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Migratory songbirds’ travels disrupted by earlier springs

A scarlet tanager perched on a tree branch. (Photo Credit: Jen Goellnitz/Flickr)

Spring has arrived in North America. Leaves have sprouted, flowers are in bloom and migratory birds are bringing color and song to large swaths of the continent.

The timing of this so-called spring green-up — the beginning of a new cycle of plant growth each year — affects migratory birds’ behaviors and ability to survive their move north. They tend to travel later if winter lasts a little long, and sooner if spring comes early.

In North America, climate change is causing spring to arrive an average of 0.4 days earlier each year. According to a new paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, some species could be unable to keep pace with this rapid change.

Although a change of less than half a day per year might not sound like much, it adds up to an entire week’s worth of change every 20 years, and it could alter what food is available along their migration routes and breeding grounds, how much time fledglings have to leave the nest, and how the birds interact with other plant and animal species. Previous research has found that such changes could lead to population declines and cascading effects to ecosystems.

“Some birds are quite accurate on the coming of spring because they are highly sensitive to the rhythms and cycles of nature,” said Morgan Tingley, a UCLA ecologist and the paper’s senior author.

Tingley and his co-authors crowdsourced 7 million observations by birdwatchers from the online platform eBird and compared the data to the timing of spring green-up as seen from space via two NASA satellites from 2002 through 2017.

The researchers analyzed how 56 species of migratory birds, primarily small songbirds, responded to these earlier springs. All species travel to breeding grounds in North America but some winter farther south, in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The authors found that species with shorter, slower migration routes that winter farther north adjusted to changes better — the pine warbler and eastern phoebe, for example. Others had more trouble keeping pace, particularly those that winter in South America and have longer migration routes — such as the bobolink and willow flycatcher.

Most were unable to entirely keep up with an earlier arrival of spring. For each day earlier that green-up occurred, species generally adjusted their migration schedules by less than a half-day.

That inability to adjust to an earlier spring can have serious consequences, said Casey Youngflesh, the study’s lead author and a UCLA ecology and evolutionary biology researcher.

“If birds show up days or weeks later than optimal, they may not have enough food, which could result in lower success breeding and fewer chicks that survive to leave the nest,” Youngflesh said. “That’s really the main concern — that it may cause overall declines in how many birds there actually are.”

The study also notes that the consequences for birds could indirectly affect other animals and even plants. For example, caterpillars are a primary source of food for migratory birds, but if bird populations were to decline, it is possible that more caterpillars than normal would survive each year. Were that to happen, the health of trees could be affected because leaves are a primary food source for caterpillars.

“Everything is interconnected. If you remove a piece of the ecosystem, it’s hard to say exactly what will happen,” Youngflesh said, adding that further research would be needed to determine exactly what the consequences of earlier green-ups would be for any individual species.

Changes in climate have always been a major factor in the evolution of birds’ migratory patterns. However, Youngflesh said, those adaptations have occurred over tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. Modern climate change, largely resulting from increased carbon dioxide emissions, is happening far faster, over years and decades — so rapidly that many species are unable to adapt quickly enough.

That’s thought to be one of the primary reasons bird populations have declined rapidly across North America in recent decades. A 2019 paper published in Science concluded that the number of birds on the continent has diminished by about 3 billion since 1970, when the total population was around 7 billion. In addition to climate change, other factors such as habitat loss, outdoor-dwelling cats and more windows — with which birds collide — are likely reasons for the decline.

The new study, whose co-authors included researchers from the University of Florida, University of North Carolina and Pennsylvania State University and others, outlines a framework for further research into why and how the decline is happening, and it could help conservationists target their efforts to protect the species that are most at risk, Tingley said.

“Climate change is producing winners and losers,” Tingley said. “We are mapping for the first time why some are winning and others are losing.”

This article, written by David Colgan, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of the planet Venus.

How long is a day on Venus? Scientists crack mysteries of our closest neighbor

A photo of the planet Venus.

Fundamentals such as how many hours are in a Venusian day provide critical data for understanding the divergent histories of Venus and Earth, UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Venus is an enigma. It’s the planet next door and 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. The findings are published today in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“Venus is our sister planet, and yet these fundamental properties have remained unknown,” said Jean-Luc Margot, a UCLA professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences who led the research.

Earth and Venus have a lot in common: Both rocky planets 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 moves, any future landing attempts could be off by as much as 30 kilometers.

“Without these measurements,” said Margot, “we’re essentially flying blind.”

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.

“That probably explains why previous estimates didn’t agree with one another,” Margot said.

Venus’ heavy atmosphere is likely to blame for the variation. As it sloshes around the planet, it exchanges a lot of momentum with the solid ground, speeding up and slowing down its rotation. This happens on Earth too, but the exchange adds or subtracts just one millisecond from each day. The effect is much more dramatic on Venus because the atmosphere is roughly 93 times as massive as Earth’s, and so it has a lot more momentum to trade.

