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Photo of baby laughing

Babies Know the Difference between the Laughter of Friends and Strangers

Five-month-olds may use chuckles to identify information about social interactions

Photograph of baby laughing

Credit: Aarti Kalyani Getty Images

Most people can share a laugh with a total stranger. But there are subtle—and detectable—differences in our guffaws with friends.

Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues previously found that adults from 24 societies around the world can distinguish simultaneous “co-laughter” between friends from that between strangers. The findings suggested that this ability may be universally used to help read social interactions. So the researchers wondered: Can babies distinguish such laughter, too?

Bryant and his fellow researcher Athena Vouloumanos, a developmental psychologist at New York University, played recordings of co-laughter between pairs of either friends or strangers to 24 five-month-old infants in New York City. The babies listened longer to the laughs shared between buddies—suggesting they could tell the two types apart, according to a study published in March in Scientific Reports.

The researchers then showed the babies short videos of two people acting either like friends or strangers and paired those with the audio recordings. The babies stared for longer at clips paired with a mismatched recording—for example, if they saw friends interacting but heard strangers laughing.

“There’s something about co-laughter that is giving information to even a five-month-old about the social relationship between the individuals,” Bryant says. Exactly what components of laughter the infants are detecting remains to be seen, but prior work by Bryant’s team provides hints. Laughs between friends tend to include greater fluctuations in pitch and intensity, for example.

Such characteristics also distinguish spontaneous laughs from fake ones. Many scientists think unprompted laughter most likely evolved from play vocalizations, which are also produced by nonhuman primates, rodents and other mammals. Fake laughter probably emerged later in humans, along with the ability to produce a wide range of speech sounds. The researchers suggest that we may be sensitive to spontaneous laughter during development because of its long evolutionary history.

“It’s really cool to see how early infants are distinguishing between different forms of laughter,” says Adrienne Wood, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, who was not involved in the study. “Almost every waking moment is a social interaction for [babies], so it makes sense that they are becoming very attuned to their social worlds.”

This story originally appeared in the Scientific American.

Student researchers on the beach hold up water samples for the camera

Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research to develop courses that bring research to L.A. community organizations

Student researchers on the beach hold up water samples for the camera

Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research to develop courses that bring research to L.A. community organizations

With the launch of the inaugural Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research, both undergraduate students and faculty have new opportunities to pursue research that impacts not just academia, but also local communities of Los Angeles.

The Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research comes from the UCLA Center for Community Learning and the Chancellor’s Office and has awarded six faculty members each a $10,000 research grant to develop a new undergraduate research course. In each course, students will carry out research activities in partnership with local community organizations. The course will advance their professor’s research goals and also benefit the communities served by each organization.

Over the next academic year, the six faculty will participate in a workshop on best practices for teaching undergraduate community-engaged research and attend quarterly meetings to advance their course design. By the end of spring 2020, each faculty will have a new course syllabus, ready to be offered to undergraduates in 2020-21 or 2021-22.

Shalom Staub, director of the Center for Community Learning, said the research reflects some of the most critical issues affecting people in and around UCLA.

“The range of issues includes representation of minority communities, health disparities, education disparities, environmental justice – that’s a catalogue of the big issues facing Los Angeles and southern California communities,” he said.

Maylei Blackwell, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies, will develop a course called “The Latin American Indigenous Diaspora in Los Angeles: Mapping Place through Community Archives and Oral Histories.” Students will work with Zapotec and Mayan community organizations in Los Angeles to conduct interviews with community leaders and archive historical records such as community newspapers and home videos.

“I thought this course would be a perfect opportunity for community engagement: how do we produce those histories, how do we support those communities in documenting their own history, and [how do we] let the communities control how the process happens?” Blackwell said.

Chancellor Gene Block said the benefits of the Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research are threefold.

“Community-engaged research creates outstanding learning opportunities for undergraduate students, advances the research of our faculty, and benefits our community,” Block said. “The Community-Engaged Research Scholars will deepen UCLA’s commitment to public service by creating more opportunities for students and faculty to pursue research that has a positive impact on our world.”

Meredith Phillips, associate professor of public policy and sociology, is developing a course titled “Making Data Useful for Educational Improvement.” Students will analyze student and staff survey data from elementary, middle, and high schools, and present those data to school and district staff to help inform school improvement efforts.

The idea for the Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research is “brilliant,” Phillips said.

“This award recognizes faculty for their community-engaged research efforts and at the same time creates a new set of community-engaged course offerings for undergraduates,” she said. “This first set of courses is just the beginning of what I expect will eventually be an extensive suite of courses, across a wide range of disciplines, that will connect UCLA students’ research training with the needs of our local community.”

