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A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

UCLA-led study reveals ‘hidden costs’ of being Black in the U.S.

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

The study’s findings may help explain why increased income levels among Black men aren’t accompanied by improved physical and mental health outcomes, as they are for whites, researchers say. (Photo Credit: iStock.com/FlamingoImages)

A woman grips her purse tightly as you approach. A store manager follows you because you look “suspicious.” You enter a high-end restaurant, and the staff assume you’re applying for a job. You’re called on in work meetings only when they’re talking about diversity.

The indignities and humiliations Black men — even those who have “made it” — regularly endure have long been seen as part and parcel of life in the United States among the Black community, a sort of “Black tax” that takes a heavy toll on physical and mental health.

Now, a new UCLA-led study reveals these “hidden costs” of being Black in America. Researchers who analyzed a national sample of the views of Black men and white men found that Black men of all income levels reported experiencing higher levels of discrimination than their white counterparts.

“Black men face constant experiences of discrimination and disappointment when they try to contribute. They are treated like criminals in a society where they often are not allowed to achieve their full potential,” said the study’s co-senior author, Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

“Successful Black men,” she said, “hope their hard work will pay off and instead are tormented to find their education and income often do not protect them from racial discrimination. The ‘return on achievement’ is reduced for Blacks in the U.S. It’s a disturbing wake-up call.”

The study, “Money protects white but not African American men against discrimination,” is published today in the peer-reviewed open-access International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

To measure perceived discrimination, the researchers analyzed data from the National Survey of American Life that assessed the mental health of 1,271 Black and 372 non-Hispanic white adults who live in the same areas across the U.S. Survey questions inquired about chronic, daily experiences over the past year. For example, respondents were asked how often in their day-to-day lives any of the following had occurred: “being followed around in stores,” “people acting as if they think you are dishonest,” “receiving poorer service than other people at restaurants” and “being called names or insulted.” Scaled response options ranged from 1 (“never”) to 6 (“almost every day”).

The results indicate that many Black men face discriminatory indignities on a nearly daily basis, year after year — and the experience is exhausting, said Mays, who directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is a special advisor to UCLA’s chancellor on Black life. “It takes a toll on your physical and mental health. You get depleted.”

The daily discrimination measured by the survey did not include other frequently cited injustices, such as being pulled over and questioned by police officers without cause and facing discrimination in housing, education, jobs and health care, said Mays. She noted that while the study’s results were distressing, they were not particularly surprising.

“We’ve known this,” she said, “but now it’s documented. This is evidence.”

Higher incomes and achievement offer Black men little relief

While the study found that for white men, increases in household income were inversely associated with perceived discrimination, this did not hold true for Black men, who continued to report high levels of discrimination regardless of any boost in income level.

The findings may explain why Black men, even as they attain greater financial and educational success on average, don’t gain much protection against negative physical and mental health outcomes the way white men generally do, said co-senior author Susan Cochran, a professor of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health.

“In the United States, many people believe that higher levels of income and education provide relief against being treated differently, badly or unfairly,” Cochran said. “The results of our study show that is truer for white men, but it’s clearly not the case for many Black men. Structural barriers limit the benefits of Black men’s economic achievements, and perceived discrimination increases the risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes.”

For Black men, increases in income at all financial levels actually lead to more perceived discrimination, perhaps because they come into increased contact with whites, according to lead author Shervin Assari, who conducted the analysis as a researcher with the BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is currently an associate professor of urban public health and family medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

“It was upsetting to write this study,” Assari said. “Successful Blacks expect better treatment and think they deserve it but often do not get it.”

Discrimination, the authors say, is embedded in the fabric of U.S. institutions and harms Black men in their daily lives. For Mays, the damage this does to equal opportunity brings to mind the 1951 Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” in which the poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”

“Change has to come faster,” Mays said. “Change has to be permanent. We are tired of hearing ‘wait your turn.’ Black men’s dreams have been deferred for far too long.”

