They are to be honored by the association for their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. New fellows will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue rosette pin, representing science and engineering, on Feb. 16, at the association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Fellows will be formally announced in the “AAAS News and Notes” section of the journal Science on Nov. 29.
The researchers rank in the top 1 percent in their fields in producing widely cited studies, indicating that their work “has been repeatedly judged by their peers to be of notable significance and utility,” according to Clarivate.
Five years ago, a group of UCLA undergrads came together with a common goal — to build a small satellite and launch it into space. In the years since, more than 250 students — many of whom are now UCLA graduate students and alumni — have been the mechanical engineers, software developers, thermal and power testers, electronics technicians, mission planners and fabricators of the twin Electron Losses and Fields Investigation CubeSats, known as ELFIN.
Although UCLA has been building space instruments for NASA and other international space missions for more than 40 years, and members of its faculty have been critical contributors to space science, ELFIN is the first satellite mission built, managed and operated entirely at UCLA. And even more impressive, just about all of it has been done by the students.
This week, dozens of ELFINers (a nickname earned by those who’ve worked on the satellites), will drive about 150 miles up the California coast from Los Angeles to Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, to watch the product of their effort ascend into orbit.
“Just seeing all the hundreds of hours of work, that not just myself but others too, have put into this project, the many sleepless nights, the stressing out that you’re not going to make a deadline — just seeing it go up there … I’m probably going to cry,” said Jessica Artinger, an astrophysics major and geophysics and planetary science minor who will begin her fifth year this fall.
The two micro-satellites, each weighing about eight pounds and roughly the size of a loaf of bread, will help scientists better understand magnetic storms in near-Earth space. These storms are a typical form of “space weather” that is induced by solar activity, including flares and violent solar eruptions. Some solar outbursts can impact Earth, generating large amounts of invisible electromagnetic energy that transforms our local space environment.
“Magnetic storms are not just interesting space phenomena. They can energize electrons to high energies that can damage or even destroy orbiting satellites we depend on for GPS, communications and weather monitoring,” said Margaret Kivelson, UCLA professor emeritus of space physics. “They can also enhance space electrical currents which flow onto Earth, and could damage the power grid. Space weather research is also crucial for space tourism and space exploration.”
Currently, scientists’ ability to accurately model and predict space weather is in its infancy, just like meteorology was at the turn of the last century. ELFIN will make headway toward better understanding these phenomena.
ELFIN will go up as a secondary payload with the ICESat-2 mission at dawn on Saturday, Sept. 15, aboard the trusted Delta II, the final and hopefully 100th consecutive successful launch of this type of rocket. The launch will be streamed live on NASA TV’s YouTube channel, as well as on UCLA social media (follow #uclaELFIN).
Following the launch, many ELFINers at Vandenberg will come back to the campus command center to eagerly await the first Bruin transmissions from space, which are expected about 10 hours after blast-off. UCLA students will be directly involved in day-to-day mission activities and will have privileged access to ELFIN’s data. They will track and command the satellite via a custom-built antenna atop Knudsen Hall and will download data directly to the mission operations center located in the Earth, planetary and space sciences department. The ELFIN website will have interactive tools so the public can track and listen to the spacecraft as it passes overhead twice a day. The CubeSats are expected to remain in space for two years, after which they will gradually fall out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere like shooting stars.
In fall 2017, as head of ELFIN’s fabrication team, Artinger led a small team that worked tirelessly in the EPSS prototyping lab using band saws, drill presses and a CNC machine (which is used to carve and smooth metal parts) to meticulously craft tightly toleranced components to meet their completion deadline.
“There was a lot of working things out in your head before machining it, especially for safety reasons,” said Artinger, who gave a final inspection by painstakingly sanding each part and then re-measuring each and every hole, comparing them to the technical drawings for accuracy before sending them upstairs to the mechanical team for assembly. The aerospace-grade tolerance requirement across the 13.5-inch long spacecraft, she said, was two thousandths of an inch — about half the thickness of a standard sheet of paper. The team also had to machine the sensitive energetic particle detector frames to an incredibly precise 1/10,000 of an inch, she said.
Artinger, a transfer student who graduated from Orange Coast College in 2016, plans to become a community college professor and can’t wait to use her ELFIN experience to inspire a new generation of students. She says ELFIN really opened her eyes to the power of mentoring through research and further solidified her commitment to teaching topics related to space science.
“Maybe we can discover something at the community college I’ll be working at using the actual data from the satellite that I helped build,” she said. “That would be really cool.”
