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

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

Still image from a fairyland virtual reality environment

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


Holly Ober | December 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse+Rissman

Jesse Rissman | Courtesy of Jesse Rissman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Woman receives vaccine shot

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Holly Ober | October 27, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Yesenia Aguilar Silvan (left) and Lauren Ng

Mentorship enhances mental health research focused on the underserved

Psychology professor Lauren Ng and doctoral student Yesenia Aguilar Silvan help each other make a difference for others

Portrait of Psychology professor Lauren Ng and doctoral student Yesenia Aguilar Silvan

Yesenia Aguilar Silvan (left) and Lauren Ng | Photo by Stephanie Yantz


Jonathan Riggs | September 28, 2022

According to the American Psychiatric Association, people from racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. may be more likely to experience long-lasting consequences from mental health issues — and less likely to seek and receive treatment.

Identifying and addressing barriers to care for underserved populations is key to the work of both Lauren Ng, assistant professor of clinical psychology and director of the Treatment and Research for the Underserved with Stress and Trauma (TRUST) Lab, and her mentee, doctoral student Yesenia Aguilar Silvan.

“We actually know little about how to provide the best care for minoritized populations, who are typically also more likely to have experienced traumatic events,” says Ng, who was honored with awards in 2021 and 2022 for her contributions to the field. “My research focuses on how we make sure that people who need care but have been systematically excluded from mental health treatment, receive it. Yesenia’s research interests fit nicely with my own, although she’s taking a very novel approach.”

Part of a newer field of study known as implementation science, Aguilar’s approach focuses on getting people interested in mental health care interventions in the first place. Right now, she’s studying how best to optimize therapist websites to increase the rate of people navigating them successfully to engage in therapy.

“I conducted a survey that found that people who were interested in mental health services needed to know who the therapist was, and not a lot of the clinic websites I studied included information like that,” Aguilar says. “I’m hoping in the next year or so we can gather even more data based on these changes to the clinic websites see if they make a difference.”

Currently, it takes about 17 years for research evidence to reach clinical practice; implementation science like Aguilar’s research seeks to reduce that length of time. In part due to her own experience growing up undocumented, Aguilar is personally very motivated to make a difference like this in the real world, in real time.

“I remember asking a professor once, ‘What’s the point of research?’ And he said that for him, research was just finding something that made you mad or upset and then trying to solve it with science,” Aguilar says. “I knew from my upbringing that a lot of people are not getting mental health services when they really should, and so I asked myself: ‘How do I solve that problem using science?’”

It’s a lifelong commitment that Ng shares.

“I’m a biracial person — my dad is Chinese American, my mom is Black — and I grew up in D.C., where I sometimes felt like an outside observer, trying to understand situations from different perspectives,” says Ng. “Psychology just seemed natural to me, especially when I realized I could do more than just understand, but also create treatments and interventions to help people.”

Getting the chance to work with and learn from Ng was a huge draw for Aguilar, who graduated from UCLA in 2017, to return for her doctorate. She’s flourished here, earning multiple honors, including the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship as well as awards from the Irving and Jean Stone Fund, the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, and the Monica Salinas Graduate Student Endowed Fund. And in Ng’s lab, Aguilar has the opportunity to serve as a mentor herself to undergraduate students.

“It has been amazing to have the support system and resources here that have made it possible for me to pursue my dream. I feel as if I can ask Lauren anything, from specific research questions to advice on how to be a more effective mentor,” Aguilar says. “She also encourages me to be an independent researcher and to think about my own future, in and out of the lab. I continually learn so much from her.”

“UCLA’s department of psychology is so strong in large part due to the quality of our graduate students like Yesenia,” says Ng. “Yesenia started in community college and was able to transfer to UCLA and to receive the support and opportunities a student of her caliber deserves. That can only happen at a very unique place, one that feels like more than a university.”


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

Two UCLA College faculty members elected to National Academy of Sciences

Image of UCLA College Professors Robert Bjork and Rosa Matzkin

Left: Professor Robert Bjork, Distinguished research professor of psychology; right: Professor Rosa Matzkin, Charles E. Davidson Distinguished Professor of Economics.


Editor’s note: Congratulations to all three UCLA faculty members elected to the National Academy of Sciences, including Professors Robert Bjork and Rosa Matzkin of the UCLA College!

