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Days with hazardous levels of air pollutants are more common due to increase in wildfires

In Western U.S., health risks from ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter continue to grow, study shows

Image of smoke from a wildfire turning the sky orange-brown in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood.

In October 2017, smoke from a nearby wildfire turned the sky orange-brown in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood. Photo credit: Sean Brenner

By David Colgan

After decades of air quality improvement due to the Clean Air Act of 1970 and other regulations since, the Western U.S. is experiencing an increase in the number of days with extremely high levels of two key types of air pollutants due to climate change.

From 2000 to 2020, the growing number of wildfires — made more intense by climate change — and the increasingly common presence of stagnant, hot weather patterns combined to increase the number of days with hazardous levels of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. Those conditions are creating health risks for people throughout the region, according to a paper published in Science Advances.

Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist and co-author of the paper, said the increased pollution affects densely populated regions across a broad swath of the West, including the Los Angeles basin, Salt Lake City, Denver and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The study found that the number of days when both pollutant levels were extremely high increased in nearly every major city from the Pacific Coast to the eastern Rocky Mountains. (The scientists judged pollution levels to be “extremely high” on days when they were in the 90th percentile of their daily average for the study’s 20-year span.)

Smoke from wildfires can travel thousands of miles, harming people who don’t live directly in wildfire-prone areas.

“When we looked at satellite imagery of the whole country this past summer, we could see smoke from Western wildfires making it all the way to New York City,” Swain said. “There could be a connection with air pollution as far away as the East Coast.”

Wildfires and stagnant, hot weather patterns increase the presence of pollution classified as PM 2.5 — particles that measure less than 2.5 microns in width, the equivalent of about three one-hundredths the width of a human hair — which can make its way deep into lungs and can cross into the bloodstream. Scientific studies have linked PM 2.5 pollution to health problems such as decreased lung function, irregular heartbeat and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

The combination of weather patterns and wildfires also increases the formation of ground-level ozone, another threat to respiratory health. Ground level ozone forms due to chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (such as nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) and volatile organic compounds, both of which can come from vehicles, power plants, industrial facilities and other sources.

The researchers found that the increase in extreme levels of PM 2.5 due to climate factors increased hazardous air quality conditions by an average of 25 million person-days each year of the past two decades in the Western U.S. and adjacent areas of the Great Plains, Mexico and Canada. (A person-day refers to a single day of exposure by a single person.)

The analysis is based on pollution data from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitoring sites, as well as atmospheric observations and data on atmospheric pressure and temperatures.

The poor air quality conditions highlighted in the paper are likely to get worse for at least the next few decades, even if drastic climate change mitigation measures are implemented, Swain said.

“It has gotten hotter, wildfire conditions have gotten worse and we’re seeing more persistent periods of high atmospheric pressure,” he said. “Each of those factors is projected to increase in the coming years.”

While mitigating emissions from wildfires and climate change will take decades, cities could still enact regulations and other programs to that would help reduce the presence of oxides of nitrogen and volatile ogranic compounds — so-called ozone precursor emissions — in the near term. Although the benefits of those changes would take years to accrue, it could be practical for cities to implement emissions-reduction measures during periods of hazardous air quality, and it would likely help reduce the dangers to human health, Swain said.

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

UCLA-led team refines ‘kick and kill’ strategy aimed at eliminating HIV-infected cells

Study in mice could point toward method for clearing virus from people who would otherwise depend on medication
A microscope image of HIV particles

A microscope image of HIV particles. The “kick and kill” approach uses cells that are naturally produced by the immune system to kill HIV-infected cells that hide in the body. Photo credit: A. Harrison and Dr. P. Feorino/CDC

By Enrique Rivero

In a study using mice, a UCLA-led team of researchers have improved upon a method they developed in 2017 that was designed to kill HIV-infected cells. The advance could move scientists a step closer to being able to reduce the amount of virus, or even eliminate it, from infected people who are dependent on lifesaving medications to keep the virus from multiplying and illness at bay.

The strategy, described in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, uses cells that are naturally produced by the immune system to kill infected cells that hide in the body, potentially eradicating them, said Dr. Jocelyn Kim, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“These findings show proof-of-concept for a therapeutic strategy to potentially eliminate HIV from the body, a task that had been nearly insurmountable for many years,” said Kim, the study’s lead author. “The study opens a new paradigm for a possible HIV cure in the future.”

