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Picture of Anastassia Alexandrova

Chemist Anastassia Alexandrova receives Max Planck-Humboldt Medal

Picture of Anastassia Alexandrova

Anastassia Alexandrova. Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Anastassia Alexandrova, UCLA professor and vice chair of chemistry and biochemistry, has been selected to receive the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal, which honors extraordinary scientists outside Germany with outstanding future potential.

The medal, awarded jointly by Germany’s Max Planck Gesellschaft and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, will be presented to Alexandrova in a ceremony in Berlin in November 2022 (delayed one year because of COVID).

Alexandrova and her research team design new materials and develop new algorithms, guided by insights into electronic structure and chemical bonding, using a wide range of methods, including artificial intelligence and machine learning. She and her research team design new catalysts, building up from detailed understanding of their electronic structure, to the shapes, stability and catalytic properties.

She is being honored for her research in theoretical chemistry, in particular her studies on the catalysis of chemical reactions and materials science. Alexandrova has developed methods that simulate how a catalyst behaves during a chemical reaction, which structures mediate between the reaction partners in detail and how the reaction conditions — such as temperature, pressure and concentration of the starting materials — influence the states of the catalyst and this interaction states the press release announcing the medal.

“I am deeply honored to receive the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal,” said Alexandrova, a member of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute. “My laboratory is a warm home for students of many different backgrounds, from chemistry and biochemistry to physics, material science and engineering, computer science and applied mathematics.”

Alexandrova is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the American Chemical Society’s 2016 Rising Star Award, which recognizes exceptional women chemists on a national level; a J. William Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant; a 2020 Early Career Award in theoretical chemistry by the physical chemistry division of the American Chemical Society; a 2019 UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award and 2018 UCLA Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor Award.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Richard Kaner

Richard Kaner wins award from American Chemical Society

 

Picture of Richard Kaner

Richard Kaner, distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering at UCLA.

Richard Kaner, the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Professor of Materials Innovation at UCLA, was selected to receive the 2022 American Chemical Society’s Award in Applied Polymer Science. The award, sponsored by Eastman Chemical Company, recognizes “outstanding achievements in the science or technology of plastics, coatings, polymer composites, adhesives and related fields.” He will be presented the award at the society’s national meeting in San Diego, California, in March.

Kaner, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, is among the world’s most influential and highly cited scientific researchers. Among his many awards and honors, he was elected a 2020 fellow of the American Physical Society and selected as the recipient of the American Institute of Chemists 2019 Chemical Pioneer Award, which honors chemists and chemical engineers who have made outstanding contributions that advance the science of chemistry or greatly impact the chemical profession. He is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA.

Kaner and his research team have designed a series of materials. These include creating a membrane that separates oil from water and cleans up the debris left by oil fracking and scaling up a single layer of carbon known as graphene for use in energy storage devices. His research spans a wide range of topics within materials science and inorganic chemistry.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Aradhna Tripati

Climate scientist Aradhna Tripati receives honors from two science organizations

Picture of Aradhna Tripati

Aradhna Tripati. Courtesy of Aradhna Tripati

Aradhna Tripati, an associate professor affiliated with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, has been named recipient of the Willi Dansgaard award from the American Geophysical Union.

Tripati, who is the founder and director of the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science at UCLA, has also recently been elected as a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. Fellows of the academy are a group of distinguished scientists nominated and appointed in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the natural sciences.

She has been a mentor and advisor to many and has established a number of laboratories. Tripati’s research is focused on using the chemistry of natural compounds as well as models as tools to understand how the Earth works. Her work is relevant to understanding climate change, the oceans, and the transfer of carbon between the biosphere, atmosphere and oceans.

The Dansgaard Award is presented annually and recognizes significant contributions to the fields of paleoceanography or paleoclimatology from a mid-career scientist within eight to 20 years of receiving their doctorate. Named in honor of Willi Dansgaard, a paleoclimate pioneer, this award is presented at the union’s fall meeting.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Terence Tao in his UCLA office

Terence Tao named to President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Terence Tao in his UCLA office

Terence Tao in his UCLA office. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Terence Tao, UCLA professor of mathematics, has been selected by President Joe Biden as one 30 of America’s most-distinguished leaders in science and technology who will serve on his President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

A direct descendant of the scientific advisory committee established by President Eisenhower in 1957 in the weeks after the launch of Sputnik, the council is the sole body of external advisers charged with making science, technology and innovation policy recommendations to the president and the White House to address the country’s most pressing challenges.