The research was supported by the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Mental Health.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

$1.3 million grant will help UCLA advance workforce equity and empowerment

A photo of a worker wearing a face covering on a delivery truck.

The new initiative will seek ways to help build a more equitable economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels)

The UCLA Labor Center has received a $1.3 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation to establish the California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative with the National Skills Coalition.

Leading the effort for UCLA are Betty Hung, project director at the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, and Ana Luz Gonzalez-Vasquez, a project manager at the Labor Center. The National Skills Coalition is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for policies and skills training to benefit workers and businesses.

The Worker Equity Initiative will collaborate with the state of California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency to explore how government agencies and their partners help workers thrive in quality careers, particularly as California recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

“The California Workforce Development Worker Equity Initiative will shed light on how to improve public sector supports and systems while specifically centering the needs and career aspirations of those who have been hit hardest by COVID-19 and racism and other discrimination,” Hung said.

The effort has already begun: The initiative is in the midst of 18 months of community engagement, planning and research, with representatives collecting input from local workers and community leaders. The initiative will then recommend state-level policy changes and highlight opportunities for Californians to push for similar improvements at the federal level.

The initiative also will engage Californians who have been most affected by the recession and those who have been excluded, underserved or marginalized by longstanding structural barriers of discrimination. By soliciting their voices, the initiative aims to increase racial and worker equity in the state’s public workforce development efforts.

“We are extremely grateful for this generous and very timely grant from the James Irvine Foundation,” Gonzalez-Vasquez said. “These funds will help us build upon our partnership with the National Skills Coalition and enable us to focus on ways our society can recover from COVID-19 to build a more equitable economy.”

In addition to the leadership of the UCLA Labor Center and National Skills Coalition, the initiative will benefit from the expertise of a statewide steering committee representing worker centers, nonprofit training providers, labor unions and local workforce boards. The committee members are:

  • Janel Bailey, Los Angeles Black Worker Center
  • John Brauer, California Labor Federation
  • Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, Jewish Vocational Services (San Francisco Bay Area)
  • Rebecca Hanson, SEIU UHW and Joint Employer Education Fund/Shirley Ware Education Center
  • Sheheryar Kaoosji, Warehouse Worker Resource Center
  • Cesar Lara, MILPA Collective and Monterey Bay Central Labor Council
  • Sam Lewis, Anti-Recidivism Coalition
  • Arcenio Lopez, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project
  • Simon Lopez, Goodwill Southern California
  • Laura Medina, Building Skills Partnership
  • Pedro Ramirez, Central Valley Worker Center
  • Rebecca Rolfe, San Francisco LGBT Center
  • Aquilina Soriano, Pilipino Workers Center
  • Brooke Valle, San Diego Workforce Partnership

The James Irvine Foundation is a private, nonprofit grantmaking foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California. The foundation’s focus is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. Since 1937 the foundation has provided more than $2.09 billion in grants to organizations throughout California, and it has contributed to UCLA since 1970.

This article, written by Ariel Okamoto, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of people sleeping at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles

The history of homelessness in Los Angeles points to new approaches

A photo of people sleeping at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles

Among the recommendations in the new report: Officials must stop treating homelessness as a criminal act. (Photo Credit: Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons)

Homelessness in Los Angeles was already on the rise before COVID-19 struck. But the health and economic fallout of the pandemic has left many more low-income residents on the brink of housing insecurity.

While recent statewide legislation prevents evictions through June and creates options to help Angelenos pay back rent, the homelessness problem could worsen significantly as the pandemic and business closures continue.

A new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy offers recommendations for policies that the authors say could help tackle the crisis. The suggestions are based on a wealth of insights about the history of homelessness in Los Angeles County.

The report (PDF) details a complex web of causes to this crisis, whose economic, racial, social and political roots date back to the Great Depression — many other studies on the issue go back only to the 1970s. The authors write that those factors converged to disproportionately affect people of color, particularly African Americans. While white, single, older men made up a majority of Los Angeles’s homeless population prior to the 1980s, Black and Latino people began to make up a majority of the homeless population after that.