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 child’s top. On Earth, this “precession” takes about 26,000 years to cycle around once. Venus needs a little longer: about 29,000 years.

With these exacting measurements of how Venus spins, the team calculated that the planet’s core is about 3,500 kilometers across — quite similar to Earth — though they cannot yet deduce whether it’s liquid or solid.

Venus as a giant disco ball

On 21 separate occasions from 2006 to 2020, Margot and his colleagues aimed radio waves at Venus from the 70-meter–wide Goldstone antenna in California’s Mojave Desert. Several minutes later, those radio waves bounced off Venus and came back to Earth. The radio echo was picked up at Goldstone and at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

“We use Venus as a giant disco ball,” said Margot, with the radio dish acting like a flashlight and the planet’s landscape like millions of tiny reflectors. “We illuminate it with an extremely powerful flashlight — about 100,000 times brighter than your typical flashlight. And if we track the reflections from the disco ball, we can infer properties about the spin [state].”

Muhammad Nadeem, Jean-Luc Margot/UCLA and NASA

The complex reflections erratically brighten and dim the return signal, which sweeps across Earth. The Goldstone antenna sees the echo first, then Green Bank sees it roughly 20 seconds later. The exact delay between receipt at the two facilities provides a snapshot of how quickly Venus is spinning, while the particular window of time in which the echoes are most similar reveals the planet’s tilt.

The observations required exquisite timing to ensure that Venus and Earth were properly positioned. And both observatories had to be working perfectly — which wasn’t always the case. “We found that it’s actually challenging to get everything to work just right in a 30-second period,” Margot said. “Most of the time, we get some data. But it’s unusual that we get all the data that we’re hoping to get.”

Despite the challenges, the team is forging ahead and has turned its sights on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. Many researchers strongly suspect that Europa, in particular, 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 of 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.

Other researchers who contributed to the study are Donald Campbell of Cornell University; Jon Giorgini, Joseph Jao and Lawrence Snedeker of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Frank Ghigo and Amber Bonsall of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia.

This article, written by Christopher Crockett, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a scene from Netflix action-thriller “The Old Guard.”

2021 Hollywood Diversity Report: Audiences showed up for diverse films in theaters, online

A photo of a scene from Netflix action-thriller “The Old Guard.”

Netflix action-thriller “The Old Guard,” directed by UCLA alumna Gina Prince-Bythewood, featured a cast that was 50% minority. The series landed in the top 10 streaming charts for all racial groups — No. 6 for Asian and Latino households, No. 5 for Black households and No. 9 for white households. (Photo Credit: Aimee Spinks)

– Of the top 185 films of 2020, more than half were released via streaming platforms only.

– Of the films that had a theatrical release, minority audiences accounted for the bulk of ticket purchases.

– Films with casts that were at least 21% minority enjoyed the highest online viewing ratings among all racial groups in the all-important 18–49 age category.

– Women and people of color gained ground in all job categories tracked by the report: lead actors, total cast, writers and directors.

– People of color and women are still underrepresented as film writers and directors and typically helmed lower-budget films.


Every industry felt the weight of the pandemic in 2020, and Hollywood was no exception. Business shutdowns and physical distancing efforts around the world wreaked havoc on box-office revenue and upended long-held film release strategies.

Like everyone, Hollywood studios had to get creative in 2020. UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report, published today by the UCLA College Division of Social Sciences, shows that 54.6% of the top films of 2020 were released solely via streaming subscription services, a major departure from business as usual.

More than half of U.S. adults reported that their viewing of film and series content via online subscription services increased during 2020, according to the Motion Picture Association’s latest findings referenced in the report. The global home and mobile entertainment market increased to a record $68 billion over the course of 2020, up 23% from the $55.9 billion in 2019. The U.S. share of this global market stood at nearly 44% in 2020. Latino and Black adults, in particular, consumed online content at higher levels than other groups.

The film installment of this year’s Hollywood Diversity Report tracks the top 185 films of 2020, breaking down performance by box-office revenue for theatrical releases and, new for this year, Nielsen ratings for streaming films.

Many of the big blockbuster films planned for 2020 had their release dates pushed to 2021 and beyond. For films that had a theatrical run in 2020, minorities were major drivers of box-office ticket sales, as with previous years. For six of the top 10 theatrically released films, minorities accounted for the majority of domestic ticket sales during opening weekend. For the seventh top film, minorities accounted for half the ticket sales.

The Hollywood Diversity Report also tracks how well women and minorities are represented in four key industry employment categories: lead actors, total cast, writers and directors.

All four job categories showed progress in 2020, but women and people of color are still underrepresented in critical behind-the-camera jobs. Women made up just 26% of film writers and just 20.5% of directors. Combined, minority groups were slightly better represented as directors at 25.4%. Just 25.9% of film writers in 2020 were people of color.