By Stuart Wolpert | May 4, 2022

Three UCLA professors — Dr. E. Dale Abel, Robert Bjork and Rosa Matzkin — have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. They are among the 120 new members and 30 international members announced by the academy May 3.

Membership in the academy is one of the highest honors a scientist in the United States can receive. Previous electees have included Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright and Alexander Graham Bell.

Dr. E. Dale Abel
William S. Adams Distinguished Professor of Medicine
Chair, department of medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Executive medical director, department of medicine, UCLA Health

Abel is a distinguished endocrinologist, researcher and clinician who leads UCLA Health’s largest department. His pioneering work on glucose transport and mitochondrial metabolism in the heart has guided his research on the molecular mechanisms responsible for the cardiovascular complications of diabetes. Abel’s laboratory has provided important insights into how mitochondrial dysfunction and aberrant insulin signaling contribute to diabetes-related heart failure risk. His research has been continually funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1995, with additional support from the American Heart Association and other sources. Prior to joining UCLA on Jan. 1 of this year, Abel held leadership and faculty positions at the University of Iowa, Harvard Medical School and the University of Utah. Among his many awards and honors, Abel is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, the Association of American Physicians and the American Society for Clinical Investigation. He serves as president of the Association of Professors of Medicine.

Robert Bjork
Distinguished research professor of psychology

Bjork is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading scholars of human learning and memory. His research focuses on the ways in which the science of learning can inform instruction and training, including identifying techniques that can enhance long-term learning. He has served as editor of the journals Memory and Cognition, and Psychological Review. An elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Bjork received the Association for Psychological Science’s highest honor — the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award — in 2016, the Norman Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Experimental Psychologists and a UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award. He delivered a UCLA Faculty Research Lecture in 2016.

Rosa Matzkin
Charles E. Davidson Distinguished Professor of Economics

Matzkin has developed new ways of using empirical data for economic analysis. Her methods exploit properties of economic models to avoid restrictive specifications that may lead to incorrect conclusions. These methods can be used to identify and estimate unobservable variables, to test whether data are consistent with any particular model and to predict behavior and economic outcomes when economic structures change. An elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Matzkin is currently first vice president of the Econometric Society and is a former member of the executive committees of the Econometric Society and the American Economic Association. She is co-editor of Elsevier’s Handbooks in Economics series and of Vol. 7 of the Handbook of Econometrics. Previously, she served as chief editor of the journal Quantitative Economics, as co-editor of the Econometric Society Monograph Series and as a member of the editorial committee of the Annual Review of Economics.

The National Academy of Sciences, established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln, acts as an official advisory body to the federal government on matters of science and technology upon request. The academy is a private, nonprofit institution dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare.

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

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

‘I could be killed at any time’: The anguish of being wrongfully convicted of murder

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

Maurice Caldwell. Photo credit: David Greenwald/The People’s Vanguard of Davis

By Stuart Wolpert

Maurice Caldwell spent 20 years in prison before his wrongful conviction for a 1990 murder in San Francisco was finally overturned.

Paul Abramson, a UCLA professor of psychology who was hired as an expert by Caldwell’s legal team to assess the psychological harm Caldwell suffered, conducted 20 extensive interviews with Caldwell between 2015 and 2020, in addition to interviewing prison correctional officers and reviewing court hearings and decisions, depositions, psychological testing results and experts’ reports.

In a paper published in the peer-reviewed Wrongful Conviction Law Review, Abramson provides an overview of the case and a comprehensive psychological analysis detailing the devastating and ongoing effects of Caldwell’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment. He also examines the historically contentious relations between police and communities of color and asks why corrupt and abusive officers rarely face punishment for their actions.

Caldwell’s 1991 conviction was overturned on March 28, 2010. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case, and Caldwell was released from prison in 2011. He settled his decade-long civil suit against the county and city of San Francisco, the police department and one SFPD officer just weeks before the scheduled start of the trial, and this month, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved an $8 million payout to Caldwell, who was 23 at the time of his conviction.

‘Appalling injustice’: The wrongful conviction of Caldwell

In January 1990, San Francisco Police Sgt. Kitt Crenshaw was among several officers who chased a group of young Black men who had allegedly been firing weapons at streetlights in the city’s Alemany public housing project. Caldwell was apprehended but not arrested. Caldwell alleged that Crenshaw physically abused him and threatened to kill him, and he filed a complaint against the officer with the city’s police watchdog agency.

