gas into stars at breathtaking speeds across their full extent, reports a UCLA-led study published in a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

The research, based on data from the James Webb Space Telescope, is the first study of the shape and structure of those galaxies. It shows that they were nothing like present-day galaxies in which star formation is confined to small regions, such as the constellation of Orion in our own Milky Way galaxy.

“We’re seeing galaxies form new stars at an electrifying pace,” said Tommaso Treu, the study’s lead author, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “Webb’s incredible resolution allows us to study these galaxies in unprecedented detail, and we see all of this star formation occurring within the regions of these galaxies.”

Treu directs the GLASS–JWST Early Release Science Program, whose first results are the subject of the special journal issue. Another UCLA-led study in the issue found that galaxies that formed soon enough after the Big Bang — within less than a billion years — might have begun burning off leftover photon-absorbing hydrogen, bringing light to a dark universe.

“Even our very best telescopes really struggled to confirm the distances to such far away galaxies, so we didn’t know whether they rendered the universe transparent or not,” said Guido Roberts-Borsani, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher who led the study. “Webb is showing us that not only can it do the job, but it can do it with astonishing ease. It’s a game changer.”

Those findings are two of many breathtaking discoveries by UCLA astrophysicists who are among the first to peer through a window to the past newly opened by Webb.

Webb is the largest near-infrared telescope in space, and its remarkable resolution offers an unparalleled view of objects so distant that their light takes billions of years to reach Earth. Although those objects have aged by now, light from only their earliest moments has had enough time to travel through the universe to end up on Webb’s detectors. As a result, not only has the Webb functioned as a sort of time machine — taking scientists back to the period shortly after the Big Bang — but the images it’s producing have become a family album, with snapshots of infant galaxies and stars.

GLASS–JWST was one of 13 Early Release Science projects selected by NASA in 2017 to quickly produce publicly accessible datasets and to demonstrate and test the capabilities of instruments on the Webb.

The project seeks to understand how and when light from the first galaxies burned through the hydrogen fog left over from the Big Bang — a phenomenon and time period called the Epoch of Reionization — and how gas and heavy elements are distributed within and around galaxies over cosmic time. Treu and Roberts-Borsani use three of the Webb’s innovative near-infrared instruments to take detailed measurements of distant galaxies in the early universe.

The Epoch of Reionization is a period that remains poorly understood by scientists. Until now, researchers have not had the extremely sensitive infrared instruments needed to observe galaxies that existed then. Prior to cosmic reionization, the early universe remained devoid of light because ultraviolet photons from early stars were absorbed by the hydrogen atoms that saturated space.

Scientists think that sometime within the universe’s first billion years radiation emitted by the first galaxies and possibly by the first black holes caused the hydrogen atoms to lose electrons, or ionize, preventing photons from “sticking” to them and clearing a pathway for the photons to travel across space. As galaxies began to ionize larger and larger bubbles, the universe became transparent and light traveled freely, as it does today, allowing us to view a brilliant canopy of stars and galaxies each night.

Roberts-Borsani’s finding that galaxies formed faster and earlier than previously thought could confirm that they were the culprits of cosmic reionization. The study also confirms the distances to two of the farthest galaxies known using a new technique that allows astronomers to probe the beginning of cosmic reionization.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.


Dysmus Kisilu wins UCLA’s Pritzker Award for environmental innovators

Kenyan entrepreneur and his company, Solar Freeze, receive $100,000 prize for reducing food waste

Dysmus Kisilu speaking with Tony Pritzker in background

Dysmus Kisilu was honored for finding an environmentally friendly way to help small Kenyan farms preserve their produce in order to sell it during periods of peak demand. Tony Pritzker looked on while Kisilu spoke at the Nov. 10 award ceremony. | Damon Cirulli

David Colgan | November 11, 2022

Kenyan entrepreneur Dysmus Kisilu and his business, Solar Freeze, received the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Kisilu’s company rents solar-powered coolers to reduce waste, curb carbon emissions and improve the marketability of crops on small, rural farms in Kenya. He was honored during a ceremony at the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center on Nov. 10.

“To the smallholder farmers that I work with, this is for you,” Kisilu said.

The Pritzker Award, which is presented annually, carries a prize of $100,000 that is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Kisilu co-founded Solar Freeze in 2018, bringing solar-powered cold storage to small Kenyan farms — enabling them to reduce food waste without increasing carbon emissions. The storage units, which are made using old shipping containers, allow farmers to preserve perishable produce inexpensively, giving them leverage to sell harvests after times of peak production when they command higher prices, which can help maximize their profits.

The company aims to further its mission with a new mobile app and by expanding to other parts of Africa.

Kisilu was nominated by Jaime Carlson, a senior advisor in strategy and investment at Softbank Energy, a business that promotes the spread of renewable energy. Carlson said she was struck by how Kisilu “thinks deeply and thoughtfully” to create solutions that fit local communities and market conditions.

The Pritzker Award was launched in 2017, and for the first time since 2019, the presentation was held in person — the 2020 and 2021 events were streamed online due to the pandemic. The 2022 award celebration was kicked off earlier in the day by a series of discussions among UCLA experts and international environmental leaders.

Marilyn Raphael, director of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, saluted Kisilu, the other nominees, and the other innovators and scholars who attended the award ceremony.

“You have already touched many lives, and what you do every day will touch lives and inspire environmental heroes for generations to come,” she said.

The other two finalists for the award were Resson Kantai Duff, a conservationist who fosters understanding and stewardship of nature in communities that live among lions; and Tiana Williams-Clausen, director of the Wildlife Department of the Yurok Tribe, who is helping to restore wildlife to Yurok lands around the Klamath River.

From left, Dysmus Kisilu with Marilyn Raphael of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Pritzker Award finalist Tiana Williams-Clausen and Tony Pritzker at the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award ceremony.

From left, Dysmus Kisilu with Marilyn Raphael of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Pritzker Award finalist Tiana Williams-Clausen and Tony Pritzker at the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award ceremony. | Damon Cirulli

The distinguished panel of judges who chose Kisilu as this year’s winner was made up of Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon; Chanell Fletcher, deputy executive officer of environmental justice at the California Air Resources Board; Lori Garver, CEO of the Earthrise Media; and Ida Levine, lead expert on policy and regulation for the board of Impact Investing Institute.

Kisilu’s honor was presented by Tony Pritzker, who founded the award and is a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s advisory board.

“The objective of all this is to honor you at such a great point in your lives — giving you the opportunity to take it to the next level,” Pritzker said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.