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A photo of a Covid-19 fence sign.

Voters in both parties favor caution as cities begin to reopen

A photo of a Covid-19 fence sign.

“Our research has revealed a nation largely in agreement on everything from preventive measures to thoughts about returning to normal activities,” said UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

Over the weekend of May 9–10, many states, including California, began to ease safer-at-home restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen under strict conditions, and opening some public spaces, including hiking trails and beaches.

Now, a weekly survey co-led by UCLA political science professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch has found that Democratic and Republican voters favor the restrictions that were enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19. And by and large, people prefer a cautious approach to getting life back to normal.

The UCLA + Democracy Fund Nationscape survey began adding COVID-19–related questions in March, shortly after businesses, schools and events began shutting down. Topics include Americans’ beliefs, worries and behaviors related to the pandemic. The survey will post results each week on a new coronavirus-specific page of its website.

“Our research has revealed a nation largely in agreement on everything from preventive measures to thoughts about returning to normal activities,” Vavreck said. “Far from the partisan division that has described the last several years, nearly everyone has incorporated precautions against the virus into their daily lives and most people support government interventions to stop its spread.”

The study was quickly noticed by government leaders. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland referenced the findings during remarks on the Senate floor on May 13.

A graphic of the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Survey.

A majority of voters surveyed agree with measures local and state governments have implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Faded dots represent results from previous weeks. Data collected March 19 through April 29, 2020.) (Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Survey)

Researchers also surveyed respondents about the economic pain caused by COVID-19. Of respondents who earn less than $25,000 per year, 26% reported that their income has been reduced significantly due to the crisis, and 24% have lost their primary source of income entirely. Among those earning more than $85,000 annually, 23% reported significant income loss but just 8% indicated that they had lost their income entirely.

► Read more about UCLA + Democracy Fund Nationscape

Vavreck is an expert on presidential elections; her previous research has shown that a good economy is often critical to a president’s reelection chances.

“As we head into the presidential election, we will continue to chart how the government’s response to the pandemic will affect the way voters view an incumbent president presiding over an unexpected downturn in the American economy,” Vavreck said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor or psychology in the UCLA College.

Psychology professor honored for pioneering work on ‘social cognition’

A photo of Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor or psychology in the UCLA College.

Shelley Taylor was recently honored as one of the most influential social psychologists working today. (Photo Courtesy of Shelley Taylor)

Shelley Taylor, distinguished research professor of psychology in the UCLA College and the founding scholar in the areas of social cognition, health psychology and social neuroscience, has been awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences.

The BBVA Foundation praised Taylor, who has been on faculty at UCLA since 1979, as a pioneer of social cognition who revealed the role of cognitive bias in social relations. Social cognition is the process of people making sense of the social world — how people think about themselves, other people, social groups, human history and the future. This social knowledge begins to develop in infancy, and guides human beliefs about others, and social behavior.

“It is a great honor to receive this award,” said Taylor, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, who is an expert on how people cope with adversity. “In the last decades, social cognition has gone from being an interesting idea to being a guiding force in scientific inquiry concerning how people think about themselves and the social world. I am especially grateful to my colleague, Susan Fiske for her important collaborative role in the development and subsequent prominence of this field.”

The foundation’s award citation praised Taylor as one of the most influential social psychologists working today whose “amazing insights” and “outstanding contributions” have elucidated the role of cognitive shortcuts in shaping social interactions.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize and reward contributions of exceptional impact in science, technology, social sciences and the humanities. The BBVA Foundation, part of financial group BBVA, partners with the Spanish National Research Council, Spain’s premier public research organization. The foundation promotes world-class scientific research and recognizes significant contributions in scientific research with Frontiers of Knowledge Awards that include a cash prize of 400,000 euros.

Taylor and Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton, with whom she has been collaborating since 1972, published in 1984 “Social Cognition,” a landmark book; its fourth edition, in 2012, is titled, “Social Cognition: From Brains to Culture.” The authors proposed a model in which people process information on their social environment (people, groups, social situations) at two distinct speeds: a slow, careful speed, based on a systematic analysis of all available data, and a faster, relatively superficial one drawing on “cognitive shortcuts,” biases and strategies that simplify complex problems.

