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A photo of a sleeping baby.

UCLA-led team of scientists discovers why we need sleep

A photo of a sleeping baby.

A UCLA-led team of scientists explains why sleep is so vital to our health and shows for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com)

Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to severe health problems in humans and other animals. But why is sleep so vital to our health? A UCLA-led team of scientists has made a major advance in answering this question and has shown for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half.

Before that age, the brain grows very rapidly. During REM sleep, when vivid dreams occur, the young brain is busy building and strengthening synapses — the structures that connect neurons to one another and allow them to communicate.

“Don’t wake babies up during REM sleep — important work is being done in their brains as they sleep,” said senior study author Gina Poe, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology who has conducted sleep research for more than 30 years.

After 2-and-a-half years, however, sleep’s primary purpose switches from brain building to brain maintenance and repair, a role it maintains for the rest of our lives, the scientists report Sept. 18 in the journal Science Advances. This transition, the researchers say, corresponds to changes in brain development.

All animals naturally experience a certain amount of neurological damage during waking hours, and the resulting debris, including damaged genes and proteins within neurons, can build up and cause brain disease. Sleep helps repair this damage and clear the debris — essentially decluttering the brain and taking out the trash that can lead to serious illness.

Nearly all of this brain repair occurs during sleep, according to senior author Van Savage, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of computational medicine, and his colleagues.

“I was shocked how huge a change this is over a short period of time, and that this switch occurs when we’re so young,” Savage said. “It’s a transition that is analogous to when water freezes to ice.”

The research team, which included scientists with expertise in neuroscience, biology, statistics and physics, conducted the most comprehensive statistical analysis of sleep to date, using data from more than 60 sleep studies involving humans and other mammals. They examined data on sleep throughout development — including total sleep time, REM sleep time, brain size and body size — and built and tested a mathematical model to explain how sleep changes with brain and body size.

The data were remarkably consistent: All species experienced a dramatic decline in REM sleep when they reached the human developmental equivalent of about 2-and-half years of age. The fraction of time spent in REM sleep before and after that point was roughly the same, whether the researchers studied rabbits, rats, pigs or humans.

REM sleep decreases with the growth in brain size throughout development, the scientists found. While newborns spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep, that falls to about 25% by the age of 10 and continues to decrease with age. Adults older than 50 spend approximately 15% of their time asleep in REM. The significant dropoff in REM sleep at about 2-and-a-half happens just as the major change in the function of sleep occurs, Poe said.

“Sleep is as important as food,” Poe said. “And it’s miraculous how well sleep matches the needs of our nervous system. From jellyfish to birds to whales, everyone sleeps. While we sleep, our brains are not resting.”

A chronic lack of sleep likely contributes to long-term health problems such as dementia and other cognitive disorders, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few, Poe said. When you start to feel tired, she said, don’t fight it — go to bed.

“I fought sleep and pulled all-nighters when I was in college, and now think that was a mistake,” Savage said. “I would have been better off with a good night’s sleep. Now when I feel tired, I don’t have any guilt about sleeping.”

For most adults, a regular seven-and-a-half hours of sleep a night is normal — and time lying awake doesn’t count, Poe says. While children need more sleep, babies need much more, roughly twice as much as adults. The large percentage of REM sleep in babies is in stark contrast to the amount of REM sleep observed in adult mammals across an enormous range of brain sizes and body sizes. Adult humans have five REM cycles during a full night of sleep and can have a few dreams in each cycle.

A good night’s sleep is excellent medicine, Poe says. And it’s free.

Co-authors of the study are Junyu Cao, who conducted research in Savage’s laboratory and is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Alexander Herman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Geoffrey West, a physicist who is the Shannan Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Funding sources included the National Science Foundation and the Eugene and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness (Photo Credit: Juliette Borda)

With so many people hurting in this turmoil-filled year — be it physically, economically, socially or psychologically — it’s hard to imagine a time when acts of kindness, both large and small, were in greater demand. For anyone resolving to contribute to a more compassionate and just planet, there’s good news: Kindness is contagious.

UCLA anthropology professor Daniel M.T. Fessler has led studies demonstrating that when we witness altruistic acts, the uplifting emotional experience motivates us to follow suit. Idealists are the most strongly affected, with cynics — those who tend to see others as self-interested — harder to move. What’s more, the effect appears to be cumulative. “We have good reason to believe not just that kindness is contagious in the moment,” Fessler says, “but that repeated experiences of kindness or unkindness shape people’s expectations, and those expectations in turn shape their behaviors.”

Fessler is the inaugural director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, established last fall as an effort to better understand kindness through evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. In addition to supporting research, the institute aims to translate findings in ways that promote kindness — which it defines as actions intended to benefit another party wherein the benefit is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

If kindness is contagious, fear of a different contagion poses barriers. The era of COVID-19 has placed constraints on physical contact and face-to-face interactions, often dulling the experience of giving and receiving kind acts. We wear masks that hide emotional expressions and veer away from strangers on sidewalks. On the other hand, Fessler points out that at no other time in human history could we communicate with anyone, instantly, and provide benefits so easily without leaving our homes. “Even as there are pragmatic constraints to the emotional experience that’s an important part of kindness, there is enormous opportunity for positive interactions,” he says. “People need to work together, recognizing that our common humanity is important not only in this moment, but in solving major challenges to come.”

Idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness.

For those of us contemplating how to help create a kinder world, Fessler offers the following advice:

Acknowledge strangers

Spreading kindness starts with the everyday encounters we have with people we don’t know. “There is research showing that positive small-talk interactions, like the chat you have with the cashier at the grocery store, enhance well-being,” Fessler notes. In the era of COVID-19, making such connections might require a little more effort. Exchanging smiles with the individual crossing your path isn’t possible if you’re both wearing masks, but a wave or a head nod can suffice. When no-contact food delivery was instituted as a safety precaution, the transaction became faceless, but “people can still leave a sign on the door saying, ‘I appreciate your making it possible for me to stay home,’ as a way of breaking down the anonymity,” Fessler says.

Make a connection

At a time when many are feeling socially isolated, among the kindest acts is to reach out to family, friends, neighbors and anyone else who might benefit from some company, even if it’s via phone, text or Zoom. Older adults in particular are at high risk for loneliness, especially during the pandemic. “Recording their experiences in a different kind of world can have inestimable value in the future, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an elderly person who didn’t like to tell stories from the past,” Fessler suggests. “It’s emotionally powerful for both interviewer and interviewee, and the technology affords it like never before.”

Watch your media consumption

The finding that idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness has led Fessler to examine the effects of media consumption in shaping our perceptions of those around us. “We know, for example, that people who consume a lot of local news overestimate the probability of being victimized by violence,” he says. “If you’re constantly hearing messages that people are bad, it’s probably going to affect not only your mental well-being and physical health, but also how you view other people.” In addition to curating a media diet that’s less focused on the darker aspects of human behavior, choosing to surround ourselves with kind people will likely increase our own kindness quotient.

Play to your strengths

With unlimited possibilities for kindness, determining how to act often involves thinking about people’s practical needs and matching them up with your own interests and talents. “Volunteering to deliver groceries to people who can’t get out because they’re at greater risk of the virus — that’s a beautiful thing,” Fessler says. Other pandemic-era examples: sewing masks for neighbors or offering virtual tutoring sessions for children whose parents are struggling to meet work/family obligations. “People need to look at their skill sets,” Fessler says. “Some are naturally garrulous, while others are not as comfortable interacting with people, but they’re good musicians and can entertain neighbors or people online playing guitar.” Of course, kindness can extend far beyond our immediate community. “One thing made clear by this pandemic is that everyone on the planet is connected,” Fessler asserts. “People can think creatively about ways to provide benefits to those they would otherwise never interact with.”

Start small

The universe of kind acts is infinite, and organizations such as the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have aggregated the possibilities. “Everyone needs to assess their own situation in terms of their health, obligations to other people, financial resources and so on, and decide what they’re able to do,” Fessler says. “If you can give money, obviously there are many causes that can benefit enormously. But if you’re not in a position to do that, maybe you have oranges or avocados from your yard that you can bring to a food pantry.” And those who are motivated to find new ways to practice kindness should feel free to start small. Fessler’s expectation is that the satisfaction we derive from making even small gestures will prompt us to increase our investments in altruistic actions. “The vast majority of people who try to do things that benefit others will find those things rewarding,” Fessler says. “That’s how we’re wired.”

Remember, it’s the thought that counts

Fessler is quick to point out that actions don’t have to be great to be kind. Is that fruit from your backyard bruised? It’s still a kind act to share it. You’re just a so-so musician? Your friends or neighbors might still enjoy listening to you perform. The bottom line, Fessler explains, is that kindness is defined in terms of the intended actions, not the results. “We are very attuned to discerning the genuineness of others’ actions,” he says. “If we see that someone’s emotions suggest they are genuinely motivated simply to help others, we admire them and are motivated to be kind ourselves. Not every well-intentioned action will succeed, but only some of them have to in order to make the world a better place.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photograph of Abel Valenzuela.

UCLA professor leads research on issues impacting vulnerable workers

Photograph of Abel Valenzuela.

Abel Valenzuela

“Los Angeles is the harbinger for the future. It’s a city that has driven the national debate on workforce issues such as the minimum wage, wage theft, youth employment and immigration. These key issues are shaping the conversation about the future of work nationwide.”

So says Abel Valenzuela, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Valenzuela is an expert on day laborers, immigration and labor markets, urban poverty and inequality, and immigrant settlement patterns. His work focuses on understanding the social position and impact of immigrants in the United States, especially in Los Angeles.

Valenzuela, who serves as special advisor to the chancellor on immigration policy and is a professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies in the UCLA College, has studied how different groups of workers compete for low-wage, low-skill jobs; the local economic and employment impacts of immigration; and job search and commuting behavior among racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles.