“We’ve been systematically looking at these key job categories and comparing the representation of women and people of color to the all-important bottom line for eight years, and it’s encouraging to see skyrocketing numbers this year in front of the camera,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA College Division of Social Sciences and the report’s co-author. “This was a very interesting year to track the nimbleness of industry efforts to deliver content to audiences, who grow increasingly racially diverse each year and who it’s clear were eager to enjoy films in new ways, despite disruptions caused by the pandemic.”

UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report is the only study of its kind to incorporate analysis of how top films perform among different racial groups, comparing the diversity of casts, directors and writers with the diversity of American audiences.

For streaming platforms, films featuring casts that were 21% to 30% minority had the highest ratings among white, Black, Latino and Asian households and viewers 18–49.

Among the top 10 streaming films ranked by Asian and Black households, seven had casts that were more than 30% minority. Among the top 10 films ranked by Latino and white households, six had casts that were more than 30% minority.

UCLA’s report shows great progress in actor categories over its decade of data. In 2011, the first year tracked, more than half of the films fell into the lowest level of cast diversity — less than 11%. In 2020, however, 28.8% of films had the highest level of cast diversity — 50% or higher. Just under 10% of films in 2020 fell into the lowest level of cast diversity.

For the first time since the report launched in 2014, people of color were represented in the lead actor and total cast categories at levels proportionate to their presence in the American populace — 39.7% and 42%, respectively. People of color make up 40.3% of the U.S. population.

The analysis of 2020 films also looked at the correlation between directors’ and casts’ racial and gender diversity.

In 2020, nearly all of the films with a female director also featured a female lead (94.7%). Films directed by minorities had the highest level of cast diversity. And 78.3% of films directed by people of color featured minority leads.

However, the report notes, there are still relatively few examples of women and people of color running the show on big-budget films, those marketed to the broadest audience.

“Our report finds that women directors and directors of color have overwhelmingly diverse productions,” said Ana-Christina Ramon, the report’s co-author and the director of research and civic engagement for the division of social sciences. “However, these films often have smaller budgets than those helmed by male directors and white directors. So, in a year where more diverse productions were made more accessible to larger audiences through streaming services, the contrast is stark as to what types of films have the big budgets. There is a clear underinvestment of films made by, written by, and led by women and people of color.”

White film directors were more than twice as likely as minority directors to helm a film with a budget of $100 million or more — 6.4% versus 2.8%. Men and women were equally likely to direct a big-budget film in 2020 — 5.7% and 5.6%, respectively.

Women and people of color were more likely to direct films that fell into the lowest budget category of less than $20 million. For films directed by people of color, 72.3% had budgets less than $20 million, compared to 60% for white directors. It was about the same for films directed by women. Of those, 74.3% had budgets that were less than $20 million, compared to 59.2% for directors who were men.

Along those same lines, films with minority leads and writers of color also trended toward lower budgets, the report found.

Among other findings in the report:

– Women made up 47.8% of lead actors and 41.3% of overall casts in the top films of 2020. Women make up about half the U.S. population.

– Among white, Black and Middle Eastern or Northern African actors, women were significantly underrepresented in the top films of 2020, compared to men from those groups.

– Among Latino, Asian, multiracial and Native actors, women either approached parity with their male counterparts or exceeded it in films of 2020.

– The most underrepresented groups in all job categories, relative to their presence in the U.S., are Latino, Asian and Native actors, directors and writers.

The current report includes 10 years of data, making UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report the longest-running, consistent analysis of gender and racial diversity in the film industry. TV industry data, part two of the now biannual report, will be released in September 2021.

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

$1.3 million grant will help UCLA advance workforce equity and empowerment

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

The new initiative will seek ways to help build a more equitable economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels)

The UCLA Labor Center has received a $1.3 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation to establish the California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative with the National Skills Coalition.

Leading the effort for UCLA are Betty Hung, project director at the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, and Ana Luz Gonzalez-Vasquez, a project manager at the Labor Center. The National Skills Coalition is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for policies and skills training to benefit workers and businesses.

The Worker Equity Initiative will collaborate with the state of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency to explore how government agencies and their partners help workers thrive in quality careers, particularly as California recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

“The California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative will shed light on how to improve public sector supports and systems while specifically centering the needs and career aspirations of those who have been hit hardest by COVID-19 and racism and other discrimination,” Hung said.

The effort has already begun: The initiative is in the midst of 18 months of community engagement, planning and research, with representatives collecting input from local workers and community leaders. The initiative will then recommend state-level policy changes and highlight opportunities for Californians to push for similar improvements at the federal level.

The initiative also will engage Californians who have been most affected by the recession and those who have been excluded, underserved or marginalized by longstanding structural barriers of discrimination. By soliciting their voices, the initiative aims to increase racial and worker equity in the state’s public workforce development efforts.