Read more about the inaugural 2019-2020 cohort in the UCLA Newsroom.

New simulations suggest that carbon (C) routinely bonded with iron (Fe), silicon (Si) and oxygen (O) deep within the magma ocean that covered Earth when it was young.

New insights about carbon and ice could clarify inner workings of Earth, other planets

New simulations suggest that carbon (C) routinely bonded with iron (Fe), silicon (Si) and oxygen (O) deep within the magma ocean that covered Earth when it was young.

New simulations suggest that carbon (C) routinely bonded with iron (Fe), silicon (Si) and oxygen (O) deep within the magma ocean that covered Earth when it was young.

 

Most people behave differently when under extreme pressure. Carbon and ice are no different.

Two new studies show how these key planetary ingredients take on exotic forms that could help researchers better understand the composition of Earth’s core as well as the cores of planets across the galaxy. Craig Manning, a UCLA professor of geology and geochemistry, is a co-senior author of one of the papers, which was published today in the journal Nature, and senior author of the other, which was published in Nature Communications in February.

The Nature Communications paper revealed that high pressure deep inside the young Earth may have driven vast stores of carbon into the planet’s core while also setting the stage for diamonds to form. In the Nature report, researchers found that water ice undergoes a complex crystalline metamorphosis as the pressure slowly ratchets up.

Scientists have long understood that the amount of carbon sequestered in present-day Earth’s rocks, oceans and atmosphere is always in flux because the planet shuffles the element around in a vast cycle that helps regulate climate. But researchers don’t know whether the Earth locked away even more carbon deep in its interior during its formative years — information that could reveal a little more about how our planet and others like it are built.

To pursue an answer to that question, Manning and colleagues calculated how carbon might have interacted with other atoms under conditions similar to those that prevailed roughly 4.5 billion years ago, when much of Earth was still molten. Using supercomputers, the team created simulations to explore what would happen to carbon at temperatures above 3,000 degrees Celsius (more than 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit) and at pressures more than 100,000 times of those on Earth’s surface today.

The experiment revealed that under those conditions, carbon tends to link up with iron, which implies that there might be considerable quantities of carbon sealed in Earth’s iron core today. Researchers had already suspected that in the young planet’s magma ocean, iron atoms hooked up with one another and then dropped to the planet’s center. But the new research suggests that this molten iron rain may have also dragged carbon down with it. Until now, researchers weren’t even sure whether carbon exists down there.

The team also found that as the pressure ramps up, carbon increasingly bonds with itself, forming long chains of carbon atoms with oxygen atoms sticking out.

“These complex chains are a form of carbon bonding that we really hadn’t anticipated at these conditions,” Manning said.

Such molecules could be a precursor to diamonds, which consist of many carbon atoms linked together.

Solving an icy enigma

The machinations of carbon under pressure provide clues as to how Earth-like planets are built. Frozen planets and moons in other solar systems, however, may also have to contend with water ice. In a separate paper, Manning and another team of scientists looked at how the molecular structure of extremely cold ice changes when put under intense pressure.

Under everyday conditions, water ice is made up of molecules laid out in honeycomb-like mosaics of hexagons. But when ice is exposed to crushing pressure or very low temperature — in labs or possibly deep inside remote worlds — the molecules can assume a bewildering variety of patterns.

One of those patterns, known as amorphous ice, is an enigma. In amorphous ice, the water molecules eschew rigid crystalline order and take on a free-form arrangement. Manning and colleagues set out to try and understand how amorphous ice forms.

First, they chilled normal ice to about 170 degrees below zero Celsius (about 274 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). Then, they locked the ice in the jaws of a high-tech vice grip inside a cryogenic vacuum chamber. Finally, over the span of several hours, they slowly stepped up the pressure in the chamber to about 15,000 times atmospheric pressure. They stopped raising the pressure periodically to fire neutrons through the ice so that they could see the arrangement of the water molecules.

Surprisingly to the researchers, the amorphous ice never formed. Instead, the molecules went through a series of previously known crystalline arrangements.

However, when the researchers conducted the same experiment but raised the pressure much more rapidly — this time in just 30 minutes — amorphous ice formed as expected. The results suggest that time is the secret ingredient: When pressure increases slowly, tiny seeds of crystalline ice have time to form and take over the sample. Otherwise, those seeds never get a chance to grow.

The findings, published May 23 in the journal Nature, could be useful to researchers who study worlds orbiting other suns and are curious about what conditions might be like deep inside frozen planets.

“It’s entirely likely that there are planets dominated by ice in other solar systems that could obtain these pressures and temperatures with ease,” Manning said. “We have to have this right if we’re going to have a baseline for understanding the interiors of cold worlds that may not be like Earth.”