Since its founding in 1945, the Institute has played an important role in the intellectual life of the university and in the national conversation on labor and employment issues. It forms wide-ranging research agendas on issues impacting workers on the margins including immigrant workers, Black workers, gig workers, young workers and domestic workers. The Institute’s studies have advanced policy changes related to the minimum wage, wage theft, and paid sick leave. Last fall, the Institute launched the labor studies major, the first of its kind at the University of California.

As local and national economies grapple with the unprecedented impacts of COVID-19, the Institute’s research will be critical to rebuilding a more racially equitable economy that prioritizes the most vulnerable workers.

Says Valenzuela, “UCLA is in the business of discovery and science and using that science to make change. My colleagues who study the impacts and intervention related to cancer are serious about finding a cure for cancer. In that same spirit, at the Institute we use social science to ensure workers live dignified lives and are able to support their families.”

A photo of two N95 respirators.

Single-use N95 respirators can be decontaminated and used again, study finds

A photo of two N95 respirators.

N95 respirators reduce exposure to airborne infectious agents, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (Photo Credit: CDC/Debora Cartagena)

N95 respirators, which are widely worn by health care workers treating patients with COVID-19 and are designed to be used only once, can be decontaminated effectively and used up to three times, according to research by UCLA scientists and colleagues.

An early-release version of their study has been published online, with the full study to appear in September in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

N95 respirators reduce exposure to airborne infectious agents, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and are one of the key pieces of personal protective equipment used by clinical workers in preventing the spread of the virus. Critical shortages of these masks have driven efforts to find new decontamination methods that can extend their use.

“Although N95 respirators are designed for just one use before disposal, in times of shortage, N95 respirators can be decontaminated and reused up to three times,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “But the integrity of the respirator’s fit and seal must be maintained.”

In a controlled laboratory setting, the researchers tested several decontamination methods on small sections of N95 filter fabric that had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. The methods included vaporized hydrogen peroxide, dry heat at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit), ultraviolet light and a 70% ethanol spray. All four methods eliminated detectable viable virus traces from the N95 fabric test samples.

The investigators then treated fully intact, clean respirators with the same decontamination methods to test their reuse durability. Employees with the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana volunteered to wear the masks for two hours to determine if they maintained a proper fit and seal over the face. The scientists decontaminated each mask three times, using the same procedure with each.

The masks treated with vaporized hydrogen peroxide experienced no failures, suggesting they potentially could be reused three times, Lloyd-Smith said. Those treated with ultraviolet light and dry heat began showing fit and seal problems after three decontaminations, suggesting these respirators potentially could be reused twice.

The study authors concluded that vaporized hydrogen peroxide was the most effective method because no traces of the virus could be detected after only a 10-minute treatment. They found that ultraviolet light and dry heat are also acceptable decontamination procedures, as long as the methods are applied for at least 60 minutes.

The ethanol spray, the scientists discovered, damaged the integrity of the respirator’s fit and seal after two sessions, and they do not recommend it for decontaminating N95 respirators.

The researchers stressed that anyone decontaminating an N95 respirator should closely check the fit and seal over the face before each reuse.

Co-authors of the study include Amandine Gamble, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher in Lloyd-Smith’s laboratory, as well as researchers with Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Funding sources included the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation.

In a widely cited study, Lloyd-Smith and colleagues reported in March that the virus that causes COVID-19 remains for several hours to days on surfaces and in aerosols.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

 

A photo of Professor Lili Yang.

How a UCLA scientist is using stem cells to take on COVID-19

A photo of Professor Lili Yang.

Lili Yang (Photo Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, UCLA researchers are rising to the occasion by channeling their specialized expertise to seek new and creative ways to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives. Using years’ — or even decades’ — worth of knowledge they’ve acquired studying other diseases and biological processes, many of them have shifted their focus to the novel coronavirus, and they’re collaborating across disciplines as they work toward new diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.

Here’s a look at one project in which UCLA scientist Lili Yang, associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College is using stem cells — which can self-replicate and give rise to all cell types — to take on COVID-19.

Invariant natural killer T cells, or iNKT cells, are the special forces of the immune system. They’re extremely powerful and can immediately recognize and respond to many different intruders, from infections to cancer.

Yang is testing whether iNKT cells would make a particularly effective treatment for COVID-19 because they have the capacity to kill virally infected cells, offer protection from reinfection and rein in the excessive inflammation caused by a hyperactive immune response to the virus, which is thought to be a major cause of tissue damage and death in people with the disease.

One catch, though, is that iNKT cells are incredibly scarce: One drop of human blood contains around 10 million blood cells but only around 10 iNKT cells. That’s where Yang’s research comes in. Over the past several years, she has developed a method for generating large numbers of iNKT cells from blood-forming stem cells. While that work was aimed at creating a treatment for cancer, Yang’s lab has adapted its work over the past few months to test how effective stem cell–derived iNKT cells could be in fighting COVID-19. With her colleagues, she has been studying how the cells work in fighting the disease in models of SARS-CoV-2 infection that are grown from human kidney and lung cells.