Instead of reaching conclusions in a rational manner, people often rely on shortcuts, including stereotypes. Taylor and Fiske defined several types of social thinkers, including what they called the “cognitive miser,” who exhibits a kind of bias favoring information that confirms one’s own beliefs, reducing the mental effort involved in processing. The cognitive miser simultaneously draws on and reinforces existing stereotypes, such as race, gender, age and immigrant status. Their model, the committee wrote, “details the conditions under which more elaborative cognitive processes are used as a basis for decision.”

Taylor is also among the founders of health psychology, renowned for her contributions on how stress affects health, and how social factors are able to buffer this effect.

Her research in health psychology led her to the discovery of “positive illusions,” with which people tend to perceive things in an optimistic light, believing they are better than they are. Taylor showed that this bias contributes to the improvement of health, and that these illusions are very adaptive. Taylor is a leader in research into how stress affects health, and how social factors can serve as a buffer in this respect.

What happens when your social support becomes dangerous?

In a new article published by the BBVA Foundation, Taylor and Fiske analyze the impact the COVID-19 pandemic may have on social life. Other people, they note, are the source of our greatest danger and our greatest support. How do we decide who is safe and trustworthy? They explain how social cognition allows us to make these determinations.

Under normal circumstances, social support is one of the most effective resources a person has for dealing with threat.

“One of the particularly disturbing aspects of the coronavirus epidemic is that it undermines and can even eliminate this vital resource,” the article said. “The infection is, of course, socially transmitted, so an infected person likely got it from a social contact and may subsequently inadvertently pass it on to others. How devastating it is to know that one’s social support may be eliminated by the very stressor one is trying to combat, manage, or avoid.”

The article states that there could be other consequences, as well, such as the impulse to form new friendships may be muted and people could come to view the world with more suspicion and concern.

“And yet, there is also the likelihood that we will emerge from these trying times with renewed appreciation for our social ties and the physical and emotional benefits they provide. Never is it more clear than in a crisis that no one solves such severe problems alone. We must depend on one another for warmth, kindness, and help and by providing and receiving the support that is the essence of our humanity.”

Taylor also developed an alternative to the prevailing fight-or-flight theory of how people respond to stress, which is the idea that people respond either aggressively to stressful events or flee from them. Her alternative, “tend-and-befriend” model states that people, especially women, seek positive, nurturing social relationships.

Eight of Taylor’s research articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals have each been cited more than 1,000 times. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health since 1974.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Assistant Professor Wesley Campbell, UCLA Physics & Astronomy

UCLA physicists develop world’s best quantum bits

A photo of Assistant Professor Wesley Campbell, UCLA Physics & Astronomy

Assistant Professor Wesley Campbell, UCLA Physics & Astronomy (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A team of researchers at UCLA has set a new record for preparing and measuring the quantum bits, or qubits, inside of a quantum computer without error. The techniques they have developed make it easier to build quantum computers that outperform classical computers for important tasks, including the design of new materials and pharmaceuticals. The research is published in the peer-reviewed, online open-access journal, npj Quantum Information, published by Nature and including the exceptional research on quantum information and quantum computing.

Currently, the most powerful quantum computers are “noisy intermediate-scale quantum” (NISQ) devices and are very sensitive to errors. Error in preparation and measurement of qubits is particularly onerous: for 100 qubits, a 1% measurement error means a NISQ device will produce an incorrect answer about 63% of the time, said senior author Eric Hudson, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.

To address this major challenge, Hudson and UCLA colleagues recently developed a new qubit hosted in a laser-cooled, radioactive barium ion. This “goldilocks ion” has nearly ideal properties for realizing ultra-low error rate quantum devices, allowing the UCLA group to achieve a preparation and measurement error rate of about 0.03%, lower than any other quantum technology to date, said co-senior author Wesley Campbell, also a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.

The development of this exciting new qubit at UCLA should impact almost every area of quantum information science, Hudson said. This radioactive ion has been identified as a promising system in quantum networking, sensing, timing, simulation and computation, and the researchers’ paper paves the way for large-scale NISQ devices.

Co-authors are lead author Justin Christensen, a postdoctoral scholar in Hudson’s laboratory, and David Hucul, a former postdoctoral scholar in Hudson and Campbell’s laboratories, who is now a physicist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

The research is funded by the U.S. Army Research Office.