Among the report’s chief recommendations: Officials should stop treating homelessness as a criminal act, address rental and land use policies— for example, by expanding renter protection and landlord regulations and converting unused or underused property into supportive housing — and improve residents’ access to mental health and other social services.

“The report offers deep historical analysis in centering the long-term structural causes of racial and economic inequality in Los Angeles,” said David Myers, a UCLA professor of history and director of the Luskin Center. “In doing so, it calls for a new policy approach, one that recognizes the repeated failure of piecemeal, short-term and color-blind approaches. It insists that access to adequate housing is a basic human right, not a societal luxury.”

The report reveals that a lack of meaningful coordination among city and county agencies has hampered structural changes. After years of political battling on how to handle homelessness, the city and county in 1993 jointly created the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. But, the report contends, even that has not led to a long-term coordinated strategy. Solutions like permanent supportive housing have yet to take hold. A 2007 permanent supportive housing program called Project 50 was largely successful but ultimately not supported by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

According to the report, the Los Angeles homelessness crisis largely began during World War II, when housing development could not keep up with the city’s population growth. A rush of federal housing development and widespread rent control was enacted in 1942 in response. But redlining and exclusionary zoning practices excluded most people of color from the postwar housing boom, setting the stage for racial disparities that continue today.

Another factor was California’s shutting down of mental health care institutions beginning in the 1950s, which left few options for indigent people with mental health challenges. Many of them ended up on the streets, in jail or cycling between the two, according to the report.

And many residents with mental health struggles continue to fall through the cracks, the analysis found, as a result of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s reliance on a patchwork of agencies to provide mental health and drug use treatment.

In addition, a focus on criminalizing people who live on the street — a trend that intensified nationally since the 1970s and still informs Los Angeles’ approach today — has not helped mitigate homelessness. A 1976 plan to prevent the expansion of Skid Row’s homeless population relocated homeless services to a 50-block “containment zone” and selective policing was used to discourage residents from leaving the zone. The plan was unsuccessful and the policy was formally reversed in 2016.

And, the authors write, the city’s 2006 zero-tolerance policy on crime on Skid Row had the effect of putting poor and mentally ill people into the criminal justice system and then back onto the streets.

The report also examines demographic trends and real estate policies that contributed to the issue. For example:

– While the Los Angeles population boomed again in the late 1990s, housing development did not. In 1998 and 1999, the city’s population increased by 65,000 people, but the net increase in housing units was just 1,940.

– Some real estate developers and businesses have lobbied against policies that would produce low-cost housing or establish broader rent control policies that would keep housing more affordable.

Myers said future policies must take into account the desires of homeless people themselves.

“One thing we found while looking back was the consistency with which unhoused people, across the 20th century, have proposed solutions to the problem centered on repurposing vacant land and unused or underutilized public property,” he said. “The report suggests that any policy response that doesn’t take into account the desires, demands and visions of houseless people — particularly regarding the right to autonomy and self-determination — are doomed to fail.”

Kirsten Moore-Sheeley, a visiting assistant professor of history at UCLA and co-author of the report, said the authors hope the research helps reframe housing as a basic human right.

“Looking back at almost a century of history, we indicate how intractable the problem has been and still is,” she said. “We are suggesting a need to rethink core assumptions about property and tenancy rights and, more fundamentally, who has a right to the city.”

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Nandita Garud named a distinguished investigator by Paul Allen Frontiers Group

Nandita Garud, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.

Nandita Garud (Photo courtesy of Nandita Garud)

The award will provide Garud and two faculty colleagues — Aida Habtezion at Stanford University and Carolina Tropini at University of British Columbia — with $1.5 million in research funding over three years to study the role of gut microbiota and other factors in patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Patients with IBD, a disease that stems from chronic inflammation in the intestines, have widely varied symptoms and responses to treatment, which cannot be fully explained by human genetics.