Worldwide, there are currently 38 million people living with HIV, and an estimated 36 million have died of HIV-related diseases in the decades since HIV began circulating, according to UNAIDS.

People with HIV take antiretroviral medication to keep the virus at bay. But HIV has the ability to elude antiretrovirals by lying dormant in cells called CD4+ T cells, which signal another type of T cell, the CD8, to destroy HIV-infected cells. When a person with HIV stops treatment, the virus emerges from those reservoirs and replicates in the body, weakening the immune system and raising the likelihood of opportunistic infections or cancers that can lead to illness or death.

The UCLA-led study continues research on a strategy called “kick and kill,” which many of the same scientists first described in a 2017 paper. The approach coaxes the dormant virus to reveal itself in infected cells, so it can then be targeted and killed. In the earlier study, the researchers gave antiretroviral drugs to mice whose immune systems had been altered to mimic those of humans, and then infected with HIV. They then administered a synthetic compound called SUW133, which was developed at Stanford University, to activate the mice’s dormant HIV. Up to 25% of the previously dormant cells that began expressing HIV died within 24 hours.

But a more effective way to kill those cells was needed.

In the new study, while the mice were receiving antiretrovirals, the researchers used SUW133 to flush HIV infected cells out of hiding. They then injected healthy natural killer cells into the mice’s blood to kill the infected cells. The combination of SUW133 and injections of healthy natural killer immune cells completely cleared the HIV in 40% of the HIV-infected mice.

The researchers also analyzed the mice’s spleens — because the spleen harbors immune cells, it’s a good place to look for latent HIV-infected cells — and did not detect the virus there, suggesting that cells harboring HIV were eliminated. In addition, the combination approach performed better than either the administration of the latency reversing agent alone or the natural killer cells alone.

Kim said the researchers’ next objective is to further refine the approach to eliminate HIV in 100% of the mice they test in future experiments. “We will also be moving this research toward preclinical studies in nonhuman primates with the ultimate goal of testing the same approach in humans,” she said.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the National Science Foundation, a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences UCLA CTSI Grant and the McCarthy Family Foundation.

The study’s co-authors are Tian-Hao Zhang, Camille Carmona, Bryanna Lee, Dr. Christopher Seet, Matthew Kostelny, Nisarg Shah, Hongying Chen, Kylie Farrell, Dr. Mohamed Soliman, Melanie Dimapasoc, Michelle Sinani, Dr. Kenia Yazmin, Reyna Blanco, David Bojorquez, Hong Jiang, Yuan Shi, Yushen Du, Ren Sun and Jerome Zack of UCLA; Natalia Komarova, Dominik Wodarz and Matthew Marsden of UC Irvine; and Paul Wender of Stanford University. Sun is also a member of the faculty of the University of Hong Kong.

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

A meeting between citizens and members of the municipal police in Medellín, Colombia.

In developing countries, no quick fix for strengthening police–civilian relations

Study co-led by UCLA’s Graeme Blair finds community policing did little to improve citizens’ trust of law enforcement
A meeting between citizens and members of the municipal police in Medellín, Colombia.

As part of the study, residents of Medellín, Colombia, met with members of the municipal police to share concerns about law enforcement and discuss potential solutions. Photo credit: Evidence in Governance and Politics

By Jessica Wolf

In an international study co-led by UCLA political scientist Graeme Blair, community policing efforts in six developing countries were ineffective in reducing crime or restoring civilians’ trust in law enforcement.

The practice of community policing was developed in the U.S. in the early 1990s and has since gained popularity across the world. It typically involves collaboration between police and neighborhood watch groups and introduces new mechanisms for citizens to report crimes as well as abuses of power by police.

Along with Blair, the study’s lead authors are Jeremy Weinstein of Stanford University and Fotini Christia of MIT. They and 23 other authors from five universities studied new community policing efforts in Brazil, Colombia, Liberia, the Philippines, Uganda and Pakistan.

The researchers collaborated with local police agencies to implement some common elements of community policing, including town hall meetings and so-called problem-oriented policing, which entails police and civilians identifying specific areas where specific types of crime are occurring, and working together to define solutions. The projects ran for periods ranging from six months (in Pakistan) to 17 months (in the Philippines), and researchers judged the programs’ success based on crime reports and surveys of community members and police officers.