Campbell and Hudson are primary investigators of a major $2.7 million U.S. Department of Energy Quantum Information Science Research project to lay the foundation for the next generation of computing and information processing, as well as many other innovative technologies.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Physical Sciences website.

A photo of Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA .

A step toward a more efficient way to make gene therapies to attack cancer, genetic disorders

A photo of Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA .

(From left) Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

A UCLA-led research team today reports that it has developed a new method for delivering DNA into stem cells and immune cells safely, rapidly and economically. The method, described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could give scientists a new tool for manufacturing gene therapies for people with cancer, genetic disorders and blood diseases.

The study’s co-senior author is Paul Weiss, a UCLA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, of bioengineering and of materials science and engineering. “We are figuring out how to get gene-editing tools into cells efficiently, safely and economically,” he said. “We want to get them into enormous numbers of cells without using viruses, electroshock treatments or chemicals that will rip open the membrane and kill many of the cells, and our results so far are promising.”

In current practice, cells used for genetic therapies are sent to specialized labs, which can take up to two months to produce an individualized treatment. And those treatments are expensive: A single regimen for one patient can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We hope our method could be used in the future to prepare treatments that can be performed at the patient’s bedside,” Weiss said.

The method could be used with CRISPR, the genetic engineering technique that enables DNA to be edited with remarkable precision. However, using CRISPR efficiently, safely and economically in medical therapies has proven to be a challenge — one this new method may be able to solve.

The technique uses high-frequency acoustic waves coupled with millions of cells that flow through an “acoustofluidic device” in a cell culture liquid. The device was invented by the research team as part of the study; inside of it are tiny speakers that convert electrical signals to mechanical vibrations that are used to manipulate the cells.

That procedure opens up pores along the cells’ membranes that allow DNA and other biological cargo to enter the cells, and it enables the researchers to insert the cargo without the risk of damaging the cells by contacting them directly.

Dr. Steven Jonas, the study’s co-senior author and a UCLA clinical instructor in pediatrics, likened the soundwaves’ ability to move cells to the experience when audience members actually feel the sound at a concert.

“At a concert hall, you can feel the bass — and if you can feel the sound, the cell can feel the acoustic wave,” said Jonas, a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “We can engineer the acoustic waves to direct the cells as needed.”

The researchers delivered short strands of DNA called plasmids into human blood cells and blood-forming stem cells that were intended specifically for laboratory research, and pumped millions of such cells through the acoustofluidic device. Once inside a cell, a plasmid can be made into a protein that may be missing or damaged, or it can give the cell new capabilities.

“When combined with new gene-editing approaches, the method enables us to correct a DNA sequence that is miscoded in a disease,” said Weiss, who also is a member of CNSI.

Plasmids used as templates for gene editing can make the correction because they have the right coded sequence for the desired protein, he explained.

Lead author Jason Belling, a UCLA graduate student in chemistry and biochemistry, was able to insert plasmids into the model cells used for testing about 60% of the time, without using any chemical and physical treatments.

“The viability is very high compared with other techniques,” Weiss said, “but we still want higher efficiencies and are working toward that.”

Jonas — whose expertise is in treating childhood cancer and blood disorders — said the research has the potential to benefit adults and children with cancer, immune system disorders and genetic diseases.

“If the delivery works, and it seems to, this research is an important step toward bringing new therapies more broadly to the patients who need them,” Jonas said. “Traditionally, we have treated cancers with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and bone marrow transplantations. Now, we’re at an amazing era of medicine, where we can use different types of gene therapies that can train the immune system to fight cancer.”

A photo of a prototype of the acoustofluidic device developed by UCLA researchers.

A prototype of the acoustofluidic device developed by UCLA researchers. (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Jonas said some existing treatments can take a patient’s T cells and adapt them with a gene that encodes for a receptor that allows it to target the cancer.

“We want to be the delivery service that gets these therapeutic packages to the cells,” he said. “I want to treat my patients with cells that are engineered in this way.”

For the technique to lead to viable treatments for disease, it would need to allow doctors  to process at least a couple hundred million cells — and in some cases, billions of cells — safely, rapidly and cost-effectively for each patient.

The new approach is still the subject of research and is not available to treat human patients.