Garud and her colleagues are leading a project to explore how patients’ immune responses, metabolism, gut microbiota and environments may contribute to that variability. The research has the potential to lead to better, more tailored treatments for this class of immune diseases.

Despite the close links between human health — including our immunity — and how our bodies process what we eat, the intersection of immunology and metabolism remains a poorly understood area of human biology, Garud said.

“It is uncharted territory as to how the microbes inside of us contribute to the inflammation phenotype,” she said. “We are excited to explore these questions using a combination of techniques, ranging from metabolomics to imaging to statistical development that leverage the team’s diverse expertise.”

“In so many diseases, a tipping point is reached where entire systems in our bodies are thrown off balance,” said Frontiers Group Director Kathy Richmond. “Studying the complex and fascinating interactions between the immune system and energy metabolism will give us a better understanding of what it means to be healthy and how it might be possible to return those systems to balance after damage or disease.”

The Frontiers Group was founded by the late philanthropist Paul G. Allen in 2016.

Read more about Garud’s research on her website.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom.

Hosea Nelson receives award for pioneering research in organic chemistry

Hosea Nelson, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has received the 2020 Novartis Early Career Award in organic chemistry for his scientific achievements in the field. He will receive an unrestricted research grant as part of the award.

A photo of Hosea Nelson, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Hosea Nelson (Photo Credit: UCLA)

Nelson’s research is focused on the development of enabling technologies for chemical synthesis and biology. His research team, the Nelson Group, uses organic synthesis and organic catalyst development to develop small molecules and new methodologies that will be widely used by practitioners of medicine and biology.

Nelson earned his doctorate in 2013 from the California Institute of Technology. After postdoctoral training at UC Berkeley, he joined the UCLA faculty in 2015. In October, he received the 2020 Eli Lilly Grantee Award for organic chemistry.

Novartis, a Switzerland-based multinational pharmaceutical company, gives the Early Career Award annually to outstanding scientists within 10 years of having established an independent academic research career in the areas of organic or bioorganic chemistry.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom

Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

A UCLA researcher prepares to lower a specialized bottle into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Cruz Island to capture samples of eDNA. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

Researchers used to need to scuba dive to find out which fish live in any given area of the ocean. Now, a new UCLA study has found that environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be used to identify marine organisms living in a certain space.

Environmental DNA is the term for the DNA from cells that are constantly released by organisms into their environments — much like the hair and skin people normally shed in the shower. In the past decade eDNA technology has advanced rapidly, making it a competitive tool for assessing ecosystem biodiversity.

The findings, which were published in PLOS One, could have major implications for monitoring of marine protected areas, sections of ocean where fishing and other activities are prohibited to conserve marine life and habitat.

In 2012, California established 124 marine protected areas covering about 16% of state waters. Regular monitoring of those areas is critical for understanding if marine life is being protected successfully, said UCLA ecologist Paul Barber, the study’s senior author. Before eDNA, the only way to tell if marine protected areas were working was for scuba divers to count and identify every fish they saw, a method known as visual surveying.

“These surveys typically require experienced divers with specific training to spend hours and hours underwater,” said Barber, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Now we can simply lower a bottle into the ocean from the side of a boat.”

The researchers compared which species were detected using eDNA and which were counted using visual surveying during summer 2017 at three sites inside and outside of the State Marine Reserve near Santa Cruz Island. Using eDNA, they identified nearly all of the same species as the visual surveys.

The only fish that did not show up using the technique were five species of rockfish — an issue the researchers said could be easily fixed by tweaking the genetic test to recognize that specific DNA when it appears in water samples.

A photo of a garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California's marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island.

A garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California’s marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

The eDNA also revealed an additional 30 species that had been seen in the same areas in previous years but that were not spotted during the 2017 visual surveys.

“We demonstrated that that we can use eDNA as a tool to monitor these ecosystems,” said Zachary Gold, the study’s lead author, a former UCLA doctoral student who is now a researcher at the University of Washington and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an opportunity going forward to expand the scope and scale of monitoring marine protected areas.”