“My lab has been developing an iNKT cell therapy for cancer for years,” Yang said. “This means a big part of the work is already done. We are repurposing a potential therapy that is very far along in development to treat COVID-19.” Read more.

For more on campus-wide research efforts related to COVID-19, visit: https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/stem-cell-research-covid-19

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

If relaxed too soon, physical distancing measures might have been all for naught

A graphic of the Coronavirus.

Coronavirus (Photo Credit: NIAID-RML)

If physical distancing measures in the United States are relaxed while there is still no COVID-19 vaccine or treatment and while personal protective equipment remains in short supply, the number of resulting infections could be about the same as if distancing had never been implemented to begin with, according to a UCLA-led team of mathematicians and scientists.

The researchers compared the results of three related mathematical models of disease transmission that they used to analyze data emerging from local and national governments, including one that measures the dynamic reproduction number — the average number of susceptible people infected by one previously infected person. The models all highlight the dangers of relaxing public health measures too soon.

“Distancing efforts that appear to have succeeded in the short term may have little impact on the total number of infections expected over the course of the pandemic,” said lead author Andrea Bertozzi, a distinguished professor of mathematics who holds UCLA’s Betsy Wood Knapp Chair for Innovation and Creativity. “Our mathematical models demonstrate that relaxing these measures in the absence of pharmaceutical interventions may allow the pandemic to reemerge. It’s about reducing contact with other people, and this can be done with PPE as well as distancing.”

A photo of Andrea Bertozzi

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is applicable to both future spikes of COVID-19 and future pandemics, the researchers say.

If distancing and shelter-in-place measures had not been taken in March and April, it is very likely the number of people infected in California, New York and elsewhere would have been dramatically higher, posing a severe burden on hospitals, Bertozzi said. But the total number of infections predicted if these precautions end too soon is similar to the number that would be expected over the course of the pandemic without such measures, she said. In other words, short-term distancing can slow the spread of the disease but may not result in fewer people becoming infected.

Mathematically modeling and forecasting the spread of COVID-19 are critical for effective public health policy, but wide differences in precautionary approaches across the country have made it a challenge, said Bertozzi, who is also a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Social distancing and wearing face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19, but people in many states are not following distancing guidelines and are not wearing masks — and the number of infections continues to rise.

What are the implications of these findings for policymakers who want to relax social distancing in an effort to revive their economies?

“Policymakers need to be careful,” Bertozzi said. “Our study predicts a surge in cases in California after distancing measures are relaxed. Alternative strategies exist that would allow the economy to ramp up without substantial new infections. Those strategies all involve significant use of PPE and increased testing.”

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, social distancing was first enforced and then relaxed in some areas. Bertozzi points to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007 that looked at several American cities during that pandemic where a second wave of infections occurred after public health measures were removed too early.

That study found that the timing of public health interventions had a profound influence on the pattern of the second wave of the 1918 pandemic in different cities. Cities that had introduced measures early in the pandemic achieved significant reductions in overall mortality. Larger reductions in peak mortality were achieved by those cities that extended the public health measures for longer. San Francisco, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Kansas City, for instance, had the most effective interventions, reducing transmission rates by 30% to 50%.

“Researchers Martin Bootsma and Neil Ferguson were able to analyze the effectiveness of distancing measures by comparing the data against an estimate for what might have happened had distancing measures not been introduced,” Bertozzi said of the 2007 study. “They considered data from the full pandemic, while we addressed the question of fitting models to early-time data for this pandemic. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the early relaxation of social distancing measures led to a swift uptick in deaths in some U.S. cities. Our mathematical models help to explain why this effect might occur today.”

The COVID-19 data in the new study are from April 1, 2020, and are publicly available. The study is aimed at scientists who are not experts in epidemiology.

“Epidemiologists are in high demand during a pandemic, and public health officials from local jurisdictions may have a need for help interpreting data,” Bertozzi said. “Scientists with relevant background can be tapped to assist these people.”

Study co-authors are Elisa Franco, a UCLA associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and bioengineering; George Mohler, an associate professor of computer and information science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis; Martin Short, an associate professor of mathematics at Georgia Tech; and Daniel Sledge, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Marcus Hunter.

Professor’s work informs proposed U.S. commission on racial healing

A photo of Marcus Hunter.

Marcus Hunter, UCLA professor of sociology and chair of the African American studies department. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A recently proposed U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, which U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee introduced into Congress shortly after protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death, could be a powerful next step in the fight for racial justice in America.

The draft of the proposal, however, has been in the works for more than three years, with collaboration on the language from Marcus Hunter, UCLA professor of African American studies, whose forthcoming book will focus on slavery and reparations. He’s been part of a coalition that meets regularly to advance the resolution.

On July 18, they will launch the #BreatheWithMe campaign in support of the proposed resolution and to coincide with Nelson Mandela’s birthday. It will feature celebrities and supporters reading sections of the resolution and sharing on social media.

The #BreatheWithMe campaign includes a People’s Petition that will help citizens request that their Congressional representatives support the resolution, which currently has 130 co-sponsors, but needs 218 backers in the House of Representatives, ideally by the end of August when the current congressional session ends.