Tao, who holds the James and Carol Collins Chair in the UCLA College, became the first mathematics professor in UCLA history to be awarded the Fields Medal in 2006, often described as the “Nobel Prize in mathematics.” He has earned many other honors, including the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, Royal Society’s 2014 Royal Medal for physical sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize and the first Riemann Prize in Mathematics, established by Italy’s Riemann International School of Mathematics. National Geographic magazine featured him in its “What makes a genius?” May 2017 issue.

The new council includes two Nobel laureates, 20 elected members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, five MacArthur Foundation Fellows and two former cabinet secretaries.

The council advises the president “on matters involving policy affecting science, technology, and innovation, as well as on matters involving scientific and technological information that is needed to inform public policy relating to the economy, worker empowerment, education, energy, the environment, public health, national and homeland security, racial equity, and other topics,” the White House said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Aurora borealis in Alaska

‘Surfing’ particles: Physicists solve a mystery surrounding aurora borealis

A photo of Aurora borealis in Alaska

Aurora borealis in Alaska (Photo Credit: Jean Beaufort)

The spectacularly colorful aurora borealis — or northern lights — that fills the sky in high-latitude regions has fascinated people for thousands of years. Now, a team of scientists has resolved one of the final mysteries surrounding its origin.

Scientists know that electrons and other energized particles that emanate from the sun as part of the “solar wind” speed down Earth’s magnetic field lines and into the upper atmosphere, where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen molecules, kicking them into an excited state. These molecules then relax by emitting light, producing the beautiful green and red hues of the aurora.

What has not been well understood is precisely how groups of electrons accelerate through the magnetic field on the last leg of their journey, reaching speeds of up to 45 million mph. In a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, that question is answered by physicists from UCLA, Wheaton College, the University of Iowa and the Space Science Institute.

A popular theory has been that electrons hitch a ride on Alfvén waves — a type of electromagnetic wave that spacecraft have frequently identified traveling Earthward along magnetic field lines above auroras. While space-based research has provided strong support for the theory, limitations inherent to spacecraft measurements have prevented a definitive test.

To overcome these limitations, the physicists conducted laboratory experiments on the Large Plasma Device at UCLA’s Basic Plasma Science Facility, a national collaborative research site supported jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

After reproducing conditions that mimicked those in Earth’s auroral magnetosphere, the team used specially designed instruments to launch Alfvén waves down the plasma device’s 20-meter–long chamber. Because Alfvén waves are thought to collect only a small portion of electrons in the plasma of space, the physicists focused on determining whether there were electrons that appeared to be traveling at a rate comparable to the electric field of the waves.

“This challenging experiment required a measurement of the very small population of electrons moving down the chamber at nearly the same speed as the Alfvén waves, numbering less than one in a thousand of the electrons in the plasma,” said Troy Carter, a professor of physics and director of the UCLA Plasma Science and Technology Institute.

“Measurements revealed this small population of electrons undergoes ‘resonant acceleration’ by the Alfvén wave’s electric field, similar to a surfer catching a wave and being continually accelerated as the surfer moves along with the wave,” said Gregory Howes, an associate professor of physics at the University of Iowa.

Electrons surfing on Alfvén waves (yellow) streaming toward Earth collide with nitrogen and oxygen molecules (white); in upper altitudes, these collisions result in the emission of red light, while in lower altitudes the emitted light is green.

Electrons streaming toward Earth as they surf on Alfvén waves (yellow) collide with nitrogen and oxygen molecules (white); in upper altitudes, these collisions result in the emission of red light, while in lower altitudes the emitted light is green. (Photo Credit: Austin Montelius, University of Iowa)

Howes noted that these Alfvén waves appear following geomagnetic storms, space-based phenomena triggered by violent events on the sun, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These storms can cause what is known as “magnetic reconnection” in the Earth’s magnetic field, in which magnetic field lines are stretched like rubber bands, snap and then reconnect. These shifts launch Alfvén waves along the lines toward Earth.