Both papers were funded in part by the Deep Carbon Observatory, a 10-year program started in 2009 to investigate the quantities, movements, forms and origins of deep carbon inside Earth. The Nature Communications paper was also funded by the European Research Council and was co-authored by researchers at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon in France, one of whom — Natalia Solomatova — completed her undergraduate studies at UCLA. The Nature paper was co-authored by UCLA geologist Adam Makhluf and researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Research Council of Canada.

This article originally appeared on the UCLA Newsroom.

 

Meredith Cohen

Professor Meredith Cohen Discusses Rebuilding and Restoring Notre Dame Cathedral

Meredith Cohen

Meredith Cohen

Feelings of grief and despair were felt across the globe on Monday, April 17, 2019, when a devastating fire erupted at Notre Dame Cathedral. Individuals around the world collectively mourned the state of the 850-year-old Paris landmark, posting photos and exchanging memories of the cathedral.

After officials began to assess the damage, it became clear that it will take multiple experts to develop a plan to restore and rebuild the structure, including conservators, engineers, and art historians.

Meredith Cohen, associate professor of medieval art and architecture in the UCLA Art History Department, is a specialist in Gothic architecture of Paris and high medieval Europe (c. 1000 – c. 1450). Below are some statements that she gave to various media publications regarding the Gothic building’s significance and the complicated question of how to rebuild and restore Notre Dame.

Cohen explained to Slate that the building is “the origin of our concept of Paris as a center of art and culture.” It was constructed over the course of three centuries, beginning in 1160, and “symbolically transformed the city into the center of European culture during the medieval period through its display of the new and innovative Gothic architecture and its singular architectural and artistic ambition.”

Not only did Notre Dame symbolically and culturally transform the city, but it also represents “an extraordinary feat of mankind” because it was built by hand during a time without heavy machinery. Cohen also notes that the building was “a kind of utopian vision for people in the Middle Ages, and they really wanted it to last forever.”

With most of the building’s structure still intact, Cohen told Slate that the cathedral itself is “the artwork” and that “all the other works of art attached to church are different details of it.” She expressed concern over the loss of the “Forest,” the cathedral attic’s wooden frame with beams that were each made from an individual tree.

Speaking to National Geographic about the wooden structure, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, Cohen added that it was a “rare example of medieval engineering.” She also stated that the cathedral’s choir might be missing some key features, including some sculptures and graffiti that medieval worshippers etched into the choir stalls.

In her LA Times response to the current debate on how to rebuild and restore the iconic cathedral, Cohen puts forth another question to consider: “Should you fake history or create something of our time?” She suggests a design that acknowledges the building’s status and relevance in the 21st century, which could mean replacing the 19th century spire with something different instead of replicating it. As a more modern addition to the cathedral, Cohen reminds the public that this spire is a piece of the cathedral’s layered history. “A carbon copy is a false history because you can’t re-create the past. It would still have a completion date of 2019.”

The question of how to rebuild and restore the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral will not be answered overnight. As a symbol of Paris’ history, this process will require a collaborative effort between various experts and stakeholders looking to preserve the history and cultural significance of this beloved architectural structure.

The Humanities Division would like to thank Professor Cohen for sharing her insight with the public in the aftermath of this destruction.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati

The stone faces and human problems on Easter Island

Excavation of Moai 156 (left) and 157. The visible difference in color and texture, and thus in preservation, is due to soil and depth coverage.

Excavation of Moai 156 (left) and 157. The visible difference in color and texture, and thus in preservation, is due to soil and depth coverage.

Archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg continues to seek insight from the statues and for the living descendants of their makers

In 1981, UCLA archaeology graduate student Jo Anne Van Tilburg first set foot on the island of Rapa Nui, which is commonly called Easter Island, eager to explore her interest in rock art by studying the iconic stone heads that enigmatically survey the landscape.

Van Tilburg was one of just a few thousand people who would visit Rapa Nui each year back then. And though the island to this day remains one the most remote inhabited islands in the world, a surge in annual visitors has placed its delicate ecosystem and archaeological treasures in jeopardy.

“When I went to Easter Island for the first time in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” said Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, the longest collaborative artifact inventory ever conducted on the Polynesian island that belongs to Chile. “As of last year the number of tourists who arrived was 150,000 from around the world.”

On April 21, which is Easter Sunday, CBS’ “60 Minutes” will air a special interview with Van Tilburg and Anderson Cooper filmed on the island, talking about efforts to preserve the moai (pronounced MO-eye) — the monolithic stone statues that were carved and placed on the island from around 1100 to 1400 and whose stoic faces have fascinated the world for decades.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati

Back in 2003, Van Tilburg, who is research associate at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive since 1997, was the first archaeologist since the 1950s to obtain permission from Chile’s National Council of Monuments and the Rapa Nui National Park, with the Rapa Nui community and in collaboration with the National Center of Conservation and Restoration, Santiago de Chile, to excavate the moai, which most people didn’t know included torsos, which are buried below the surface, prior to her work and the publicity surrounding it.

