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A photo of Michelle Craske.

Michelle Craske to share how research can inform anxiety and depression treatment

A photo of Michelle Craske.

Michelle Craske and colleagues are studying how to integrate virtual reality into treatment for anxiety and depression. Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

For more than three decades, Michelle Craske has been trying to understand what makes some people prone to anxiety and depression. She’s studied what biomarkers, behaviors and thinking patterns contribute to these conditions, and how to use that knowledge to develop better treatments.

At the 128th Faculty Research Lecture, Craske, distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College, will describe some of her findings and talk about how virtual reality has begun playing a role in changing patients’ mindsets for the better. The talk will be held at 3 p.m. on Wednesdsay, Feb. 19.

“Anxiety and depression are dramatically increasing in prevalence,” said Craske, who is also a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and holder of the Joanne and George Miller and Family Endowed Chair. “We need to understand the engine that’s driving these conditions so we can improve our treatments.”

In the U.S., only about half of people with symptoms of anxiety or depression receive treatment. And when they do get help, treatments are only effective about half the time, said Craske, also an executive committee member for the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a campus-wide initiative that aims to cut the global burden of depression in half by 2050.

Much of Craske’s work on anxiety centers on the idea that people prone to anxiety disorders, which affect an estimated 18% of U.S. adults each year, anticipate threat more often than others and have difficulty inhibiting this fear. Most people feel fearful when faced with a real threat — say, a bear in front of us in the woods. But people most at risk for anxiety disorders are more likely to respond to an uncertain situation — feeling afraid in the woods even when there’s no bear, for instance.

The challenge for clinicians like Craske is to decrease this anticipation of threat. Craske uses a technique known as exposure therapy, in which a person is exposed to a situation or setting that makes them anxious, in an attempt to train their brain that it’s safe. Craske utilizes prediction error learning to explain the effects of exposure therapy and attempts to optimize such learning. The greater the element of surprise, the more the learning sticks.

“We want to design a treatment where a person says, ‘Oh, I was wrong! I really expected this to be unmanageable or even risky and it wasn’t at all,’” Craske said.

Craske’s research aims to make people with depression — or those prone to depression — more motivated to work toward and to savor rewards. This “reward sensitivity” is often dampened by depression and Craske thinks it’s an avenue for potential treatments to target. For example, in her studies of the effects of kindness and compassion on depression, she has found that training people how to more regularly engage in acts of kindness can ease their symptoms.

Craske and colleagues also are studying how to integrate virtual reality into treatment for anxiety and depression.

“We use virtual reality to help people face the situations they fear and avoid, and at other times we use virtual reality to increase their capacity for positive emotions,” she said. “By immersing themselves in positive scenes we can teach them how to anticipate and savor rewarding events and then transfer that to real life.”

In her talk, titled “Anxiety and Depression: Risk Factors and Treatment,” Craske wants to convey a sense of her scientific approach, which builds off her background as a clinical psychologist to improve psychotherapies. It will take many different perspectives, however, to solve anxiety and depression, she said. In her role with the Depression Grand Challenge, she helps build collaborations between researchers like herself and those that study psychological diseases from a genetic, molecular or neurological point of view.

Craske looks forward to presenting her research, and hopes the audience comes away from her lecture feeling hopeful about the progress that science is making on anxiety and depression.

“I am deeply honored to have been selected to give this lecture which represents the true pinnacle of my career at UCLA,” Craske said.

The Faculty Research Lecture — a UCLA tradition since 1925 — is free and open to the public and will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 19 in the Schoenberg Music Building. Please RSVP here if you’d like to attend.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of a computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus.

First childhood flu helps explain why virus hits some people harder than others

Photo of a computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus.

A computer-generated 3D rendering of a flu virus. Photo Credit: Dan Higgins/Courtesy of CDC/Douglas Jordan

Why are some people better able to fight off the flu than others? Part of the answer, according to a new study, is related to the first flu strain we encounter in childhood.

Scientists from UCLA and the University of Arizona have found that people’s ability to fight off the flu virus is determined not only by the subtypes of flu they have had throughout their lives, but also by the sequence in which they are been infected by the viruses. Their study is published in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens.