And because regions of magnetic reconnection shift during a storm, the Alfvén waves — and their accompanying surfing electrons — travel along different field lines over that time period, ultimately leading to the shimmering glow of the aurora’s curtains of light, Carter said.

In physics, electrons surfing on the electric field of a wave is a phenomenon known as Landau damping, in which the energy of the wave is transferred to the accelerated particles. As part of their research, the team used an innovative analysis technique that combined measurements of the Alfvén waves’ electric field and the electrons to generate a unique signature of the electron acceleration by Landau damping. Through numerical simulations and mathematical modeling, the researchers demonstrated that the signature of acceleration measured in the experiment agreed with the predicted signature for Landau damping.

The agreement of experiment, simulation and modeling provides the first direct test showing that Alfvén waves can produce accelerated electrons that cause the aurora, Carter said.

“This experimental confirmation of the physics behind the aurora is due to persistent ingenuity of research groups at the University of Iowa and UCLA,” said Vyacheslav (Slava) Lukin, program director for Plasma Physics at the National Science Foundation, who was not involved in the research. “From student support via an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, to the NSF CAREER program for early career faculty, to the 25-year partnership between NSF and the Department of Energy that has enabled the unique capabilities of the Basic Plasma Science Facility, this is a success story of a discovery made possible by consistent support of the university research community.”

In addition to Howes and Carter, study authors included James Schroeder of Wheaton College, Craig Kletzing and Frederick Skiff of the University of Iowa, Stephen Vincena of UCLA, and Seth Dorfman of the Space Science Institute.

Further information on the research findings is available on Howes’ website.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

The Uneven Impact of Remote Learning

 

By Robin Migdol  |  Illustration by Jeannie Phan

 

Among the classes in UCLA’s vast course catalog, “Health Disparities and the Environment” might not stand out, but undergraduates who enroll in it have a remarkable opportunity: They get to do research under the guidance of senior faculty in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

A yearlong research course series with biology professor Paul Barber, the class is geared toward sophomore pre-med students from underrepresented groups to support their success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors and maintain their path to medical school.

When UCLA transitioned to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Barber and his students were faced with a question: How do we continue the research component of the class?

They had been preparing to research food-insecure communities of color in Los Angeles by interviewing people fishing at local piers and testing fish samples for chemical and microbial contaminants. But with the rise of COVID-19 and UCLA’s switch to remote learning, interviewing people in the community became impossible.

The students could easily have put all their research projects on hold until they could return to campus. Instead, they embarked on a new project to research disparities in how they and their peers were adjusting to remote learning.

RESEARCH IN REAL TIME

“The students decided they wanted to develop a survey to under-stand the experiences of UCLA students during remote instruction and try to understand whether the challenges that they were facing were unique to them,” Barber said.

Soon after UCLA had transitioned to remote learning, the campus launched several initiatives to help students. The Bruin Tech Grant provided laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and tablets to students who needed them. The Administrative Vice Chancellor, UCLA Student Affairs and UCLA Library also published guides to help students stay organized, access digital resources, and manage their health and wellness.

Yet despite UCLA’s efforts to support students as they began learning remotely, the students in Barber’s class knew there were gaps in how they and their peers were managing.

“Our students realized that the experience they were having with remote learning was not necessarily the same experience that other students were having,” said Barber, who also directs the Undergraduate Research Center’s Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences (PEERS).

With the support of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Center for Educational Assessment, the Academic Advancement Program, the registrar’s office, and then-Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia Turner, the students created a survey that was distributed to a random sampling of 20% of the undergraduate student body.

The survey included questions about student satisfaction with remote learning, technological barriers, ability to focus, student time demands, living situation, added responsibilities, financial issues, food insecurity and other COVID-19 related obstacles. The results showed that first-generation students and students from underrepresented communities, as well as STEM students, found the transition to remote learning more difficult than other students.