Her success in obtaining permission to dig on the island, she credits to a philosophy of “community archaeology.” She has spent nearly four decades among the people of Rapa Nui, listening, learning, making connections, making covenants with the elders of the society, reporting extensively on her findings. Major funding has been provided by the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Fund.

“I think my patience and diligence was rewarded,” she said. “They saw me all those years getting really dirty doing the work. What they don’t like is when people come and think they have all the answers and then leave. That feels to the Rapanui like their history is being co-opted.”

Van Tilburg credits the sustained and generous support of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute as critical to her continued work on the island. She has also made it a point to include UCLA undergraduates from a variety of academic disciplines in the hands-on work on Rapa Nui, including Alice Hom who began as a work study student 20 years ago and who now serves as project manager for the Easter Island Statue Project.

Van Tilburg, who received her doctorate in archaeology from UCLA in 1989, is working on a massive book project harnessing her vast archive that will serve as an academic atlas of the island, its history and the meaning behind the moai. She used the proceeds of a previous book to invest in a local business, the Mana Gallery and Mana Gallery press, both of which highlight indigenous artists. And she helped the local community rediscover their canoe-making history through the 1995 creation of the Rapa Nui Outrigger Club.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg being interviewed by Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes”

Jo Anne Van Tilburg being interviewed by Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes”

Her co-director on the Easter Island Statue Project, Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, is Rapanui and a graphic artist by trade. Van Tilburg exclusively employs islanders for her excavation work. She’s traveled the world helping catalog items from the island that are now housed in museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the British Museum in London. Van Tilburg does this to assist repatriation efforts.

Rapa Nui is more commonly known as Easter Island because Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen first landed there on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. But the people who already lived there (Polynesian descendants of a massive human migration more than 500 years earlier), simply called the place “home,” Van Tilburg said.

“Very few pacific islands originally had names,” Van Tilburg said. “What was named was a landmark or a star or something that brought you to it, but not necessarily the island itself.”

The “60 Minutes” interview also focuses on how current residents of the island are coping with increasing waves of tourism, which is almost always a double-edged sword, but is especially so in a fragile ecosystem, Van Tilburg said.

The now 150,000 annual visitors pale in comparison to the vast numbers of travelers who flock to Egypt’s pyramids and awe-inspiring archaeological sites, she noted.

The intricate rock art on the back of Moai 157.

The intricate rock art on the back of Moai 157.

“But by Rapa Nui standards, on an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 is a mob,” she said.

What’s more disheartening is the frequent disrespectful nature of some travelers who ignore the rules and climb on the moai, trample preserved spaces and sit on top of graves all in service of getting a photo of themselves picking the nose of an ancient artifact, Van Tilburg said.

The masses and the increasingly harmful glibness of the travelers are something the 5,700 residents of the island must grapple with. Only in the last decade or so have they been given governance of the national park where the moai are located. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

Van Tilburg’s original impetus behind studying the moai is rooted in her curiosity about migration, marginalized people and how societies rise and fall.

“Rapa Nui was the last island settled probably in the whole westward movement that took place from southeast Asia across the Pacific,” Van Tilburg said. “I’m interested in what that might signal to us about today and why people are moving around the world the way they are.”

Rapanui society was traditionally hierarchical, led by a class of people who believed themselves God-appointed elites. These leaders dictated where the lower classes could live, how they would work to provide food for the elites and the population at large. The ruling class also determined how and when the moai would be built as the backdrop for exchange and ceremony.

“This inherently institutionalized religious hierarchy produced an inequitable society,” Van Tilburg said. “They were very successful in the sense that their population grew and they were good horticulturists, agriculturists and fisherman. But they were unsuccessful at understanding that unless they managed what they had better, and more fairly, that there was no future.”

Population growth and rampant inequity in a fragile environment eventually led to wrenching societal changes, she said. Internal collapse (as outlined in UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”) along with colonization and slave-trading in the 1800s caused the population of Rapa Nui to drop to just 111 in the 1870s.

As an anthropologist, Van Tilburg is deeply interested in equity.

“I’m interested in asking why do we keep replicating societies in which people are not equal, because in doing so, we initiate a crisis,” she said. “Inequity is at the heart of our human problems.”

This story originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Divers survey submersible cages used to farm cobia off the coast of Puerto Rico. UCLA researchers conducted the first country-by-country evaluation of the potential for marine aquaculture under current policies and practices.