The results, published in the journal Science, showed no evidence that the reforms reduced crime or increased civilians’ trust in police.

Blair said the findings were surprising given the increasing attention being paid to community policing in recent years. Advocates say the approach can help reduce crime while also rebuilding trust between citizens and police.

“Previous evidence from the U.S., U.K. and Australia suggested these policies were effective, and their wide adoption was driven in part by prominent success stories in Boston and Chicago,” Blair said. “But when we studied these locally adapted community policing practices in developing countries we just didn’t see any changes.”

The data showed no improvements in terms of trust in law enforcement, crime reduction or cooperation between civilians and police — the three primary benefits touted by advocates of community policing.

“There were some improvements in citizens’ attitudes toward the police in a couple of cases, but those were inconsistent across the countries we studied,” Blair said.

The study is one of the largest ever to study policy reform in partnership with governments. Researchers worked with six police agencies in six countries, implementing reforms in more than 700 localities and testing them against police beats where the reforms were not instituted. Data collection included interviews with more than 18,000 citizens and 800 officers.

MIT’s Christia said the findings suggest there is no one-size-fits-all approach to police reform.

The researchers have several theories as to why the community policing tactics were ineffective. Among them:

• Insufficient encouragement from senior law enforcement officials, who are responsible for shaping police officers’ understanding of whether and how to implement new policing practices.

• Officers’ reluctance to respond to issues concerning so-called minor crimes — including domestic abuse, harassment and fraud — raised by citizens during community meetings. Researchers observed that police leadership demanded that officers focus on higher-profile crimes, which are more likely to influence their departments’ success metrics and job promotions.

• Police officers being frequently rotated in and out of test locations, which interrupted their training in new policing practices and hampered their ability to create rapport with community members.

“While community policing strategies didn’t deliver the anticipated results on their own, the challenges in implementation point to the need for more systemic reforms that provide the necessary resources and align incentives for police to respond to citizens’ primary concerns,” said Stanford’s Weinstein.

The researchers write that the future success of community policing in developing countries might require support from each level of authority, from senior law enforcement leaders down to station commanders, in order to engender widespread adoption among police officers. Police agencies also might need to change how they measure their success, giving more attention to issues community members care about, and to rethink training and staffing practices.

“It is possible that there is a version of community policing that works in these kinds of settings, but we didn’t find it.” Blair said. “One explanation could be that it takes a long time to build trust between citizens and the police. In some places, it is being thought of as a policy that can reap quick benefits in creating a symbiotic relationship between citizens and the police, but our study shows that doesn’t seem to be broadly true.”

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

UCLA astronomers discover more than 300 possible new exoplanets

Findings also include a distinctive planetary system with two gas giants
Rendering of the Kepler-444 planetary system.

UCLA researchers identified 366 new exoplanets using data from the Kepler Space Telescope, including 18 planetary systems similar to the one illustrated here, Kepler-444, which was previously identified using the telescope. Photo credit: Tiago Campante/Peter Devine via NASA

 

 

By Briley Lewis

UCLA astronomers have identified 366 new exoplanets, thanks in large part to an algorithm developed by a UCLA postdoctoral scholar. Among their most noteworthy findings is a planetary system that comprises a star and at least two gas giant planets, each roughly the size of Saturn and located unusually close to one another.

The discoveries are described in a paper published today in the Astronomical Journal.

The term “exoplanets” is used to describe planets outside of our own solar system. The number of exoplanets that have been identified by astronomers numbers fewer than 5,000 in all, so the identification of hundreds of new ones is a significant advance. Studying such a large new group of bodies could help scientists better understand how planets form and orbits evolve, and it could provide new insights about how unusual our solar system is.

“Discovering hundreds of new exoplanets is a significant accomplishment by itself, but what sets this work apart is how it will illuminate features of the exoplanet population as a whole,” said Erik Petigura, a UCLA astronomy professor and co-author of the research.

The paper’s lead author is Jon Zink, who earned his doctorate from UCLA in June and is currently a UCLA postdoctoral scholar. He and Petigura, as well as an international team of astronomers called the Scaling K2 project, identified the exoplanets using data from the NASA Kepler Space Telescope’s K2 mission.

The discovery was made possible by a new planet detection algorithm that Zink developed. One challenge in identifying new planets is that reductions in staller brightness may originate from the instrument or from an alternative astrophysical source that mimics a planetary signature. Teasing out which ones are which requires extra investigation, which traditionally has been extremely time consuming and can only be accomplished through visual inspection. Zink’s algorithm is able to separate which signals indicate planets and which are merely noise.