“One staggering statistic found was that technology limited the ability to engage in remote instruction for 42% of first-generation and 36.6% of underrepresented minority students,” said Jennifer Navarez, one of the student researchers who is now a senior majoring in human biology and society. “In addition, STEM students were less satisfied than non-STEM students with remote instruction.”

Student researcher and junior psychobiology major Alison Menjivar said, “All three groups experienced technological challenges such as Wi-Fi problems because they didn’t really have any access to a computer at home; they always relied on the technology at school. And then, this probably interfered with their participation in the classroom. So some people might not have been able to participate in discussions or attend lectures.”

INSIGHTS INFLUENCING CHANGE

Barber and the students organized their data in a report that was shared with Turner and others in the UCLA administration, including the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT) and the COVID-19 continuity task force. Barber said there was “tremendous” interest in the survey’s findings, and while the campus had already enacted initiatives to support students during the pandemic, simply raising awareness of students’ experiences made a difference.

“Just by understanding the challenges students are facing, it increases faculty empathy for what students are going through,” Barber said. “Having that data and seeing the results is quite sobering. It’s made me think a lot more about the welfare of my students, and I checked in with them more to see how they’re doing.”

Marc Levis-Fitzgerald, director of CAT’s Center for Educational Assessment, said for him the report’s most important takeaway is that challenges faced by underrepresented and first-generation students are the result of disparities that existed long before remote learning began.

“Given that feedback from quarterly surveys of our students during COVID remote learning was generally positive, minus challenges with feeling a sense of community, this deeper look at different groups was enlightening,” he said.

The resulting paper was accepted for publication in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. Levis-Fitzgerald pointed out that completing and publishing a research paper in less than a year is a rare achievement, especially for undergraduates.

Doing research about their own challenges, then presenting that research to campus leaders who have the power to positively influence the students themselves, was a significant opportunity, Barber and the students said.

“I think the most significant outcome of this paper is that it will be used to influence change at UCLA and help assist professors in making equity-minded decisions to support all UCLA students,” Navarez said.

 

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Advancing Equality with Better Data

 

By Elizabeth Kivowitz  |  Photo by Matika Wilbur

 

A proud Northern Cheyenne Indian and Chicana, Desi Small-Rodriguez says that she’s a relative first, then a researcher and teacher, and thus considers herself a bit of an anomaly in academia.

“I need to remain accountable to my community,” said Small-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of sociology and Amer-ican Indian studies in the UCLA College and the first Indigenous woman to be jointly hired by the sociology department and the American Indian studies program. “That’s how many Indig-enous faculty feel. Academia can take you far away from the communities, lands and waters that ground you. I’m consistently reminded by mentors, ‘Always lift as you climb,’ because this is such a lonely path.”

In her research Small-Rodriguez examines those on the periph-ery of mainstream data collection efforts like government surveys and the U.S. Census, to understand the ways people in these groups are or are not being counted. She says these efforts often do a poor job of collecting data on Indigenous peoples, undocu-mented migrants, those experiencing homelessness, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups, which causes harm and perpetuates inequality.

“The U.S. is the most unequal country of any of the developed countries in the world,” said Small-Rodriguez, who joined the UCLA faculty last fall. “I’m interested in how systems amplify suf-fering and why suffering is being disproportionately experienced by certain populations, and also systems of erasure and how erasure perpetuates inequality. If your literal presence is com-pletely erased, that is a unique form of inequality and injustice.”

MAKING DATA WORK TO BUILD EQUITY

Small-Rodriguez sees wide-ranging applications for her work that could drive systemic change in how data collection efforts are organized and operated – leading to better government decision-making and policy.

“Ultimately, I’m an optimist. I believe that just as structures of inequality were built and maintained, so too can they be dismantled and replaced,” Small-Rodriguez said. “And like most Indigenous scholars, I am called upon to work, advocate and serve in different directions. Being a professor is simply one of my dream jobs. I have many paths that will sustain me, and I believe that eventually all roads lead home.