“People are wondering how they can help, what’s next in the movement,” said Hunter, who is the Scott Waugh Professor in the Division of Social Sciences. “This is a very simple but very tangible way for people to take action.”

The resolution gained early and critical support from the NAACP as well as fellow leaders in Congress including John Lewis, Los Angeles’ own Karen Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and Deb Harland, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

“I have a lot of hope and aspirations right now,” Hunter said. “And I think Representative Lee felt this was a great time to propose this resolution as an extension of the support we are seeing across the country for the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Hunter got involved in the process when Lee saw him host a discussion on the topic on CSPAN’s “Book TV” back in April 2017 and got in touch to enlist his help drafting the resolution. Last year the United States marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ships arriving in North America in 1619 and the text of the resolution addresses the “long overdue debt of remembrance to not only those who lived through the egregious injustices … but also to their descendants.”

Once put into practice, a commission like this will also pave the way for tangible support when it comes to reparations, not just for dependents of American slavery, but also Native American populations, Hunter said.

“This will create another way of studying the phenomenon of slavery and racial inequity,” Hunter said. “It should almost be the least we can do, an assessment of slavery and its aftermath. Can we at least document our past nationally so it’s not a matter of opinion? Can we put the evidence and memory of it down in one place? It will result in a database of quantitative information that can be used in specific reparations cases and to inform future policy.”

The resolution also cites that 40 other countries have “reckoned with historical injustice and its aftermath through forming Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa

A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa (Photo Credit: Andrea Ucini)

By the end of this century, 1 in 4 people in the world could be African, says Thomas Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, quoting United Nations data. He believes this massive demographic shift will prompt countries to rethink partnerships with Africa, a youth-dominated continent that’s larger than the United States, China, India and most of Europe combined.

And UCLA is ahead of the game, as hundreds of Bruin students, scientists, doctors and administrators work hand in hand with local colleagues across the 54 incredibly varied countries that make up Africa today.

Unlike past “parachute doctors” — who would jump into a crisis, often perform heroically and then go home — UCLA people are deeply embedded in African communities, helping to prevent the next medical, economic or environmental calamity.

In January 2020, Chancellor Gene Block and his team of UCLA administrators attended the Diversity in Higher Education Colloquium in Bloemfontein, South Africa — co-hosted by the University of the Free State in South Africa, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and UCLA — to promote diversity and equality in global education. They met tireless and passionate advocates for change, many of whom work through malaria and deprivations unthinkable to many colleagues.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that their roles are vital to the future of the world. “UCLA’s partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa have been incredibly successful in helping tackle regional issues to improve the quality of life,” Block said upon his return. “It is important for UCLA, as a public research university, both to share our expertise and to learn from and collaborate with colleagues around the world for the advancement of society.”

It’s a paradigm shift away from previous efforts to help Africa through “aid with strings” packages or infrastructure investments that have bred monstrous civil wars and ugly kleptocracies.

Smith, who has been working in Cameroon for three decades, agrees that there are still widespread corruption and brutal struggles, which create mass displacements — 750,000 people were driven from their homes in Burkina Faso last year. But there are also extraordinary reasons for optimism. These include the global legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the promise of peaceful nations such as Ivory Coast, whose gross domestic product has nearly doubled over the past decade, challenging gloomy stereotypes.

Among a wave of fresh-thinking UCLA scholars who might have never expected to be working in Africa, three inspirational leaders spoke with UCLA Magazine.

Unexpected Journeys

Smith started out as an evolutionary biologist chasing an unusual finch, which led him to the jungles of Cameroon in West Africa. Anne Rimoin M.P.H. ’96, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, might have become a Hollywood lawyer if the Peace Corps had not offered her a position to track 30-inch-long worms in West Africa. And Sundeep Gupta was an epidemic intelligence officer working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before UCLA and Malawi came calling.

From Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, it’s 600 miles of rough road and river south to Rimoin’s bare-bones offices in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And it’s another 1,500 miles south to Gupta’s desk at the Partners in Hope offices in Malawi. The UCLA trio face very different challenges, but they’re united in their deep commitment to working with African partners.

When Smith got started, he recalls, “I was in Central Africa studying a fascinating species [of bird] called the black-bellied seedcracker, which shows unique variations in the size of its bill. I went to the rainforests in Central Africa, where my passion for biodiversity, sustainability and people was reinforced.

“In those days, I was living in a tent. But decades later [in 2015], we developed the Congo Basin Institute [CBI] to host scholars studying topics ranging from the rainforest’s enormous capacity to sequester carbon to zoonotic [species-jumping] diseases such as Ebola.” Located in Cameroon, the CBI is UCLA’s first foreign affiliate.

Smith adds: “In 2011, my colleagues and I discovered that the swine flu, [which was] first identified in Mexico, had taken a U-turn. It had moved from people back to swine, and no one — including the World Health Organization — knew it had reached Africa. Swine are the mixing vessels for influenza. This is how new pandemics start — there are no borders anymore.”