“We are extremely grateful for this generous and very timely grant from the James Irvine Foundation,” Gonzalez-Vasquez said. “These funds will help us build upon our partnership with the National Skills Coalition and enable us to focus on ways our society can recover from COVID-19 to build a more equitable economy.”

In addition to the leadership of the UCLA Labor Center and National Skills Coalition, the initiative will benefit from the expertise of a statewide steering committee representing worker centers, nonprofit training providers, labor unions and local workforce boards. The committee members are:

  • Janel Bailey, Los Angeles Black Worker Center
  • John Brauer, California Labor Federation
  • Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, Jewish Vocational Services (San Francisco Bay Area)
  • Rebecca Hanson, SEIU UHW and Joint Employer Education Fund/Shirley Ware Education Center
  • Sheheryar Kaoosji, Warehouse Worker Resource Center
  • Cesar Lara, MILPA Collective and Monterey Bay Central Labor Council
  • Sam Lewis, Anti-Recidivism Coalition
  • Arcenio Lopez, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project
  • Simon Lopez, Goodwill Southern California
  • Laura Medina, Building Skills Partnership
  • Pedro Ramirez, Central Valley Worker Center
  • Rebecca Rolfe, San Francisco LGBT Center
  • Aquilina Soriano, Pilipino Workers Center
  • Brooke Valle, San Diego Workforce Partnership

The James Irvine Foundation is a private, nonprofit grantmaking foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California. The foundation’s focus is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. Since 1937 the foundation has provided more than $2.09 billion in grants to organizations throughout California, and it has contributed to UCLA since 1970.

This article, written by Ariel Okamoto, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

A UCLA researcher prepares to lower a specialized bottle into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Cruz Island to capture samples of eDNA. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

Researchers used to need to scuba dive to find out which fish live in any given area of the ocean. Now, a new UCLA study has found that environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be used to identify marine organisms living in a certain space.

Environmental DNA is the term for the DNA from cells that are constantly released by organisms into their environments — much like the hair and skin people normally shed in the shower. In the past decade eDNA technology has advanced rapidly, making it a competitive tool for assessing ecosystem biodiversity.

The findings, which were published in PLOS One, could have major implications for monitoring of marine protected areas, sections of ocean where fishing and other activities are prohibited to conserve marine life and habitat.

In 2012, California established 124 marine protected areas covering about 16% of state waters. Regular monitoring of those areas is critical for understanding if marine life is being protected successfully, said UCLA ecologist Paul Barber, the study’s senior author. Before eDNA, the only way to tell if marine protected areas were working was for scuba divers to count and identify every fish they saw, a method known as visual surveying.

“These surveys typically require experienced divers with specific training to spend hours and hours underwater,” said Barber, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Now we can simply lower a bottle into the ocean from the side of a boat.”

The researchers compared which species were detected using eDNA and which were counted using visual surveying during summer 2017 at three sites inside and outside of the State Marine Reserve near Santa Cruz Island. Using eDNA, they identified nearly all of the same species as the visual surveys.

The only fish that did not show up using the technique were five species of rockfish — an issue the researchers said could be easily fixed by tweaking the genetic test to recognize that specific DNA when it appears in water samples.

A photo of a garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California's marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island.

A garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California’s marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

The eDNA also revealed an additional 30 species that had been seen in the same areas in previous years but that were not spotted during the 2017 visual surveys.

“We demonstrated that that we can use eDNA as a tool to monitor these ecosystems,” said Zachary Gold, the study’s lead author, a former UCLA doctoral student who is now a researcher at the University of Washington and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an opportunity going forward to expand the scope and scale of monitoring marine protected areas.”

Wider use of eDNA could help scientists overcome some of the challenges of visual surveying as a technique for monitoring marine species. For one, the new method could be far less expensive than the current one: Each eDNA sample costs around $50, while the National Park Service spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to survey 33 sites in the Channel Islands.

And in part because of those costs, visual surveys are conducted only once a year, which means seasonal variations in fish species have rarely been studied.

Another current challenge is that visual surveying is only performed in waters up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep, which means the technique cannot be used in more than 99% of California’s marine protected areas.

To analyze eDNA, researchers run the water they collect through a filter that captures the cells and DNA of marine organisms. Those filters are frozen on the boat and taken to a lab, where researchers extract DNA from the cells, sequence it and identify which species the DNA belongs to using a reference database.

For the PLOS One study, Gold used a reference database called the Anacapa Toolkit, which was developed previously by UCLA scientists.

The authors acknowledge that eDNA surveys won’t completely replace visual surveys, because the newer method can’t reveal the sex, size, abundance or behavior of the fish being studied — all of which are important elements of a complete assessment. “There will always be value to having eyes in the water,” Barber said.

But the simplicity of eDNA could create opportunities for community science — research in which nonscientist members of the public can participate. For example, Gold set up a program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Heal the Bay that teaches volunteers how to collect water samples. The combination of eDNA tools and a wider network of people collecting samples could dramatically improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of student researchers.

