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Neuroscientist Adriana Galván named 2021 Gold Shield Faculty Prize winner

A photo of Adriana Galván.

Adriana Galván designed one of UCLA’s most popular classes, “Puberty and Sleep.” Students say they’ve learned a lot about their own sleeping habits from the class. (Photo Courtesy of Adriana Galván)

Adriana Galván, dean of undergraduate education at UCLA, describes herself as “painfully shy” as a child, but by the time she enrolled at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, she’d gotten over her bashfulness. Active in student government, a cheerleader and member of the marching band, Galván looks back at her teenage years as a period of life she loved.

So it makes sense that Galván, a psychology professor in the UCLA College, chose to specialize in adolescent brain development and behavior, particularly in the domains of learning, motivation and decision-making.

“There was a gap in knowledge about the adolescent brain,” she said, “and I was curious to learn how the brain contributes to the normal behavioral changes that happen as kids transition into teenagers.”

Galván has since contributed 113 papers to top journals and has written a book, “The Neuroscience of Adolescence,” published by Cambridge University Press (2017). Her research on adolescent reward sensitivity and risk-taking behavior has played a central role in landmark Supreme Court decisions regarding the culpability and punishment of juvenile offenders.

Galván’s work on the teenage brain and its decision-making process is just one of the many reasons she was recently awarded the 2021 Gold Shield Faculty Prize, a $30,000 award given annually to an exceptional mid-career full professor with a distinguished record of undergraduate teaching, research and university service. The prize is sponsored by Gold Shield, Alumnae of UCLA, an organization that was founded in 1936 by 12 women to provide service to the university and its community.

Several of Galván’s peers and former scholars came forward to nominate her for the award, citing her research as well as her contributions to teaching, mentoring, service to UCLA and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. Beloved by her students, Galván has taught more than 10 different courses and seminars since her arrival in 2008, including two new undergraduate and three graduate courses she developed. One of them, a specialized seminar called “Puberty and Sleep,” is extremely popular with students who say they’ve learned a lot about their own sleeping habits from the class.

The daughter of parents who immigrated from Mexico City, Galván became the first in her immediate and extended family to earn a doctoral degree (a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2006 from Cornell University). She serves as an exemplary role model, mentoring students through the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research — Life and Biomedical Sciences and the Brain Research Institute Summer Program for Undergraduate Research, both of which aim to engage underrepresented students in research opportunities.

“I had always longed for a mentor who would be able to provide me not only with exceptional advice, but also someone with whom I could feel a sense of community,” said Jasmine Hernandez, a former student of Galván’s and currently a predoctoral research fellow at Yale University. “Being a Latina first-generation woman has afforded its own challenges, but people like Professor Galván continue to make a significant impact on my life. She is definitely a powerhouse scholar in the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience and psychology.”

Named dean of undergraduate education in July 2020, Galván has already proposed new initiatives, including the establishment of a research center tasked with improving graduation rates, student learning and preparation for success after college with an emphasis on addressing equity and inclusion issues.

Galván, who is raising son Gustavo, 10, and daughter Lucia, 7, with her husband, William Lowry, a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at UCLA, said she was “ecstatic” when she found out she had won the Gold Shield Faculty Prize.

“I felt so much gratitude for the colleagues who nominated me. They each make UCLA a very special place,” she said.

As for the $30,000 award, Galván’s already got plans for spending it: “I’m excited to support a postdoctoral fellow on a new project related to learning and motivation during adolescence!”

This article, written by Wendy Soderburg, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of Dr. Scott Wilke and Jovian Cheung.

Two Bruins win prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

A photo of Dr. Scott Wilke and Jovian Cheung.

From Left; Dr. Scott Wilke and Jovian Cheung (Photo Credit: Jovian Cheung)

UCLA undergraduates Jovian Cheung and Kevin Jiang have won this year’s prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, among the 410 natural science, engineering and mathematics students from across the U.S. to be awarded scholarships from a pool of 1,256 college sophomores and juniors.

A photo of Kevin Jiang.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Jiang

The scholarship covers tuition and other academic expenses for one to two years and is geared toward students in STEM who are preparing to pursue an M.D. or Ph.D.