“This means that part of my work in academia includes making myself literally obsolete. I want to train enough young scholars to take over this work, so that one day I can be back full-time on my homelands living the Cheyenne way of life in good relation with all that is seen and unseen.”

With her move to Los Angeles delayed due to the pandemic, Small-Rodriguez resides on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana where she grew up. Over the past few months, she has been encouraging people in her community to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially given the disproportionate impact of the virus on Indigenous peoples early in the pandemic.

“I’m thankful for all the brave and amazing frontline medical workers and our tribal leaders who continue to exercise tribal sovereignty so that we can get all of our people vaccinated regardless of age or health status,” she said.

Small-Rodriguez also co-hosts “All My Relations,” the mostpopular podcast in the Indigenous world with more than 1 million downloads.

A LEAP OF FAITH INTO DEMOGRAPHY

As a student, Small-Rodriguez became interested in demography and social science because her sociology professor, one of the only Indigenous sociologists and demographers in the world, noticed her abilities in the field. He offered her a job with a Māori doctoral student he was advising who was doing research in New Zealand. She learned how to be a researcher and demographer working for tribes in New Zealand for many years, and then con-ducting the same type of work for tribes in the U.S.

“My time in New Zealand was life changing,” she said. While there, Small-Rodriguez worked on tribal census projects, community surveys, and social determinants of health and policy research. “It’s where I learned how to do research and build data by Indigenous Peoples for Indigenous Peoples. I also learned about the boundaries of indigeneity and tribal belonging in ways that are far different than for Indigenous Peoples in North America. In New Zealand, Māori kinship is affirmed in very inclusive ways as compared to minimum blood quantum policies that we use here. That led to another area of my research understand-ing the boundaries of belonging for Indigenous peoples.”

Small-Rodriguez points out that the word data comes from the Latin “datum,” meaning something given. For Indigenous Peoples, the term more often means “something taken” – and that data has been used as another method by which others extract some-thing from the Indigenous, leaving behind very broken systems to rebuild and repair. She references everything from Indigenous bodies, to language, to knowledge of the important connections with lands, water and animals as having become disrupted. She calls that “data erasure” an ongoing effort of genocide.

Amid all the loss, the recent vaccination effort illustrates an area of hope. “The only reason that Indigenous Peoples now have some of the highest rates of vaccination uptake is because of tribal sovereignty,” Small-Rodriguez said. “Tribes exercised sovereignty and have been able to protect their people in ways federal, state and local governments have not. Tribal sovereigns know how to get their people onboard because of their deep commitment to collective survival. In Indigenous communities, we are born and raised with a collective survival strategy, and we’ve been doing this since we were invaded 500 years ago. This is something that we have seen shine through in the middle of this pandemic — something positive amidst so much negative.”

LEARN MORE

Listen to the “All My Relations” podcast co-hosted by professor Small-Rodriguez.

 

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A photo of Mars and Venus.

New Insights into Mars and Venus

 

By Christopher Crockett and Stuart Wolpert

 

David Paige is deputy principal investigator of Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX, one of seven instruments on NASA’s Perseverance rover.

About the size of a car, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18. Over the next two years it will explore Jezero Crater in Mars’ northern hemisphere for signs of ancient life and new clues about the planet’s climate and geology.

Among other tasks, Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples in tubes that a later spacecraft will bring back to Earth. The experiments will lay the groundwork for future human and robotic exploration of Mars. RIMFAX will probe beneath the planet’s surface to study its geology in detail.

“Jezero Crater is a very interesting location on Mars because it looks like there was once a lake inside the crater, and that a river flowed into the lake and deposited sediments in a delta,” Paige said. “We plan to explore the delta to learn more about Mars’ climate history, and maybe something about ancient Martian life. What we’ll be able to see once we start roving and what we will actually learn is anybody’s guess.”

RIMFAX will provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures and help find clues to past environments on Mars, including those that may have provided the conditions necessary for sup-porting life, he said.

Paige emphasized that RIMFAX is an experiment. “We’ve never tried using a ground-penetrating radar on Mars before, so we can’t really predict what types of subsurface structures we might be able to see. But we have done some fairly extensive field testing of RIMFAX on Earth to learn how to use it and how to interpret the data. Here, ground-penetrating radars can be very useful for clarifying subsurface geology.”