Will ocean seafood farming sink or swim? UCLA study evaluates its potential

Divers survey submersible cages used to farm cobia off the coast of Puerto Rico. UCLA researchers conducted the first country-by-country evaluation of the potential for marine aquaculture under current policies and practices.

Divers survey submersible cages used to farm cobia off the coast of Puerto Rico. UCLA researchers conducted the first country-by-country evaluation of the potential for marine aquaculture under current policies and practices.

 

Seafood farming in the ocean — or marine aquaculture — is the fastest growing sector of the global food system, and it shows no sign of slowing. Open-ocean farms have vast space for expansion, and consumer demand continues to rise.

As with many young industries, there’s a lot to figure out, from underlying science and engineering to investment and regulations.

In a study published in the journal Marine Policy, UCLA researchers report that they have conducted the first country-by-country evaluation of the potential for marine aquaculture under current governance, policy and capital patterns. They discovered a patchwork of opportunities and pitfalls.

Peter Kareiva, one of the study’s authors and director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said sustainable food systems are an important part of the fight against climate change.

“Like many environmental scientists, I see marine aquaculture as the future food system for a carbon neutral world,” Kareiva said. “But whether we get that future and a healthy ocean depends on governance and regulations — and we all know how sketchy those can be at times.”

In 2017, Kareiva’s research found that a tiny fraction of the world’s oceans, farmed sustainably — just 0.015 percent — could satisfy the entire world’s fish demand.

The new study categorizes 144 countries into three groups based on their capacity for aquaculture growth in the industry: “goldilocks,” “potential at-risk” and “non-optimized producer.” The categories are based on quality of government institutions and regulations, potential for investment and how suitable the biological and physical environment are for farming seafood in the ocean.

Sixty-seven countries fell in the goldilocks category for either finfish or bivalves, like mussels and clams — meaning conditions there are favorable for marine aquaculture. According to lead author Ian Davies, who conducted research for the study at Kareiva’s UCLA lab, the industry could help address social challenges in these places.

“There is a lot of potential in food-insecure countries, including island states in the Pacific and Caribbean,” Davies said. “They have limited resources and quickly growing populations. But these are also the countries with the most productive waters in the world.”

Twenty-four countries were identified as non-optimized producers, which lack highly productive waters but still engage in aquaculture, usually because of better access to investment. This group includes countries around the Persian Gulf and Black Sea, South Korea, Italy, Canada and Norway.

Finally, the paper categorized 77 countries as potential at-risk. These countries have suitable waters but poor access to capital and unstable, corrupt or ineffective governance systems. Despite such problems, 16 are currently farming fish in the ocean, often harming ecosystems or causing other problems in the process. China is by far the largest producer of ocean-farmed seafood, owing to strong financial capacity and political will, but was found to have poor oversight — which could pose problems for the industry in the future.

“The more robust regulation you have, the more you can ensure the industry will be around for longer, and that it will be able to produce fish at a reasonable cost with minimal input,” Davies said. “There is a palpable feeling among planners, researchers and aquaculture operators that we have the ability to do this right before the industry gets too big. Let’s put the regulations in place.”

Ineffective regulation often leads to ecosystem damage. In the 1990s, there was a shrimp farming boom in Southeast Asia. Operations added too much shrimp and feed to mangroves, destroying many in the process. The impact was also felt by humans. Mangroves serve as barriers that reduce storm surge and flooding, and many small aquaculture operators quickly found themselves out of business. More recently, unregulated fish farming led to disease outbreaks in northern Vietnamese waters.

In other observations, the study found that while lack of regulation poses problems, so can regulation that is too burdensome. In Ireland the licensing process takes years, making it impossible for operators to qualify for European Union grants. There are other country-specific barriers, too. New Zealand is a goldilocks country, but opposition from local communities and vocal stakeholders, including fishermen, has slowed marine development.

China is the largest marine aquaculture producer by far, but its waters are only moderately good and its governance was listed as low quality. The industry has succeeded there because of political will and access to capital. China isn’t alone. Excluding outliers, the study notes, less suitable countries produce almost six times as much fish as optimal countries. Capital-driven aquaculture in less suitable waters carries the risk of being less effective and more damaging.

Marine aquaculture is seen as promising compared to high-polluting inland operations. The open ocean disperses its impact, leading to fewer environmental problems. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, nearly 90 percent of the world’s marine stocks are depleted, with many fisheries on the verge of collapse. Sustainably farming oceans could allow wild populations to rebound while serving as a crucial source of protein and economic benefits to humans.

Best in snow: New scientific device creates electricity from snowfall

UCLA researchers and colleagues have designed a new device that creates electricity from falling snow. The first of its kind, this device is inexpensive, small, thin and flexible like a sheet of plastic.