“The catalog and planet detection algorithm that Jon and the Scaling K2 team came devised is a major breakthrough in understanding the population of planets,” Petigura said. “I have no doubt they will sharpen our understanding of the physical processes by which planets form and evolve.”

Kepler’s original mission came to an unexpected end in 2013 when a mechanical failure left the spacecraft unable to precisely point at the patch of sky it had been observing for years.

But astronomers repurposed the telescope for a new mission known as K2, whose objective is to identify exoplanets near distant stars. Data from K2 is helping scientists understand how stars’ location in the galaxy influences what kind of planets are able to form around them. Unfortunately, the software used by the original Kepler mission to identify possible planets was unable to handle the complexities of the K2 mission, including the ability to determine the planets’ size and their location relative to their star.

Previous work by Zink and collaborators introduced the first fully automated pipeline for K2, with software to identify likely planets in the processed data.

For the new study, the researchers used the new software to analyze the entire dataset from K2 — about 500 terabytes of data encompassing more than 800 million images of stars — to create a “catalog” that will soon be incorporated into NASA’s master exoplanet archive. The researchers used UCLA’s Hoffman2 Cluster to process the data.

In addition to the 366 new planets the researchers identified, the catalog lists 381 other planets that had been previously identified.

Zink said the findings could be a significant step toward helping astronomers understand which types of stars are most likely to have planets orbiting them and what that indicates about the building blocks needed for successful planet formation.

“We need to look at a wide range of stars, not just ones like our sun, to understand that,” he said.

The discovery of the planetary system with two gas giant planets was also significant because it’s rare to find gas giants — like Saturn in our own solar system — as close to their host star as they were in this case. The researchers cannot yet explain why it occurred there, but Zink said that makes the finding especially useful because it could help scientists form a more accurate understanding of the parameters for how planets and planetary systems develop.

“The discovery of each new world provides a unique glimpse into the physics that play a role in planet formation,” he said.

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

Increasingly frequent wildfires linked to human-caused climate change, UCLA-led study finds

Image of smoke from a 2019 Northern California wildfire, seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Smoke from a 2019 Northern California wildfire could be seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

By Stuart Wolpert

Research by scientists from UCLA and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory strengthens the case that climate change has been the main cause of the growing amount of land in the western U.S. that has been destroyed by large wildfires over the past two decades.

Rong Fu, a UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and the study’s corresponding author, said the trend is likely to worsen in the years ahead. “I am afraid that the record fire seasons in recent years are only the beginning of what will come, due to climate change, and our society is not prepared for the rapid increase of weather contributing to wildfires in the American West.”

The dramatic increase in destruction caused by wildfires is borne out by U.S. Geological Survey data. In the 17 years from 1984 to 2000, the average burned area in 11 western states was 1.69 million acres per year. For the next 17 years, through 2018, the average burned area was approximately 3.35 million acres per year. And in 2020, according to a National Interagency Coordination Center report, the amount of land burned by wildfires in the West reached 8.8 million acres — an area larger than the state of Maryland.

But the factors that have caused that massive increase have been the subject of debate: How much of the trend was caused by human-induced climate change and how much could be explained by changing weather patterns, natural climate variation, forest management, earlier springtime snowmelt and reduced summer rain?

Image of Rong Fu, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences

Rong Fu, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Photo courtesy of Rong Fu

For the study, published in the Nov. 9 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers applied artificial intelligence to climate and fire data in order to estimate the roles that climate change and other factors play in determining the key climate variable tied to wildfire risk: vapor pressure deficit.

Vapor pressure deficit measures the amount of moisture the air can hold when it is saturated minus the amount of moisture in the air. When vapor pressure deficit, or VPD, is higher, the air can draw more moisture from soil and plants. Large wildfire-burned areas, especially those not located near urban areas, tend to have high vapor pressure deficits, conditions that are associated with warm, dry air.

The study found that the 68% of the increase in vapor pressure deficit across the western U.S. between 1979 and 2020 was likely due to human-caused global warming. The remaining 32% change, the authors concluded, was likely caused by naturally occurring changes in weather patterns.

The findings suggest that human-induced climate change is the main cause for increasing fire weather in the western United States.