About five months later, a man was shot to death in the Alemany projects. Crenshaw, who was not assigned to the homicide division, volunteered to search the projects for offenders and made Caldwell his primary subject, write Abramson and his co-author, Sienna Bland-Abramson, a UCLA undergraduate psychology major (and Abramson’s daughter) who worked on the case as a senior research analyst at two civil rights law firms.

On the strength of a dubious eyewitness claim and Crenshaw’s investigation notes, Caldwell was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and two other charges and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. Another man eventually confessed to the murder. Bland-Abramson concluded that San Francisco police officers had committed racial profiling, harassment and acts of corruption.

► Watch a video and read more on Caldwell’s case (Northern California Innocence Project)

Crenshaw, who retired from the San Francisco Police Department in 2011 with the rank of commander, had 67 civilian complaints lodged against him over the course of his career but never faced repercussions for purportedly fabricating his notes to frame Caldwell for murder, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

Catastrophic suffering and profound distress

Caldwell endured catastrophic suffering, profound and overwhelming stress throughout his incarceration in various prisons, Abramson writes. How did Caldwell’s experiences affect him?

About 2 1/2 years after Caldwell entered the California prison system, he was brutally stabbed in the head, shoulder and chest by another inmate who used an improvised 6-inch-long knife made from a metal rod filed to a sharp point. At the time, he was an inmate at California State Prison, Sacramento, also known as New Folsom’s Level 4 Prison.

Caldwell said the stabbing changed his life. “I knew at that very moment I could be killed at any time, on any day,” he told Abramson.

Photo of Paul Abramson

Psychology professor Paul Abramson, who conducted 20 interviews with Caldwell over a five-year period, said the former inmate is suffering from complex PTSD.

A retired correctional officer, Chris Buckley, who knew and had supervised Caldwell while he was incarcerated in a Northern California maximum-security prison, told Abramson last year, “A Level 4 prison is like the worst neighborhood you could imagine. Something terrible always might happen. Besides all of the stabbings, there are so many sexual assaults. Fear of dying in prison is a legitimate concern.”

Caldwell routinely observed violent struggles and riots throughout his incarceration, and repeatedly saw lethal weapons in the possession of inmates. He never felt safe any time he walked outside his cell, always fearing for his life. His closest family members — his grandmother, mother and brother — all died while he was in prison. He was prohibited from attending their funerals and became suicidal, feeling he had nothing, and no one, to live for, Abramson and Bland-Abramson write.

“Being in prison was like going to war every day,” Caldwell told Abramson. “It’s only when I was in my cell at night that I felt I was safe. I was depressed every day in prison. I don’t sleep. I suffer every day. I can understand how someone would go postal. I wouldn’t do something like that, for my kids, for all kinds of reasons. But I can understand.”

Caldwell suffers from what is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder — a form of deeply entrenched severe psychological distress also experienced by Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war and victims of childhood abuse, domestic abuse and torture — the result of having experienced sustained and repetitive agonizing events, Abramson said. Complex PTSD is often marked by rage and an unyielding depression, as in Caldwell’s case, according to Abramson.

“Mr. Caldwell could very well be an archetype for complex PTSD,” Abramson writes. “Maximum-security prisons maintain complete coercive control through 24-hour armed surveillance, locked cell blocks, 24-hour visibility of every aspect of a prisoner’s life, routine strip searches and thoroughly structured daily routines; all of which is encompassed within a fortress that is distinguished by outside perimeter barriers, and surrounded by razor wire with lethal electric fences designed to eliminate the possibility of escape.”

The many traumas Caldwell, now 54, experienced while in captivity imposed such an emotional burden on him that he disintegrated psychologically, Abramson writes, and the recent civil settlement provides no measure of relief from the deep and lasting anguish and rage that consume him — and likely will for the rest of his life.

Caldwell and Buckley, the former correctional officer, spoke with UCLA undergraduates in late September in an “Art and Trauma” honors collegium course that Abramson co-teaches.

Abramson and Bland-Abramson conclude that Caldwell was a victim of appalling injustice, which continues to disproportionately affect people of color in the United States. Recent research has shown that Black people in the U.S. are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder.