“The device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries,” said senior author Richard Kaner, who holds UCLA’s Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation. “It’s a very clever device — a weather station that can tell you how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling, and the direction and speed of the wind.”

The researchers call it a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG. A triboelectric nanogenerator, which generates charge through static electricity, produces energy from the exchange of electrons.

Findings about the device are published in the journal Nano Energy.

Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner

Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner

“Static electricity occurs from the interaction of one material that captures electrons and another that gives up electrons,” said Kaner, who is also a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing.”

Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. Silicone — a synthetic rubber-like material that is composed of silicon atoms and oxygen atoms, combined with carbon, hydrogen and other elements — is negatively charged. When falling snow contacts the surface of silicone, that produces a charge that the device captures, creating electricity.

“Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity?” said co-author Maher El-Kady, a UCLA assistant researcher of chemistry and biochemistry.

“While snow likes to give up electrons, the performance of the device depends on the efficiency of the other material at extracting these electrons,” he added. “After testing a large number of materials including aluminum foils and Teflon, we found that silicone produces more charge than any other material.”

About 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow each winter, during which time solar panels often fail to operate, El-Kady noted. The accumulation of snow reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar array, limiting the panels’ power output and rendering them less effective. The new device could be integrated into solar panels to provide a continuous power supply when it snows, he said.

Hiking shoe with device attached

Hiking shoe with device attached

The device can be used for monitoring winter sports, such as skiing, to more precisely assess and improve an athlete’s performance when running, walking or jumping, Kaner said. It also has the potential for identifying the main movement patterns used in cross-country skiing, which cannot be detected with a smart watch.

It could usher in a new generation of self-powered wearable devices for tracking athletes and their performances.

It can also send signals, indicating whether a person is moving. It can tell when a person is walking, running, jumping or marching.

The research team used 3-D printing to design the device, which has a layer of silicone and an electrode to capture the charge. The team believes the device could be produced at low cost given “the ease of fabrication and the availability of silicone,” Kaner said. Silicone is widely used in industry, in products such as lubricants, electrical wire insulation and biomedical implants, and it now has the potential for energy harvesting.

Co-authors include Abdelsalam Ahmed, who conducted the research while completing his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto; Islam Hassan and Ravi Selvaganapathy of Canada’s McMaster University; and James Rusling of the University of Connecticut and his research team.

Kaner’s research was funded by Nanotech Energy, a company spun off from his research (Kaner is chair of its scientific advisory board and El-Kady is chief technology officer); and Kaner’s Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation.

Kaner’s laboratory has produced numerous devices, including a membrane that separates oil from water and cleans up the debris left by oil fracking. Fracking is a technique to extract gas and oil from shale rock.

Kaner, El-Kady and colleagues designed a device in 2017 that can use solar energy to inexpensively and efficiently create and store energy, which could be used to power electronic devices and to create hydrogen fuel for eco-friendly cars. This year, they published research on their design of the first fire-retardant, self-extinguishing motion sensor and power generator, which could be embedded in shoes or clothing worn by firefighters and others who work in harsh environments.

Kaner is among the world’s most influential and highly cited scientific researchers. He was selected as the recipient of the American Institute of Chemists 2019 Chemical Pioneer Award, which honors chemists and chemical engineers who have made outstanding contributions that advance the science of chemistry or greatly impact the chemical profession.

Photo of UCLA professor Kent Hill and graduate student Stephanie DeMarco

Scientists identify a key gene in the transmission of deadly African sleeping sickness

Photo of UCLA professor Kent Hill and graduate student Stephanie DeMarco

Research by UCLA professor Kent Hill and graduate student Stephanie DeMarco, as well as colleagues at the University of Bern, could lead to new approaches to treat African sleeping sickness.

 

Life scientists from UCLA and the University of Bern have identified a key gene in the transmission of African sleeping sickness — a severe disease transmitted by the bite of infected tsetse flies, which are common in sub-Saharan Africa.

The disease is fatal if untreated, as the parasite responsible moves from the bloodstream to the central nervous system. Tens of millions of people in 36 African countries are at risk. There is no vaccine, and conventional drug treatments, which include an arsenic derivative, are antiquated, not very effective and have severe side effects.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, could lead to new approaches to treat the disease. It also provides scientists with the first detailed understanding of how the parasite moves through the fly and what genes enable it to do so.

The tiny, single-celled parasite that causes African sleeping sickness in humans, and debilitating diseases in other mammals, is called Trypanosoma brucei, or T. brucei. To become infectious, the parasite must travel through tissues of the fly, from the midgut to the salivary gland — and then into the human or other animal, through a bite.