Dean Tracy Johnson seeks to diversify the pipeline of future scientists and doctors

A photo of student researchers.

Over the years, the pathways program has enrolled more than 125 students, who have taken on responsibilities as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

When Tracy Johnson was an undergraduate working in a lab at UC San Diego, she found herself suddenly jolted. Conducting research on gene function using fruit flies, she realized she was involved in something deeper and more fulfilling than a traditional classroom experience.

“The idea that I was learning things that nobody else knew, that I could make some contribution,” says the dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College, “that was a game-changer.”

Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in Life Sciences, joined the faculty of UCLA’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in 2014. Soon after, she was awarded a $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to improve undergraduate science education, which was, in part, used to create the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success program.

Pathways gives students from diverse backgrounds an “authentic research experience, early on, and in a prolonged way.” For years, Johnson said, students of color and those who were the first in their family to attend college pursued science, technology, engineering and math degrees at equal rates as other students but left STEM majors at a higher rate.

“It was clear that these statistics had less to do with preparation,” she said, “and more to do with students not seeing themselves as part of a scientific community. Pathways was designed to rethink that.”

The goal was to help students understand they belonged and had important contributions to make.

“The Pathways program has honestly opened up the world of research to me. I come from a normal public school in a mainly minority area, so I never knew what research truly entailed,” said Venus Hagan, a second-year UCLA student majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research.

Hagan noted how getting to do research as an undergraduate helped her discover her passion for it. “Without the program,” she said, “I may have never considered minoring in biomedical research and possibly applying to MD/Ph.D. programs in the future.”

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

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

“It’s a lot for first-year students to dive into,” Johnson acknowledged. “They’re freshmen, on campus for barely 10 weeks when they start. Some students have never taken AP biology. It is ambitious, but they rise to the occasion.”

Second-year student Nyari Muchaka said enrolling in Pathways was one of the best decisions she has ever made.

“The program has provided me with multiple opportunities for summer and during the year research opportunities, and allowed me to find a group of friends I resonate with,” said Muchaka, who is majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research. “Everyone is truly there to help each other which makes it one of the most fulfilling, enriching parts of my college experience. The program helps advance your interest in the biological field but also carry you through some of the best and roughest four years of your life. Pathways is truly an innovative program and provides a foundation for college studies you won’t find anywhere else.”

Johnson and her co-instructor and research collaborator, Azad Hossain, are preparing to publish some of the student research in an academic journal within the next year. Pathways has enrolled more than 125 students, and these students have taken on more and more responsibility as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders as the years have passed. Many have gone on to doctoral programs, medical school, M.D./Ph.D. programs, and a host of other STEM-related careers.

“There isn’t anything quite like what we do,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a model for how to think about student success.”

This article, written by Scott Timberg and Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A Gaddis Illustration depicting three students.

Are millennials really as ‘post-racial’ as we think?

A Gaddis Illustration depicting three students.

Gaddis Illustration (Photo Credit: Febris Martono)

-Researchers sent 4,000 responses to real “roommate wanted” ads posted by millennials in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

-They used names that signaled the race of the room seekers; all other information, including job and college-degree status, was the same.

-White-sounding names received the most responses, while those that signaled Black, Asian or Hispanic potential roommates got fewer responses.

-Emails with names that combined ‘Americanized’ first names with Asian or Hispanic last names got more attention than those with more typically ethnic first names.


In attitude, millennials might be the least racially biased demographic in America, according to existing data about this this group. But a new study led by UCLA professor of sociology S. Michael Gaddis reveals that when it comes to actions — like judging who would make a good roommate — millennials still show strong racial bias and anti-Blackness.

American millennials — those between the ages of 24 and 39 — are more racially and ethnically diverse than any other demographic and have higher levels of education. Multiple surveys have found that these individuals typically respond to questions about their beliefs, hypothetical actions and attitudes about race in ways that have been deemed “post-racial,” or more accepting and progressive than previous generations.

Gaddis and co-author Raj Ghoshal of Elon University decided to test whether that body of evidence translated into how millennials behaved when making real-world decisions, like who to accept as a roommate.

For this experimental study, published today in the open-access journal Socius, researchers responded to real Craigslist ads posted by millennials looking for roommates in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The team used specific names that signaled the racial background of the room seeker, whether Asian, Black, Hispanic or white, and tracked responses to 4,000 email inquiries about the ads.

They found likely discrimination — in the form of fewer responses to their queries — against Asian, Hispanic and Black room seekers, even though each query about the open room included the same information on job and college-degree status. The only variable was the name of the applicants.

While queries from white-sounding names got the most responses, emails from Black-sounding names received the fewest.

“Essentially, when it comes to many racial issues, we cannot just ask people what they think and trust that their response is truthful,” Gaddis said. “Researchers must use a specific type of field experiment that requires us to engage in deception by pretending to be someone we’re not — for example, a Black room seeker — and examine how people react when they don’t know they are being watched.”