Wider use of eDNA could help scientists overcome some of the challenges of visual surveying as a technique for monitoring marine species. For one, the new method could be far less expensive than the current one: Each eDNA sample costs around $50, while the National Park Service spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to survey 33 sites in the Channel Islands.

And in part because of those costs, visual surveys are conducted only once a year, which means seasonal variations in fish species have rarely been studied.

Another current challenge is that visual surveying is only performed in waters up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep, which means the technique cannot be used in more than 99% of California’s marine protected areas.

To analyze eDNA, researchers run the water they collect through a filter that captures the cells and DNA of marine organisms. Those filters are frozen on the boat and taken to a lab, where researchers extract DNA from the cells, sequence it and identify which species the DNA belongs to using a reference database.

For the PLOS One study, Gold used a reference database called the Anacapa Toolkit, which was developed previously by UCLA scientists.

The authors acknowledge that eDNA surveys won’t completely replace visual surveys, because the newer method can’t reveal the sex, size, abundance or behavior of the fish being studied — all of which are important elements of a complete assessment. “There will always be value to having eyes in the water,” Barber said.

But the simplicity of eDNA could create opportunities for community science — research in which nonscientist members of the public can participate. For example, Gold set up a program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Heal the Bay that teaches volunteers how to collect water samples. The combination of eDNA tools and a wider network of people collecting samples could dramatically improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

Gift from Astrid and Howard Preston will Fund Renovation of UCLA’s Remote Observing Facility

Howard and Astrid Preston in front of a painting by Astrid in the UCLA Luskin Conference Center. (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

The UCLA College’s Division of Physical Sciences has received a gift of $500,000 from alumni Astrid and Howard Preston to renovate and expand the facility that allows prominent UCLA astronomers and research scientists to observe distant galaxies and stars without leaving campus.

Galaxy: Stellar orbits. (Photo courtesy of NCSA, UCLA / Keck)

Renamed in honor of the couple, the Astrid and Howard Preston Remote Observing Facility in Knudsen Hall provides remote access to the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the Lick telescope in Northern California, and, when completed, will also link to the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.

The division matched the Prestons’ gift at 50%, bringing the total investment to $750,000.

Dean of physical sciences Miguel García-Garibay said, “We are incredibly grateful for this generous gift, which will enhance remote observing capabilities for world-renowned research groups in our division for decades to come. It’s yet another impactful example of the Prestons’ long record of leadership and philanthropy in support of the Department of Physics & Astronomy.”

The Preston Remote Observing Facility is used by four leading astronomy UCLA research groups:

-The Galactic Center Group, led by 2020 Physics Nobel Laureate Andrea Ghez, studies the formation and evolution of galaxies and their central supermassive black holes.

-The Infrared Laboratory develops techniques and applications of infrared imaging devices for astrophysics, including infrared cameras and spectrometers for Lick Observatory, Keck Observatory, Gemini Observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Observatory, and NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

– Extrasolar planets and planetary science faculty study the dynamics and physical properties of the interiors, surfaces and atmospheres of Earth, planets, moons and other solar system objects.

– Cosmology, galaxies and galaxy evolution faculty study the nature of galactic nuclei and quasars, the first generation of galaxies and the structure of the early universe.

Following the renovation project, which is due to begin later this year, the facility will comprise 750 square feet with two distinct remote observing areas equipped with state-of-the-science technology, which can open to one shared area to optimize functionality of the space. Also included in the plans are areas for video conferencing, group discussion, food preparation, and even sleeping, since most observing time is scheduled during night and early morning hours.

Ghez, who holds the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics, said, “I can’t emphasize enough how critical the remote observing facility is to our work. It allows us convenient real-time access to precious telescope time so that we can collect the observational data that advances our research. The renovation made possible by the Prestons’ gift will not only make a huge difference to all of us who use the facility but also will facilitate the technical development of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Keck telescopes and the Lick telescope.”