Is he hopeful of finding water, or evidence of water, beneath the planet’s surface?

“There are all kinds of evidence for past liquid water all over Mars,” Paige said. “At Jezero, there must have been a lot of water at some point, but we don’t expect that the ground beneath the rover will still be wet. Mars today is a very cold place, and any water in the shallow subsurface should be frozen at Jezero. What we’re interested in finding are geologic features that wouldn’t be expected to form under present climatic conditions, as those would be especially interesting targets to search for signs of past life.”

UCLA College graduate students Max Parks and Tyler Powell in Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences are part of the science team, and Mark Nasielski, a UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering, is part of the operations team.

VENUS IS AN ENIGMA

Venus is the planet next door yet reveals little about itself. An opaque blanket of clouds smothers a harsh landscape pelted by acid rain and baked at temperatures that can liquify lead.

Now, new observations from the safety of Earth are lifting the veil on some of Venus’ most basic properties. By repeatedly bouncing radar off the planet’s surface over the last 15 years, a UCLA-led team has pinned down the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis and the size of its core — findings published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“Venus is our sister planet, and yet these fundamental properties have remained unknown,” said professor Jean-Luc Margot, who led the research.

Earth and Venus have a lot in common: Both are rocky planets and have nearly the same size, mass and density. And yet they evolved along wildly different paths. Fundamentals such as how many hours are in a Venusian day provide critical data for understanding the divergent histories of these neighboring worlds.

Changes in Venus’ spin and orientation reveal how mass is spread out within. Knowledge of its internal structure, in turn, fuels insight into the planet’s formation, its volcanic history and how time has altered the surface. Plus, without precise data on how the planet spins, any future landing attempts could be off by as much as 30 kilometers.

The new radar measurements show that an average day on Venus lasts 243.0226 Earth days — roughly two-thirds of an Earth year. What’s more, the rotation rate of Venus is always changing: A value measured at one time will be a bit larger or smaller than a previous value. The team estimated the length of a day from each of the individual measurements, and they observed differences of at least 20 minutes.

Venus’ heavy atmosphere is likely to blame for the variation.

The UCLA-led team also reports that Venus tips to one side by precisely 2.6392 degrees (Earth is tilted by about 23 degrees), an improvement on the precision of previous estimates by a factor of 10. The repeated radar measurements further revealed the glacial rate at which the orientation of Venus’ spin axis changes, much like a spinning top. On Earth, this “precession” takes about 26,000 years to cycle around once. Venus needs a little longer: about 29,000 years.

The team has turned its sights on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. Many researchers strongly suspect that Europa hides a liquid water ocean beneath a thick shell of ice. Ground-based radar measurements could fortify the case for an ocean and reveal the thickness of the ice shell.

And the team will continue bouncing radar off Venus. With each radio echo, the veil over Venus lifts a little bit more, bringing our sister planet into ever sharper view.

This research was supported by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Science Foundation.

 

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Studying Maternal Stress

By Stuart Wolpert

 

Through their research with women and children, UCLA scientists are homing in on some of the great mysteries of life and some of society’s most pressing concerns.

One example: the question of why some people age faster than others.

A potential answer, a recent study indicates, is that a mother’s stress prior to giving birth may accelerate her child’s biological aging.

Researchers found evidence that maternal stress adversely affects the length of a baby’s telomeres — the small pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that act as protective caps, like the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres have been linked to a higher risk of cancers, cardiovascular and other diseases, and earlier death. The findings are reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Research on aging is beginning to identify some factors that might put a person on an accelerated aging path, potentially leading to diseases of aging such as metabolic disorder and cardiovascular disease much earlier in life than would be expected,” said the study’s lead author, Judith Carroll, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

While several studies have reported that telomere length is shorter in newborns whose mothers reported high stress during pregnancy, this study also measured maternal stress prior to conception and then, once women were pregnant, the researchers followed up in the second and third trimesters. Their analyses identified the third trimester as an especially important period — but not earlier — during which children are at higher risk for shortened telomeres.

