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Vahagn Aldzhyan Selected as Second Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholar

While volunteering with the UCLA undergraduate-led International Collegiate Health Initiative (ICHI), which aims to provide healthcare to underserved communities in Los Angeles, UCLA senior Vahagn Aldzhyan and his coworkers completed a needs assessment survey on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. When they asked the people there if they had access to medical care and health insurance, most said no.

“I always knew about Skid Row, I always drove past South LA, but just being there in person, talking to the people and getting a glimpse of what these people have to go through every day made me want to do a lot of work to empower people who are living in those situations,” said Aldzhyan, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major and Los Angeles native.

A photo of Vahagn Aldzhyan.

A portrait of Vahagn Aldzhyan. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The desire to bridge healthcare gaps and disparities has been the driving force throughout Aldzhyan’s time as Bruin. And it’s also part of what landed him the 2020-21 Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholarship, an annual award that recognizes and supports students who exemplify the attributes, values, commitment to service and pioneering spirit of the legendary Arthur Ashe ’66.

In addition to working as a grant writer for the ICHI, Aldzhyan is a research assistant in the lab of Dr. Richard J. Pietras and Dr. Diana Marquez-Garban, developing therapeutics to treat triple-negative breast cancer. He presented his research about this aggressive form of cancer, which disproportionately affects young black women, at Undergraduate Research Week this year.

Aldzhyan works as an undergraduate learning assistant in the departments of chemistry and biochemistry and physics and astronomy and a board member of the Armenian Engineers and Scientists Association. He’s also an Emergency Medical Technician, and a Health Scholar at COPE Solutions, where he volunteers and rotates through different departments at a local hospital.

After graduation, his goal is to apply to medical school and complete dual degrees in medicine and business so that he can have a greater impact on underserved communities, including in Armenia where his parents both immigrated from.

“I feel like when I’m working directly with patients, I’m impacting one life, but with a business degree, I can do a lot more to implement community service programs and reach an audience at a much greater level,” he said.

Aldzhyan said he is inspired by Arthur Ashe’s commitment to helping people facing discrimination, racism and hatred even after he had already achieved astronomical success as an athlete. Although Ashe himself had experienced the same challenges, he didn’t let it stop him from succeeding as well as creating opportunities for others.

“He was able to reciprocate positive energy and help communities and people that were in the same kind of situation as he was growing up. So that was really inspiring.” Aldzhyan said.

And the advice he’s taken away from Ashe’s story?

“When you hit a roadblock, don’t stop, just go through it. And then when you get to a goal and achieve it, don’t forget who helped you and help them too,” he said.

Aldzhyan said that while he’s grateful that the scholarship will help him with his tuition this year, he’s even more humbled to be part of The Arthur Ashe Legacy at UCLA as a recipient of the scholarship named in Ashe’s honor. He’s already looking forward to aiding future students who find themselves on a similar path.

“I can come back 10, 15, or maybe even a couple years from now and give back to those students who are interested in embodying what Arthur Ashe stood for as a community leader and as a Bruin,” he said.

That’s a legacy worth leaving.

This article, written by Robin Migdol, originally appeared on The Arthur Ashe Legacy website

Left image: The inaugural public event hosted by the Black Feminism Initiative, held in February, featured a conversation between local reproductive justice advocate Kimberly Durdin, left, and UCLA graduate student Ariel Hart. Top right image: Audience at the event. Bottom right from left: Kali Tambree and Jaimie Crumley, student co-coordinators of the Black Feminism Initiative.

Black Feminism Initiative meets the moment, in service of a more just future

Black Feminism Initiative collage. Left image: The inaugural public event hosted by the Black Feminism Initiative, held in February, featured a conversation between local reproductive justice advocate Kimberly Durdin, left, and UCLA graduate student Ariel Hart. Top right image: Audience at the event. Bottom right from left: Kali Tambree and Jaimie Crumley, student co-coordinators of the Black Feminism Initiative. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

If higher education can be thought of as a superhighway to success and social mobility, Black women have always had to manufacture their own vehicles to access it. They must navigate a system whose fastest on-ramps, most well-maintained lanes, bridges and sources of replenishment were founded and structured to best support those who are white, or male, or both.

Against the backdrop of rampant health, social and economic inequality, women studying and working at universities know that systemic inequities won’t change without radical thinking and eventually a radical restructuring of what the academy itself represents and how it functions.

To support that paradigm shift, in late fall 2019 UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, with backing from the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, launched the Black Feminism Initiative. The mission of the initiative is to support, develop and perpetuate Black feminist scholarship and ideas among the campus community. They do this by way of fellowships, mentorships, public programming and they are also developing collaborations with community organizations to advance these goals.

The need for such a group was acute, and the voices they can bring to the current cultural conversation around social justice are critical, said Sarah Haley, who directs the Black Feminism Initiative.

“In the current cultural moment Black feminism has a lot to teach us all about institutionalized modes of care, and institutionalized modes of harm,” said Haley, who also leads the anti-carceral research track in the Center for the Study of Women.

The initiative also serves as a means of mutual aid for the interdisciplinary approach and community-engaged research of its graduate students, which is often undervalued not only by the structures of academia writ large, but sometimes, members say, even by their own institution.