“And our estimates of the human-induced influence on the increase in fire weather risk are likely to be conservative,” said Fu, director of UCLA’s Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering, a collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The researchers analyzed the so-called August Complex wildfire of 2020, which burned more than a million acres in Northern California. They concluded that human-induced warming likely explains 50% of the unprecedentedly high VPD in the region during the month the fire began.

Fu said she expects wildfires to continue to become more intense and more frequent in the western states overall, even though wetter and cooler conditions could offer brief respites. And areas where vast swaths of plant life have already been lost to fires, drought, heatwaves and the building of roads likely would not see increases in wildfires despite the increase of the vapor pressure deficit.

“Our results suggest that the western United States appears to have passed a critical threshold — that human-induced warming is now more responsible for the increase of vapor pressure deficit than natural variations in atmospheric circulation,” Fu said. “Our analysis shows this change has occurred since the beginning of the 21st century, much earlier than we anticipated.”

The paper’s lead author is Yizhou Zhuang, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar; co-authors are Alex Hall, a UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science; Benjamin Santer, a former atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and Robert Dickinson, a UCLA distinguished professor in residence of atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

The research was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of California.

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

A picture of two people plant an ebony sapling

UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute receives $1 million from Bob and Cindy Taylor

A picture of two people plant an ebony sapling

Two people plant an ebony sapling

By Jonathan Riggs

In line with his long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability, master guitar maker Bob Taylor and his wife, Cindy Taylor, have donated $1.05 million to support UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute and its ebony conservation research and restoration efforts in Cameroon.

“I can think of no better partner than UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute to help protect, enhance and better understand the population of ebony trees, a precious resource to both the Congo Basin and the world in general,” said Bob Taylor, a co-founder of Taylor Guitars. “The incredible work they have already accomplished and their vision for addressing critical environmental and development issues are deeply inspiring and directly align with my own values.”

Taylor has led efforts in Cameroon to lessen tree waste by encouraging makers of stringed instruments to use variegated rather than all-black ebony. He also purchased and revitalized Cameroon’s leading sawmill, where he has implemented efforts to better use natural resources, including by starting an onsite seedling nursery.

Through those and other efforts in Cameroon, Taylor crossed paths in the mid-2010s with UCLA professor Thomas Smith, the founder and co-director of the institute, who has conducted biodiversity and conservation research in the region for nearly four decades. Since then, Bob and Cindy Taylor have donated more than $1.3 million to support the institute’s progress on several fronts, including studies of the ecology of ebony, a massive community-driven replanting program, and a new strategy for community-based rainforest restoration in the Congo Basin.

“Bob and Cindy Taylor’s leadership and generosity have helped empower the Congo Basin Institute to fulfill the highest ideals of our mission,” said Smith, who is also founding director of the Center for Tropical Research at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “They appreciate the importance of furthering science and taking action that will benefit the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest.”

Bob Taylor also is respected for his work restoring koa trees in Hawaii and trees in urban areas of Southern California.

The Congo Basin Institute, founded in 2015, was UCLA’s first foreign affiliate; it is a joint initiative between UCLA and the nonprofit International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which is headquartered in Nigeria.

The institute operates under the auspices of the UCLA Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Creative Activities, and is supported by the divisions of life sciences and physical sciences in the UCLA College.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

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

Picture of Maurice Caldwell.

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

By Stuart Wolpert

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

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

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

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

‘Appalling injustice’: The wrongful conviction of Caldwell

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

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

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

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

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

Catastrophic suffering and profound distress

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

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

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

Photo of Paul Abramson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Reconstructing What Was

Photo of Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

Tori Schmitt visiting Autun Cathedral in France.

By Jonathan Riggs

Founded early in the sixth century, rebuilt in the twelfth and dismantled in the nineteenth after the French Revolution, the glorious Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was one of the earliest examples of Gothic architecture, but exists now only in legend.

In her dissertation, UCLA art history doctoral student Tori Schmitt hopes to shed more light on this medieval church, named after the patron saint of Paris and originally located where the neoclassical Panthèon now stands on the Left Bank.

“There’s not a building to work with, just sculptural fragments, drawings, watercolors and accounts by people. So that mystery intrigued me the more I read and learned about it,” says Tori Schmitt, a UCLA doctoral student in art history. “I’ve always loved 3-D modeling, drafting and trying to imagine what might have been, so I found it an exciting puzzle.”

