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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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A photo of Himalaya Mountains in Nepal after landslides caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake.

Imaging technique could help identify where landslides are likely

A photo of Himalaya Mountains in Nepal after landslides caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake.

The Himalaya Mountains in Nepal after landslides caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. (Photo Credit: Gen Li)

Each year, landslides kill thousands of people around the world and cause catastrophic property damage. But scientists are still trying to better understand the circumstances that cause them. Doing so would go a long way toward helping people predict where landslides could occur and how severe they might be.

A study led by Seulgi Moon, a UCLA professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences, could be a significant step toward that goal.

Moon and Gen Li, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar who’s now at Caltech, created a new method to understand how topographic stress — which occurs when tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s surface slide toward each other enough to change the landscape above —influence landslide events. Their research is published in Nature Geoscience.

The study is the first to combine information about natural processes that take place both on the surface of the Earth and at the tectonic level; previous research focused only on landslides caused by events like earthquakes and rain.

“We found that the magnitude of big landslides is affected by not only local conditions such as slope and precipitation but can be also affected by forces deep underground,” Moon said. “This implies that the interaction between what’s above and below the ground is important to better understanding surface processes of the Earth.”

For the study, the scientists developed a new adaptation of an existing technology called 3D topographic stress modeling in order to identify places deep below the Earth’s surface where rocks are weathered — meaning that they’re weakened by natural geological processes — or fractured. By identifying those spots, the model can determine which locations are most susceptible to landslides.

“Understanding earth science and geology will be critical to making mitigation plans for landslides,” Moon said.

Moon and Li conducted the research on the Longmen Mountains, on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau. Their approach uses high-resolution satellite images to detect the sizes and locations of landslides. Those satellite images are compared to the fracturing and weathering of rocks in the same locations, which Moon said can be predicted from the topography of the Earth’s surface.

Areas in which the underground bedrock is particularly weak or fractured may be vulnerable to a large landslide.

Moon’s technique, which uses high-resolution underground stress distribution data, enabled the scientists to locate fracturing that would otherwise not have been apparent because it’s so deep beneath the Earth’s surface — as much as 500 meters (or about 1600 feet) down. The high-resolution underground stress distribution data allows the researchers to distinguish areas below the ground that are damaged due to high stress.

The new technique also could be used to determine where highly sensitive construction projects — like storage facilities for nuclear energy or water — should (or shouldn’t) take place.

This article, written by Angela Estrada, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of UCLA physical sciences Centennial Award winners.

UCLA Division of Physical Sciences’ Centennial Awards honor faculty, alumni

A photo of UCLA physical sciences Centennial Award winners.

UCLA
Clockwise from top left: Stuart Brown, professor of physics and astronomy; Mahtash Esfandiari, professor of statistics; Tommaso Treu, professor of physics and astronomy; Robin Garrell, former vice provost for graduate education and professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Vassilis Angelopoulos, professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences; and Will Conley, professor of mathematics (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The UCLA Division of Physical Sciences will honor scientific excellence and commitment to education during the inaugural Centennial Awards celebration on May 26. The online event, which will feature a special welcome from Chancellor Gene Block and UCLA alumnus and actor Kal Penn, will honor faculty and alumni who have made significant contributions to their fields and the UCLA community.

“Through world-class research, leadership, mentorship and teaching, these awardees have demonstrated the level of excellence and service that UCLA is known for,” said Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the physical sciences division. “Every day they better the world around them, from students to faculty colleagues to the commercial sector and public at large. We are proud to celebrate them as part of the physical sciences family.”

Below are this year’s faculty awardees, who were nominated by their department.

Excellence in Education Award, which recognizes a faculty member who makes a broad impact on classroom inclusivity and demonstrated learning excellence:

  • Will Conley, professor of mathematics. Conley was recognized for his outstanding work teaching and promoting equity in the mathematics department’s introductory calculus sequence. His primary research interests are representation theory and algebraic number theory.
  • Mahtash Esfandiari, professor of statistics. Esfandiari is the director of the Statistical Consulting Center and the assistant director of the Center for the Teaching of Statistics. Her areas of interest include statistics education and statistical consulting.

Leadership Award, which acknowledges a member of the physical sciences division who has made extraordinary contributions through their service to UCLA or the national and/or international academic communities:

  • Robin Garrell, former vice provost for graduate education and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA. Garrell is now president of the graduate center at the City University of New York. Her research interests span vibrational spectroscopy and surface chemistry.

Mentorship Award, which recognizes a faculty member who has demonstrated a commitment to and success in mentoring research students from diverse backgrounds:

  • Vassilis Angelopoulos, professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences. As principal investigator of NASA’s THEMIS and ARTEMIS missions, Angelopoulos has led the development of five satellites and 20 ground-based observatories. He has also overseen the launch and operation of the first satellites built entirely at UCLA.
  • Stuart Brown, professor of physics and astronomy. Brown is a condensed matter experimentalist whose research focus is mostly on the phases and properties of correlated electron systems.