Smith saw something like the coronavirus coming. He remembers a prescient research paper from 13 years ago that referred to “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats that, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

Smith adds, “Even more than China, Central Africa is ground zero for infectious diseases that spill over from animals to humans. These include the ones we know — Ebola and SIV [the origin of HIV/AIDS] — but many we don’t. It turns out there are varieties of coronavirus circulating in African bats. Motivated by the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, our lab has launched a new study to assess the risk of these potentially dangerous, yet undescribed coronaviruses — both now and under future climate change.”

A photo of Thomas Smith (center) with friends.

Thomas Smith (center) with friends. (Photo Credit: Congo Basin Initiative)

Losing and Learning Skills

As an investigator, Smith works closely with the Baka people, seminomadic hunter-gatherers who intimately know the rainforests of Cameroon and Gabon. He pays tribute to his friend Augustin Siec, a Baka chief who could hear a rustle in the canopy and identify not only the species of the animal but also its gender and role in the forest’s ecology.

Smith has been worried that the younger among the 30,000-strong Baka community — under pressure from urban officials to settle in villages — have been losing this indigenous knowledge. But the CBI, which employs Baka research assistants, has created opportunities for them to relearn the skills of the “professors of the forest,” including herbal medicines that could unlock future cures for diseases. Siec’s recent death from misdiagnosed tuberculosis reminds Smith that health projects across Africa still have a long way to go.

Smith’s dream is that one day Africans themselves will run the CBI, including its labs. But first, Cameroonians will have to become more economically self-sustaining. To help achieve that, Smith partnered with San Diego–based Taylor Guitars on The Ebony Project, which is planting 15,000 ebony trees, interspersed with high-value fruit saplings, in Cameroon. According to Taylor Guitars, ebony wood creates richly ringing overtones with a clear lineal quality across the spectrum — and guitarists can hear the African difference.

The Congo Basin Institute provides a center for science in Africa for Africans, says Smith, offering facilities to young Africans who otherwise might have taken their skills abroad.

In a 2017 TED Talk, Cameroonian Kevin Njabo — the Africa director and an assistant adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Center for Tropical Research — mourns the wholesale exportation of “the best and the brightest” from Africa.

Njabo says he was drawn to UCLA not only because of its ability to develop programs that could save lives — like the 1 million people, mostly children, who die from malaria each year — but also by its ability to encourage expatriates to return home. “For every African who returns home, nine new jobs are created,” Njabo says. At the Congo Basin Initiative, he says, “we are building a one-stop shop for logistics, housing and development of collaborative projects, empowering Africans to find their own solutions. If this had existed when I was 18, I would have never left home — but I am coming back.”

A Joyful Day

The brain drain is a dilemma that haunts Rimoin, a popular voice across media who urged for calm during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Raised in Los Angeles, she credits a “brilliant” French language teacher for opening her eyes to Francophone Africa.

“My father [David Rimoin, who was famed for his work on inheritable diseases] was in medicine, but I was considering becoming an entertainment lawyer. [Then] the Peace Corps offered to send me to Benin [in West Africa] to track and eradicate Guinea worm infections. Who could resist? And my French made all the difference,” she says. Rimoin remembers a joyful day when a Benin woman said to her: “You have found who you are.” And she was right.

Since 2002, Rimoin has worked in the DRC, the troubled country once known as Zaire, and her research has revealed the zoonotic secrets of monkeypox and other emerging pathogens in remote areas along the Congo River.

Every day brings light and dark, she says. For example, in 2019, 50,000 Congolese died from measles, a disease that was thought to have been eradicated from the world.

But there’s also hope: In February 2020, after the latest Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, the last few patients were safely released from the hospital. Even more good news: Rimoin’s team tracked down survivors of the first-recorded Ebola outbreak in 1976 — people living in remote areas of the Congolese forest — and discovered that they still had lifesaving antibodies in their systems. This precious data could help prevent or treat future outbreaks.

“It’s incredible and hopeful, but we still have to raise more funds to protect those workers on the front line,” Rimoin says, with her characteristic blend of enthusiasm and practicality.

The sources of many such outbreaks have been tracked back to “wet markets,” where trapped wild animals are sold as food — as in Wuhan, China, which was ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s complicated,” Rimoin says. Wet markets “are built into the culture, and the people need the protein in areas where it’s difficult to find alternatives.”

A photo of hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi.

Hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi. (Photo Credit: Anne Rimoin)

Mama Étêté

“Right from the start, I was not interested in parachute medicine,” Rimoin says. “I was there for the long term — to build trust and my understanding of the issues. And I love it.”

As director of the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for Global and Immigrant Health, Rimoin appreciates the colleagues who have relocated to the DRC, such as Nicole Hoff Ph.D. ’14, the UCLA-DRC Research Program’s country director and senior administrative analyst, and Kirstin Chickering M.P.H. ’95, the program’s associate director. “Kirstin and I were together at elementary school in Palos Verdes, but did not know each other,” Rimoin says. “Kirstin came to Kinshasa to help me set up a project for three months, and that was 11 years ago. Kirstin, Nicole and I are three tough UCLA sisters!”