Photo of Tori Schmitt

Tori Schmitt

Schmitt’s interest in historical reconstructions was first piqued when she served as an undergraduate research assistant to Professor Meredith Cohen on the digital humanities project Paris Past & Present. After earning her master’s at Columbia University, Schmitt returned to UCLA to once again work closely with her mentor, earning the inaugural Diane C. Brouillette Graduate Fellowship in Art History along the way.

“Diane C. Brouillette also worked on early Gothic architecture and sculpture; she wrote her dissertation on Senlis Cathedral,” says Schmitt. “I am honored to hold a fellowship in her name and add to the field.”

The fellowship will allow Schmitt to conduct research abroad in France, scouring Parisian archives and libraries in addition to viewing sculptural fragments of the abbey in the collections of Musée de Cluny, Musée Carnavalet and the Louvre. Crucially, she will be able to travel to other significant French sites of early Gothic architecture and sculpture, such as Chartres, Sens and Senlis, as well as museum collections throughout the country, and to gain a deeper understanding of the abbey’s enduring power across French culture and history.

This opportunity means everything to the Southern California native, who has long drawn inspiration from the architecture of Los Angeles and of UCLA’s campus. During the pandemic, Schmitt took up amateur photography, snapping images of interesting and surprising buildings she encountered on her bike rides, including quite a few L.A. Gothic-inspired, 1930s-era ‘storybook’ bungalows. For Schmitt, it’s a reminder that architecture doesn’t just belong to history or scholarship, but to everyone.

“Whenever I’m teaching undergrads, I try to remind them that they shouldn’t be intimidated by the study of architecture, because they’ve been interacting with it their entire lives,” she says. “They don’t have to become Gothic art historians like me, but I want them to be interested and engaged and to have open eyes for all the spaces they’ll enter throughout their lives. Ultimately, architecture is about people.”

Looking at history through this hands-on lens of wonder and curiosity is key to Schmitt’s approach in both her research and her teaching. After all, it’s one thing to ask a question of Google and receive thousands of results; it’s quite another to travel in person to a historical site and view a single document preserved for thousands of years. It helps bring the past—and most importantly its people—alive, and in a broader, more vivid context that connects us all. This is something Schmitt thinks about frequently, especially when she’s in the physical presence of the architectural creations that deserve to be thought of as much more than just buildings.

“When I went to Notre-Dame for the first time and climbed to the top, I was overwhelmed. It was so big, so beautiful it blew my mind,” Schmitt says. “They built it with no power tools—it was all relational math, highly complex geometry—and the skill on display is beyond belief. Gothic cathedrals were constructed to be awe-inspiring, and when you think about the people behind the place, that power is multiplied.”

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

A decade after gene therapy, children born with deadly immune disorder remain healthy

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

Evangelina Vaccaro playing beneath pier at the beach

By Sarah C.P. Williams

Over a decade ago, UCLA physician-scientists began using a pioneering gene therapy they developed to treat children born with a rare and deadly immune system disorder. They now report that the effects of the therapy appear to be long-lasting, with 90% of patients who received the treatment eight to 11 years ago still disease-free.

ADA-SCID, or adenosine deaminase–deficient severe combined immunodeficiency, is caused by mutations in the gene that creates the ADA enzyme, which is essential to a functioning immune system. For babies with the disease, exposure to everyday germs can be fatal, and if untreated, most will die within the first two years of life.

In the gene therapy approach detailed in the new paper, Dr. Donald Kohn of UCLA and his colleagues removed blood-forming stem cells from each child’s bone marrow, then used a specially modified virus, originally isolated from mice, to guide healthy copies of the ADA gene into the stem cells’ DNA. Finally, they transplanted the cells back into the children’s bone marrow. The therapy, when successful, prompts the body to produce a continuous supply of healthy immune cells capable of fighting infections. Because the transplanted stem cells are the baby’s own, there is no risk of rejection.

Kohn and his team report in the journal Blood that of the 10 children who received the one-time treatment between 2009 and 2012 as part of a phase 2 clinical trial, nine have continued to remain stable. The study follows a 2017 paper, also published in Blood, on the initial success of the treatment in those nine children.

“What we saw in the first few years was that this therapy worked, and now we’re able to say that it not only works, but it works for more than 10 years,” said Kohn, senior author of the study and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “We hope someday we’ll be able to say that these results last for 80 years.”