The research offers an explanation for why some people fare much worse than others when infected with the same strain of the flu virus, and the findings could help inform strategies for minimizing the effects of the seasonal flu.

In addition, UCLA scientists, including Professor James Lloyd-Smith, who also was a senior author of the PLoS Pathogens research, recently completed a study that analyzes travel-related screening for the new novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV. (The research is under review; a preprint is online.)

The researchers report that screening travelers is not very effective for the 2019 coronavirus — that it will catch less than half of infected travelers, on average — and that most infected travelers are undetectable, meaning that they have no symptoms yet, and are unaware that they have been exposed. So stopping the spread of the virus is not a matter of just enhancing screening methods at airports and other travel hubs.

“This puts the onus on government officials and public health officials to follow up with travelers after they arrive, to isolate them and trace their contacts if they get sick later,” said Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Many governments have started to impose quarantines, or even travel bans, as they realize that screening is not sufficient to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

One major concern, Lloyd-Smith said, is that other countries, especially developing nations, lack the infrastructure and resources for those measures, and are therefore vulnerable to importing the disease.

“Much of the public health world is very concerned about the virus being introduced into Africa or India, where large populations exist that do not have access to advanced medical care,” he said.

The researchers, including scientists from the University of Chicago and the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine, have developed a free online app where people can calculate the effectiveness of travel screening based on a range of parameters.

“Our finding concerning the effectiveness of screening for the coronavirus is not a criticism of screening practices being done by public health officials in the United States or elsewhere,” Lloyd-Smith said.

He said that the biology and epidemiology of the virus itself makes infection extremely difficult to detect in its early stages, because the majority of cases show no symptoms for five days or longer after exposure.

“My colleagues and I know there is a lot of speculation online about the coronavirus and how it spreads,” Lloyd-Smith said “People should look to trusted sources for accurate information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and the peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

Solving a decades-old question

The PLoS Pathogens study may help solve a problem that had for decades vexed scientists and health care professionals: why the same strain of the flu virus affects people with various degrees of severity.

A team that included some of the same UCLA and Arizona scientists reported in 2016 that exposure to influenza viruses during childhood gives people partial protection for the rest of their lives against distantly related influenza viruses. Biologists call the idea that past exposure to the flu virus determines a person’s future response to infections “immunological imprinting.”

The 2016 research helped overturn a commonly held belief that previous exposure to a flu virus conferred little or no immunological protection against strains that can jump from animals into humans, such as those causing the strains known as swine flu or bird flu. Those strains, which have caused hundreds of spillover cases of severe illness and death in humans, are of global concern because they could gain mutations that allow them to readily jump not only from animal populations to humans, but also to spread rapidly from person to person.

In the new study, the researchers investigated whether immunological imprinting could explain people’s response to flu strains already circulating in the human population and to what extent it could account for observed discrepancies in how severely the seasonal flu affects people in different age groups.

To track how different strains of the flu virus affect people at different ages, the team analyzed health records that the Arizona Department of Health Services obtains from hospitals and private physicians.

Two subtypes of influenza virus, H3N2 and H1N1, have been responsible for seasonal outbreaks of the flu over the past several decades. H3N2 causes the majority of severe cases in high-risk elderly people and the majority of deaths from the flu. H1N1 is more likely to affect young and middle-aged adults, and causes fewer deaths.

The health record data revealed a pattern: People first exposed to the less severe strain, H1N1, during childhood were less likely to end up hospitalized if they encountered H1N1 again later in life than people who were first exposed to H3N2. And people first exposed to H3N2 received extra protection against H3N2 later in life.

The researchers also analyzed the evolutionary relationships between the flu strains. H1N1 and H3N2, they learned, belong to two separate branches on the influenza “family tree,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and one of the study’s senior authors. While infection with one does result in the immune system being better prepared to fight a future infection from the other, protection against future infections is much stronger when one is exposed to strains from the same group one has battled before, he said.