Ethan Tsai learned about ELFIN when he was a UCLA sophomore. Despite having no background in space science, the former physics major started to work on simple tasks and gained the necessary skills to become the project’s attitude determination and control subsystem lead. Now studying for his master’s in electrical engineering, Tsai is ELFIN’s project manager.
“I was pretty honored to be able to work on a mission like this,” he said, adding that he never imagined being involved in a NASA mission as an undergraduate. “It wasn’t until about two years into the project that I started to understand and appreciate the quality of the work we were doing and how it’s going to actually affect not just our mission and the students around us but the scientific community as a whole.”
Tsai said he’s excited about the infrastructure he has helped create to make UCLA a “space campus,” supporting students who will work on future satellite missions.
The project has been supported with funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA, with technical assistance from the Aerospace Corporation among other industry partners and universities.
Those who have witnessed the aurora borealis and australis illuminate the skies, also known as the northern and southern lights, have experienced the beauty and power of space weather, likely without even knowing it.
“The aurora is sort of a TV screen that shows us what happens out in space.” said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA space physicist who got his doctorate at UCLA and serves as ELFIN’s principal investigator. “Space physicists can tell if something interesting or important is going on in space by looking at the aurora.”
ELFIN aims to observe the complex sequence whereby magnetic storms form waves near Earth, accelerating and forcing electrons to fall into the atmosphere, while a network of all-sky cameras across North America captures the resulting brightening of the auroral lights. The field of space science benefits from multi-satellite missions like ELFIN because of the ever-growing need to know about the dynamic conditions in space.
“Just like with atmospheric weather,” Angelopoulos said, “you need multiple space weather buoys to feed their data into our space weather models and be able to make predictions of conditions in the future.”
CubeSats fill this need because of their compact size, relative affordability ($300,000 compared to several hundred million dollars for a typical research satellite), and how quickly a team can go from prototyping to launch compared to standard-sized satellites. CubeSats uniquely allow students to witness end-to-end satellite mission development, testing and operations all within the span of their undergraduate studies.
For ELFINers, being part of an endeavor of this magnitude is reward enough, but working on this project also has professional and scientific benefits, Angelopoulos said. In addition to the leadership, interpersonal, problem-solving and technical skills they’ve developed, ELFINers are also contributing to the production of knowledge, something that is incredibly valuable to society and to their careers as scientists and engineers.
“As a researcher it’s important to not just analyze data that others collect, but to be involved in designing your own unique experiments to explore new key science questions. This is how space science started, with experiments on small rockets where students were involved in the nuts and bolts of them, and similarly with CubeSats, this is where the future of space science education is headed now,” Angelopoulos said.
Building on the opportunities that exist here at UCLA, and knowing the impact that experiential learning can have on a student’s academic life, Angelopoulos wanted to find a way to bring CubeSat development into the undergraduate experience.
“CubeSats are ideal because they create an environment where students from all walks of life, from all disciplines, can come together and practice what they’ve learned during their formal education in the context of a realistic environment,” Angelopoulos said. “This is exactly what academia, industry and research organizations around the country need — and they tell us that. This is the kind of experience they want in people who are applying to graduate school or who are applying to work in industrial firms because these are people who think on their feet and innovate.”
For the dozens of UCLA students, faculty, staff and alumni braving the chilly temperatures near Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday morning, the brilliant ray of white that radiated across the predawn horizon was the best goodbye ever.
At 6:02 a.m. a Delta II rocket lifted off from the base in Lompoc, California, carrying ELFIN — twin micro-satellites, each weighing about eight pounds and roughly the size of a loaf of bread — into orbit aboard NASA’s ICESat-2 mission.
Saturday’s launch was the culmination of years of planning, dreaming, fabricating, designing, assembling, testing and programming, virtually all of it done by more than 250 UCLA students, most of whom were undergraduates.
“It’s really been a very emotional moment for a lot of students here,” said Ethan Tsai, UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering and ELFIN’s project manager. Tsai, more than two dozen other current students, alumni and faculty, including Vassilis Angelopoulos, professor of space physics and ELFIN’s principal investigator, watched from the VIP area.
“There’s half of my brain that’s trying to stick with the professional mode … and then part of me is just like I can’t believe this thing is launching and I can’t believe this thing is in space,” Tsai said. “I don’t know that it’s sunk in yet. But it’s really emotional for me.”
Luis Frausto, 34, a 2010 UCLA mechanical engineering graduate, who worked on early prototypes of ELFIN, said he was in “total awe” watching the launch from a public viewing site near Vandenberg Middle School.
Frausto, now a design engineer at TAE Technologies, Inc., was one of more than 200 (a record for the Vandenberg public viewing site, according to a base spokesman) who braved the chilly temperatures, including about 40 UCLA ELFINers and a few of their friends, who counted down to zero as the launch went off, sending the crowd into cheers and applause.