While not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, gene therapy for ADA-SCID represents a potentially life-changing option for children who otherwise must undergo twice-weekly injections of the ADA enzyme — an expensive and time-consuming treatment — or find a matched bone marrow donor who can provide a transplant of healthy stem cells.

10 years after: Assessing and refining gene therapy for ADA-SCID

Of the 10 children who received the therapy between 2009 and 2012, most were babies; the one older child, who was 15 at the time, was the only participant whose immune function was not restored by the treatment, suggesting the therapy is most effective in younger children, Kohn said.

The other nine children were successfully treated and have remained healthy enough that none have needed enzyme replacement or a bone marrow transplant to support their immune systems in the years since.

However, the researchers did find significant immune system differences among the successfully treated children roughly a decade on. In particular, they observed that some had a nearly hundred times more blood-forming stem cells containing the corrected ADA gene than others, as well as more copies of the gene in each cell.

Those with more copies of the ADA gene in more cells had the best immune function, Kohn noted, while some of those with lower levels of the gene replacement required regular infusions of immunoglobulins, a type of immune protein, to keep their systems fully functional. More work is needed, he said, to understand the best way of achieving high levels of the gene in all patients.

“What these results tell us is that there’s a formula for optimal success for ADA-SCID, and it involves correcting more than 5 to 10% of each patient’s blood-forming stem cells,” said Kohn, who is also a distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “The relationship between the levels of gene-corrected cells and immune system function has never been shown so clearly before.”

The researchers also found that in some children’s stem cells, the treatment disturbed genes involved in cell growth — a phenomenon seen in other studies of similar gene therapies. While over time this could potentially lead to the improper activation of the growth genes, turning the cells cancerous, Kohn noted that none of the patients in the clinical trial had this problem.

Still, that safety concern is one of the reasons Kohn and his colleagues are developing a new ADA-SCID gene therapy using a different type of virus to deliver the corrected ADA gene that is much less likely to affect growth genes. This newer approach successfully treated 48 of 50 babies who received the therapy in clinical trials at UCLA, University College London and the National Institutes of Health. And while the approach used a decade ago may no longer remain the top candidate for FDA approval going forward, Kohn says its enduring success is encouraging for the field in general.

“Knowing that a gene therapy can have this lasting effect in ADA-SCID for more than a decade is important for our path forward as we develop new gene therapies for this and other diseases,” he said.

The research was supported by an FDA Office of Orphan Products Development award, the National Gene Vector Biorepository, the National Human Genome Research Institute intramural program, the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

TV shows with diverse writers rooms, casts resonated with pandemic audiences

By Jessica Wolf

The latest UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, published today, reveals that television viewers during the COVID-19 pandemic leaned into content that came out of diverse writers rooms and that featured diverse casts.

“We have seen this appetite for diverse content repeated over the history of our analyses,” said Darnell Hunt, co-author of the report and UCLA’s dean of social sciences. “The fact that shows with diverse writers rooms did well last year also illustrates that audiences are looking for authentic portrayals.”

The report, which covers statistics for the 2019–20 TV season, tracks racial and gender diversity among key job categories, as well as ratings and social media engagement for 461 scripted shows across 50 broadcast, cable and streaming providers.

The new study found a continued correlation between the racial makeup of shows’ writers and TV ratings. For example, among households of all races in 2019–20, the scripted broadcast shows that earned the highest ratings were those in which people of color made up between 31% and 40% of the credited writers.

Overall, racial diversity improved in almost every job category tracked by the report, and representation among women improved in about half of the job titles.

And for the first time in the report’s history, people of color had a higher percentage of scripted broadcast TV acting roles, 43.4%, than their overall percentage of the U.S. population.

Across all three platform types, there were more people of color credited as writers than in the previous report. Overall, people of color made up 26.4% of the credited writers for broadcast series last season (up from 23.4%), 28.6% of credited writers for cable (up from 25.8%) and 24.2% of credited writers for streaming (up from 22.8%). Most of those modest gains were recorded by women, according to the study.

But people of color are still largely underrepresented among TV writers, given that 42.7% of Americans are nonwhite.