Rimoin is well-known around Kinshasa, fighting for causes such as protecting the bonobo ape from being hunted as bush meat. Although her knowledge has been in demand during the COVID-19 crisis, and she has appeared frequently on NPR, HBO and MSNBC, she has no plans to walk away from the DRC — even if its bloody spasms of civil war continue to displace 5 million people. After all, she and UCLA have work to do. Plus, she jokes, “phone reception is better than in Benedict Canyon.”

When a Fielding colleague described Rimoin as “just so boss,” the epidemiologist admits, “I am very persistent. When I go see a local official, he will say, ‘Oh, it’s you. I will just say yes, yes, yes now, to save time!’ In [the Bantu language] Lingala, I am called ‘Mama Étêté,’ or ‘the woman who never gives up.’”

Malawi Miracle

Gupta takes a low-key approach to his clinical work in the AIDS wards in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi — one of the Central African countries most severely weakened by the HIV pandemic. He says that what he has witnessed over the past decade is a miracle of modern medicine and thinking about flexible approaches to diseases.

In 2000, Perry Jansen, a doctor who had completed his residency at UCLA in 1994, established the nonprofit Partners in Hope, Malawi, to bring antiviral drugs to the country. At that time, the life expectancy at birth was 45 years; today, it’s 64 and rising. The number of HIV treatment clinics has increased from one to around 20, with UCLA contributing funding and personnel on the ground. So far, around 200 UCLA students and staff have worked in Malawi.

Gupta wears many hats: He is an epidemiologist, a family physician, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and programs director at Partners in Hope. “You go where the need is greatest,” says Gupta, speaking from Lilongwe. He says the stable UCLA presence in Malawi is key, allowing recently arrived doctors, such as Faysal Saab ’07, M.D. ’12, to focus on improving medical practices, using both textbook theory and evidence-based medicine.

One diagnostic issue was that many young men were embarrassed to go to an HIV clinic. But UCLA doctors introduced self-testing kits, and this experimental switch increased the number of Malawians who got tested for and diagnosed with HIV. Ten years ago, 100,000 Malawians were undergoing treatment; today it’s around 830,000. There are still problems, but for many observers, it’s an emotional revitalization of a nation.


There are as many positions of interest for Bruins in Africa as there are countries spanning the continent. It’s not about what Westerners think should happen, but about what works for the Africans themselves, Smith says.

So what is UCLA’s role in Africa? “There is an incredible awareness of the university, earning respect with its research from South Africa and Mozambique to the Congo Basin,” Rimoin says. “The way we practice global health is much more collaborative than in the past. It’s been decolonized, as we have helped nations develop their own health infrastructures. We have made a promise to be here, to maintain funding, and the Africans are learning to trust that. Our first priority is to not let Africa down.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Royce Hall.

Alumna’s Gift will Support the Study of Contemporary Chinese Culture

A $250,000 donation from economics alumna May C. Chong has established the Heritage and Hope Endowment in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Augmented by $125,000 from the Humanities Centennial Match, the gift will support students and faculty researching contemporary global Chinese culture and/or religion, specifically Buddhism.

A photo of Royce Hall.

Royce Hall (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“We are deeply grateful for May Chong’s generous gift, which will firmly embed contemporary Chinese cultural studies on our campus,” Dean of Humanities David Schaberg said. “More broadly, this gift further empowers UCLA in its mission to educate global citizens and foster greater cultural understanding.”

Chong, who graduated from UCLA in 1979, grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States after graduating from high school. As a student, she spent hours in the Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library in UCLA’s Young Research Library, considering it her “home away from home.” In 2011, she established an endowment for the library supporting the acquisition of books and materials, including primarily Chinese classics, culture, education and modern literature, as well as publications in Chinese or dual language (Chinese-English).

“It is my hope that these complementary gifts will help UCLA become known as a premier cultural and educational resource for both Chinese and non-Chinese-speaking people who are interested in Chinese language, teachings and cultures,” Chong said.

Chong is a longtime financial adviser currently employed by UBS Financial Services. She previously worked for Merrill Lynch. In 2014, she was named by the Financial Times among the Top 100 Women Financial Advisors. In the same year CEOWorld placed her on their America’s Top-Ranked 100 Women Financial Advisors list. She is married to Danny Yiu. They have a daughter who graduated from NYU in 2017.

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

How conspiracy theories emerge – and how their storylines fall apart

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

Researchers produced a graphic representation of the narratives they analyzed, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A new study by UCLA professors offers a new way to understand how unfounded conspiracy theories emerge online. The research, which combines sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured, explains how unrelated facts and false information can connect into a narrative framework that would quickly fall apart if some of those elements are taken out of the mix.

The authors, from the UCLA College and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, illustrated the difference in the storytelling elements of a debunked conspiracy theory and those that emerged when journalists covered an actual event in the news media. Their approach could help shed light on how and why other conspiracy theories, including those around COVID-19, spread — even in the absence of facts.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, analyzed the spread of news about the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey — an actual conspiracy — and the spread of misinformation about the 2016 “Pizzagate” myth, the completely fabricated conspiracy theory that a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring that involved prominent Democratic Party officials, including Hillary Clinton.