Any funds remaining after completion of the project will be used to create an endowment to cover ongoing costs related to the space, including computational analysis, future renovations and maintenance, and technology upgrades.

The Prestons have supported the Department of Physics & Astronomy for more than 20 years. They previously established the Howard and Astrid Preston Term Chair in Astrophysics and the Preston Family Graduate Fellowship in Astrophysics. Howard serves on UCLA’s Galactic Center Group Board of Advisors and Physical Sciences Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund. Astrid is on the board of Women & Philanthropy at UCLA and the Department of English board of visitors. The couple met as UCLA undergrads in 1963. After earning a doctorate in physics, Howard founded Preston Cinema Systems, maker of high-tech camera and lens control systems for film and television. Astrid, who graduated with a B.A. in English, is an acclaimed painter.

Howard Preston said, “Astrid and I have followed the exciting progress of UCLA’s astronomy research groups for some time, and we know how important this facility is to their work. We are absolutely delighted that we can support this much-needed renovation and expansion, and we are eager to see what discoveries are around the corner.”

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald. 

A photo of student researchers.

Dean Tracy Johnson seeks to diversify the pipeline of future scientists and doctors

A photo of student researchers.

Over the years, the pathways program has enrolled more than 125 students, who have taken on responsibilities as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

When Tracy Johnson was an undergraduate working in a lab at UC San Diego, she found herself suddenly jolted. Conducting research on gene function using fruit flies, she realized she was involved in something deeper and more fulfilling than a traditional classroom experience.

“The idea that I was learning things that nobody else knew, that I could make some contribution,” says the dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College, “that was a game-changer.”

Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in Life Sciences, joined the faculty of UCLA’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in 2014. Soon after, she was awarded a $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to improve undergraduate science education, which was, in part, used to create the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success program.

Pathways gives students from diverse backgrounds an “authentic research experience, early on, and in a prolonged way.” For years, Johnson said, students of color and those who were the first in their family to attend college pursued science, technology, engineering and math degrees at equal rates as other students but left STEM majors at a higher rate.

“It was clear that these statistics had less to do with preparation,” she said, “and more to do with students not seeing themselves as part of a scientific community. Pathways was designed to rethink that.”

The goal was to help students understand they belonged and had important contributions to make.

“The Pathways program has honestly opened up the world of research to me. I come from a normal public school in a mainly minority area, so I never knew what research truly entailed,” said Venus Hagan, a second-year UCLA student majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research.

Hagan noted how getting to do research as an undergraduate helped her discover her passion for it. “Without the program,” she said, “I may have never considered minoring in biomedical research and possibly applying to MD/Ph.D. programs in the future.”

In building the program, Johnson looked around the country to find what worked best, and bring it to UCLA. She was interested not just in lab work, but in mentoring as well.

Pathways students participate in a lab course dedicated to Johnson’s field, gene expression. The DNA in every cell of a given plant or animal is identical. Expression is the process by which genes, or specific segments of DNA, get turned on. This process allows cells to perform specific functions. For example, this process can tell a cell to become part of a muscle or part of the brain, and so on.

“It’s a lot for first-year students to dive into,” Johnson acknowledged. “They’re freshmen, on campus for barely 10 weeks when they start. Some students have never taken AP biology. It is ambitious, but they rise to the occasion.”

Second-year student Nyari Muchaka said enrolling in Pathways was one of the best decisions she has ever made.

“The program has provided me with multiple opportunities for summer and during the year research opportunities, and allowed me to find a group of friends I resonate with,” said Muchaka, who is majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research. “Everyone is truly there to help each other which makes it one of the most fulfilling, enriching parts of my college experience. The program helps advance your interest in the biological field but also carry you through some of the best and roughest four years of your life. Pathways is truly an innovative program and provides a foundation for college studies you won’t find anywhere else.”

Johnson and her co-instructor and research collaborator, Azad Hossain, are preparing to publish some of the student research in an academic journal within the next year. Pathways has enrolled more than 125 students, and these students have taken on more and more responsibility as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders as the years have passed. Many have gone on to doctoral programs, medical school, M.D./Ph.D. programs, and a host of other STEM-related careers.