The records also revealed another pattern: People whose first childhood exposure was to H2N2, a close cousin of H1N1, did not have a protective advantage when they later encountered H1N1. That phenomenon was much more difficult to explain, because the two subtypes are in the same group, and the researchers’ earlier work showed that exposure to one can, in some cases, grant considerable protection against the other.

“Our immune system often struggles to recognize and defend against closely related strains of seasonal flu, even though these are essentially the genetic sisters and brothers of strains that circulated just a few years ago,” said lead author Katelyn Gostic, who was a UCLA doctoral student in Lloyd-Smith’s laboratory when the study was conducted and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. “This is perplexing because our research on bird flu shows that deep in our immune memory, we have some ability to recognize and defend against the distantly related, genetic third cousins of the strains we saw as children.

“We hope that by studying differences in immunity against bird flus — where our immune system shows a natural ability to deploy broadly effective protection — and against seasonal flus — where our immune system seems to have bigger blind spots — we can uncover clues useful to universal influenza vaccine development.”

Around the world, influenza remains a major killer. The past two flu seasons have been more severe than expected, said Michael Worobey, a co-author of the study and head of the University of Arizona’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology. In the 2017–18 season, 80,000 people died in the U.S., more than in the swine flu pandemic of 2009, he said.

People who had their first bout of flu as children in 1955 — when the H1N1 was circulating but the H3N2 virus was not — were much more likely to be hospitalized with an H3N2 infection than an H1N1 infection last year, when both strains were circulating, Worobey said.

“The second subtype you’re exposed to is not able to create an immune response that is as protective and durable as the first,” he said.

The researchers hope that their findings could help predict which age groups might be severely affected during future flu seasons based on the subtype circulating. That information could also help health officials prepare their response, including decisions about who should receive certain vaccines that are only available in limited quantities.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, DARPA and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In 2018, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced a strategic plan to develop a universal flu vaccine.

The study’s co-authors are Rebecca Bridge of the Arizona Department of Health Services and Cecile Viboud of the Fogarty International Center at the NIH.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

2020 Hollywood Diversity Report: A different story behind the scenes

Image from the 2019 film "Aladdin"

Mena Massoud and Will Smith in the 2019 film “Aladdin,” which sold more than $1 billion in tickets worldwide, and whose cast was more than 50% minority.

Oscars viewers this weekend might see the predominantly white nominees and think Hollywood still has a diversity problem.

It does.

But there are indications that the film industry is starting to get the message that diversity sells. The numbers of acting jobs for women and people of color are getting closer to being proportionate with the U.S. population overall, according to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report.

The report focuses on the top-grossing films of 2018 and 2019. (A related report covering the past two seasons of television data will be published in April.)

Although minorities were largely ignored for Academy Award nominations, films with diverse casts continued to resonate with increasingly diverse audiences, a fact emphasized by each new edition of the Hollywood Diversity Report.

When it comes to key jobs in the film world, the seventh annual report tells the story of two Hollywoods.

“As of 2019, both women and minorities are within striking distance of proportionate representation when it comes to lead roles and total cast,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA College division of social sciences and the report’s co-author. “But behind the scenes, it’s a very different story. That begs the question: Are we actually seeing systematic change, or is Hollywood just appealing to diverse audiences through casting, but without fundamentally altering the way studios do business behind the camera?”

Women make up about 50% of the U.S. population and minorities slightly more than 40%. A majority of the nation’s population will be minorities by 2050, according to U.S. Census estimates.

The numbers of acting roles for women and people of color in film have been progressively increasing since UCLA researchers first started tracking data. And results from the last two years of film are heartening.

The researchers analyzed 139 films with the highest gross global ticket receipts of 2018. They found that 41.0% of lead roles went to women and 26.6% to minorities. And among all acting roles in those films, 40.4% went to women and 30.9% to people of color.

Things improved somewhat in most casting roles in 2019. Women had 44.1% of lead acting roles and 40.2% of the total cast in the 145 films from 2019 examined in the report; people of color made up 27.6% of lead actors and 32.7% of all film roles in 2019.