Lagging representation among Latino actors, directors

Latino representation in all job categories remained flat from the previous year, and Latinos hold far fewer TV jobs than their share of the U.S. population overall would predict. Latino actors held just 6.3% of broadcast TV roles, 5.7% in cable and 5.5% in streaming. Meanwhile, Latino directors were responsible for only 5.4% of broadcast TV episodes, 3.5% of cable episodes and 3.0% of streaming episodes.

“This UCLA report clearly demonstrates that more work is necessary to achieve more accurate representation and truly authentic portrayals in American television,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas. ”I hope this report encourages entertainment executives to reevaluate their systems for recruiting, retaining, and promoting Latinx talent, work in earnest to make changes, and create a more inclusive culture.”

According to the report, a significant proportion of 2019–20 TV content — 35% of broadcast shows, 22.9% of cable and 25.7% of streaming — was made in Los Angeles, where census data shows that 48.6% of the population is Hispanic or Latino.

“Diversifying the workforce means bringing equity to the economy and ensuring inclusionary practices in Hollywood,” said California State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo. “As Latinos make up the largest population in the state of California, yet only a dismal percentage in Hollywood, I’m looking forward to ensuring the Latinx community is not subsidizing its own exclusion via California’s Film Tax Credit Program, which the legislature oversees.”

The Hollywood Diversity Report recently received funding from the state of California that will enable UCLA researchers to continue to support such progress.

Diversity in acting

Over the decade since the Hollywood Diversity Report began, diversity has improved the most among acting jobs, especially in TV, compared with all other TV and movie job types. In 2019–20, television shows with majority-nonwhite casts were more prevalent than ever.

For the first time since the researchers began tracking data, a plurality of shows on cable (28.1%) and streaming platforms (26.8%) featured casts in which the majority of actors were nonwhite. And 32.1% of broadcast shows had majority-nonwhite casts, up from just 2.0% in the first report, which covered the 2011–12 season.

Photo of Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón

Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón. Photo: Mike Baker

The new report provides further support for the fact that audiences favor shows with diverse casts. During 2019–20, among white households, ratings for scripted broadcast shows were highest for shows whose actors were 31% to 40% nonwhite. Among Black households, scripted broadcast shows with the highest ratings where those in which casts were more than 50% nonwhite.

For streaming programming, which is dominated by Netflix, ratings among white, Black and Asian households were highest for shows with casts that were from 31% to 40% nonwhite.

The report’s authors also analyze audiences’ interaction with TV programs on social media, and how those trends correspond with cast diversity. For scripted cable shows during 2019–20, for example, they found that programs with majority nonwhite casts had the highest engagement on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for streaming shows, audience engagement on Twitter specifically was highest for programs with majority nonwhite casts.

Mixed progress among show creators

Another area in which diversity improved was among show creators. That’s an important datapoint because show creators have influence over which stories are developed, whose stories they represent and how they’re told, said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the report and the director of research and civic engagement in the UCLA Division of Social Sciences.

Women made up 29.0% of the creators of scripted cable shows, up nearly 7 percentage points over the prior season, marking the largest one-year gain for women in that job category since the report began. And people of color made up 20.6% of scripted cable show creators in 2019–20, up from 14.5% the previous season and nearly triple the share (7.4%) from 2011–12.

However, women held creator positions for fewer broadcast shows in 2019–20 (24.1%) than they did the prior year (28.1%) — and even fewer than women held in 2011–12 (26.5%).

“We also see that when women and people of color hold high-level creative positions, there is greater diversity down the line in casting and likely for crew hiring,” Ramón said. “Women and people of color are still very underrepresented in these and other behind-the-camera jobs, which is why this report continues to exist.”

Other takeaways:

  • The number of acting roles for women in 2019–20 was nearly equal to those of men across all three platform types. Women made up 46.3% of total cast in scripted broadcast shows, 45.3% in cable and 46.9% in streaming.
  • Trans and nonbinary actors were virtually absent across all platforms.
  • Out of a total 2,932 credited actors, just 13 were Native people, including just three Native women.
  • People of color directed 25.8% of broadcast episodes, 27.2% of cable and 21.4% of streaming, up from 24.3% and, 22.9% and 18.2% in the 2018–19 season.
  • Women directed 30.6% of broadcast episodes, 31.3% of cable and 33.4% of streaming, up from 29.3%, 29.7% and 29.1% the prior season.
  • Latinos made up just 4.8% of the credited writers for broadcast programs, 4.7% in cable and 4.3% in streaming.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.