The idea for the Black Feminism Initiative originated from a course taught by Haley, a professor of gender studies and African American studies at UCLA . About 15 students are currently involved in the initiative, which is in the early phases and is not necessarily limited to Black women, or even just women. There are four affiliated faculty in this early phase and the group is working to expand.

Haley is proud that Black Feminism Initiative offers two graduate fellowships: one named for Alisa Bierria, a professor of African American studies at UC Riverside; and the other for Mariame Kaba, researcher in residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Bierria and Kaba are leaders of Survived and Punished, a group dedicated to advocating for the release of incarcerated women who are themselves survivors of violence.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about a variety of Black feminist research practices and what does it mean for us to be Black feminists at UCLA, but also what does it mean to do our research in a way that really values the lives and contributions of Black women personally,” said Jaimie Crumley, a fourth-year doctoral student in gender studies who serves as one of the initative’s student coordinators. Crumley’s work is historically based, about 19th century free Black women who were abolitionists.

“These days we call that anti-carceral feminism, but it’s really about abolition,” she said. “We’re having a lot of conversations about archives and the silence and the violence that is done to Black women just because of the way that our stories are remembered or captured in official state archives. We’ve also had a lot of conversation about digital life and how Black women are represented online.”

Thinking about care and community

Confronting the very visible disproportionality of care for Black women is also a major theme for members of the group, from how Black nurses and essential workers have been affected by COVID-19, to the vulnerabilities of Black women to violence, both state and individual, to the fact that Black women are so much more likely to die in childbirth than other women.

“The scholarship we’re doing is related to our own survival and the survival of people who are in communities that we care about,” Crumley said.

Maternal mortality was the theme of the group’s inaugural public event, held shortly before the safer-at-home order took effect. The initiative invited Kimberly Durdin, a midwife and founder of Kindred Space LA, to campus to have a discussion with initiative member Ariel Hart, who is working on her doctorate in sociology and her medical degree.

“We really want to be pioneering new forms of community-engaged scholarship,” Haley said. “We want to blur the lines between what counts as scholarship in the academy and foster scholarship via what serves the work of people in our communities.”

Initiative co-coordinator Kali Tambree, a fourth-year doctoral student in sociology, has had to find new approaches toward her dissertation without current access to the archives upon which she relies. The Black Feminism Initiative has become an invaluable part of her experience at UCLA.

“Sarah and Jaimie have done a lot of work to set the goals and standards and pressing questions,” said Tambree, who organized the 2019 Thinking Gender conference, titled “Feminists Confronting the Carceral State.” “I’ve never been in a space that is so joyful, and vulnerable and courageous. It just feels really good to be able to talk about how the world feels for you and what type of historically grounded writing and thinking can help guide us as we shape ourselves.”

Rethinking institutions and norms

Courage and vulnerability are part of the package for abolitionist thinkers, Tambree pointed out.

“An abolitionist organization existing within the academy must have some investment in undermining the academy’s continuation as is,” Tambree said. “Anyone who is interested in unraveling the world as we know it and imagining a new one can’t continue to support the old one.”

That means, the academy can no longer remain a privileged space, she said.

“Being in an academic space with other people who identify as Black feminist abolitionists allows for a really urgent and necessary conversation and collaboration — and kind of support system — as we individually and as a collective navigate that reality,” Tambree said.

Making higher education and UCLA more aware of the work of Black feminists of the past, present and future is an important part of the group’s mission, Haley said.

“Mentorship and grad support are a critical facet of the Initiative, but our broader vision is to circulate new ideas for all faculty, students and the community as well,” she said.

In a world that seems more ready than ever to confront the enduring logics and racist underpinnings of settler colonialism, capitalism, the hetero-patriarchy and anti-blackness, Initiative student leaders are looking to harness the current state of virtual learning to best effect.

“One thing that’s going to be really exciting for the group this year with us being more online is that some of our workshops might be more open to more people,” Crumley said. “We’ve been talking about scholars and activists and performance artists who can join us on Zoom and lead workshops with us.”

This story is part of a series highlighting UCLA women whose teaching, scholarship and research centers on racial and social justice.

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

Image on the bottom left: A painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is an example of art in Europe before the bubonic plague. Other images show how art changed after the plague.

Faculty get creative to teach perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic

Image on the bottom left: A painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is an example of art in Europe before the bubonic plague. Other images show how art changed after the plague.

Art historian Charlene Villaseñor Black showed her class how art changed before and after the bubonic plague struck Europe to help her students see how artists might adapt their work to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The screen shows the familiar grid of small faces but everyone’s focused on the guest speaker, a student joining the class from his home in Wuhan, China, eager for their chances to ask questions.

“Can you describe the Chinese health care system and any differences you have experienced between its workings and that of the U.S. health care system?” Jonathan Gong asked Shengan Zhan. The UCLA geography graduate student was joining geography professor Michael Shin’s seminar class called “Global Experiences and Perspectives on COVID-19” via Zoom.

“It is usually very easy to see a doctor,” Zhan said. “However, with the coronavirus outbreak, the system was just flooded and overwhelmed by the high number of people seeking treatment.”

Gurugowtham Ulaganathan asked, “How has this affected you and your family personally?”

“The lock-down is inconvenient but most people are coping,” Zhan said. “My parents are professors at the university in Wuhan, and they are teaching online like we are here at UCLA.”