The study’s other co-authors include Duke University professor Tony Huang, a pioneer of acoustofluidics and a UCLA alumnus; Dr. Stephen Young, distinguished professor of medicine and human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; and Dr. Satiro De Oliveira, a UCLA assistant professor of pediatrics.

The study was funded in part through a National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award for Jonas; the University of California Center for Accelerated Innovation; and Belling’s predoctoral fellowship through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Jonas also has received young investigator awards from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research, Hyundai Hope on Wheels Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research, and the Tower Cancer Research Foundation. UCLA’s Technology Development Group Innovation Fund also provided funding.

Weiss’ research group has applied for patents on the acoustofluidic device and related devices, working with the Technology Development Group.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An image of dust over the Sahara Desert.

Earth’s atmosphere far dustier than previously believed

An image of dust over the Sahara Desert.

Dust over the Sahara Desert (Photo Credit: NASA GSFC)

Dust is a key component of Earth’s climate system. When it interacts with clouds, oceans and the sun’s radiation, it has an overall impact on our planet’s living systems, affecting everything from weather and rainfall to global warming.

There are two types of dust in the atmosphere, both kicked up by high-velocity winds in dry areas. Fine dust tends to cool because it scatters sunlight, much like clouds do. Coarse dust, which is larger in size and originates in places like the Sahara Desert, tends to warm the atmosphere, much like greenhouse gases.

Knowing precisely how much coarse dust is in the atmosphere is essential for understanding not only the atmospheric phenomena that dust influences but also the degree to which dust may be warming the planet.

Now, UCLA scientists report that there is four times the amount of coarse dust in Earth’s atmosphere than is currently simulated by climate models. Their findings appear in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers found that Earth’s atmosphere contains 17 million metric tons of coarse dust — equivalent to 17 million elephants or the mass of every person in America put together.

“To properly represent the impact of dust as a whole on the Earth system, climate models must include an accurate treatment of coarse dust in the atmosphere,” said the study’s first author, Adeyemi Adebiyi, a postdoctoral researcher in UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a recipient of the University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.

By plugging this amount of missing coarse dust into models, Adebiyi said, it increases the likelihood that the net amount of dust overall — both fine and coarse — is warming rather than cooling the Earth’s climate system, from air to oceans.

Coarse dust particles warm the Earth’s entire climate system by absorbing both incoming radiation from the sun and outgoing radiation from the Earth’s surface. These particles can impact stability and circulation within our atmosphere, which may affect atmospheric phenomena like hurricanes.

Adebiyi worked with Jasper Kok, a UCLA associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, to determine the actual amount of coarse dust in the atmosphere by analyzing dozens of published aircraft-based observations, including recent measurements taken over the Sahara Desert, and comparing those with half a dozen widely used global atmospheric model simulations.

“When we compared our results with what is predicted by current climate models, we found a drastic difference,” Kok said. “State-of-the-art climate models account for only 4 million metric tons, but our results showed more than four times that amount.”

In addition, Adebiyi and Kok found that coarse dust leaves the atmosphere less quickly than current climate models predict. Air has a tendency to mix more turbulently when dust is present. In the case of the Sahara, air and dust mix in ways that push the dust upward, which can work against gravity and keep the dust in the air much longer, they said.

The scientists’ findings also show that because dust particles stay in the atmosphere longer, they are ultimately deposited further from their source than has been predicted by these models or explained by current theory. Dust particles blown from the Sahara, for example, can travel thousands of miles in the atmosphere, reaching as far as the Caribbean and the United States.

When desert dust ends up in oceans, it may stimulate the productivity of ocean ecosystems and increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans.

Due to the way coarse dust interacts with the sun’s energy and clouds, it can also have a major impact on the timing of precipitation, as well as how much, or how little, rain falls.

“Models have been an invaluable tool for scientists,” said Adebiyi, “but when they miss most of the coarse dust in the atmosphere, it underestimates the impact that this type of dust has on critical aspects of life on Earth, from precipitation to cloud cover to ocean ecosystems to global temperature.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College.

Spanish professor wins award for book on the cultural uses of garbage

A photo of Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College.

Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College. (Photo Courtesy of Matie Zubiaurre)

Maite Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College, has been awarded the 2020 Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Prize from Vanderbilt University Press for her book “Talking Trash. Cultural Uses of Waste.” The award recognizes the best book in the area of art and medicine.