In the study, Stephanie DeMarco, a UCLA graduate student in molecular biology, and Sebastian Shaw, a graduate student at Switzerland’s University of Bern, worked with two sets of the T. brucei parasite. In one set, they made a mutation in one of the parasite’s genes, called phosphodiesterase-B1, or PDEB1.

Then, they infected 2,000 tsetse flies with some 20,000 parasites each — half of the flies received blood containing normal T. brucei parasites and the other half received blood with the mutated versions.

When tsetse flies drink infected blood, the parasites from the blood typically travel to the midgut and then into a tissue closer to the head, called the proventriculus, before moving on to the salivary glands.

But the researchers saw a striking difference in the proventriculus between the two sets of flies. Among the flies that received the normal parasites, those that had parasites in the gut also had parasites in the proventriculus; but among the 1,000 flies that received mutant T. brucei, only a single one that had parasites in the gut also had a parasite in the proventriculus.

“The normal parasites were able to get to the proventriculus just fine, but for the mutants, we saw only one lonely parasite swimming around,” DeMarco said. “That told us that phosphodiesterase-B1 is really important for the parasites to move from the fly midgut to the proventriculus.”

Shaw said, “When we saw the huge difference between the mutants and normal parasites, at first we couldn’t believe it.”

Kent Hill, a UCLA professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, and one of the study’s senior authors, said the findings also suggested that there must be a barrier preventing the mutants from getting from the midgut to the proventriculus.

To learn where that barrier is, the scientists made fluorescent parasites and fed the flies a fluorescent dye that stained different tissues in the fly different colors, enabling the researchers to track the parasites.

To go from the midgut to the proventriculus, the parasites have to cross the peritrophic matrix, a sheet-like structure produced by the proventriculus that protects the midgut.

“We found the normal parasites could get through the peritrophic matrix just fine, but the mutants were mostly stuck on one side of it,” DeMarco said.

That finding indicated that the peritrophic matrix was the barrier the scientists were looking for.

The research identifies for the first time the genes that enable the parasites to sense where they are and allow them to survive their journey in fly tissues; those mechanisms had not been understood well until now.

“We think the way the parasites perceive where they are may be similar in the tsetse flies and in mammals — including humans — as they go through barriers and tissues,” said co-senior author Isabel Roditi, a University of Bern professor. “If so, there could potentially be a new drug that might disrupt their ability to do that.”

The researchers also uncovered another clue to African sleeping sickness: In parasites with mutated PDEB1, there was a dramatic increase in the number of cyclic AMP molecules, signaling molecules that play an important role in the disease.

Normal parasites are social and coordinate their behavior, DeMarco said. But the research revealed that without PDEB1, the parasites have too much cyclic AMP in their cells and can’t communicate with one another.

“When Sebastian and Stephanie got rid of PDEB1, the parasites got flooded with cyclic AMP,” Hill said. “Then, when the signal came in telling the parasites, ‘You’re in the stomach and you need to move,’ they couldn’t hear the sound. That’s what we think the problem is for the mutant parasites.”

Hill said the new insights from the UCLA–Bern study could apply to other disease-causing parasites as well. For example, T. brucei parasites are related to parasites found in the U.S. and elsewhere that cause Chagas disease, in which parasites invade heart tissue, leading to inflammation and enlarged heart tissue, and in some cases, heart failure.

Hill’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Roditi’s research is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Photo of Brenda Elaine Stevenson

Brenda Elaine Stevenson receives inaugural 2019 Germany residency at the University of Augsburg

Photo of Brenda Elaine Stevenson

Brenda Elaine Stevenson

During its annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) announced that Brenda Elaine Stevenson, University of California, Los Angeles, has been selected to receive the inaugural 2019 residency at the University of Augsburg.

 

2019 Germany Residency Program
Thanks to a generous grant from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the OAH is pleased to continue the Germany Residency Program in American history at the University of Tübingen. Funding from the University of Augsburg will also enable an extension of the program to the University of Augsburg in 2019. The resident scholar at each university will offer a seminar on a U.S. history topic of his or her design.

The residency was announced on April 5 by OAH’s 2019–20 President Joanne Meyerowitz.

 

About the Organization of American Historians
Founded in 1907, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) is the world’s largest professional association dedicated to American history scholarship. With more than 7,500 members from the U.S. and abroad, OAH promotes excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, encouraging wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of history practitioners. It publishes the quarterly Journal of American History, the leading scholarly publication and journal of record in the field of American history for more than a century. It also publishes The American Historian magazine. Formerly known as the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA), the association became the OAH in 1965 to reflect a broader scope focusing on national studies of American history. The OAH national headquarters are located in the historic Raintree House on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus.