Hearing directly from Zhan the students see how COVID-19 has connected experiences around the world.

Opportunities like this, to participate in intimate conversations with someone who can share what it’s like to live in the global ground zero of the novel coronavirus pandemic are part of what make a UCLA education so special.

As the world grapples with COVID-19 and governments, institutions and individuals adapt to meet this moment, UCLA has been forced to change not only how it teaches — since late March, all courses have been conducted remotely — but just as importantly, what it teaches.

A shining example of how UCLA fulfills its mission

UCLA’s Fiat Lux seminar program has provided a platform to give faculty and students a global, multidisciplinary perspective of the pandemic, continuing a long tradition of teaching students to better understand the complexities of the world and forming community around current events. Founded in 2001, Fiat Lux seminars (named after the University of California’s Latin motto “Let there be Light”) were born in the wake of 9/11 as a way for students and faculty to explore, discuss and make sense of the terrorist attack.

Patricia Turner, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education and one of UCLA’s biggest Fiat Lux champions, said educators are always looking for teachable moments. Offering seminars about events like 9/11 and now COVID-19 provides students with an opportunity to research, discuss and make sense of these events.

A photo of Patricia Turner.

Patricia Turner (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“Each Fiat Lux provides its own lens through which to understand the virus’s impact on the world, whether the subject is public health, nutrition, sustainability or something else entirely,” Turner said. “Ideally, students will feel like they are in a caring academic community and come away with a perspective from which to examine their own feelings about the virus and its impact. It’s just one of the ways UCLA supports students in tumultuous times.”

With the support of Fiat Lux’s faculty advisory committee, a call for proposals went out at the end of winter quarter, but with a strict deadline: seminars would be taught the very next quarter which would begin in just a few weeks.

Pia Palomo, academic coordinator for undergraduate education initiatives in the UCLA College, and Scott Chandler, faculty advisory committee chair, said they thought they’d be lucky to receive 10 proposals. Instead, they got 25.

“Ray Knapp, professor of musicology, had talked with some other colleagues about, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to use the spirit of Fiat Lux to build community to talk about what’s happening, and there’s already a mechanism to do it,’” Palomo said. Faculty in other schools, including Kyle McJunkin in the Fielding School of Public Health, were also eager to begin teaching about COVID-19 as soon as possible.

The topics were as varied as the faculty who submitted them — from political science and public policy professor Susanne Lohman’s “The Ethics of Pandemics” to music professor Frank Heuser’s “Responding to Coronavirus Through Song.” Faculty in departments spanning English, gender studies, African American studies, sociology and education all taught COVID-19 seminars. Chancellor Gene Block even led a seminar titled “University Leadership During Pandemics.”

More than just classes

For faculty and students, the Fiat Lux COVID-19 seminars were not just an opportunity to study the pandemic. In fact, building community around this unprecedented and at times frightening crisis as Bruins are scattered across the world under quarantine and stay-at-home orders was equally if not more important.

Art history professor Charlene Villaseñor Black is a veteran in teaching Fiat Lux seminars and jumped at the chance to teach “Art in Times of Contagion,” which examines artistic responses to pandemics of past and present.

A photo of Charlene Villaseñor Black.

Charlene Villaseñor Black (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The course has included examinations of historical art, such as Mexican art in the 16th and 17th centuries during the wave of epidemics brought by European colonizers and artistic responses to the medieval European plague of the 14th century. Students also looked at modern examples including the 2013 film “World War Z” and engaged in a writing exercise to create their own artistic response to COVID-19.

“I want students to have an awareness that we’ve been here before and an awareness of how the arts can provide sustenance, respite, and hope for us,” Black said. “This is the moment to really think about how the humanities and the arts make us more human.”

As faculty-in-residence in Sproul Hall, it was the sight of her students moving out of their dorms as the campus shut down that most profoundly affected Black and motivated her to think about what she could do to help them.

“We couldn’t even help them move out really because of social distancing. So it was heartbreaking. I didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of people,” Black said. “I was thinking deeply about what is the role of the faculty-in residence in the current pandemic? How are we going to reach out to our students?”

She thought the idea to offer COVID-19-themed Fiat Lux seminars was “perfect.”

“I thought a lot about the arts at this moment,” she said. “We’ve seen so many arts offerings on social media, Facebook Live broadcasts, artists doing workshops, artists doing live talks about their practice. So I was struck by how the arts became a refuge for us.”

Seminars connect students forced into separation

Aileen Carey, a senior English major, took three Fiat Lux seminars including Black’s from her apartment in Westwood, where she decided to stay for her final quarter instead of going home to New Jersey. She also took Robert Kim-Farley’s “COVID-19 From the Perspective of a Public Health Medical Epidemiologist” and Caroline Streeter’s “Viral Media During a Viral Pandemic: Social Media, Music and COVID-19.”

Carey said listening to her professors discuss the pandemic from an academic point of view helped her get a more objective perspective on what she hears on the news every day. And it’s “oddly soothing” to spend time with fellow Bruins discussing the issues.

“It highlights that this is a collective experience because everyone in the class is here and wants to talk about it,” Carey said. “It’s surreal seeing my classmates sitting in their houses on Zoom but it helps show that these people are all going through the exact same thing I’m going through.”

Her art history seminar in particular has made Carey more aware of how art — including her own — is influenced by major events in history.