Christine Dunkel Schetter, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry and senior author of the study, said the findings support the case for devoting more resources to screening and treatment programs for preconception health and well-being.

The research team followed 111 mothers living in North Carolina, Illinois and Washington, D.C., from preconception until their children reached early childhood. Between the ages of 3 and 5, the children provided cell samples from inside their cheeks, from which the researchers extracted DNA that was used to measure telomeres. They were then able to test for associations of childhood telomere length with the mothers’ stress levels when the children were in utero.

Carroll said, “We see evidence into childhood that telomere length continues to be shorter in those children exposed in utero to maternal stress.

“How does maternal stress alter cellular aging?”

We know that stress can activate inflammation and metabolic activity, both of which, in high amounts, can damage DNA,” Carroll said. “Telomeres are vulnerable to damage and, if unrepaired before cell division, they can become shortened by this damage. During in utero development, we know there is rapid cell replication, and we suspect there is increased vulnerability to damage during this time.”

High maternal stress oftenleads to preterm births

A second UCLA-led study from the same research group found that women suffering from high stress — defined as feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope — during the months and even years before conception had shorter pregnancies than other women. Women who experienced the highest levels of stress gave birth to infants whose time in utero was shorter by one week or more.

“Every day in the womb is important to fetal growth and development,” said Dunkel Schetter. “Premature infants have higher risk of adverse outcomes at birth and later in life than babies born later, including developmental disabilities and physical health problems.”

Dunkel Schetter, who heads the Stress Processes and Pregnancy Lab, which conducted the studies, noted premature birth rates are unusually high in the U.S., compared with other nations with similar resources, and low-income and African American women have higher rates of preterm birth.

“Preventing preterm birth, with its adverse consequences for mothers and children worldwide and in the U.S., is a top priority,” she said.

These results, published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, are based on extensive in-home interviews with 360 mothers, many of whom live near or below the poverty level. In addition to collecting data on these women’s general stress levels, the interviewers obtained information about various types of environmental stress, including financial worries, job loss, a lack of food, chronic relationship troubles, parenting challenges, interpersonal vi0lence and discrimination.

The researchers found that women who were exposed to the lowest or highest amounts of stress in their environment had the shortest pregnancies, while women who had a moderate level of environmental stress before conception had the longest pregnancies.

“Women exposed to moderate stressors in their environment may have developed coping strategies that serve them well both before and during pregnancy, while exposure to more severe stress challenges even women who normally cope very effectively,” said lead author Nicole Mahrer, who conducted the research as a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in health psychology and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne. She is also a co-author of the other study.

A moderate amount of stress prior to the pregnancy may also help prepare the developing fetus for the environment to come, Mahrer said.

“What we have not known until now,” Dunkel Schetter said, “is whether a mother’s psychosocial health before conception matters for her birth out-comes. This study is among the first to point out that, yes, it does matter. It may even be more influential than prenatal health because some of what is put in motion before conception may be hard to stop during pregnancy. For example, a mother with dysregulated immune function due to stress may be at risk when she becomes pregnant.”

 

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A photo of a member of the humanitarian search-and-rescue group Águilas del Desierto.

Professor’s Award-Winning Documentary on Migration

 

By Alison Hewitt

 

When UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre decided to make a documentary about volunteers who search for the remains of migrants in the desert spanning the U.S.-Mexico border, she wanted people to see what she believes has become invisible: not just the deaths, but how ignoring them enables policies that lead to even more deaths.

Now she’s helped bring that hidden reality to light. Her 14-minute film Águilas, co-directed with Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, won the SXSW Documentary Short Jury Award and the Best Mini-Doc award at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The film garnering all this interest took shape when Zubiaurre, a professor of European languages and transcultural studies, and of Spanish and Portuguese, approached Guevara-Flanagan with the idea of highlighting the work of Águilas del Desierto (Desert Eagles), a humanitarian search-and-rescue group that scours the Arizona desert on weekends, looking for those reported missing. The documentary follows the volunteers on one of their searches.