Cheung is a junior majoring in cognitive science and minoring in neuroscience. For the past three years, she has worked in Dr. Scott Wilke’s lab in the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, helping to conduct research on how neural activity in the brain influences behavior. She presented her research at Undergraduate Research Week and is part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. Cheung also mentors undergraduate researchers in the Collaboration in Undergraduate Research Enrichment (CURE) club and reviews submissions for the Undergraduate Science Journal.

Her goal is to work at the intersection of neuroscience and psychology to study psychiatric disorders and processes, and she hopes to contribute to understanding how the brain processes information and emotions.

“It’s really encouraging to gain affirmation for the work that I’ve been doing,” Cheung said. “At the same time, it pushes me to want to continue to put in more effort to improve myself.”

Also a junior, Jiang is majoring in biochemistry and minoring in statistics. He is working with Dr. Jonathan Braun, former chair of the UCLA department of pathology and laboratory medicine who currently leads the Braun Laboratory at the Cedars-Sinai Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute. With Dr. Braun, Jiang researches inflammatory bowel disease and presented his research at Digestive Disease Week, one of the world’s largest medical conferences.

He also works with Dr. Alexander Hoffman, professor in the UCLA department of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and director of the Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences, to use machine learning to study macrophage immune responses. Like Cheung, Jiang works at the Undergraduate Science Journal as managing editor and mentors other undergraduate researchers in CURE. After pursuing a Ph.D., he hopes to create effective, personalized treatments for patients with cancer and other diseases.

Jiang said that receiving the scholarship has made him proud of his accomplishments. “My PI put it really nicely: he said it’s not often that you can take a short break in your career to just appreciate the things that you’ve done so far,” he said. “This is one of those moments.”

This story was written by Robin Migdol. 

A photo of Himalaya Mountains in Nepal after landslides caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake.

Imaging technique could help identify where landslides are likely

A photo of Himalaya Mountains in Nepal after landslides caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake.

The Himalaya Mountains in Nepal after landslides caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. (Photo Credit: Gen Li)

Each year, landslides kill thousands of people around the world and cause catastrophic property damage. But scientists are still trying to better understand the circumstances that cause them. Doing so would go a long way toward helping people predict where landslides could occur and how severe they might be.

A study led by Seulgi Moon, a UCLA professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences, could be a significant step toward that goal.

Moon and Gen Li, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar who’s now at Caltech, created a new method to understand how topographic stress — which occurs when tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s surface slide toward each other enough to change the landscape above —influence landslide events. Their research is published in Nature Geoscience.

The study is the first to combine information about natural processes that take place both on the surface of the Earth and at the tectonic level; previous research focused only on landslides caused by events like earthquakes and rain.

“We found that the magnitude of big landslides is affected by not only local conditions such as slope and precipitation but can be also affected by forces deep underground,” Moon said. “This implies that the interaction between what’s above and below the ground is important to better understanding surface processes of the Earth.”

For the study, the scientists developed a new adaptation of an existing technology called 3D topographic stress modeling in order to identify places deep below the Earth’s surface where rocks are weathered — meaning that they’re weakened by natural geological processes — or fractured. By identifying those spots, the model can determine which locations are most susceptible to landslides.

“Understanding earth science and geology will be critical to making mitigation plans for landslides,” Moon said.

Moon and Li conducted the research on the Longmen Mountains, on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau. Their approach uses high-resolution satellite images to detect the sizes and locations of landslides. Those satellite images are compared to the fracturing and weathering of rocks in the same locations, which Moon said can be predicted from the topography of the Earth’s surface.

Areas in which the underground bedrock is particularly weak or fractured may be vulnerable to a large landslide.

Moon’s technique, which uses high-resolution underground stress distribution data, enabled the scientists to locate fracturing that would otherwise not have been apparent because it’s so deep beneath the Earth’s surface — as much as 500 meters (or about 1600 feet) down. The high-resolution underground stress distribution data allows the researchers to distinguish areas below the ground that are damaged due to high stress.

The new technique also could be used to determine where highly sensitive construction projects — like storage facilities for nuclear energy or water — should (or shouldn’t) take place.

This article, written by Angela Estrada, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

Migratory songbirds’ travels disrupted by earlier springs

A scarlet tanager perched on a tree branch. (Photo Credit: Jen Goellnitz/Flickr)

Spring has arrived in North America. Leaves have sprouted, flowers are in bloom and migratory birds are bringing color and song to large swaths of the continent.