The Craigslist ads themselves provided a lot of information on the age, gender and socioeconomic status of the posters, though not definitive details on each poster’s race. Although Gaddis and his team presume many of these posters were white, it’s likely that other racial or ethnic groups were engaging in discrimination as well.

Rates of response to people with Asian or Hispanic names showed the most variation, depending on the first names that were used, the researchers found.

“Queries that used more ‘Americanized’ versions of first names, paired with a last name that implied Hispanic or Asian background got more responses than those with more typical-sounding Hispanic or Asian first names,” Gaddis said. “We think that probably comes across as a signal of assimilation.”

To select names for the made-up room seekers, Gaddis relied on a data-driven approach that uses names and information on race from real birth records and tests individuals’ perceptions of race from those names. He has previously explored how names that give a clue to race have an impact on the success of job seekers and college applicants.

► Related: Gaddis’ research on the connections between names and race

There’s an evolving science around choosing names for experimental research like this, Gaddis said, because names can also bear intersecting signals of social, economic and generational status.

“I’ve done a lot of work to investigate how people read these signals from the names,” he said. People do see names differently, and not everyone will recognize a certain name as white or Black or whatever you intended to signal. It’s also difficult because the vast majority of African Americans in the United States do not have racially distinguished names.”

For every last name of Washington, for example, which is a common Black last name, there are a handful of Mark Smiths who are Black men, Gaddis noted. And someone looking at an application or email from a Mark Smith, might not assume that person is Black. That is why, for this study, Gaddis used names his previous research had shown were most widely recognized as Black-sounding.

The disconnect between attitude and actions when it comes to survey responses about race can be chalked up to what’s called “social desirability bias,” and it’s something to which Gaddis and other sociologists are always keenly alert. People hesitate to respond to questions in ways they think might make them come across as racist. Whether that hesitation is explicit or implicit doesn’t change the reality of the bias itself, he said.

Gaddis is also working on two related reports. One is a survey that asks millennials to respond to a series of questions about whether they would discriminate based on race and what characteristics they value when looking for a roommate. So far, those findings are telling, he said. The way people respond to such questions in a theoretical setting is far removed from the behavior this real-life example shows.

Another study will look at the kinds of neighborhoods that made-up roommate seekers are able to get responses from. Do people with Black-sounding names get fewer responses from potential roommates in more affluent or “nicer” areas, even though the information about their job and college attainment is the same as presumably white room seekers? The short answer: yes.

This research has far-reaching implications, Gaddis said, because as millennials age, they will be the leaders and decision makers that drive our culture.

“Our study suggests that as millennials continue to gain access to positions of power, they are likely to perpetuate racial inequality rather than enact a post-racial system,” the researchers write.

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Extreme rainfall projected to get more severe, frequent with warming

A photo of flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007. (Photo Credit: Marvin Nauman/FEMA)

Across the continental United States, massive, often-devastating precipitation events — the kind that climate scientists have long called “hundred-year storms” — could become three times more likely and 20% more severe by 2079, UCLA-led research projects.

That’s what would happen in a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a rapid rate — what the paper calls a high-warming scenario. Extreme rainfall events, the so-called hundred-year storms, would then be likely to occur once every 33 years.

The paper, published in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future, finds that warming has a more profound effect on both the severity and frequency of extreme precipitation events than it does on common precipitation events.

The findings have serious implications for how we prepare for the future, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said.

“The five-year flood, the 10-year flood — those aren’t the ones that cause huge amounts of damage and societal disruption,” said Swain, who is also a fellow with the Nature Conservancy. “That comes when you get 50- or 100-year floods, the low-probability but high-consequence kinds of events.”

For example, the occurrence of historic rainfall events such as the one that caused California’s Great Flood of 1862 or Houston’s flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 is increasing much faster than that of lower-magnitude events that happen every decade or so.

The paper predicts extreme precipitation increases for the entire continental United States, but some areas are expected to see bigger relative increases than others, including the West Coast and the hurricane-prone Southeast.

The paper also delves into the consequences of those extreme rainfall events: the increases in the number of floods and the number of people who would be exposed to them.

Combining climate, water physics and population models, the paper also projects that, in a high-warming scenario, the increases in extreme precipitation alone would put up to 12 million additional people at risk of exposure to damage and destruction from catastrophic flooding —  29.5% more people than face that risk today.

The paper also made projections using other scenarios that combine the effects of warming and projected population growth. For example, high warming juxtaposed with high population growth would increase the number of people exposed to risk of so-called 100-year floods by around 50 million in the continental U.S.

And even in the absence of climate change — at least some of which is unavoidable over the next 30 years — medium or large population growth would expose an additional 20 million or 34 million, respectively, to such floods, highlighting the importance of demographic factors in driving the growing risk.