In “Talking Trash,” Zubiaurre looks at refuse in its early stages, when it is still litter that can be found on city streets. She also focuses on a significant non-urban scene: the desert landscape and the clothing and other items that immigrants discard as they make their journey across the border.

Zubiaurre’s other books include “El espacio en la novela realista. Paisajes, miniaturas, perspectivas,” a book-length study of the dialectics of space and gender in European and Latin American realist fiction, and of “Cultures of the Erotic. Spain 1898-1939”, the first scholarly monograph that analyzes the diverse visual and textual representations of the erotic in Spanish popular culture during the so-called Silver Age between 1898 and 1936.

Some of Zubiaurre’s areas of expertise include comparative literature, gender studies, urban studies, cultural studies, European and Latin American Realism and Latina and Chicana fiction. She is also the author of numerous articles and critical editions and co-editor of an anthology of Spanish feminist thought, “Antología del pensamiento feminista español: 1726-2008.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

UCLA College Celebrates Earth Day

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

Not only does this mark its 50th anniversary, this Earth Day is unlike any other we have seen as the global pandemic continues to impact the way we live our lives. Yes, it has disrupted our daily routines but it has also benefited the environment in myriad ways. For example, freeways once clogged with traffic have opened up, clearing the air and making way for bright blue skies and views for miles. Even before COVID-19, UCLA College faculty members and teams were out in the field and in their labs, working on groundbreaking research and advising on county and statewide plans. In honor of Earth Day, we are highlighting stories about conservation, sustainability, global warming, solar geoengineering and protecting our precious ecosystems.

 

A photo of vegetation and mountains in California's Anza-Borrego State Park.

Vegetation and mountains in California’s Anza-Borrego State Park. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner/UCLA)

UCLA to lead $10 million California conservation project

UCLA scientists are leading a $10 million project to help California officials make ecologically wise decisions as the state continues to confront the effects of climate change. The initiative will give California officials scientific data they can use to make decisions about conserving the state’s ecosystems.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

The valley oak, the largest oak in California, grows to over 100 feet tall and provides habitat and food for a variety of animals. (Photo Credit: Victoria Sork/UCLA)

One of California’s iconic tree species offers lessons for conservation

New research led by UCLA evolutionary biologist Victoria Sork examines whether the trees being replanted in the wake of California’s fires will be able to survive a climate that is continuing to warm. The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, focuses on California’s iconic valley oak.

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

L.A. County taps UCLA to help create first-ever sustainability plan

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ambitious sustainability plan that calls for phasing out fossil fuels to address climate change and improve quality of life in the region. Sixteen UCLA researchers contributed to the OurCounty plan, which was created by the county’s Chief Sustainability Office.

A photo of the Santa Monica Pier at night.

The Santa Monica Pier at night. Artificial light can cause problems for a range of species that live and breed in coastal environments. (Photo Credit: William Chen/Pexels)

Study draws Southern California coastal light pollution into focus

Artificial light is known to disrupt mating cycles in species along the Southern California coast. A team of UCLA and University of Southern California researchers led by Travis Longcore, UCLA adjunct professor of urban conservation biology, has mapped light pollution conditions that will be used to inform decisions about future infrastructure and construction plans.

A photo of members of the UCLA Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Aradhna Tripati, associate professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Members of the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Professor Aradhna Tripati, third row, far right, and their colleagues. (Photo: Courtesy of Aradhna Tripati)

Professor pays it forward by promoting diversity and environmental justice

When she was appointed in 2009, Aradhna Tripati was the first woman of color out of 50 faculty in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Along with colleagues in UCLA’s Anthropology department and American Indian Studies Center, she conducts community engaged research on water in the context of global warming in the southwestern United States. She also formed the first university-based center for diversity in environmental science, with the goal of inspiring a generation of leaders that matches the demographics of the U.S. population.

A photo of Stephanie Correa and Edward van Veen in Correa's UCLA laboratory

Research provides new insights into menopause and weight gain

A photo of Stephanie Correa and Edward van Veen in Correa's UCLA laboratory

Stephanie Correa and Edward van Veen in Correa’s UCLA laboratory (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Can women in menopause get the benefits of hormone replacement therapy without the risks? A new UCLA study conducted with mice points in that direction, but additional research is necessary.