“Our hope,” the authors write, “is that by presenting this material, we can facilitate an understanding for, and empathy with, the trials and tribulations of victims of color who have suffered tremendously from police corruption and wrongful convictions. Until equal protection under the law is sustained unequivocally, restorative justice for people of color will be grievously foreshortened.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

UCLA faculty couple leaves nearly $9 million for psychology and other programs

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel outside Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Andrews)

UCLA has received more than $8.7 million from the estate of the late Bernice Wenzel and Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey, UCLA professors who were well known for their longtime commitment to the university.

More than $4.5 million of their gift will support four faculty chairs, scholarships, fellowships and colloquia in the UCLA College’s psychology department. The couple had previously endowed the department’s annual Jeffrey Lecture series and the Wendell Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel Term Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“Bernice Wenzel and Wendell Jeffrey were incredible supporters of UCLA Psychology and firm believers in collaborative education and research among students and faculty alike,” said department chair Annette Stanton. “We are deeply grateful for their own contributions to science and society and for their continuing commitment to training talented students and retaining exceptional faculty.”

The rest of the funds will support the Hammer Museum at UCLA, the UCLA Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center and the UCLA Library, along with the annual Henry J. Bruman Chamber Music Festival in the UCLA College’s division of humanities. The range of benefiting areas highlights Wenzel’s and Jeffrey’s diverse interests. Lifelong learners, the two led distinguished careers as scientists but also enjoyed music, art and travel together, giving not only to UCLA but also to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Ojai Music Festival.

The couple maintained a unique connection with UCLA, where they spent significant portions of their careers. Wenzel was a professor in the department of physiology and the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and served as an assistant dean for educational research at the medical school from 1974 to 1989. Known for her groundbreaking discovery that pigeons smell and use sight and sound to guide themselves, she also helped break the glass ceiling as part of the first generation of female professors.

Jeffrey was a developmental psychologist in the psychology department, studying the learning processes of young children and mentoring graduate students by supervising research, facilitating collaboration and introducing them to well-known experts. Many of his protégés went on to become professors themselves.

The two hosted numerous student gatherings on campus and at their home, and they remained deeply engaged with UCLA after their retirement. They regularly visited campus, and Wenzel served as president of the emeriti association in 1994–95. She also was part of the Wednesday Group, a group of retired faculty and campus leaders that continued to meet weekly at the Faculty Center. Jeffrey died in 2015 and Wenzel in 2018.

“Bernice and Wendell were Bruins through and through, and their investment in education and the arts at UCLA will remain a fitting testament to their generosity and wisdom,” said Lynn Andrews, the couple’s niece, who recalls visiting her aunt and uncle on campus and benefiting from their philanthropic and artistic influences. “Having them in the family — whether my own or UCLA’s — was always an extra-special blessing.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Kevin Love.

NBA star and alumnus Kevin Love to fund chair in psychology

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love, a former Bruin basketball player who has publicly shared his struggles with panic attacks, anxiety and depression, has committed $500,000 through his foundation — matched by a $500,000 UCLA Centennial Term Chair Match — to establish the Kevin Love Fund Centennial Chair in UCLA’s psychology department.

The $1 million investment will support the teaching and research activity of UCLA’s faculty working to diagnose, prevent, treat and destigmatize anxiety and depression at one of the top-ranked psychology departments in the United States.

“Kevin Love has shown not only tremendous leadership, but also tremendous heart, both on and off the court,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Thanks to his gift, the UCLA psychology department will be able to further its efforts to help those who suffer from anxiety and depression and the stigma that surrounds these conditions.”

Photo courtesy of Kevin Love

The NBA star founded the Kevin Love Fund in 2018 to help people improve their physical and emotional well-being, with the goal of assisting more than 1 billion people over the next five years. On June 21, Love was honored at the ESPYs as the 2020 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for his work as a mental health advocate.

“I’m concerned about the level of anxiety that people are feeling. Recent events, including the novel coronavirus outbreak, have put our society under enormous stress,” Love said. “I am happy to be able to help UCLA, my alma mater, work toward solving some of society’s biggest underlying issues. I hope one day we are able to erase the stigma around anxiety and depression, and we can only do that by improving diagnosis and treatment, fostering public conversations about mental health and encouraging people to seek help when they need it.”