“You can’t compare it to watching it on TV. It was like a feeling inside my chest, like I was out of breath,” said Frausto, who left his home in Irvine at 12:30 a.m. to drive the 200 miles northwest to Lompoc. “I’m here and I’m honored to be around everyone who worked on ELFIN.”
ELFIN, which stands for Electron Losses and Fields Investigation CubeSats, is designed to help scientists better understand magnetic storms in near-Earth space. These storms are a typical form of “space weather” that is induced by solar activity, including flares and violent solar eruptions. Magnetic storms can result in damage or even destruction of orbiting satellites that humans depend on for GPS, communications and weather monitoring. Space weather research is also crucial for space tourism and space exploration.
Another former ELFINer who came out was Mike Lawson, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on the Mars 2020 mission. Lawson slept only two hours on a couch at UCLA before he left Westwood at midnight for what he described as an “emotional” drive on U.S. 101 that included listening to David Bowie’s “Starman.”
“It’s weird. It’s surreal. It was 10 years gone in like 20 seconds,” said Lawson, who earned his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in geology from UCLA. The 37-year-old was one of the original ELFINers 10 years ago who worked on prototypes for what would become the satellites that launched this morning. Work began five years ago on the actual satellites that went into orbit, aboard NASA’s final Delta II rocket mission.
Jessica Artinger, an astrophysics major who will begin her fifth year at UCLA this fall, left at 1 a.m. from Fountain Valley in Orange County to make the trip. Since fall quarter 2017, Artinger has led the fabrication team.
“Watching this,” said Artinger, who prior to the launch had expected to cry but despite the dry eyes was nevertheless moved, “my time here means something.”
Louise Tamondong, who is part of ELFIN’s flight operations team, said she got chills watching the launch, which was easily visible for just a few seconds before the rocket was shrouded in thick clouds. About 10 seconds after the sky lit up, the crowd finally heard the roar of the rocket’s engines.
“It felt so unreal that everything that we worked for is going into space … it only felt real when we saw that bright light and everything going up,” said Tamondong. After liftoff, she headed back to Westwood to listen for the first signal from the orbiting ELFIN through an antenna on the roof of UCLA’s Knudsen Hall. They received a signal around 4:30 p.m., confirming that both probes survived the bumpy ride to orbit. The team will now begin commissioning the spacecraft systems and instruments to prepare for the science operations phase.
As a new Bruin, Sixue Xu wasn’t part of the team that designed, tested and built ELFIN. But the graduate student in space physics will be among those who stand to benefit from ELFIN’s work.
“Now it’s our turn,” Xu said, “to make that data into science.”
Spend a brief amount of time with biochemist Rachelle Crosbie-Watson and you’ll quickly realize that “drive” is one of her favorite words.
With equal enthusiasm, she’ll describe studying “the small molecules that drive life,” and her 1968 convertible Corvette being “a blast to drive.”
The symmetry is hard to miss: Crosbie-Watson drives a classic muscle car to UCLA, where she studies the biochemical reactions that drive muscle cell functions. Her lab is hotly pursuing new drugs that one day may halt the progression of a deadly childhood muscle-wasting disease, allowing kids with the disorder to lead normal lives.
The popular digital network, Mashable, recently profiled Crosbie-Watson for its “How She Works” series, which shadows a day in the life of women professionals working in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
With her fiery pink hair, charismatic personality and affinity for high-speed cars, Crosbie-Watson doesn’t resemble most people’s vision of a biochemist. But her talent for crafting fresh approaches to solving thorny scientific puzzles is exactly what makes her such an ingenious scientist.
“What I love most about my job is the opportunity to be creative,” Crosbie-Watson said. “To solve the biggest problems in the world, we need individuals with different viewpoints to chime in. Working with people who are learning science for the first time — coupled with the thrill of discovery — makes for a really exciting recipe.”
Crosbie-Watson wears a lot of hats. Starting July 1, she will chair the integrative biology and physiology department in the UCLA College. She is also a professor of neurology in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the education liaison for the Center for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at UCLA.
In a sunny space in the Terasaki Life Sciences Building, Crosbie-Watson oversees a window-lined laboratory staffed by young researchers. Reflecting her appeal as a mentor and role model, 14 of the 17 are female.
Her team is intent on finding a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a deadly genetic disease that slowly weakens every muscle of the body. Striking 1 in 5,000 boys, the disorder typically reveals itself in frequent falls near age 4, reliance on a wheelchair by age 12, and teenage loss of the ability to move the upper arms. Young men with Duchenne frequently die in their 20s, when their heart and lung muscles stop pumping, leading to organ failure.