The timing of this so-called spring green-up — the beginning of a new cycle of plant growth each year — affects migratory birds’ behaviors and ability to survive their move north. They tend to travel later if winter lasts a little long, and sooner if spring comes early.

In North America, climate change is causing spring to arrive an average of 0.4 days earlier each year. According to a new paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, some species could be unable to keep pace with this rapid change.

Although a change of less than half a day per year might not sound like much, it adds up to an entire week’s worth of change every 20 years, and it could alter what food is available along their migration routes and breeding grounds, how much time fledglings have to leave the nest, and how the birds interact with other plant and animal species. Previous research has found that such changes could lead to population declines and cascading effects to ecosystems.

“Some birds are quite accurate on the coming of spring because they are highly sensitive to the rhythms and cycles of nature,” said Morgan Tingley, a UCLA ecologist and the paper’s senior author.

Tingley and his co-authors crowdsourced 7 million observations by birdwatchers from the online platform eBird and compared the data to the timing of spring green-up as seen from space via two NASA satellites from 2002 through 2017.

The researchers analyzed how 56 species of migratory birds, primarily small songbirds, responded to these earlier springs. All species travel to breeding grounds in North America but some winter farther south, in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The authors found that species with shorter, slower migration routes that winter farther north adjusted to changes better — the pine warbler and eastern phoebe, for example. Others had more trouble keeping pace, particularly those that winter in South America and have longer migration routes — such as the bobolink and willow flycatcher.

Most were unable to entirely keep up with an earlier arrival of spring. For each day earlier that green-up occurred, species generally adjusted their migration schedules by less than a half-day.

That inability to adjust to an earlier spring can have serious consequences, said Casey Youngflesh, the study’s lead author and a UCLA ecology and evolutionary biology researcher.

“If birds show up days or weeks later than optimal, they may not have enough food, which could result in lower success breeding and fewer chicks that survive to leave the nest,” Youngflesh said. “That’s really the main concern — that it may cause overall declines in how many birds there actually are.”

The study also notes that the consequences for birds could indirectly affect other animals and even plants. For example, caterpillars are a primary source of food for migratory birds, but if bird populations were to decline, it is possible that more caterpillars than normal would survive each year. Were that to happen, the health of trees could be affected because leaves are a primary food source for caterpillars.

“Everything is interconnected. If you remove a piece of the ecosystem, it’s hard to say exactly what will happen,” Youngflesh said, adding that further research would be needed to determine exactly what the consequences of earlier green-ups would be for any individual species.

Changes in climate have always been a major factor in the evolution of birds’ migratory patterns. However, Youngflesh said, those adaptations have occurred over tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. Modern climate change, largely resulting from increased carbon dioxide emissions, is happening far faster, over years and decades — so rapidly that many species are unable to adapt quickly enough.

That’s thought to be one of the primary reasons bird populations have declined rapidly across North America in recent decades. A 2019 paper published in Science concluded that the number of birds on the continent has diminished by about 3 billion since 1970, when the total population was around 7 billion. In addition to climate change, other factors such as habitat loss, outdoor-dwelling cats and more windows — with which birds collide — are likely reasons for the decline.

The new study, whose co-authors included researchers from the University of Florida, University of North Carolina and Pennsylvania State University and others, outlines a framework for further research into why and how the decline is happening, and it could help conservationists target their efforts to protect the species that are most at risk, Tingley said.

“Climate change is producing winners and losers,” Tingley said. “We are mapping for the first time why some are winning and others are losing.”

This article, written by David Colgan, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of the planet Venus.

How long is a day on Venus? Scientists crack mysteries of our closest neighbor

A photo of the planet Venus.

Fundamentals such as how many hours are in a Venusian day provide critical data for understanding the divergent histories of Venus and Earth, UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Venus is an enigma. It’s the planet next door and yet reveals little about itself. An opaque blanket of clouds smothers a harsh landscape pelted by acid rain and baked at temperatures that can liquify lead.