Zubiaurre, who also co-leads the College’s Urban Humanities Initiative, spoke with UCLA College Magazine about the film and her concept of “forensic empathy,” which centers on consciousness-raising activism and compassion-triggering artistic practices around migrant suffering and death. Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: It’s clear that you are very moved and inspired by the work of Águilas del Desierto. Who are they?

A: They’re a group of volunteers from San Diego. At least once a month, they search for missing migrants to bring families some sort of closure. The weekend that we filmed the documentary, we found six bodies, all skeletal remains.

Most of the volunteers are migrants themselves, and they’re all workers — construction workers, domestic workers, gardeners, laborers, you name it. They finish work around 7 on Friday night, drive their trucks seven hours to Arizona, sleep for maybe three hours and then walk for hours through that harsh and harrowing landscape. I have volunteered with them since 2016, and it’s truly very hard. They sleep in a tent on Saturday night and search on Sunday until they have to drive home. Then they get up early Monday morning and go back to work.

Needless to say, they don’t have any steady funding. They have a website and a Facebook page, and they set up stands in swap meets, where they talk about their work and collect donations. Those are also ways they hear about the missing.

What the Águilas do, their heroic efforts and altruism, deserves recognition. Their work needs to be made visible. This short documentary isn’t looking at all the pieces of the issue, but it looks at one specific piece to raise awareness about what is happening at the border and hopefully help change it.

Q: You’ve said this documentary is a humanitarian plea. What action do you hope it will inspire?

A: People don’t want to deal with the fact that migration is creating this humanitarian crisis. In 2020, Arizona’s Pima County morgue recovered 227 mi-grants’ bodies. In the 1990s, they would find 10 or 20 bodies. The numbers have skyrocketed because of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a set of U.S. government policies that militarily fortify urban crossing points, forcing migrants to cross through unforgiving desert terrain. The loose estimate is that for each body they find, there are five that the desert never gives back.

This has become invisible, despite its radical visibility: The bones are liter-ally laying exposed in the sun. I want to raise awareness, and most importantly, effect policy change.

This documentary, and a feature documentary in the making, are part of a larger, three-pronged interdisciplinary and collaborative endeavor called forensic empathy that I initiated and lead. The other participants are the Tijuana-based filmic and artistic collective Dignicraft — José Luis Figueroa, Ana Paola Rodríguez and Omar Foglio — and Jonathan Crisman, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

We are also writing a scholarly monograph and leading the creation of a digital map of the border. There’s the imaginary border you see on most maps — a criminally simplified version that our map wants to complicate. It’s not all bad guys trying to get into a perfect country. We’re complicating the map with prisons, migrant assistance groups, artist studios. We’re thickening the map so students can learn about the complexity of the border.

If you teach students complexity, they will pause and reflect. If you oversimplify, they will not reflect, and they will believe in fallacies.

Q: How does forensic empathy shine a light on this topic in a new way?

A: We have to look at this grim reality through the eyes of empathy, not just through the cold statistics. Forensic empathy is a direct response to the tragedy of the horrifyingly high number of undocumented immigrants who perish year after year while crossing the U.S.–Mexico border. It studies the forensic efforts, archival practices and art interventions that take place around border casualties and looks at the personal belongings found on the deceased immigrants through the eyes of chief examiners, consular agencies, policymakers, nonprofit organizations and artist-activists.

The personal belongings recovered in the desert tell a story. Belongings like camouflaged clothes, carpet-soled shoes and matte water bottles are all designed to help the migrants truly disappear into the landscape. But hundreds of bodies are found, not just by the Águilas, but by day-trippers, hunters, even dog walkers. The migrants die of dehydration, hypothermia, hyperthermia. Yet because we don’t want to look at our failure as a society, the bodies become invisible and so does the apparatus around it that increases the deaths.

This is a key role of the humanities, to apply critical thinking in dealing with the crucial issues of our times and to spearhead initiatives that connect with the community and fully invest in social justice.

LEARN MORE

Watch the documentary, available for a year through The New Yorker’s website. Visit the Águilas del Desierto website.

 

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