“Duchenne is a horrible disease that steals young boys’ childhoods and takes young men in the primes of their lives,” Crosbie-Watson said.
The disorder is caused by a genetic error that blocks the production of dystrophin, a protein that normally protects the membrane around muscle cells as they contract and relax. Left susceptible to damage from daily wear and tear, the unprotected cells eventually begin leaking their contents into the surrounding tissue, progressively weakening the muscle until it stops working.
Her lab’s earlier studies in mice gave Crosbie-Watson an insight into how to halt that process.
“We found that boosting levels of a molecule called sarcospan restored the membrane’s ability to protect muscle cells,” she said. “Sarcospan strengthens the muscle’s capacity to withstand the forces of daily use, diminishing the harm caused by Duchenne.”
Led by graduate student Cynthia Shu, the lab began scanning thousands of potential drugs to identify ones able to elevate cellular levels of sarcospan. Three years and 200,000 candidates later, the team has identified a handful of promising contenders for preclinical testing.
Crosbie-Watson applies the same imaginative approach she follows in research to her teaching. To educate the next generation of scientists about Duchenne, she created a virtual-learning course that invites Duchenne patients to describe what it’s like to live with the condition.
Open to undergraduate students enrolled at any University of California campus, the online course vividly illustrates the human toll and financial cost of the disease on patients and their families. Crosbie-Watson is currently developing a graduate program that explores muscle cell biology with an emphasis on translational research.
In recognition of her contributions to campus-wide education, Crosbie-Watson earned the 2013 UCLA Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award. This year she received the UCLA Life Sciences Faculty Excellence Award for education innovation.
“Getting other people excited about science energizes me,” Crosbie-Watson said. “I love teaching young researchers how to put things in context and keep their eyes on the big prize.
“Science is something you can do for a really long time,” she added. “Asking the next question never ends, it drives you forward. The chase is the motivation; that’s what makes research so addictive.”
In just a few days, UCLA space physicist Marco Velli will take a deep breath, look to the skies and take his place in history as part of the monumental Parker Solar Probe mission, billed as humanity’s first visit to the sun.
With the funding, the new UCLA-led Synthetic Control Across Length-scales for Advancing Rechargeables center, or SCALAR, will help accelerate research on new types of chemistry and materials for rechargeable batteries.
A first-of-its-kind crowdfunding campaign raised more than $69,000 for the UCLA Undergraduate Research Centers in the span of two weeks, providing critical funding for students to pursue mentorship and research opportunities throughout campus.
Tama Hasson, Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Research, sees first-hand how these resources can transform a student’s career path.
“When you are in a certain major, and you’re exploring a career, undergraduate research is a way to explore your interests in that career,” she said. “Research is useful for any career. Every discipline is going to ask you to take information and synthesize it.”
Hosted on the UCLA Spark crowdfunding site, the campaign launched just before Undergraduate Research Week, an annual event that brings student researchers from across campus to present their work. After just two weeks, more than 200 donors had contributed nationwide.
For the students who rely on the research centers to deepen their research portfolio, this funding will have a significant impact on their undergraduate experience.
“If it wouldn’t have been for undergraduate research I have no idea what my UCLA experience would have been like,” said Evelyn Hernandez ‘18, who will be pursuing her Ph.D. in the fall. “I’m just glad I got to focus on something – with the money that I got from C.A.R.E., and the fellowships – that I got to focus my extra time solely on research.”
Generations of students and faculty have relied on the Undergraduate Research Centers as catalysts for academic and professional growth. UCLA is the only university in the country to have two research centers, one focused on the sciences and another focused on the humanities, arts and social sciences. Together, the centers connect students with mentorships and opportunities to conduct research with top UCLA faculty, providing hands-on experiences that shape their careers.
The campaign also accomplished something invaluable – visibility. As a result of this dedicated effort, the Undergraduate Research Centers have built a community of supporters who are invested in the success of their students.
That community will prove vital as the centers continue their work providing crucial resources for undergraduate researchers. Whitney Arnold, Director of the Undergraduate Research Center–Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, is optimistic about the show of support.
“What I think is the coolest thing is how people at all levels and in all places in their careers contributed to the undergraduate research campaign,” Arnold said. “It just shows you the breadth and the impact of undergraduate research.”
Researchers from UCLA and the University of Oslo have documented a complex but universally felt emotion they call kama muta — a Sanskrit term that means “moved by love.”
“In part, we hope this serves as tool for artists, producers, writers, directors and actors who are seeking funding and support for future projects that appropriately and creatively reflect the gender and ethnic diversity of the United States.”