Outstanding Discovery Award, which honors physical sciences faculty who are leading their research fields with contributions from the most creative, productive and talented students, postdoctoral research fellows and researchers:

  • Tommaso Treu, professor of physics and astronomy. Treu is a member of the Hubble Telescope observing team. He is interested in understanding what the universe is made of, in particular the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and in understanding how galaxies and supermassive black holes form and evolve.

The Centennial Luminary Awards are presented to alumni in recognition of their contributions to UCLA and a career that exemplifies the values of research and education. The award recipients are:

– Leopold Andreoli, who received his doctorate in atmospheric sciences in 1980, will receive the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Luminary Award. Andreoli is a former Air Force colonel who led the development of critical intelligence technology.

– Amy Braverman, who received her master’s in mathematics in 1992 and her doctorate in statistics in 1999, will receive the Statistics Luminary Award. Braverman is principal statistician at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Her work focuses on the use of remote sensing data.

– Kirk Dunn, who received his bachelor’s in mathematics in 1983, will receive the Mathematics Luminary Award. Dunn is the chief operating office at Cloudera, where he uses his technology engineering, marketing, sales and management experience to oversee business operations.

– Myung Ki Hong, who received his bachelor’s in chemistry in 1959, will receive the Chemistry & Biochemistry Luminary Award. Known for his expertise in resin and coatings, Hong founded Dura Coat Products in 1986.

– Nathan Myhrvold, who received his bachelor’s in mathematics and his master’s in geophysics and space physics in 1979, will receive the Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences Luminary Award. Myhrvold is a prominent scientist, technologist, inventor, author and food photographer.

– Howard Preston, who received his bachelor’s in physics in 1965 and his doctorate in physics in 1974, will receive the Physics and Astronomy Luminary Award. Preston is president of Preston Cinema Systems, a motion picture camera equipment company based in Santa Monica.

– Benedict Schwegler, who received his doctorate in environmental science and engineering in 1999, will receive the Environment and Sustainability Luminary Award. Schwegler is currently chief scientist at Engie China Research Lab and an adjunct professor at Stanford University.

In addition, the Centennial Visionary Award will be presented to Mani Bhaumik, whose time as a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA led him to become one of the physical sciences division’s strongest supporters.

Visit the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences website for more information.

This article, written by Max Gordy, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of Royce Hall.

Lessons Learned: UCLA Symposium on Remote Teaching during COVID-19

Students haven’t been the only ones navigating a new college experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. For faculty, switching to fully remote teaching posed a challenge unlike anything they’d experienced before.

UCLA’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, along with its partners CEILS, EPIC, and OTL,* hosted its third annual symposium for UC faculty and staff in April. “Teaching at UCLA – Looking Forward with 2020 Vision” featured panel discussions, talks and workshops centered on lessons learned during remote teaching since March 2020.

A central theme was how to keep students engaged in a virtual classroom. At the faculty roundtable, professors discussed the effects of holding classes and office hours virtually from home, with some noting that the newfound flexibility of remote teaching had enabled them to make stronger connections with students.

A photo of Royce Hall.

A view of Royce Hall from the southwest, across the Shapiro Fountain.

“[Remote teaching] brought us together in ways I have never experienced in 24 years at UCLA. I felt a level of humanity with my students that I had not experienced before,” said Abel Valenzuela Jr., professor of Chicana/o and Central American studies and of urban planning and director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Valenzuela said that hosting virtual informal hangouts with his students to talk about anything on their minds was particularly impactful.

English professor Danny Snelson shared different gaming tools he used to make lectures fun and engaging for his students, including Discord, Animaze, Gather Town and Snap Camera.

Other faculty discussed the various ways they adapted their assignments and class organization to be mindful of the challenges of remote learning and the pandemic. Being flexible with deadlines, offering smaller, low-stakes assignments, and giving students space in discussions or journals to express their thoughts and concerns were all successful in keeping students engaged and supported.

Student panelists noted that although it was challenging to connect with their classmates in a virtual setting, working in small groups and spending more time discussing topics as a class helped them feel part of a community.

Imani Easton, graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, said that remote learning has equipped students with valuable communication skills that will prepare them for life after graduation.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we have to speak up and contribute. Before we used to just sit in lecture and take notes,” Easton said. “When we go back to campus, I’m looking forward to having more of a dialogue and open communication.”

David Schaberg, senior dean of UCLA College, dean of humanities and professor of Asian languages and cultures, said that despite the successes of remote learning, he wants to get as many people back on campus as possible.

“Nothing can truly replicate the excitement and personal growth students experience on a college campus,” Schaberg said. “We cannot give up the ideal of the campus space where people interact with their full selves. This is where students come to test out their adult selves, and you can’t do that online.”

Watch recordings of all sessions from the symposium here.

*Center for Education Innovation & Learning in the Sciences (CEILS), Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC), Online Teaching & Learning (OTL)

This article was written by Robin Migdol.

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.