“That fascinates me because I wonder how my writing will change after COVID-19 and I wonder how mainstream media will change, because every industry is different now,” she said.

An image of COVID-19 cases in China as of April 9, 2020

COVID-19 cases in China as of April 9, 2020 (Photo Credit: Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash)

In his seminar about global experiences on COVID-19, Shin wanted to offer students the opportunity to meet people from around the world and hear directly from them about how their lives have been affected by the pandemic. He invited guest speakers including Zhan who is his former teaching assistant and professors at the University of Milan and Hong Kong University to share their experiences with the class and answer students’ questions.

Freshman human biology major Victoria Li was interested in taking Shin’s seminar to gain a more global perspective of COVID-19. The seminar has already inspired her to continue pursuing public health in her studies.

“In the U.S. we get a very one-sided story of this epidemic and we don’t get to hear how real people are living through the same thing but in a different way around the world,” Li said. “With this whole situation and the class on COVID, it’s reaffirmed my interest in public health and how to deal with situations like this.”

Both Li and Carey said they’re proud and grateful that, through Fiat Lux, UCLA is offering students the opportunity to learn about the COVID-19 pandemic, to think critically and lean on each other to get through it.

“Having this moment to appreciate the staff who are excited to talk about these issues and the students who are volunteering to learn shows the best of academia and what this institution could be,” Carey said.

Fiat Lux has always offered students and faculty alike a way to explore new areas of interest and expand their perspectives, said history professor Vinay Lal, who is teaching a Fiat Lux seminar on pandemics throughout history. As we all grapple with COVID-19 together, the Fiat Lux mission seems to adopt a new and urgent meaning.

“Fiat Lux is a way for the faculty to engage themselves, to indulge their intellectual curiosity. And for the students, it’s a chance to say, let me see if I can become intellectually aware of the world around me,” Lal said. “Coronavirus is something that is out of our realm of experience. And so we need to be able to find some way to comprehend it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

For census season, these UCLA students want to make sure everyone counts

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

Students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia. (Photo Credit: Agustina Martinez Stordeur)

Two civic-minded UCLA undergraduate students have turned one of their courses into a platform for encouraging others to participate in the U.S. Census.

Amy Bugwadia and Kaumron Eidgahy were inspired to action by a UCLA course on the census taught by UCLA political science professor Natalie Masuoka. The course, which ended in March, required students to undertake a community engagement project related to the census.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy both came away with a new appreciation for the need to boost participation in Los Angeles County, which historically has been undercounted in the survey. Both have served as UCLA resident assistants, and one of their efforts has centered on communicating the importance of the census to students who have relocated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the campus’s recent shift to remote learning.

The California Complete Count committee, a state entity helping to conduct the census, has encouraged students who had planned to be living in UCLA residence halls as of April 1 to count themselves as campus residents.

“Whether or not students are able to actually be on campus right now, UCLA has been our home for years, and making sure we get counted will benefit [students] who will be here 10 years from now,” Bugwadia said.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy are both second-generation immigrants, and both have adopted roles as trusted messengers of political and cultural information for their extended families.

“I am extremely passionate about making sure people of color are counted,” Eidgahy said. “I have this tradition with my mom. Every time there is an election, we sit down and spend a couple of hours going through the ballot. I saw this very clear parallel with the census, even though I’d never had that experience before.”

For Masuoka’s course, Bugwadia and Eidgahy decided their work in the community would focus on inspiring high schoolers in two of Los Angeles County’s vulnerable neighborhoods to become trusted messengers for their families and communities. So the UCLA students developed a curriculum and presented it with their class team at two San Fernando Valley high schools, El Camino Real Charter and Canoga Park, shortly before the county’s safer at home protocols went into effect.

While it has historically been difficult to produce accurate census counts for Los Angeles County, Masuoka said the coronavirus pandemic is likely making it even more challenging in 2020.

“We live in one of the most hard-to-count counties in the country, thanks to a confluence of factors,” she said. “It is a populous county and is geographically spread out, which means counting is exacerbated by the multiple socioeconomic and racial groups within it. And there’s every indication that it will be even harder this year.”

Dispelling myths and fears is a big job for families’ “trusted messengers,” especially in immigrant communities, said Bugwadia, a fourth-year student majoring in political science and minoring in disability studies.

“Being a trusted messenger particularly important in the current political climate,” she said. “It can be frustrating and maybe even terrifying for a lot of folks who come from underrepresented communities, but those are the communities who really do benefit from the census.”

Bugwadia said the campaign was aimed not only at students, but also at teachers. “They, too, are trusted messengers. That was our experience growing up in the school system.”

Eidgahy is a third-year student majoring in political science and communication. His family emigrated from Iran, and he has spent time recently quelling their fears about the census by explaining the provisions for how census information is used — including that only non-personally identifiable data is released to government institutions or outside organizations. And he explained the Title 13 confidentiality protections that were put into place after census information was used to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy have continued to make virtual connections with campus and local community groups as part of a spring quarter independent study project under Masuoka’s tutelage. Both students are aspiring social scientists, and they recognize the importance of accurate census data for people working at research institutions like UCLA.

Other students in Masuoka’s course focused on efforts to reach different populations, including people with disabilities and individuals experiencing homelessness. The students made videos, stickers and graphics to promote participation in the census, and they collected a total of nearly 2,000 pledge cards from community members who promised to complete the questionnaire.