Now, new observations from the safety of Earth are lifting the veil on some of Venus’ most basic properties. By repeatedly bouncing radar off the planet’s surface over the last 15 years, a UCLA-led team has pinned down the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis and the size of its core. The findings are published today in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“Venus is our sister planet, and yet these fundamental properties have remained unknown,” said Jean-Luc Margot, a UCLA professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences who led the research.

Earth and Venus have a lot in common: Both rocky planets have nearly the same size, mass and density. And yet they evolved along wildly different paths. Fundamentals such as how many hours are in a Venusian day provide critical data for understanding the divergent histories of these neighboring worlds.

Changes in Venus’ spin and orientation reveal how mass is spread out within. Knowledge of its internal structure, in turn, fuels insight into the planet’s formation, its volcanic history and how time has altered the surface. Plus, without precise data on how the planet moves, any future landing attempts could be off by as much as 30 kilometers.

“Without these measurements,” said Margot, “we’re essentially flying blind.”

The new radar measurements show that an average day on Venus lasts 243.0226 Earth days — roughly two-thirds of an Earth year. What’s more, the rotation rate of Venus is always changing: A value measured at one time will be a bit larger or smaller than a previous value. The team estimated the length of a day from each of the individual measurements, and they observed differences of at least 20 minutes.

“That probably explains why previous estimates didn’t agree with one another,” Margot said.

Venus’ heavy atmosphere is likely to blame for the variation. As it sloshes around the planet, it exchanges a lot of momentum with the solid ground, speeding up and slowing down its rotation. This happens on Earth too, but the exchange adds or subtracts just one millisecond from each day. The effect is much more dramatic on Venus because the atmosphere is roughly 93 times as massive as Earth’s, and so it has a lot more momentum to trade.

The UCLA-led team also reports that Venus tips to one side by precisely 2.6392 degrees (Earth is tilted by about 23 degrees), an improvement on the precision of previous estimates by a factor of 10. The repeated radar measurements further revealed the glacial rate at which the orientation of Venus’ spin axis changes, much like a spinning child’s top. On Earth, this “precession” takes about 26,000 years to cycle around once. Venus needs a little longer: about 29,000 years.

With these exacting measurements of how Venus spins, the team calculated that the planet’s core is about 3,500 kilometers across — quite similar to Earth — though they cannot yet deduce whether it’s liquid or solid.

Venus as a giant disco ball

On 21 separate occasions from 2006 to 2020, Margot and his colleagues aimed radio waves at Venus from the 70-meter–wide Goldstone antenna in California’s Mojave Desert. Several minutes later, those radio waves bounced off Venus and came back to Earth. The radio echo was picked up at Goldstone and at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

“We use Venus as a giant disco ball,” said Margot, with the radio dish acting like a flashlight and the planet’s landscape like millions of tiny reflectors. “We illuminate it with an extremely powerful flashlight — about 100,000 times brighter than your typical flashlight. And if we track the reflections from the disco ball, we can infer properties about the spin [state].”

Muhammad Nadeem, Jean-Luc Margot/UCLA and NASA

The complex reflections erratically brighten and dim the return signal, which sweeps across Earth. The Goldstone antenna sees the echo first, then Green Bank sees it roughly 20 seconds later. The exact delay between receipt at the two facilities provides a snapshot of how quickly Venus is spinning, while the particular window of time in which the echoes are most similar reveals the planet’s tilt.

The observations required exquisite timing to ensure that Venus and Earth were properly positioned. And both observatories had to be working perfectly — which wasn’t always the case. “We found that it’s actually challenging to get everything to work just right in a 30-second period,” Margot said. “Most of the time, we get some data. But it’s unusual that we get all the data that we’re hoping to get.”

Despite the challenges, the team is forging ahead and has turned its sights on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. Many researchers strongly suspect that Europa, in particular, hides a liquid water ocean beneath a thick shell of ice. Ground-based radar measurements could fortify the case for an ocean and reveal the thickness of the ice shell.

And the team will continue bouncing radar off of Venus. With each radio echo, the veil over Venus lifts a little bit more, bringing our sister planet into ever sharper view.

This research was supported by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Science Foundation.

Other researchers who contributed to the study are Donald Campbell of Cornell University; Jon Giorgini, Joseph Jao and Lawrence Snedeker of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Frank Ghigo and Amber Bonsall of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia.