Women commonly experience hot flashes and weight gain, among other changes, during and after menopause. Hormone therapy, which gives women additional estrogen, can help alleviate some of these symptoms, but it has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and breast cancer.

UCLA life scientists now report that a gene called reprimo, which is expressed by certain neurons in the brain, may play a role in menopause-related weight gain, a phenomenon not linked to increased eating. Their findings are published today in the journal Nature Metabolism.

“We want to figure out which neurons are mediating the beneficial portions of hormone therapy and mimic them without hormones,” said senior author Stephanie Correa, a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology and a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. “Hormone therapy can be beneficial, but it treats the entire brain and body with hormones. We may be able to bypass the hormone. That’s our goal, and it’s a big one. We haven’t achieved it yet, but we’re learning.”

Correa and her research team show that the reprimo gene is important for regulating temperature. Changes in temperature are known to affect body weight and may contribute to the weight gain often seen in menopause.

“It’s possible that reprimo is involved in the weight gain that accompanies menopause,” said co-lead author Edward van Veen, a project scientist in Correa’s laboratory. “If equivalent neurons exist in humans and we can find some way to tweak them, it might relieve much of the weight gain without the side effects of hormone therapy.”

A brain region called the hypothalamus is essential for survival in many species, from mice to humans; it controls eating, drinking, reproduction and body-temperature regulation, among other vital functions. Correa and her research team studied dozens of genes in the hypothalami of more than 50 mice, both female and male, starting at about eight weeks of age, shortly after they reach reproductive age.

The team used a technique known as single-cell RNA-seq, which allows biologists to study individual cells one at a time, to investigate which neurons in an area of the hypothalamus known as the ventromedial hypothalamus might mediate these different functions.

“We had hints there were different types of neurons in the ventromedial hypothalamus, and this region is very different in males and females, so we studied hundreds of cells in males and females to identify the different types of neurons and determine whether there are sex differences,” Correa said.

The biologists were most interested in neurons that have estrogen receptors. These receptors bind to the hormone and are subsequently able regulate to the activity of specific genes in the neuron, a process known as gene expression. The team’s most significant findings centered on the reprimo gene, which is expressed in one group, or population, of these estrogen-responsive neurons, restricted almost entirely to females.

“We were excited to find not only populations of estrogen-responsive neurons but also differences in these populations between males and females,” said co-lead author Laura Kammel, a former UCLA doctoral student in Correa’s laboratory.

“The difference between females and males in reprimo in the ventromedial hypothalamus is like night and day,” Correa said. “The females express a ton of it, and males express little, if any, reprimo in this brain region. Of the dozens of genes I have studied in this region, this is easily the strongest sex difference I have ever seen.”

In a series of experiments, the biologists interfered with the function of reprimo in the ventromedial hypothalamus in about two dozen mice. In one experiment, they shut off reprimo in female mice by using an RNA molecular compound that interferes with how the gene works in neurons. In another, they increased reprimo expression in male mice by removing an estrogen receptor from the neurons. In both cases, body temperature changed substantially, demonstrating a link between reprimo’s role in temperature and the effects of estrogen.

“We know that reprimo is important in regulating body temperature, but we don’t know what it is actually doing in neurons,” van Veen said. “We want to find out.”

Correa and her team also report that estrogen acts on another gene, Tac1, that is significantly increased in the ventromedial hypothalamus of female mice, although the difference is not nearly as dramatic as with reprimo. Tac1 has been shown to promote physical activity in female mice.

Estrogen receptor alpha, one of three estrogen receptors, is found in neurons in the same region of the ventromedial hypothalamus as Tac1 and reprimo. When the researchers removed that estrogen receptor, they found it led to obesity and reduced movement in female mice.

The results, the researchers said, not only aid in their understanding of the interplay between genes and estrogen but may also have implications for understanding obesity.

Summarizing the research, van Veen said: “The ventromedial hypothalamus is involved in movement and temperature regulation. We know estrogen affects movement and temperature. From Stephanie Correa’s previous research, we learned the estrogen response of neurons that affect movement, and now we think we know the estrogen response of neurons that affect temperature. It’s interesting that they are in the same location but distinct.”

“Our findings suggest reprimo is controlling some of the effects of estrogen on temperature,” Correa said. “If it is controlling the beneficial effects, then maybe we can manipulate it — with a drug that targets reprimo or the neurons that express reprimo — as an alternative to hormone therapy and get around the requirement for estrogen. We are studying the brain in a nuanced way and trying to learn which cells or which genes are important to target for potential therapies.”