Each year, the report also analyzes the range of cast diversity among the top-grossing movies. In every previous report, films with the least diverse casts — those in which less than 11% of the cast were minority actors — made up the largest share of the top-grossing movies.

By 2019, that was not the case: Just 15.9% of the top-grossing movies had casts that were less than 11% minorities. By comparison, more than half of the top films in 2011 had less than 11% minority casts.

When it comes to writing and directing, minorities and women have gained a little ground on their white and male counterparts in recent years, but still have a long way to go.

In 2018, just 7.1% of the directors of top-grossing films were women and 19.3% were people of color. In 2019, women posted meaningful gains to reach 15.1%, but minorities directed just 14.4% percent of the top box office movies, a slight increase over recent years.

Women earned 14.8% of writing credits on the films analyzed in 2018, and minorities claimed 10.4%. Both figures improved for 2019, with 17.4% of writing credits going to women and 13.9% to people of color.

“Getting writing, directing and acting jobs is a critical step for women and people of color because success in the industry is largely driven by the credits you have,” Hunt said.

The statistics for people of color in key entertainment roles are particularly striking considering their visibility, buying power, ideas and experiences in the population at large — including as consumers of entertainment. People of color accounted for at least 50% of domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films in 2018. In 2019, minorities bought at least 50% of tickets for nine of the top 10 films.

In 2018, films with casts made up of 21% to 30% minority actors had the highest median global ticket receipts. In 2019, the films that tended to perform the best at the box office were even more diverse, with casts in the 41% to 50% minority range.

Despite that buying power, the analysis suggests, fundamental structural change in Hollywood is not yet evident.

The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report also includes a workplace analysis of 11 major and mid-major studios, which found that 91% of C-level positions are held by white people and 82% are held by men. Among all senior executive positions, 93% percent are held by white people and 80% by men.

Further down the org chart, gender equality is somewhat better: Studios’ film unit heads are 86% white, but only 69% male.

“What’s being green-lit matters,” said the report’s co-author, Ana-Christina Ramon, director of research and civic engagement for the UCLA College division of social sciences. “And although the industry is changing in front of the camera, white men are still doing the overwhelming majority of the green-lighting and making the major decisions behind the scenes at the studios.”

That phenomenon largely dictates what stories get told and who gets the all-important jobs in front of and behind the camera, she said.

The report’s authors in 2019 published an analysis of inclusivity practices across several entertainment sectors. That report included a five-part strategy that could help push the needle on Hollywood diversity.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Image of Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall to deliver Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership at UCLA on April 1

Image for Luskin Lecture featuring Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, will deliver the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership at UCLA’s Royce Hall on April 1, 2020, as part of the celebration of UCLA’s Centennial year. The renowned animal behavior expert and conservationist is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a U.N. Messenger of Peace.

During the lecture, which marks the 60th anniversary of the start of her pioneering research, Goodall will discuss her journey from groundbreaking researcher of wild chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, to internationally renowned activist. She will also share her reasons for hope for the future, talk about the work of the Jane Goodall Institute and the organization’s Roots & Shoots youth program, and encourage audience members to make a difference every single day.

Following her remarks, Goodall will be joined by a moderator for a discussion drawing from questions submitted by UCLA students and alumni. The UCLA College lecture is a ticketed event.

Goodall began her pioneering research on wild chimpanzees in 1960 in what is today known as Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. Goodall was the first person to formally observe and better understand wild chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom; her research revealed remarkable insights about chimpanzee behavior and humankind.

Since then, Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute have maintained what is now the world’s longest running study of wild chimpanzees. Through her critical work, Goodall has not only championed the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction, but she also has pioneered community-centered conservation through JGI, putting local people at the center of conservation decisions and action, across the chimpanzee range in Africa. Through JGI’s Roots & Shoots program, she empowers young people to improve their communities through service projects, ensuring that they become better stewards of the environment than previous generations.

As a global activist traveling nearly 300 days a year, she has devoted her life to inspiring all people to take action to improve the well-being of people, other animals and the natural world we share.