This article, written by Christopher Crockett, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald. 

A portrait of Clara Pratte.

Tribal leader Clara Pratte wins Pritzker Award for young environmental innovators

A portrait of Clara Pratte.

Clara Pratte: “There’s a Navajo saying that when there’s a world to heal, there’s going to be a mother to do it — a woman to do it.” (Photo Courtesy of Clara Pratte)

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability presented the 2020 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award to Clara Pratte, a Navajo advocate for tribal communities and a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team who focuses on tribal engagement.

Pratte advises tribes across the United States on economic development issues, with the goals of alleviating poverty and advancing tribal sovereignty. She founded Strongbow Strategies, a firm that assists tribal and government clients with business and technical issues, in 2013. She is also part of the leadership team of Navajo Power, a public benefit corporation that transitions tribal lands from extractive energy industries such as coal to large-scale solar energy.

The annual award carries a prize of $100,000, which is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Pratte said the award, which was presented Dec. 16 in an online ceremony, brought to mind traditional wisdom.

“There’s a Navajo saying that when there’s a world to heal, there’s going to be a mother to do it — a woman to do it,” Pratte said.

A screen shot of Pratte reacting to the announcement of her selection as the 2020 winner of the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award.

Pratte reacts to the announcement of her selection as the 2020 winner of the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award. (Photo Credit: UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability)

Through her work with Navajo Power, Pratte gathers input to make sure prospective clean energy projects serve the community’s needs. In many cases, she said, companies trying to work on Native lands fail because they lack an understanding of the everyday realities facing residents. They often communicate only with tribal leadership, which may not understand the needs of each individual community. The results create injustices, such as power lines that run over homes lacking electricity. Navajo Power makes sure that’s not the case on its projects.

The company reinvests its profits in the community — reimbursing people for the use of their land and making sure every home has electricity and water.

“I was born and raised in the Navajo community with no water or electricity, thinking that the only way we could survive is to join the capitalist community we’re part of,” Pratte said. “We destigmatize and demystify what it’s like to work on tribal lands.”

The Pritzker Award is open to anyone working to solve environmental challenges through any lens — from science to advocacy and entrepreneurism. For the second straight year, the winner represents an indigenous group and, for the third consecutive year, all three finalists were women.

In addition to Pratte, the finalists were Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet and climate activist who performed at the United Nations Climate Summit, and Leah Penniman, who co-founded a community farm centered on Black and Indigenous people that aims to end racism and injustice in the food system. A panel of UCLA faculty members selected the finalists from among 20 candidates who were nominated by an international group of environmental leaders.

Pratte was chosen as winner by a panel of four distinguished judges: Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPrize Foundation; Kevin de León, Los Angeles City Councilmember; Lori Garver, CEO of Earthrise Alliance; and Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon.

“I don’t need to convince this crowd that climate change is an existential threat,” de León said. “We cannot solve it unless all individuals can access the latest and greatest energy technologies and live in a sustainable community.”

The announcement of Pratte as the winner was made by Tony Pritzker, who founded the award and is a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s advisory board. He praised all of the nominees for their practical efforts during a difficult time.

“2020 obviously has been a different sort of year,” Pritzker said. “The word that I have in my mind is ‘grateful.’ I’m grateful for my health and the health of my family in a way I’ve never appreciated before. I’m grateful for your perseverance and dedication to the Earth and its various environmental needs. You’re all working toward solutions that can make this a better place to live.”

This article, written by David Colgan, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Extreme rainfall projected to get more severe, frequent with warming

A photo of flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007. (Photo Credit: Marvin Nauman/FEMA)

Across the continental United States, massive, often-devastating precipitation events — the kind that climate scientists have long called “hundred-year storms” — could become three times more likely and 20% more severe by 2079, UCLA-led research projects.

That’s what would happen in a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a rapid rate — what the paper calls a high-warming scenario. Extreme rainfall events, the so-called hundred-year storms, would then be likely to occur once every 33 years.

The paper, published in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future, finds that warming has a more profound effect on both the severity and frequency of extreme precipitation events than it does on common precipitation events.

The findings have serious implications for how we prepare for the future, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said.