Co-authors are co-lead author Laura Kammel, a former UCLA doctoral student in Correa’s laboratory; Xia Yang, a UCLA associate professor of integrative biology and physiology; Arthur Arnold, a UCLA distinguished professor of integrative biology and physiology; and Marc Liesa-Roig, a UCLA assistant professor-in-residence at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

With record unemployment filings, federal stimulus will help, but more is needed

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

COVID-19 will plunge the United States economy into a recession. Photo Credit: by James Yarema on Unsplash

As an economist and director of the California Policy Lab, Till von Wachter is continually spearheading research projects and policy recommendations related to labor and employment as well as homelessness, education and crime.

As the U.S. economy further slows because of how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many businesses to close, UCLA Newsroom asked von Wachter, who is also the associate dean of research for the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, to help parse through current employment statistics, why the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package called the CARES Act — which was signed into law March 27 — is so critical and what its immediate and far-reaching effects might be for U.S. workers and the economy.

How do you interpret the unemployment numbers that came out April 2?

The number of new claims to unemployment insurance — 6.6 million — was deeply alarming because that number is so much higher than what we’ve seen in previous recessions. Moreover, these numbers do not capture the many people out of work that are self-employed, have low wages, or for some other reason do not qualify for unemployment insurance. As CNBC noted, even in the worst week of the Great Recession, the number of claims were only 665,000 in March of 2009. The highest since the 1960s was 1,073,500 in the 1982 recession. Having studied unemployment, recessions and the policy responses to them for most of my academic career, I’m deeply concerned that if policymakers don’t act quickly, we could see a recession the likes of which our country has never experienced before. It will impact Americans for decades to come. There is still hope that the economy will turn back to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic is contained, but prolonged large-scale unemployment may be hard to reverse.

What will this mean for the U.S. economy and Americans who could be laid off in the coming weeks?

I have studied a range of situations where workers were hit by a sudden shock in the labor market, such as a job loss when a business suddenly lays off a large number of workers. The key here is to compare people who lost their jobs to a counterfactual of luckier workers who kept their jobs and that otherwise would have looked like them. The result from my research is that a worker with a steady job at a good employer that loses their job during a mass layoff in a recession will die 1.5 years sooner than they would have if they had not been laid off.  When you extrapolate that to an expected unemployment rate of 10% (approximately 10 million additional unemployed workers, which given the most recent week’s numbers may be a conservative scenario), my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest a loss of 15 million life years. Beyond increased mortality, in separate research I have found these workers also suffer immediate and permanent earnings losses. Again, if those accrued to 10 million workers, it would amount to over $1 trillion dollars in earnings capacity lost over their lifetimes.

It’s also important to keep in mind more than 6 million individuals will graduate high school or obtain a college degree this year, and about 13 million workers age 16-24 are currently in the labor force. Hence about 20 million young individuals are of particularly high risk of exposure to a recession. Existing evidence suggests that unlucky labor market entrants suffer losses in earnings that last 10 to 15 years, depending on the severity of the recession. Yet, it appears their socioeconomic status declines again in middle age, and several studies have found that they experience higher rates of death over the long term. For example, entering the labor market during a large recession appears to reduce life-expectancy of young workers by about half a year. There would be an additional 10 million of life years lost from a prolonged recession.

Will the CARES Act help? 

The CARES Act is a good start. It includes significant funding spread out in a variety of ways to help sustain the economy while people practice safe distancing to defeat COVID-19. The additional pandemic unemployment assistance provided to the self-employed and others not covered by unemployment insurance benefits is of course an important aspect of the law. Yet, I argue in a recent proposal (PDF) that states need to act decisively and creatively to quickly scale up programs included in the CARES Act.

The funding Congress included for several programs that help firms to keep workers on their payroll could be a game-changer. This includes federal funding for “short-time compensation,” or STC, programs, sometimes also called work-sharing, as well as short-term emergency loans that include provisions for job stability.