Those cards were meant to be displayed in Kerckhoff Hall during spring quarter as a way to inspire more people to complete the census questionnaire. Fortunately, Masuoka’s syllabus for the class had already included a plan to create a website that would house information and images from the students’ projects and continue their pledge effort.

The course materials and website were funded through an instructional improvement program grant from the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Masuoka said it was important to her to create a politically engaged learning environment that lent itself to a range of political viewpoints.

“The census is nonpartisan; it’s something everyone can and should care about regardless of their position on politics or government policies,” she said. “The class went even better than I could have imagined. I’m new to UCLA and this was a great example of the kind of talented students we have here.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Join UCLA College for the Virtual Celebration

Graduating members of the College’s Class of 2020 as well as family members and friends will be able to view the livestreamed airing of UCLA College’s Virtual Celebration by going to https://college.ucla.edu/commencement at 3:00pm PDT on Friday, June 12, 2020.  Viewers need only a web browser and Internet access to attend. There is no registration necessary.


The UCLA College will host a virtual celebration for spring centennial graduates on Friday, June 12, at 3 p.m., featuring an address from actor, social justice activist, bestselling author and social media star George Takei.

“George Takei is an example to all Bruins of the power of perseverance despite adversity. He has shown without a doubt that by following one’s dreams it is possible to make an enormous impact for the betterment of all,” said Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College and vice provost for undergraduate education. “I know our students and their guests will be inspired as we virtually celebrate this tenacious class of students.”

“I’m deeply honored to help launch this celebration of my fellow Bruins,” said UCLA alumnus George Takei. Courtesy of George Takei

The virtual celebration is the launch of the class of 2020’s recognition for their accomplishments, which will culminate with an in-person event during the 2020–21 academic year, when it is again safe to gather. The College has worked with graduating students to craft the virtual event, which will celebrate the end of the academic year and the conferral of degrees for this year’s centennial class. The program will include remarks by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, Takei, a class of 2020 student speaker and others.

“I’m deeply honored to help launch this celebration of my fellow Bruins,” Takei said. “It feels so right to be with this group of extraordinary young people for UCLA’s very first virtual celebration because I too spent a good part of my career boldly going where no one had gone before!”

A well-known UCLA alumnus, Takei has had an impressive career spanning more than six decades. He has appeared in more than 40 feature films and hundreds of television roles, most famously as Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” and has used his success as a platform to fight for social justice, LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. His advocacy is personal: During World War II, Takei spent his childhood in U.S. internment camps along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans.
Takei has a strong social media following, injecting humor into his approach to life. He also has penned a number of bestselling books. He serves as chairman emeritus of the Japanese American National Museum’s board of trustees and is a member of the US–Japan Bridging Foundation board of directors. Takei also served on the board of the Japan–United States Friendship Commission under President Bill Clinton and in 2004 was honored with the Gold Rays with Rosette of the Order of the Rising Sun by the emperor of Japan for his contribution to U.S.–Japan relations. Takei received both bachelor and master of arts degrees from UCLA (’60, ’64).

Takei was invited to be the class of 2020 commencement speaker after being chosen by the 2020 Commencement Committee, comprising UCLA students, faculty and administrators, prior to the postponement of the event due to COVID-19. Takei graciously agreed to deliver the keynote address for the virtual celebration.

“At this moment in history, where many individuals and families are experiencing unprecedented challenges, this virtual celebration is an opportunity to take a celebratory pause, laud our students’ achievements with friends and family, and provide a moment of joy and inspiration,” Turner said.

The UCLA College, which will host the virtual event, includes the divisions of humanities, life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and undergraduate education and comprises about 83% of UCLA’s undergraduate population.

The first-ever virtual gathering of seniors also marks the end of UCLA’s celebration of its centennial year. More information about the virtual celebration and the upcoming in-person event during the 2020–21 academic year can be found at the UCLA College commencement website.

A photo of Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer and Hieu Nguyen.

UCLA’s 2020-2021 Beckman Scholars Announced

A photo of Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer and Hieu Nguyen.

From left: Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer and Hieu Nguyen (Photo Courtesy of UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry)

Undergraduate researchers Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer (Tolbert Group) and Hieu Nguyen (Torres group) have been selected as 2020-2021 Beckman Scholars.

The 2020-2021 Beckman Research Scholarship at UCLA is directed through the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and administered by the Undergraduate Research Center (URC)-Sciences. The scholarship is awarded to outstanding undergraduate researchers who are majoring in Chemistry, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics; or Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, and who are committed to completing an honors thesis or a comprehensive 199 project under the supervision of a UCLA Beckman Faculty.

The $21,000 award will be distributed over one academic year and two summers, plus $2,800 for travel and research supplies.

Sasha Gill-Ljunghammer is a third-year chemistry major conducting research in Professor Sarah Tolbert’s laboratory where her research focuses on tuning superparamagnetic nanocrystals for use in multiferroic composite materials where magnetism can be fully switched on and off using an applied electric bias. Sasha is a transfer student from Schoolcraft Community College. While at Schoolcraft, she gained experience researching metal-organic frameworks at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. “I immediately fell in love with the challenging, yet rewarding, work that research demands,” Sasha said. “I have always had a deep appreciation for the sciences and I strive to share this passion by pursuing a career in academia. I hope to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and lead research that will contribute to the global environment.”