“Dr. Goodall’s focus on giving people, particularly young people, the knowledge and confidence to make an impact by being part of something bigger than themselves makes her an example to emulate,” said Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College. “She has moved beyond her role as a scientist to encourage all of us to become active partners in the future of our world.”

Goodall’s talk will be the fifth Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership. The series was established in the UCLA College by Meyer and Renee Luskin in 2011 as part of a transformative gift to UCLA. Their vision in establishing the endowed lecture series gives the UCLA College an unprecedented opportunity to share knowledge and expand the dialogue among scholars, leaders in government and business, and the greater Los Angeles community. Previous speakers have included former President Bill Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

About the lecture

This event is now sold out.

Are you a UCLA student? Win the incredible opportunity to meet Jane Goodall. Contest details can be found at the Luskin Lecture Contest website.

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.

Photo of Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker.

UCLA psychology department receives $30 million from Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation

Photo of Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker.

Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker at the Hammer gala in 2019. (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Pritzkers)

UCLA has received a $30 million commitment from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation to support a major renovation of the Psychology Tower on the UCLA campus. In recognition of the gift, the building has been named Pritzker Hall.

Tony Pritzker served as co-chair of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which concluded in December. The campaign exceeded its original $4.2 billion fundraising goal 18 months ahead of schedule.

“Tony’s visionary leadership and unwavering support has inspired unprecedented philanthropy to UCLA throughout the campaign, helping cement a strong foundation for our second century,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Now, thanks to Tony and Jeanne’s latest extraordinary gift, UCLA Psychology will be primed for decades of trailblazing research and exceptional teaching.”

The $30 million commitment is the second largest in the history of the UCLA College’s life sciences division, which is home to the psychology department. Of the total amount, $10 million will create the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Endowment for Excellence, which will provide faculty and student support and fund ongoing infrastructure needs.

Photo of an architect’s rendering of Pritzker Hall from above.

An architect’s rendering of Pritzker Hall from above. (Photo courtesy of CO Architects)

“We have tremendous confidence in UCLA, as a public university, to move society and the world forward, which is why we invest our time and resources there,” Tony Pritzker said. “We are pleased to build upon our foundation’s earlier commitments to UCLA, while strengthening the extraordinary reputation that the psychology department’s research and scholarship have rightfully earned.”

The donation bookends the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation’s Centennial Campaign giving to the UCLA College; the foundation also gave $15 million to the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability in 2013, before the campaign’s public launch. The Pritzker Foundation’s total giving to UCLA, which also includes major gifts to athletics, law, medicine, neuroscience, education, public policy and programs to support foster youth on campus, now stands at just under $100 million.

“We are immensely grateful to Tony and Jeanne Pritzker for taking the lead in investing in a new era for UCLA Psychology,” said Victoria Sork, dean of life sciences. “I am especially heartened by this gift, because the values the Pritzkers espouse align with our own values of service and investment in our communities.”

“Their generous gift will help us transform Pritzker Hall into a space for breakthroughs — a collaborative, modern teaching and research space befitting one of the top psychology departments in the United States.”

The tower was designed by celebrated Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams and completed in 1967. Work on seismic upgrades began in 2018 and the full renovation is expected to be completed this year.

Sork said the endowment created by the Pritzkers’ gift will strengthen the department’s ability to recruit and retain top-notch faculty and students, a crucial factor in maintaining its excellence. UCLA Psychology faculty are pursuing research in a wide range of areas, including anxiety and depression; substance abuse and addiction; human relationships; stress, resilience and health; neuroscience; and cognition and consciousness, all focusing on how to improve people’s daily lives.

“This gift will be of incalculable benefit to faculty, students and members of the community for many decades to come,” Sork said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Alain Mabanckou.

UCLA professor named one of 2019’s 100 most influential Africans

Photo of Alain Mabanckou.

Alain Mabanckou, professor of French and Francophone studies at UCLA. Credit: UCLA

Alain Mabanckou, literature professor in the UCLA Department of French and Francophone Studies, has been named one of 2019’s 100 most influential Africans by leading politics and culture magazine, “New African.”