Love’s contribution, bolstered by the Centennial Term Chair Match, will go to a scholar in the psychology department whose research could help advance more personalized treatments for people living with anxiety and depression.

UCLA’s psychology department is among the nation’s top-ranked departments of its kind and one of the largest academic units on campus, with more than 3,700 undergraduate students and 180 graduate students. In addition to its depth of expertise in anxiety and depression, the department’s faculty is renowned for its studies in multiple areas including human relationships and social networks; the adolescent brain; substance abuse and addiction; health psychology; neuroscience of behavioral health; and cognition and consciousness.

“When heroes like Kevin come forward and share their vulnerability, it shines a light on anxiety and depression, and that helps chip away at stigma,” said Michelle Craske, a UCLA distinguished professor psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “I want to thank Kevin for his leadership and his courage to share his personal story with the world. He has inspired and provided hope to many. Through his continued efforts, he is changing people’s lives.”

Love first connected with Craske in August 2019 when they took part in a public conversation for “Minds Matter: Raising the Curtain on Depression and Anxiety.” Co-hosted by UCLA College and the Geffen Playhouse, the event explored the causes of depression and anxiety, the public stigma associated with the conditions, and potential advances in diagnosis and treatment.

UCLA’s psychology department has long been at the leading edge of research and clinical programs aimed at alleviating the suffering caused by anxiety and depression, which are among the leading causes of disability worldwide. The department’s faculty also are integral to the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, which aims to elucidate the basis of depression, integrating basic brain science, genetics and other disciplines.

“We are immensely grateful to Kevin and the Kevin Love Fund for this generous and impactful gift,” said Victoria Sork, dean of life sciences in the UCLA College. “Kevin lives his values of service and investment in his communities. His gift will be of incalculable benefit to society for many decades to come.”

The chair’s establishment is pending approval by the UCLA Academic Senate and Block.

A photo of Priscilla Stephanie Molina.

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

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

A photo of Priscilla Stephanie Molina.

Priscilla Stephanie Molina (Photo Credit: Idriss Njike)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A photo of the Molina Family.

Courtesy of the Molina family

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker.

UCLA psychology department receives $30 million from Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation

Photo of Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker.

Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker at the Hammer gala in 2019. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Pritzkers)

UCLA has received a $30 million commitment from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation to support a major renovation of the Psychology Tower on the UCLA campus. In recognition of the gift, the building has been named Pritzker Hall.

Tony Pritzker served as co-chair of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which concluded in December. The campaign exceeded its original $4.2 billion fundraising goal 18 months ahead of schedule.

“Tony’s visionary leadership and unwavering support has inspired unprecedented philanthropy to UCLA throughout the campaign, helping cement a strong foundation for our second century,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Now, thanks to Tony and Jeanne’s latest extraordinary gift, UCLA Psychology will be primed for decades of trailblazing research and exceptional teaching.”

The $30 million commitment is the second largest in the history of the UCLA College’s life sciences division, which is home to the psychology department. Of the total amount, $10 million will create the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Endowment for Excellence, which will provide faculty and student support and fund ongoing infrastructure needs.

Photo of an architect’s rendering of Pritzker Hall from above.

An architect’s rendering of Pritzker Hall from above. (Photo courtesy of CO Architects)

“We have tremendous confidence in UCLA, as a public university, to move society and the world forward, which is why we invest our time and resources there,” Tony Pritzker said. “We are pleased to build upon our foundation’s earlier commitments to UCLA, while strengthening the extraordinary reputation that the psychology department’s research and scholarship have rightfully earned.”

The donation bookends the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation’s Centennial Campaign giving to the UCLA College; the foundation also gave $15 million to the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability in 2013, before the campaign’s public launch. The Pritzker Foundation’s total giving to UCLA, which also includes major gifts to athletics, law, medicine, neuroscience, education, public policy and programs to support foster youth on campus, now stands at just under $100 million.

“We are immensely grateful to Tony and Jeanne Pritzker for taking the lead in investing in a new era for UCLA Psychology,” said Victoria Sork, dean of life sciences. “I am especially heartened by this gift, because the values the Pritzkers espouse align with our own values of service and investment in our communities.”