“The five-year flood, the 10-year flood — those aren’t the ones that cause huge amounts of damage and societal disruption,” said Swain, who is also a fellow with the Nature Conservancy. “That comes when you get 50- or 100-year floods, the low-probability but high-consequence kinds of events.”

For example, the occurrence of historic rainfall events such as the one that caused California’s Great Flood of 1862 or Houston’s flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 is increasing much faster than that of lower-magnitude events that happen every decade or so.

The paper predicts extreme precipitation increases for the entire continental United States, but some areas are expected to see bigger relative increases than others, including the West Coast and the hurricane-prone Southeast.

The paper also delves into the consequences of those extreme rainfall events: the increases in the number of floods and the number of people who would be exposed to them.

Combining climate, water physics and population models, the paper also projects that, in a high-warming scenario, the increases in extreme precipitation alone would put up to 12 million additional people at risk of exposure to damage and destruction from catastrophic flooding —  29.5% more people than face that risk today.

The paper also made projections using other scenarios that combine the effects of warming and projected population growth. For example, high warming juxtaposed with high population growth would increase the number of people exposed to risk of so-called 100-year floods by around 50 million in the continental U.S.

And even in the absence of climate change — at least some of which is unavoidable over the next 30 years — medium or large population growth would expose an additional 20 million or 34 million, respectively, to such floods, highlighting the importance of demographic factors in driving the growing risk.

Combining the factors would compound the changes in some regions that have so far been outside of flood zones and are sparsely populated because, thanks to climate change and population growth, those areas are likely to be within flood plains and have higher population density in the future. That “hot spot effect” could put up to 5.5 million more people at risk of devastating floods than warming or population growth alone would.

“There’s a huge difference between best- and worst-case scenarios,” Swain said. “People’s exposure to flooding in a warming climate is definitely going to increase. It could increase by a somewhat manageable amount or by a truly massive amount, and that depends both on the climate trajectory we take and on the demographics of the U.S.”

Previously, projections for extreme precipitation events relied on limited historical records that go back only 100 years. For the new study, the researchers used a modeling technique to create multiple plausible pasts and futures, essentially increasing the amount of available data by 40 times over what was available from history alone.

“We don’t just have one 100-year event we can pull from the historical record; we have lots of really severe, rare events we can pull out to give us a better sense of how they’re likely to change,” said Swain, who is a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Importantly, the authors write, the risk of flooding in the U.S. will increase significantly over the next 30 years, even with moderate warming — meaning a temperature increase of 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) globally. That would expose more than 20 million additional people to a 100-year flood within the next 30 years, they projected.

Even the term “100-year flood” is probably already something of a misnomer, Swain said. With global temperatures already having increased by about 1.2 degrees Celsius (about 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past century, the term is fast becoming outdated.

James Done, a co-author of the paper and a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said further work is required to understand exactly why extreme events are increasing more rapidly than less extreme ones.

“It’s not just because of a shift in the distribution of the flooding,” Done said. “There’s something else that’s reshaping the most extreme of the very dangerous rainfall events.”

The precipitation changes predicted are already beginning, he added. And the nation’s infrastructure — from flood control channels to concrete-heavy urban design that drains slowly — were not designed for the scenarios that now seem likely to occur.

This article, written by David Colgan, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A graphic of the predictive model.

UCLA model ID’s areas that should have priority for vaccine, other COVID-19 help

The predictive model can guide public health officials and leaders across the nation in harnessing local data that can help prevent infections and save lives, the UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: UCLA CNK-BRITE)

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, UCLA public health and urban planning experts have developed a predictive model that pinpoints which populations in which neighborhoods of Los Angeles County are most at risk of becoming infected.

The researchers hope the new model, which can be applied to other counties and jurisdictions as well, will assist decision makers, public health officials and scientists in effectively and equitably implementing vaccine distribution, testing, closures and reopenings, and other virus-mitigation measures.

The model maps Los Angeles County neighborhood by neighborhood, based on four important indicators known to significantly increase a person’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 infection — preexisting medical conditions, barriers to accessing health care, built-environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges.

The research data demonstrate that neighborhoods characterized by significant clustering of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households and unmet medical needs are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, specifically areas in and around South Los Angeles and the eastern portion of the San Fernando Valley. Communities along the coast and in the northwestern part of the county, which are disproportionately white and higher-income, were found to be the least vulnerable.