A renowned novelist, poet and professor, Mabanckou is recognized for his contributions to the global literary scene. Known for his novels and non-fiction writing depicting the experience of contemporary Africa and the African diaspora in France, he is among the most recognized writers of Franco African contemporary literature. His most recent novel, “Black Moses,” winner of the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, follows the story of an orphan navigating his way through a poor and corrupt society.

The list recognizes Africans who have made large contributions to the continent and its culture, from reform-leading political figures to business pioneers and record-breaking athletes. The list includes the likes of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed and Kenyan world record breaking marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge. According to “New African,” those chosen to be on the list exemplify how African talent is impacting the world.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of Leia Yen.

UCLA transfer student wins a Marshall Scholarship

Photo of Leia Yen.

While at UCLA, Leia Yen founded Bruins for Urban Debate, an organization that mentors young debate students. Credit: El Camino College

Leia Yen, who graduated from UCLA in 2019, has won the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, making her the first Bruin to win in nine years, and also the first UCLA transfer student to receive the award.

The Marshall Scholarship — which finances one to two years of graduate study at any U.K. university — is awarded to approximately 45 American college graduates each year.

As a Marshall Scholar, Yen will pursue master’s degrees in digital humanities and digital culture and society at King’s College London.

“I see my studies at King’s College as a chance to develop an international, collaborative approach to digital humanities, not only between the U.S. and the U.K., but also with other institutions, nations and communities that have been underrepresented in traditional tech-related fields,” Yen said.

At UCLA, Yen focused on digital humanities, presenting two projects at Undergraduate Research Week and working as a research assistant for Ramesh Srinivasan, professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Her research focuses on inequalities in technology and digital culture.

A native of Torrance, Yen transferred to UCLA from El Camino College, where she was an active member of the college’s speech and debate team. Even after transferring to UCLA, she continued coaching the El Camino debate team, because the experience was so transformative. Yen proudly noted that all of the students she mentored on the team last year had successfully transferred to UCLA.

She also coached high school debate teams in the Los Angeles Unified School District through the Los Angeles Metropolitan Debate League. At UCLA, she founded Bruins for Urban Debate, a student organization that mentors young debate students.

“I care about making education accessible and inclusive, and I see debate as a way of empowering students with the portable skills that will make them effective students, advocates and leaders, even after their debate careers come to an end,” she said.

Yen was drawn to UCLA after her experience at Bruin Day for transfer students, when she met faculty, staff and students who showed her how much UCLA values transfer students and the perspectives they bring to the campus. These supportive mentors inspired Yen to become a mentor at the UCLA Transfer Student Center.

“It’s important to me to support transfer students, because it really does make a difference when you have an advocate, friend, mentor or leader who knows how to speak and work from their own experiences,” Yen said. “I loved being a community college student, and I loved being surrounded by people who shared my love for the transfer community.”

When the British consulate called Yen to tell her that she had won the Marshall Scholarship, she was driving to a tournament for her El Camino debate team. She told the students the good news when she arrived.

“Throughout the tournament, I heard those students talking about the Marshall, Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships. And to my delight, they were thinking openly about what it would be like to pursue the scholarships themselves,” Yen said. “This is what representation does. Hearing my students dream big made me feel like I had won the Marshall all over again.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy

Astronomers discover class of strange objects near our galaxy’s enormous black hole

Photo of orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy

Orbits of the G objects at the center of our galaxy, with the supermassive black hole indicated with a white cross. Stars, gas and dust are in the background. Photo: Anna Ciurlo, Tuan Do/UCLA Galactic Center Group

Astronomers from UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative have discovered a new class of bizarre objects at the center of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. They published their research in the Jan. 16 issue of the journal Nature.

“These objects look like gas and behave like stars,” said co-author Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group.

The new objects look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole. Their orbits range from about 100 to 1,000 years, said lead author Anna Ciurlo, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher.