In the same way that we are all “sheltering in place,” state employment departments — the agencies that administer unemployment benefits in every state — can use STC programs and equip companies to keep their employees in place. Under STCs, firms are able to reduce the hours of a large group of their employees (instead of laying just a few of them off), and employees can partially make up the difference in pay through receiving unemployment benefits. For a state like California that already has a functioning STC program, these STC benefits will be paid entirely by the federal government. This could lead to substantial saving for the state’s finances that will be likely very stretched in other ways.

Even better, the CARES Act also included a substantial subsidy for firms that were impacted by COVID-19 to help pay their workers’ wages. A small to mid-size firm that pays average wages could reduce the hours of their workers by 50% through shared-time compensation and have up to half of the remaining 50% of wages paid for by the federal government. This would be an instantaneous reduction of their wage bill by 75% while workers are kept on the job instead of flooding unemployment offices. Some businesses may find it hard to pay for even part of their workforce, perhaps because of large reductions in revenues or substantial fixed costs. The CARES Act also provides struggling businesses with the option to apply for short-term emergency loans through the Small Business Administration that would help them pay rent, wages and other operating costs. The key is that the repayment of these loans can be waived if the firm refrains from laying off their workers. Overall, firms now have a range of options to adjust to the economic conditions without laying off their workers.

How would states use short-time compensation?

Twenty-six states, including California, already have STC programs, meaning about 70% of the U.S. workforce could be covered. There is also funding in the law for the administrative costs of expanding these programs. For those 26 states, the federal government agreed to pay 100% of the benefits under STC programs.

Unfortunately, many employers are not currently aware of the program. Yet, states can be proactive in making the STC more attractive than layoffs to employers. Typically, if a firm lays off workers who receive unemployment insurance benefits, its payroll tax increases to help offset the costs to the unemployment insurance system. Yet, states could choose to pass on some of the cost-savings (from the federal government paying 100% of STC benefits) by committing not to raise the payroll tax for those firms that use STC instead of unemployment insurance. This incentive would help states to make a strong case for employers to use this program.

The key is to dispatch these funds quickly because failure to do so will likely lead to skyrocketing claims for unemployment insurance and serious bottlenecks in processing claims. It can also lead to substantial long-term effects on the income and health of people who are losing their jobs, young labor market entrants and others directly affected by the economic crisis. Unfortunately, many states’ STC programs are understaffed, such that there is a concern that bottlenecks may arise. In a recent proposal, I outline a proposal as to how states could quickly enroll thousands of firms despite these issues, such that these problems could also be surmounted.

The CARES Act also included $100 million in start-up grants for states that do not yet have STC programs, and if they do create them, the federal government will fund 50% of the benefits. While this is less than existing programs receive, it is still a great deal for workers, for firms, and for states because it means fewer layoffs, lower payroll taxes, and lower program expenditures, respectively.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of James Lloyd-Smith.

Study reveals how long COVID-19 remains infectious on cardboard, metal and plastic

The virus that causes COVID-19 remains for several hours to days on surfaces and in aerosols, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found.

The study suggests that people may acquire the coronavirus through the air and after touching contaminated objects. Scientists discovered the virus is detectable for up to three hours in aerosols, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

A photo of James Lloyd-Smith in his office.

James Lloyd-Smith

“This virus is quite transmissible through relatively casual contact, making this pathogen very hard to contain,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “If you’re touching items that someone else has recently handled, be aware they could be contaminated and wash your hands.”

The study attempted to mimic the virus being deposited onto everyday surfaces in a household or hospital setting by an infected person through coughing or touching objects, for example. The scientists then investigated how long the virus remained infectious on these surfaces.

The study’s authors are from UCLA, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Princeton University. They include Amandine Gamble, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher in Lloyd-Smith’s laboratory.

In February, Lloyd-Smith and colleagues reported in the journal eLife that screening travelers for COVID-19 is not very effective. People infected with the virus — officially named SARS-CoV-2 — may be spreading the virus without knowing they have it or before symptoms appear. Lloyd-Smith said the biology and epidemiology of the virus make infection extremely difficult to detect in its early stages because the majority of cases show no symptoms for five days or longer after exposure.

“Many people won’t have developed symptoms yet,” Lloyd-Smith said. “Based on our earlier analysis of flu pandemic data, many people may not choose to disclose if they do know.”

The new study supports guidance from public health professionals to slow the spread of COVID-19:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue, and dispose of the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a household cleaning spray or wipe.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.