“The model we have includes specific resource vulnerabilities that can guide public health officials and local leaders across the nation to harness already available local data to determine which groups in which neighborhoods are most vulnerable and how to prevent new infections to save lives,” said research author Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Mays, who also directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy, worked with urban planner Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, to develop the indicators model, along with study co-authors Chhandara Pech and Nataly Rios Gutierrez. The maps were created by Abigail Fitzgibbon.

Utilizing data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s California Health Interview Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the researchers were able to determine how the four vulnerability indicators differentially predicted which racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County were the most vulnerable to infection based on their geographical residence.

Racial and ethnic groups with the highest vulnerability

Preexisting conditions. The authors found that 73% of Black residents live in neighborhoods with the highest rates of preexisting health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as poor overall health and food insecurity. This was followed by 70% of Latinos and 60% of Cambodians, Hmongs and Laotians, or CHL. Conversely, 60% of white residents live in areas with low or the lowest vulnerability.

Barriers to accessing services. Forty percent of Latinos, 29% of Blacks, 22% of CHL and 16% of “other Asians” reside in neighborhoods with the greatest barriers to health care, characterized by high proportions of non–U.S. citizens, poor English-language ability, a lack of access to computer broadband service, lower rates of health insurance and poor access to vehicles for medical purposes. Only 7% of whites live in these neighborhoods.

Built-environment risk. Sixty-three percent of CHL, 55% of Latinos, 53% of Blacks and 32% of whites live areas considered to be at high or the highest vulnerability due to built-environment challenges, which include high population density, crowded housing and a lack of parks and open spaces.

Social vulnerability. According to the Centers for Disease Control, neighborhoods with high social vulnerability are characterized by lower socioeconomic status and education attainment, a higher prevalence of single-parent and multigenerational households, greater housing density, poorer English-language ability and a lack of access to vehicles, among other factors. While only 8% of whites live in these neighborhoods, 42% of both Blacks and Latinos do, as do 38% of CHL.

How the model can help with COVID-19–mitigation efforts

“When the pandemic hit, we were slowed down by a lack of science and a lack of understanding of the ways in which health disparities in the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations made their risk of COVID-19 infection even greater,” Mays said. “We thought elderly and people in nursing homes were the most vulnerable, yet we found that lacking a number of social resources contributes to a greater likelihood of getting infected as well.”

► Read an interview with Mays on the how COVID-19 is affecting Black Americans and how better data can help prevent its spread.

And while nationwide statistics have shown that the virus has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities and communities of color, knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources and when to open or close areas, Mays and Ong said.

If, for example, English-language ability is a barrier to accessing health information and services in a vulnerable neighborhood, health officials should develop campaigns in Spanish or another appropriate language highlighting the availability of testing, the researchers stress. If access to a car is a barrier for families in an at-risk area, walk-up testing sites should be made available. When crowded housing in a high-risk neighborhood is the predominant housing stock, testing resources should be set up for entire households and hotel vouchers made available to help with quarantining after a positive test.

The data can also provide critical knowledge and insights to social service providers, emergency agencies and volunteers on where to direct their time and resources, such as where to set up distribution sites for food and other necessities. And importantly, identifying the areas and populations with the highest vulnerability will help decision-makers equitably prioritize vaccine-distribution plans to include the most vulnerable early.

In the longer term, the researchers say, the model will also provide valuable information to urban planners so that they can target specific areas for the development of less-dense housing and more parks and open spaces, creating healthier neighborhoods that can better withstand future pandemics while promoting equity in long-term health outcomes.

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

12 UCLA College scientists among world’s most influential researchers

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

A researcher in the lab. Photo Credit: iStock.com

Thirty-six UCLA scholars have been named as the world’s most influential scientific researchers. Twelve are from UCLA College.

Clarivate released its annual list of the most highly cited researchers, which includes dozens of UCLA scientists across various disciplines. The list is compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate using data based on scholarly publication counts and citation indexes. The selected researchers wrote publications that ranked in the top 1% by citations in their field for that year, according to the Web of Science citation index.

Current UCLA College faculty members and researchers who were named to the list, noted with their primary UCLA research field or fields, are:

For the full list and article, written by Max Gordy, please visit the UCLA Newsroom