Ghez’s research group identified an unusual object at the center of our galaxy in 2005, which was later named G1. In 2012, astronomers in Germany made a puzzling discovery of a bizarre object named G2 in the center of the Milky Way that made a close approach to the supermassive black hole in 2014. Ghez and her research team believe that G2 is most likely two stars that had been orbiting the black hole in tandem and merged into an extremely large star, cloaked in unusually thick gas and dust.

“At the time of closest approach, G2 had a really strange signature,” Ghez said. “We had seen it before, but it didn’t look too peculiar until it got close to the black hole and became elongated, and much of its gas was torn apart. It went from being a pretty innocuous object when it was far from the black hole to one that was really stretched out and distorted at its closest approach and lost its outer shell, and now it’s getting more compact again.”

“One of the things that has gotten everyone excited about the G objects is that the stuff that gets pulled off of them by tidal forces as they sweep by the central black hole must inevitably fall into the black hole,” said co-author Mark Morris, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “When that happens, it might be able to produce an impressive fireworks show since the material eaten by the black hole will heat up and emit copious radiation before it disappears across the event horizon.”

But are G2 and G1 outliers, or are they part of a larger class of objects? In answer to that question, Ghez’s research group reports the existence of four more objects they are calling G3, G4, G5 and G6. The researchers have determined each of their orbits. While G1 and G2 have similar orbits, the four new objects have very different orbits.

Ghez believes all six objects were binary stars — a system of two stars orbiting each other — that merged because of the strong gravitational force of the supermassive black hole. The merging of two stars takes more than 1 million years to complete, Ghez said.

“Mergers of stars may be happening in the universe more often than we thought, and likely are quite common,” Ghez said. “Black holes may be driving binary stars to merge. It’s possible that many of the stars we’ve been watching and not understanding may be the end product of mergers that are calm now. We are learning how galaxies and black holes evolve. The way binary stars interact with each other and with the black hole is very different from how single stars interact with other single stars and with the black hole.”

Ciurlo noted that while the gas from G2’s outer shell got stretched dramatically, its dust inside the gas did not get stretched much. “Something must have kept it compact and enabled it to survive its encounter with the black hole,” Ciurlo said. “This is evidence for a stellar object inside G2.”

“The unique dataset that Professor Ghez’s group has gathered during more than 20 years is what allowed us to make this discovery,” Ciurlo said. “We now have a population of ‘G’ objects, so it is not a matter of explaining a ‘one-time event’ like G2.”

The researchers made observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and used a powerful technology that Ghez helped pioneer, called adaptive optics, which corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time. They conducted a new analysis of 13 years of their UCLA Galactic Center Orbits Initiative data.

In September 2019, Ghez’s team reported that the black hole is getting hungrier and it is unclear why. The stretching of G2 in 2014 appeared to pull off gas that may recently have been swallowed by the black hole, said co-author Tuan Do, a UCLA research scientist and deputy director of the Galactic Center Group. The mergers of stars could feed the black hole.

The team has already identified a few other candidates that may be part of this new class of objects, and are continuing to analyze them.

Ghez noted the center of the Milky Way galaxy is an extreme environment, unlike our less hectic corner of the universe.

“The Earth is in the suburbs compared to the center of the galaxy, which is some 26,000 light-years away,” Ghez said. “The center of our galaxy has a density of stars 1 billion times higher than our part of the galaxy. The gravitational pull is so much stronger. The magnetic fields are more extreme. The center of the galaxy is where extreme astrophysics occurs — the X-sports of astrophysics.”

Ghez said this research will help to teach us what is happening in the majority of galaxies.

Other co-authors include Randall Campbell, an astronomer with the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii; Aurelien Hees, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar, now a researcher at the Paris Observatory in France; and Smadar Naoz, a UCLA assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, W.M. Keck Foundation and Keck Visiting Scholars Program, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, Jim and Lori Keir, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In July 2019, Ghez’s research team reported on the most comprehensive test of Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the black hole. They concluded that Einstein’s theory passed the test and is correct, at least for now.

► Watch a four-minute film about Ghez’s research

►View an animation below of the orbits of the G objects, together with the orbits of stars near the supermassive black hole. Credit: Advanced Visualization Lab, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of group of volunteers at first mobile health clinic.