“Their generous gift will help us transform Pritzker Hall into a space for breakthroughs — a collaborative, modern teaching and research space befitting one of the top psychology departments in the United States.”

The tower was designed by celebrated Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams and completed in 1967. Work on seismic upgrades began in 2018 and the full renovation is expected to be completed this year.

Sork said the endowment created by the Pritzkers’ gift will strengthen the department’s ability to recruit and retain top-notch faculty and students, a crucial factor in maintaining its excellence. UCLA Psychology faculty are pursuing research in a wide range of areas, including anxiety and depression; substance abuse and addiction; human relationships; stress, resilience and health; neuroscience; and cognition and consciousness, all focusing on how to improve people’s daily lives.

“This gift will be of incalculable benefit to faculty, students and members of the community for many decades to come,” Sork said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Chronic opioid treatment may raise risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, study finds

Senior author Michael Fanselow said the research suggests that chronic opioid use increases susceptibility to developing anxiety disorders. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

While opioids are often prescribed to treat people with trauma-related pain, a new UCLA-led study suggests doctors should use caution before prescribing the drug to those they believe may experience severe stress in the future, in order to reduce the risk the patient will develop PTSD.

In the study, researchers administered doses of the opioid morphine to a group of 22 mice for one week, then gave the mice relatively strong foot shocks. After the morphine wore off, the mice were given mild electric foot shocks. These mice showed a substantially longer “freezing response” than a second, control group of 24 mice that had not been given morphine. When mice recall a frightening memory, they freeze. Their heart rates and blood pressure go up, and the more frightening the memory, the more they freeze.

“While we are generally aware that drug use, such as that in the current opioid crisis, has many deleterious effects, our results suggest yet another effect — increased susceptibility to developing anxiety disorders,” said senior author Michael Fanselow, UCLA distinguished Staglin family professor of psychology and director of UCLA’s Staglin Family Music Festival Center for Brain and Behavioral Health. “As opioids are often prescribed to treat symptoms such as pain that may accompany trauma, caution may be needed because this may lead to a greater risk of developing PTSD, if exposed to further traumatic events, such as an accident, later on.”

“The foot shocks produced lasting fear and anxiety-like behaviors, such as freezing,” Fanselow said.

“Our data are the first to show a possible effect of opioids on future fear learning, suggesting that a person with a history of opioid use may become more susceptible to the negative effects of stress,” Fanselow said. “The ability of opioids to increase PTSD-like symptoms far outlasted the direct effects of the drug or withdrawal from the drug, suggesting the effect may continue even after opioid treatment has stopped.”

Fanselow’s view is if there is reason to believe a patient is likely to experience severe emotional stress after opioid treatment, then doctors should use caution about prescribing an opioid. If opioid use is medically called for, then the patient should be kept away from potentially stressful situations. So, for example, a soldier treated with opioids for pain should not be sent back into combat for a period of time, he said. The development of post-traumatic stress disorder requires some stressful experience after opioid use, he said.

The researchers also gave some of the mice morphine after the initial trauma had occurred but before exposing them to the second, mild stressor. They found that mice treated with morphine after the initial trauma did not show enhanced fear learning following exposure to the mild stressor. This finding suggests that chronic use of opioids before — but not after — a traumatic event occurs affects fear learning during subsequent stressful events.

The researchers concluded the mice given morphine were more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder than the control group of mice not given any opioids, and inferred that people with a history of using opioids are more susceptible to PTSD than the general population.

The study is published in Neuropsychopharmacology, an international scientific journal focusing on clinical and basic science research that advances understanding of the brain and behavior.

The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute of Mental Health.

An opiate is a drug naturally derived from the opium poppy plant, such as heroin, morphine and codeine. Opioid is a broader term that includes opiates and any substance, natural or synthetic, that binds to the brain’s opioid receptors — which play a key role in controlling pain, rewards and addictive behaviors. Synthetic opioids include the prescription painkillers Vicodin and OxyContin, as well as fentanyl and methadone.

Substance abuse and PTSD often go hand-in-hand, Fanselow said, and people with PTSD often take drugs to self-medicate. Nearly 40% of people with PTSD also have a drug disorder.

Fanselow and colleagues reported last month that a traumatic brain injury causes changes in a brain region called the amygdala; and the brain processes fear differently after such an injury.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.