“Beckman Scholars is an outstanding program for undergraduate researchers, and Sasha is the kind of capable, passionate student who will make the most of this opportunity,” said her research advisor Professor Sarah Tolbert.

Hieu Nguyen is a third-year Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology (MCDB) major conducting research in Professor Jorge Torres’ laboratory where his research focuses on identifying novel drugs that will guide senescent cells away from their current state. “The discovery of these compounds will increase the efficacy of DNA-damaging drugs by preventing the formation of tumor-promoting environments induced by cell senescence,” Hieu explained. Outside of his laboratory work, Hieu also competes for UCLA’s archery team, works as a CPR instructor, and volunteers both for UCLA’s Mattel Childrens’ Hospital and at a student shelter. He intends to pursue a career in pediatric oncology which is rooted both in research and clinical practice.

“I am extremely proud of Hieu,”said his research advisor Professor Jorge Torres. “Hieu represents the best that UCLA undergraduate researchers have to offer. He has a contagious curiosity and a keen interest in understanding complex biological systems at the molecular level. Hieu’s outstanding intellectual, critical thinking and research abilities have prepared him to carry out his independent studies successfully and I look forward to seeing the great things that he can accomplish.”

This article originally appeared on UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry’s website

 

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

UCLA Students Find COVID-19 Silver Linings

Commentary on mindful awareness training by Sara Melzer, Professor Emerita of French & Francophone Studies:

Surprising as it may sound, some of my UCLA students are finding meaning during the pandemic. One student reports: “I’m excited at the inner changes this quarantine is bringing out in me.” Almost all the students are discovering that their lives are fuller than they had realized – when they re-direct their attention. This training is the work of a mindful awareness.

Mindfulness is not necessarily spiritual or mystical, although it can be. Mainly, it trains our most fundamental faculty: our attention. If skillfully cultivated, our attention can dramatically transform our experience and promote well-being, even during a crisis. This claim may seem astonishing because we are not taught to value our attention, even though it is the ever-present background to all thought and experience.

Mindfulness highlights the vast potential of this resource. Our attention is a muscle — a mental muscle that needs to be trained, just as athletes train their bodies, insists Shinzen Young, founder of Unified Mindfulness and my teacher for 20 years.

My students experienced the power of their attention to transform their relationship to pain in a class experiment where I had them hold ice-cubes in one hand, for two rounds. In round one, I offered no guidance and they relied on their standard coping strategy. After five minutes, they were in agony. In round two, I guided them to hold the ice mindfully. One student reported, “I felt blissfully calm. I could have held the ice forever.”

What made the difference? Their attention – what they focused on and how. In the first round, they tightened their bodies and narrowed their lens to block the pain. This mental image, a cortical homunculus, simulates the brain mapping the body from the inside: hands swell up like balloons and dwarf the body.

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

A student meditating during a break. (Photo Credit: Christian Ibarra)

Their hand defined their whole body. When we are in pain, physical or emotional, we often identify with the ailing part and let it become the whole.

Alternatively, we can re-frame our attention. I invited my students to expand their focus beyond their hands to include their feet, where they noticed pockets of calm.  I activated their attention’s telescopic lens when I had them zoom their awareness out, first to sounds inside the room, then outside, before extending to the silence beyond. While they felt their hands throb, they simply included it within a wider attentional field. The impact of the ice was diffused. Just as a few drops of red dye can define the water’s color in a fish-bowl, but not in a lake, my students could dilute and transform their experience of pain by enlarging their attentional frame.

The momentary shift of attention is actually not the hard part. Keeping it there is. To achieve this, Unified Mindfulness emphasizes sensory clarity as a key attentional skill. It can open up our awareness to a fascinating “something” within the seeming “nothing” of our ordinary experience. Take the breath, for example. Using a microscopic lens, we zero in on the outbreath to notice a subtle release of air. Other forms of release – in the jaws, shoulders, rib cage – ripple out. This inter-connectedness is a source of wonder.

Sensory clarity helps anchor our attention because our sensory world becomes more richly layered and attention-grabbing.  One student wrote, “I invited my family to join me in my mindful eating exercise. For desert, we had grapes — just ordinary grapes. They exploded with extraordinary taste sensations. Waves of sweetness, then sourness rippled out towards my ears, then throughout my whole body. It was so satisfying I almost felt full.” When we tune into the nuanced layers of something as ordinary as an exhale or a grape, any experience can anchor our attention and nourish us.

Managing our attention in this way contrasts with our standard notion of concentration. The term “concentration” in English mainly signifies a forcible narrowing of focus to bear down on an object. But our bodies tighten and we slip back into a version of the ice-cube scenario. What we resist, persists! Mindfulness, however, emphasizes that the truest concentration comes from an ease that unifies our energies. Coupled with sensory clarity, concentration holds our attention not through coercion, but fascination and wonder.

Of course, the COVID crisis is much more serious than ice-cubes. But the underlying principle still pertains: include the ailing part within a larger whole so that fear does not occupy all our attentional space or define our whole life. One student described how a shift in her attention helped ease her panic after learning that the “shelter-in-place” would continue longer than expected. Initially, she was glued to social media which convinced her “all of life was closing up shop.” Finally, she remembered she had a choice. She could re-frame her attention to include her anxiety within a wider container that diluted its power. She did not deny her fear but included it within a larger lens. As poet Maya Angelou wrote: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can choose not to be reduced by them.”