Student launches mobile health clinic to increase access to care

Photo of group of volunteers at first mobile health clinic.

Ahmad Elhaija, center, with International Collegiate Health Initiative medical staff, volunteers and student team members at the organization’s first mobile health clinic. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

On a sunny autumn Saturday at the Southeast-Rio Vista YMCA in the city of Maywood, kids colored drawings and played Jenga while their parents and other family members underwent basic health screenings conducted by volunteer nurses.

After their bloodwork and other tests were done, the people met with doctors from medical centers in southeast Los Angeles County to discuss their results. Aided by Spanish-language translators, the doctors also gave advice about everything from medications to old injuries — anything the patients wanted to know.

The free event, attended by about 40 community members plus their children, was the first mobile community health clinic hosted by the International Collegiate Health Initiative. Founded two years ago by UCLA junior psychobiology major Ahmad Elhaija, the initiative aims to increase access to affordable, high-quality medical care in low-income and refugee communities in Los Angeles through mobile community health clinics and social advocacy.

“I thought, what can we do here that’ll make a big impact, where we can affect the statistics of a community, their health outcomes?” he said.

Elhaija drew inspiration for the project from two aspects of his youth in Anaheim — growing up frequently sick without consistent health insurance and his volunteer work assisting Arab and Muslim refugees.

Given the need for this kind of service, Elhaija applied for the annual Donald A. Strauss Foundation scholarship to help implement his vision. Each year, the Strauss Foundation awards 10 to 15 students from across 14 California colleges a $15,000 scholarship which is divided between the student’s educational costs and a grant for the public service project they propose in their application.

Elhaija was the only UCLA student to win the $15,000 scholarship in 2019. In 2018, two UCLA students won the Strauss scholarship; their projects helped transfer students prepare for doctoral programs, and provided therapy and support for K-12 students who stutter.

Photo of Ahmad Elhaija

Ahmad Elhaija Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

As part of the scholarship, Elhaija was assigned a mentor to advise him on his project. Elhaija’s mentor, Marc Anthony Branch, is a program officer for sustainable development for the United Methodist Committee on Relief and an expert in grant writing. Elhaija relied on Branch’s knowledge to improve his grant writing skills.

“I set him up with my grant-writing team, and he was really pivotal in actually getting us moving forward,” Elhaija said. “Before him, we didn’t really have much progress in grant writing, so having him on board and him giving his expertise was really cool. He knows what grant-giving organizations are looking for and he has some good contacts in that realm as well.”

Growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Anaheim, Elhaija was frequently sick from asthma and a rare blood disorder called cyclic neutropenia. His family didn’t always have health insurance, and although they worked hard to support and care for him, they were often left with high hospital bills.

While his family’s difficulty navigating his health care opened his eyes to the importance of providing affordable care, as a teenager Elhaija also volunteered at the nonprofit Access California Services, which provides support and resources to Arab and Muslim refugees in Anaheim. He said that volunteering with the organization and seeing the services for refugees that were still lacking inspired him to think of ways he could help.

So when Elhaija got to UCLA in 2017, he formed the International Collegiate Health Initiative with the goal to provide medical care to refugees in countries like Syria and Palestine. Through his volunteer work and visiting his own family in the Middle East, Elhaija learned that college campuses would be the safest places to provide medical services in the region.

However, finances and logistics made it more productive for Elhaija to focus his efforts on refugee and low-income communities closer to home. So he switched the initiative’s focus to offering mobile community health clinics in southeast Los Angeles.

The initiative is managed by a team of 20 students, a board of directors and professional advisers who offer guidance and medical services for the clinics. The clinic in Maywood, held on Nov. 16, was the organization’s first mobile health clinic. Another is planned for the city of Bell in February.

The ICHI’s ultimate goal is to raise enough money for a mobile clinic van, and to expand to other cities in California or even overseas.

“The idea is that we could have our full blown mobile clinic running in the fall of next year, where we can provide basically every type of care that a standard clinic can provide,” Elhaija said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.