“There isn’t anything quite like what we do,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a model for how to think about student success.”

This article, written by Scott Timberg and Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Martin Monti.

Scientists jump-start two people’s brains after coma

A photo of Martin Monti.

Monti said two patients exhibited “behaviors [that] are diagnostic markers of emergence from a disorder of consciousness.” (Photo Credit: Ivy Reynolds)

In 2016, a team led by UCLA’s Martin Monti reported that a 25-year-old man recovering from a coma had made remarkable progress following a treatment to jump-start his brain using ultrasound.

Wired U.K. called the news one of the best things that happened in 2016. At the time, Monti acknowledged that although he was encouraged by the outcome, it was possible the scientists had gotten a little lucky.

Now, Monti and colleagues report that two more patients with severe brain injuries — both had been in what scientists call a long-term “minimally conscious state” — have made impressive progress thanks to the same technique. The results are published online in the journal Brain Stimulation.

“I consider this new result much more significant because these chronic patients were much less likely to recover spontaneously than the acute patient we treated in 2016 — and any recovery typically occurs slowly over several months and more typically years, not over days and weeks, as we show,” said Monti, a UCLA professor of psychology and neurosurgery and co-senior author of the new paper. “It’s very unlikely that our findings are simply due to spontaneous recovery.”

The paper notes that, of three people who received the treatment, one — a 58-year-old man who had been in a car accident five-and-a-half years prior to treatment and was minimally conscious — did not benefit. However, the other two did.

One is a 56-year-old man who had suffered a stroke and had been in a minimally conscious state, unable to communicate, for more than 14 months. After the first of two treatments, he demonstrated, for the first time, the ability to consistently respond to two distinct commands — the ability to drop or grasp a ball, and the ability to look toward separate photographs of two of his relatives when their names were mentioned.

He also could nod or shake his head to indicate “yes” or “no” when asked questions such as “Is X your name?” and “Is Y your wife’s name?”

Small but significant improvement

In the days following the second treatment, he also demonstrated, for the first time since the stroke, the ability to use a pen on paper and to raise a bottle to his mouth, as well as to communicate and answer questions.

“Importantly,” Monti said, “these behaviors are diagnostic markers of emergence from a disorder of consciousness.”

The other patient who improved is a 50-year-old woman who had been in even less of a conscious state for more than two-and-a-half years following cardiac arrest. In the days after the first treatment, she was able, for the first time in years, according to her family, to recognize a pencil, a comb and other objects.

Both patients showed the ability to understand speech.

“What is remarkable is that both exhibited meaningful responses within just a few days of the intervention,” Monti said. “This is what we hoped for, but it is stunning to see it with your own eyes. Seeing two of our three patients who had been in a chronic condition improve very significantly within days of the treatment is an extremely promising result.”

The changes the researchers saw are small, but Monti said even the smallest form of communication means a way to reconnect. One powerful moment during the study was when the wife of the 56-year-old man showed him photos and asked whether he recognized who he saw.

“She said to us, ‘This is the first conversation I had with him since the accident,’” Monti said. “For these patients, the smallest step can be very meaningful — for them and their families. To them it means the world.”

Using acoustic energy

Scientists used a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain.

The scientists used a technique called low-intensity focused ultrasound, which uses sonic stimulation to excite the neurons in the thalamus, an egg-shaped structure that serves as the brain’s central hub for processing. After a coma, thalamus function is typically weakened, Monti said.

An image of a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain

Scientists used a small device to aim ultrasound at the thalamus in the brain. (Photo Credit: Martin Monti/UCLA)

Doctors use a device about the size of a saucer creates a small sphere of acoustic energy they can aim at different brain regions to excite brain tissue. The researchers placed the device by the side of each patient’s head and activated it 10 times for 30 seconds each in a 10-minute period. Each patient underwent two sessions, one week apart.