The researchers used machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to analyze the information that spread online about the Pizzagate story. The AI automatically can tease out all of the people, places, things and organizations in a story spreading online — whether the story is true or fabricated — and identify how they are related to each other.

Finding the puzzle pieces

In either case — whether for a conspiracy theory or an actual news story — the narrative framework is established by the relationships among all of the elements of the storyline. And, it turns out, conspiracy theories tend to form around certain elements that act as the adhesive holding the facts and characters together.

“Finding narratives hidden in social media forums is like solving a huge jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication of noise, where many of the pieces are just irrelevant,” said Vwani Roychowdhury, a UCLA professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in machine learning, and a lead author of the paper.

In recent years, researchers have made great strides in developing artificial intelligence tools that can analyze batches of text and identify the pieces to those puzzles. As the AI learns to identify patterns, identities and interactions that are embedded in words and phrases, the narratives begin to make “sense.” Drawing from the massive amount of data available on social media, and because of improving technology, the systems are increasingly able to teach themselves to “read” narratives, almost as if they were human.

The visual representations of those story frameworks showed the researchers how false conspiracy theory narratives are held together by threads that connect multiple characters, places and things. But they found that if even one of those threads is cut, the other elements often can’t form a coherent story without it.

A conspiracy theory unravels: The researchers found that with Wikileaks relationships removed as the “glue” for the false narrative, other elements of the Pizzagate myth quickly disconnected from one another. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“One of the characteristics of a conspiracy theory narrative framework is that it is easily ‘disconnected,’” said Timothy Tangherlini, one of the paper’s lead authors, a professor in the UCLA Scandinavian section whose scholarship focuses on folklore, legend and popular culture. “If you take out one of the characters or story elements of a conspiracy theory, the connections between the other elements of the story fall apart.”

Which elements stick?

In contrast, he said, the stories around actual conspiracies — because they’re true — tend to stand up even if any given element of the story is removed from the framework. Consider Bridgegate, for example, in which New Jersey officials closed several lanes of the George Washington Bridge for politically motivated reasons. Even if any number of threads were removed from the news coverage of the scandal, the story would have held together: All of the characters involved had multiple points of connection by way of their roles in New Jersey politics.

“They are all within the same domain, in this case New Jersey politics, which will continue to exist irrespective of the deletions,” Tangherlini said. “Those connections don’t require the same ‘glue’ that a conspiracy theory does.”

Tangherlini calls himself a “computational folklorist.” Over the past several years, he has collaborated regularly with Roychowdhury to better understand the spread of information around hot-button issues like the anti-vaccination movement.

To analyze Pizzagate, in which the conspiracy theory arose from a creative interpretation of hacked emails released in 2016 by Wikileaks, the researchers analyzed nearly 18,000 posts from April 2016 through February 2018 from discussion boards on the websites Reddit and Voat.

“When we looked at the layers and structure of the narrative about Pizzagate, we found that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up,” Tangherlini said. “In this conspiracy, the Wikileaks email dump and how theorists creatively interpreted the content of what was in the emails are the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

The data generated by the AI analysis enabled the researchers to produce a graphic representation of narratives, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers.

Quick build versus slow burn

Another difference that emerged between real and false narratives concerned the time they take to build. Narrative structures around conspiracy theories tend to build and become stable quickly, while narrative frameworks around actual conspiracies can take years to emerge, Tangherlini said. For example, the narrative framework of Pizzagate stabilized within a month after the Wikileaks dump, and it stayed relatively consistent over the next three years.

“The fact that additional information related to an actual conspiracy emerged over a prolonged period of time (here five and half years) might be one of the telltale signs of distinguishing a conspiracy from a conspiracy theory,” the authors wrote in the study.

Tangherlini said it’s becoming increasingly important to understand how conspiracy theories abound, in part because stories like Pizzagate have inspired some to take actions that endanger other people.

“The threat narratives found in conspiracy theories can imply or present strategies that encourage people to take real-world action,” he said. “Edgar Welch went to that Washington pizzeria with a gun looking for supposed caves hiding victims of sex trafficking.”

The UCLA researchers have also written another paper examining the narrative frameworks surrounding conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. In that study, which has been published on an open-source forum, they track how the conspiracy theories are being layered on to previously circulated conspiracy theories such as those about the perceived danger of vaccines, and, in other cases how the pandemic has given rise to completely new ones, like the idea that 5G cellular networks spread the coronavirus.

“We’re using the same pipeline on COVID-19 discussions as we did for Pizzagate,” Tangherlini said. “In Pizzagate, the targets were more limited, and the conspiracy theory stabilized rapidly. With COVID-19, there are many competing conspiracy theories, and we are tracing the alignment of multiple, smaller conspiracy theories into larger ones. But the underlying theory is identical for all conspiracy theories.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.