Combining the factors would compound the changes in some regions that have so far been outside of flood zones and are sparsely populated because, thanks to climate change and population growth, those areas are likely to be within flood plains and have higher population density in the future. That “hot spot effect” could put up to 5.5 million more people at risk of devastating floods than warming or population growth alone would.

“There’s a huge difference between best- and worst-case scenarios,” Swain said. “People’s exposure to flooding in a warming climate is definitely going to increase. It could increase by a somewhat manageable amount or by a truly massive amount, and that depends both on the climate trajectory we take and on the demographics of the U.S.”

Previously, projections for extreme precipitation events relied on limited historical records that go back only 100 years. For the new study, the researchers used a modeling technique to create multiple plausible pasts and futures, essentially increasing the amount of available data by 40 times over what was available from history alone.

“We don’t just have one 100-year event we can pull from the historical record; we have lots of really severe, rare events we can pull out to give us a better sense of how they’re likely to change,” said Swain, who is a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Importantly, the authors write, the risk of flooding in the U.S. will increase significantly over the next 30 years, even with moderate warming — meaning a temperature increase of 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) globally. That would expose more than 20 million additional people to a 100-year flood within the next 30 years, they projected.

Even the term “100-year flood” is probably already something of a misnomer, Swain said. With global temperatures already having increased by about 1.2 degrees Celsius (about 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past century, the term is fast becoming outdated.

James Done, a co-author of the paper and a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said further work is required to understand exactly why extreme events are increasing more rapidly than less extreme ones.

“It’s not just because of a shift in the distribution of the flooding,” Done said. “There’s something else that’s reshaping the most extreme of the very dangerous rainfall events.”

The precipitation changes predicted are already beginning, he added. And the nation’s infrastructure — from flood control channels to concrete-heavy urban design that drains slowly — were not designed for the scenarios that now seem likely to occur.

This article, written by David Colgan, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA political scientists: Political polarization is not as simple as it appears

A photo of an electoral map.

Electoral Map (Photo Credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash)

As President-elect Joseph Biden prepares to take office amid an era of intense partisanship, UCLA political scientists encourage people to adopt a different perspective on the country’s politically polarized landscape.

Lynn Vavreck, UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy, told the audience gathered for a “U Heard it Here” event on Nov. 17, that the emergence of more extreme differences among the public should not solely be attributed to the rise of social media or point-of-view-based cable news, which popularly get a lot of blame.

She and others who have been tracking voter attitudes for decades consistently find that voters tend toward confirmation bias.

“What people don’t understand about American politics is that voters always filter out information that is inconsistent with their prior views,” Vavreck said.

One thing that is definitely driving polarization is the behavior of elite politicians and the growth over the last two decades of more sophisticated and extremely well-funded campaigns.

These increasingly efficient campaign machines allow politicians to be more obstinate about compromise, even though large groups of voters in both parties might support an issue — like background checks on people who want to buy firearms or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, Vavreck said. Both of those things have broad support in both parties, but to differing levels of priority, she noted.

“You have two ways you can go; you can hold out or you can compromise,” she said. “If you compromise you might get some of what you want now, but if you hold out you can see if the power flips and then get everything you want.”

Efrén Pérez, professor of political science and director of the UCLA Race, Ethnicity and Politics Lab who also spoke on the panel, agreed.

“It’s important to contrast what is available for public consumption versus what we know as social scientists,” he said. “A lot of the divisiveness is really among the elites in the parties. There is an enormous sea of individuals for whom politics is kind of a colorful sideshow, they only sporadically interact with it.”

The resistance to compromise is with the power brokers in each party and depolarizing is about showing and convincing those same people that there is broad-scale agreement on some issues, he said. Biden might be able to use his long experience to find common ground on how to respond to the pandemic and heal the economy, something that will affect voters regardless of party preference.

Panelists, which also included UCLA political science professors Erin Hartman and Daniel Thompson, also talked about identity politics at play in 2020, how the pandemic and social justice affected campaign messaging, voter turnout, vote-by-mail and how pollsters fared this time around.

– It’s clear we need better polling of people of color to understand intersecting identities and priorities, Hartman said.

– We have to consider the multiple identities in the voting populace, beyond race, such as “occupational identities,” Pérez said. This likely came into play for Mexican-Americans in Texas border towns who responded to Trump’s law and order messaging because they or family members hold jobs in border patrol or law enforcement.

– Pollsters were right about a lot of things, like Georgia and Arizona being competitive and the way vote-by-mail would shake out by party.

– There were some interesting split votes that bear further consideration, Thompson said. Florida went for Trump, but voters there approved a $15 minimum wage, which was considered too far left for Hillary Clinton to endorse four years ago.

– The pandemic and the havoc it wreaked on the economy changed the Trump message, Vavreck said. Gross domestic product in the first six months of 2020 was dismal, hitting a post-New Deal low. But the stimulus checks meant household income was high, which helped turn out voters for Trump.