Monti hopes to eventually translate the technology into an inexpensive, portable device so the treatment could be delivered not only at state-of-the-art medical centers, but also at patients’ homes, to help “wake up” patients from a minimally conscious or vegetative state.

The treatment appears to be well tolerated; the researchers saw no changes to the patients’ blood pressure, heart rate or blood oxygen levels, and no other adverse events. Monti said the device is safe because it emits only a small amount of energy, less than a conventional Doppler ultrasound.

While the scientists are excited by the results, they emphasize that the technique is still experimental and likely will not be available to the public for at least a few years. For now, there is little that can be done to help patients recover from a severe brain injury that results in either a chronic vegetative state or a minimally conscious state, Monti said.

Monti said his team is planning additional studies to learn exactly how thalamic ultrasound modifies brain function; he hopes to start those clinical trials once the researchers and patients are assured of being safe from COVID-19.

The study’s lead author is Josh Cain, a UCLA graduate student in psychology, and a co-senior author is Caroline Schnakers, a former UCLA researcher who is now assistant director of research at Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare in Pomona, California. The work was funded by the Tiny Blue Dot Foundation and the Dana Foundation.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Million Dollar Hoods is already influencing policing in Los Angeles

Students, staff and faculty members of Million Dollar Hoods. Less than five years old, the effort has nevertheless helped shape Los Angeles and California law enforcement policy in several areas. (Photo Credit: Leroy Hamilton)

In less than five years, Million Dollar Hoods has already begun to influence criminal justice and policing in Los Angeles.

The program, launched in 2016, produced research on cannabis enforcement that shaped the development of the city’s Social Equity Program, which addresses the impact of disparate enforcement of cannabis prohibition. Its research on the money bail system, the first to document the scale of money bail in a large U.S. city, was instrumental to the passage of California legislation ending money bail for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony cases.

Its report on the Los Angeles School Police Department helped persuade the Los Angeles Unified School District to stop arresting children 14 and younger. And its analyses of Los Angeles Police Department arrests of homeless people unmasked the fact that arrests are outpacing the growth of the city’s homeless population — revealing an escalating focus on policing homeless persons.

Million Dollar Hoods is a big-data research initiative based at UCLA that uses Los Angeles police and jail records to monitor how much authorities are spending to lock up residents, neighborhood by neighborhood. In some communities, that figure is more than $1 million per year.

And not every neighborhood is affected equally by Los Angeles’ massive jail system. Data from arrest records shows that Los Angeles’ jail budget, nearly $1 billion per year, is largely devoted to incarcerating people from just a few neighborhoods.

Million Dollar Hoods researchers have researched and written dozens of “rapid response reports” in response to concerns from community members. Each report is made available on the program’s website.

Million Dollar Hoods researchers have also interviewed nearly 200 Los Angeles residents, under the guidance of Terry Allen, the lead researcher and director of the oral history project and a recent doctoral graduate of the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. The oral histories tell stories of individual experiences of dealing with police and being arrested or incarcerated, as well as the impact of incarceration on families.

Its research team is led by Kelly Lytle Hernández, a UCLA professor of history and urban planning, and includes UCLA students, staff and faculty. Every project also benefits from the involvement of community organizations; Youth Justice Coalition, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Dignity and Power Now!, and JusticeLA are among those that have contributed to recent projects.

The project has attracted a passionate collective of undergraduate researchers, said Marques Vestal, faculty advisor for Million Dollar Hoods.

“There are lines out the door to get involved with this project,” said Vestal, a UCLA postdoctoral fellow and leader on the Million Dollar Hoods team who will joins the faculty of UCLA’s department of urban planning in July 2021. “Million Dollar Hoods gives students the chance to work with big data in ways that have a reparative impact on their communities.”

Next up: Thanks to a portion of a $3.65 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Million Dollar Hoods will expand its capacity to produce oral histories — including training students to conduct interviews — and digitize more records and work with members of the community to document their experiences with and perspectives on mass incarceration.

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.