Photo of the DVD cover for the Nollywood film 'Water of Glod'.

Social scientists partner with Nollywood film industry to test a corruption-reporting campaign in Nigeria

Photo of the DVD cover for the Nollywood film 'Water of Glod'.

Researchers said that using popular entertainment can help create a consensus among people to take up behaviors that benefit the community.

 

A team of social scientists, including UCLA political science professor Graeme Blair, commissioned filmmakers in Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving film industry, to see if media can be used to instigate civic engagement — and the results were promising.

The Niger Delta a is a resource-rich land with high poverty rates and is perceived both inside the country and globally as a place where corruption is rampant. Blair was part of a team that worked with local artists and an activist group called Integrity Nigeria to create a feature-length Nigerian movie about corruption — and launch a subsequent text-messaging campaign designed to report instances of government graft.

The experimental data-collection project led a record number of Nigerian citizens to report acts of corruption, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.

The two-part campaign generated 241 corruption reports from 106 communities in just seven months, according to the researchers, who are based at Princeton University, UCLA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A previous corruption-reporting campaign yielded less than 140 reports in a full year.

The idea was to test what the researchers called “norms and nudges.”

“There is existing evidence you can motivate people to take up behaviors even before there is a social consensus,” said Blair, who was a graduate student at Princeton as he helped conduct the research in 2014 in Nigeria, and now teaches courses on comparative politics and experimental fieldwork in UCLA’s political science department. “Role models in media can build the idea that a pro-social behavior, such as reporting instances of corruption, is something other people are doing, and other people think is valuable, and thereby build a social consensus.”

Blair conducted the study with Rebecca Littman, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at MIT, and Betsy Levy Paluck, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The larger implication of the team’s findings is that norms and nudges combined do work, Paluck said.

“The policy messaging of our study is clear: campaigns should make it easy for people to do the things they are already motivated to do,” she said. “In this case, the texting campaign made it free and simple for people to reply to a message that came to their phone, regarding an issue they found to be important. The film provided role models of other Nigerian citizens reporting corruption by text.”

Photo of Graeme Blair.

Graeme Blair

They commissioned a movie from IROKOTV, the third-largest producer of Nollywood films in Nigeria. The two-hour film, “Water of Gold,” was written by Kabat Esosa and produced by Iroko Partners with Magic Movies Productions. It starred two big Nigerian stars: Yemi Blaq and Mike Ezuruonye.

The movie took place in four states in southeastern Nigeria, home to roughly 14.2 million people. Despite the region’s rich supply of crude oil, corruption at the level of international corporations, Nigeria’s federal government, and state and local officials, have contributed to poverty and under-development or have not translated into local development. Today, local residents name corruption as the top problem faced by their country.

The film follows the story of a poor fisherman named Natufe and his rags-to-riches brother Priye. The two are close until Priye leaves their village, eventually returning years later as a wealthy businessman. Against Natufe’s wishes, Priye begins to work with corrupt local politicians. Eventually, Natufe becomes outspoken against the corrupt system in which they live.

The researchers rolled out two different versions of the film. In both, a number was displayed on the screen four times, urging viewers to call a hotline to report corruption. It said: “See corruption? Let us hear from you! SMS 50500 to report corruption to Integrity Nigeria. Tell us your story. Text for FREE. Your number kept secret.”

What differed was the plotline of the film. In the “treatment version,” Natufe and a local activist set up a toll-free “short code” telephone number, used for mass text messaging, to encourage community members to report corruption. This took place in six scenes. In the “placebo version,” this part of the storyline is removed. In some regions, viewers were able to watch the treatment version of the film, whereas in other regions, viewers were exposed to the placebo version.

The second part of the study involved a mass text sent on a random day to all the people who watched the film. This allowed the researchers to study the effect of the messaging before and after the text nudge.

All told, the researchers received 3,316 messages from 1,685 different people. Among these, 241 individuals sent concrete corruption reports explicitly mentioning a specific act, or a person or institution that had committed malfeasance. People most commonly reported bribes and embezzlement perpetrated by politicians, law enforcement and those in the education sector.

Seeing the role models of corruption reporters in the film encouraged viewers to report corruption, and separately, individuals who received the text message encouragement were significantly more likely to report corruption. The researchers think the film campaign may have caused reporting due to a perceived shift in norms regarding the community’s anger toward corruption.

“Using Nollywood for social change is already something that’s in the minds of lots of directors and producers,” Blair said. “There are social messages baked in overtly and explicitly throughout the industry. So this wasn’t a new idea, but we were able to develop some evidence about how and when these campaigns can change behaviors.”

Funding for the study came from an anonymous private donor and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.