– Democrats leaned heavily into the message of social inequality, rising to the challenge of summer protests, and building on decades of effort to position the party as a broad home for voters of color, Pérez said.

This article, written by Jessica Wolf and Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A graphic of the predictive model.

UCLA model ID’s areas that should have priority for vaccine, other COVID-19 help

The predictive model can guide public health officials and leaders across the nation in harnessing local data that can help prevent infections and save lives, the UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: UCLA CNK-BRITE)

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, UCLA public health and urban planning experts have developed a predictive model that pinpoints which populations in which neighborhoods of Los Angeles County are most at risk of becoming infected.

The researchers hope the new model, which can be applied to other counties and jurisdictions as well, will assist decision makers, public health officials and scientists in effectively and equitably implementing vaccine distribution, testing, closures and reopenings, and other virus-mitigation measures.

The model maps Los Angeles County neighborhood by neighborhood, based on four important indicators known to significantly increase a person’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 infection — preexisting medical conditions, barriers to accessing health care, built-environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges.

The research data demonstrate that neighborhoods characterized by significant clustering of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households and unmet medical needs are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, specifically areas in and around South Los Angeles and the eastern portion of the San Fernando Valley. Communities along the coast and in the northwestern part of the county, which are disproportionately white and higher-income, were found to be the least vulnerable.

“The model we have includes specific resource vulnerabilities that can guide public health officials and local leaders across the nation to harness already available local data to determine which groups in which neighborhoods are most vulnerable and how to prevent new infections to save lives,” said research author Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Mays, who also directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy, worked with urban planner Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, to develop the indicators model, along with study co-authors Chhandara Pech and Nataly Rios Gutierrez. The maps were created by Abigail Fitzgibbon.

Utilizing data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s California Health Interview Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the researchers were able to determine how the four vulnerability indicators differentially predicted which racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County were the most vulnerable to infection based on their geographical residence.

Racial and ethnic groups with the highest vulnerability

Preexisting conditions. The authors found that 73% of Black residents live in neighborhoods with the highest rates of preexisting health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as poor overall health and food insecurity. This was followed by 70% of Latinos and 60% of Cambodians, Hmongs and Laotians, or CHL. Conversely, 60% of white residents live in areas with low or the lowest vulnerability.

Barriers to accessing services. Forty percent of Latinos, 29% of Blacks, 22% of CHL and 16% of “other Asians” reside in neighborhoods with the greatest barriers to health care, characterized by high proportions of non–U.S. citizens, poor English-language ability, a lack of access to computer broadband service, lower rates of health insurance and poor access to vehicles for medical purposes. Only 7% of whites live in these neighborhoods.

Built-environment risk. Sixty-three percent of CHL, 55% of Latinos, 53% of Blacks and 32% of whites live areas considered to be at high or the highest vulnerability due to built-environment challenges, which include high population density, crowded housing and a lack of parks and open spaces.

Social vulnerability. According to the Centers for Disease Control, neighborhoods with high social vulnerability are characterized by lower socioeconomic status and education attainment, a higher prevalence of single-parent and multigenerational households, greater housing density, poorer English-language ability and a lack of access to vehicles, among other factors. While only 8% of whites live in these neighborhoods, 42% of both Blacks and Latinos do, as do 38% of CHL.

How the model can help with COVID-19–mitigation efforts

“When the pandemic hit, we were slowed down by a lack of science and a lack of understanding of the ways in which health disparities in the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations made their risk of COVID-19 infection even greater,” Mays said. “We thought elderly and people in nursing homes were the most vulnerable, yet we found that lacking a number of social resources contributes to a greater likelihood of getting infected as well.”

► Read an interview with Mays on the how COVID-19 is affecting Black Americans and how better data can help prevent its spread.

And while nationwide statistics have shown that the virus has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities and communities of color, knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources and when to open or close areas, Mays and Ong said.

If, for example, English-language ability is a barrier to accessing health information and services in a vulnerable neighborhood, health officials should develop campaigns in Spanish or another appropriate language highlighting the availability of testing, the researchers stress. If access to a car is a barrier for families in an at-risk area, walk-up testing sites should be made available. When crowded housing in a high-risk neighborhood is the predominant housing stock, testing resources should be set up for entire households and hotel vouchers made available to help with quarantining after a positive test.

The data can also provide critical knowledge and insights to social service providers, emergency agencies and volunteers on where to direct their time and resources, such as where to set up distribution sites for food and other necessities. And importantly, identifying the areas and populations with the highest vulnerability will help decision-makers equitably prioritize vaccine-distribution plans to include the most vulnerable early.

In the longer term, the researchers say, the model will also provide valuable information to urban planners so that they can target specific areas for the development of less-dense housing and more parks and open spaces, creating healthier neighborhoods that can better withstand future pandemics while promoting equity in long-term health outcomes.

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.