When all their attention was not colonized by fear, my students freed up energy to explore what was available to them. I had asked them to notice their COVID-19 Silver Linings. Since they were on the look-out for them, they found them. They used their mindfulness muscle to soak their awareness into them and anchor their attention there. Many experienced a surprising inner freedom when they discovered creative resources they didn’t know they had.

Creativity thrives when we are confronted with constraints. Let us seize this opportunity to turn our focus towards what remains possible and open up their hidden depths. In this way lies freedom and well-being.

Sara E. Melzer is a Humanities Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her latest book is Colonizer or Colonized: The Hidden Stories of Early Modern French Culture. Currently, she is working to integrate mindfulness into Higher Education through UCLA’s EPIC program

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio Is Working to Make Disease and Infertility a Thing of the Past

UCLA College division of Life Sciences student Esmeralda Isabel Villavicencio wants to return some day to her home country of Ecuador as a genetics professor, leading pioneering research on complex diseases and neurological disorders. She already has a solid start at UCLA.

“My community has suffered from a tremendous lack of support for STEM research, and I want to contribute to change that,” says Villavicencio, a senior majoring in Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics with a Biomedical Research minor.

A photo of Esmeralda Villavicencio.

Esmeralda Villavicencio in the lab. Photo credit: UCLA College/Reed Hutchinson

Villavicencio is gaining valuable experience in Dr. Amander Clark’s lab as an undergraduate research assistant, where her project working with stem cells is a part of a research effort that could one day help develop novel treatments for infertility. The possibility that her work will have impact is what drives her.

“The work I’m doing now could eventually help people who suffer from infertility to conceive a child—people, for example, who become infertile after treatments for pediatric cancer, or due to developmental defects,” she says.

Villavicencio says the collaborative research environment at UCLA has prepared her for graduate school and a career as a scientist, from learning lab techniques to strengthening her critical thinking skills, discipline and resiliency.  This experience has helped her grow in her chosen career, and her hard work is also paying off in other ways.

Villavicencio’s drive and vision have been recognized by two UCLA Life Sciences scholarship awards that are helping her move closer to her goals. Last year, she was awarded the Kristen Hanson Memorial Scholarship, which honors a female undergraduate for academic accomplishment and a passion for science in addition to well-rounded interests, leadership, originality and commitment to engage with the world.  More recently, the COMPASS scholarship—from the Center for Opportunity to Maximize Participation, Access and Student Success—was presented to Villavicencio for her summer research.

“Knowing my hard work and enthusiasm stand out in such a top-tier school is encouraging, and receiving these honors also greatly alleviated my financial burden,” Villavicencio says. “I come from a low-income family and I’m able to attend UCLA in part thanks to a scholarship from my government. However, there are expenses it does not cover. The scholarships allow me to reduce my part-time job hours and focus more on my research and academic endeavors.”

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Changes make it easier than ever for Bruins to vote

Graphics of a check mark, Hammer Museum and Ackerman Student Union.

Students, faculty, staff and even members of the public will be able to vote at the Ackerman Union beginning Feb. 22, and at the Hammer Museum beginning Feb. 29.

When it comes to voting, there can be a litany of excuses as to why someone doesn’t make it to the polls on Election Day — you forgot, too busy to get there that day, working too far from your polling place, among others.

To erase as many barriers as possible to voting, Los Angeles County is implementing sweeping changes for voters leading up to the March 3 primary, and the UCLA campus community will be a major benefactor as the site of two vote centers — Ackerman Union and the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

The biggest change is that voters will have multiple days to cast their ballots. Voting begins Feb. 22 at Ackerman, and the Hammer Museum will be open for voting beginning Feb. 29.

For campus and county officials, bringing vote centers to UCLA was a no-brainer.

“We are really glad that California, specifically L.A. County, is pursuing a modernizing of the voting process,” said Karen Hedges, deputy director of campus life for UCLA Student Affairs. “There is often talk of students, faculty and staff trying to squeeze in their vote on Election Day. Having a vote center in the middle of campus at Ackerman Union, and having it open for 11 days, I think, will really encourage people to make voting less of a hassle and more of a prideful opportunity.”

The new L.A. County Vote Centers not only allow for up to 11 days of voting, but also commuters with limited time can rejoice. The new rules no longer force people to vote at the one place in their neighborhoods. Instead people now can cast their ballots at any voting center location in the county.

The new system also emphasizes accessibility. Voters can make the text larger on the screen, toggle between 13 languages, change the contrast of the screen and request an audio ballot. The system is also secure — it is not connected to the internet or any network and still produces a paper ballot.

“One of the goals to moving to the vote center model was to meet voters where they are, and UCLA is an amazing university centrally located to thousands of voters who live on campus or nearby,” said Mike Sanchez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Registrar. “We’re thrilled to have UCLA and other universities, colleges and high schools act as vote centers for the upcoming March primary election.”

A major push from UCLA students, faculty and staff is underway ahead of the Feb. 18 voter registration deadline. The BruinsVOTE! organization will be hosting get-out-the-vote events and its website relaunched this week to include extensive information on voter registration, events, FAQs and more.

“Culturally, we’re trying to weave voting into the fabric of campus life — this is what Bruins do,” Hedges added. “Bruins are civically engaged and civically minded. Our volunteer work, our service work — it all falls into alignment with this. I think it is a True Bruin Value to vote.”

As UCLA celebrates its centennial, campus officials also point out two other important anniversaries: The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s constitutional right to vote and the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing men the right to vote regardless of race.

“These milestones should be reminders to all of us not to take for granted the hard-won right, responsibility and privilege we have to participate in our nation’s democracy,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to the campus community. “I hope you will get civically engaged and show the world that #Bruinsvote.”

On March 3 at 5:30 p.m., the Hammer Museum will host Super Tuesday Bash 2020, during which people can watch election returns and pundits’ analyzing what unfolds on big screens in the courtyard.

In the meantime, BruinsVOTE! members will work to continue the gains made in student participation during the past several elections. Organizers will be canvassing Bruin Walk and promoting voting at UCLA athletics events, to name a few efforts.

“I think the biggest change is now you have 11 days to vote instead of one,” said Joshua Avila, third-year political science major and co-director of the BruinsVOTE! initiative. “This is definitely a big improvement, and we are excited to see more student turnout because of that. If it’s just one day, students might be busy that day or they just forget.”

Although there is an emphasis on registering to vote by Feb. 18, the vote center will allow for same-day conditional registration, which is a major plus, officials touted.

“If you think about it, registering to vote is the last of the antiquated processes that you can’t just do instantly,” Hedges said. “That does not resonate with our students, who are last minute and who are used to being able to do something right now. In our last few elections we’ve had long lines of provisional ballot people in hopes that their votes will still count.”

Having 11 days and same-day registration should lessen voter congestion, she said.

The UCLA campus voice can and will be a vital one, said Elisa Chang, graduate student studying education and BruinsVOTE! co-director.

“If we want to be able to shape the future that we’re going to literally be inheriting, then we all actually do need to vote and make ourselves heard,” Chang said.

VOTE CENTERS

Ackerman Union
308 Westwood Plaza
Bruin Reception Room, second floor
11-day Vote Center
Feb. 22–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Hammer Museum at UCLA
10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Annenberg Terrace, third floor
Four-day Vote Center
Feb. 29–March 2, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 3 (Election Day), 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Hundreds of UCLA students publish paper analyzing 1,000 genes involved in organ development

A team of 245 UCLA undergraduates and 31 high school students has published an encyclopedia of more than 1,000 genes, including 421 genes whose functions were previously unknown. The research was conducted in fruit flies, and the genes the researchers describe in the analysis may be associated with the development of the brain, eye, lymph gland and wings.

The fruit fly is often the object of scientific research because its cells have similar DNA to that of human cells — so knowledge about its genes can help researchers better understand human diseases. The UCLA study should be useful to scientists studying genes involved in sleep, vision, memory and many other processes in humans.

The research is published in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics. The study’s senior authors include researchers Cory Evans and John Olson, who taught UCLA’s Biomedical Research 10H, the course in which the studies were conducted.

“I expect this will be a highly cited paper and a valuable resource to life scientists,” said Tracy Johnson, director of UCLA’s biomedical research minor, which offers the course the students all took. “It’s inspiring to know all of this really important research came from freshmen and sophomores. It’s beautiful, high-quality research.”

A photo of images of fruit flies’ eyes, wings and lymph glands.

Visible on this page are images of fruit flies’ eyes (top), wings and lymph glands, showing which genes are active (red) or were previously active (green). (Download the full image to also see scans of the brain.) Photo credit: Cory Evans

The students studied short DNA sequences to learn how specific genes are turned on and off and understand how those genes control the functions of various cell types. Although all cells have essentially the same collection of genes, specific genes are turned on or off depending on the cells’ needs, Evans said.

Each student studied several genes, ultimately producing a total of more than 50,000 microscopic images; the researchers then posted their analysis on an online database where other scientists can study the genes’ roles.

“This shows not only which genes are turned on, but the history of which genes have been turned on,” Johnson said.

The research was conducted as part of a UCLA life sciences course that was developed in the early 2000s by Utpal Banerjee, a UCLA distinguished professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and a senior author of the paper. The course received initial funding from the HHMI.

“Research on science education says that one of the best way to teach science is by having authentic research experiences embedded in a course,” said Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in the Division of Life Sciences and is an HHMI Professor. “Professor Banerjee understood years ago when he envisioned the class that students learn more by doing science. They learn how to design experiments, how to think like scientists, how to write about science and how to present their research.”

Johnson said the approach is analogous to teaching a sport. “If a kid wants to play soccer, you don’t say, ‘Don’t touch the soccer ball yet. You have to first learn all of the rules, watch other people play and read about the soccer greats, and maybe in a couple of years, we’ll let you kick the ball.’ No, bring out the soccer balls! So we need to get science students in the lab.”

The students completed two other research projects, one of which Evans expects will be published this year. In that study, the undergraduates studied the effects of turning off specific genes in fruit flies using a scientific technique called RNA interference. They then determined which of those 4,000 genes, when turned off, affect the proper development of blood cells.

“We teach students how to do research, not fly biology,” said Evans, who is now an assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University. “Their science literacy is high, and they know how to evaluate evidence.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.