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A photo of Professor Paula Diaconescu.

Chemist Paula Diaconescu to lead new NSF Center for Integrated Catalysis

A photo of Professor Paula Diaconescu.

Professor Paula Diaconescu leads the Center for Integrated Catalysis with the goal to mimic biological systems in development of synthetic chemical catalytic processes.

The National Science Foundation announced a five year, $1.8 million award to establish the NSF Center for Integrated Catalysis (CIC), effective Sept. 1. The center is led by Paula Diaconescu, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Diaconescu said the inspiration for the research conducted in CIC comes from nature’s remarkable ability to construct structurally complex products by combining different processes. Synthetic chemists, in contrast, usually run each chemical reaction individually. The goal of the CIC is to mimic biological systems in the development of synthetic chemical catalytic processes.

The center will develop the fundamental chemistry needed to prepare synthetic plastics in a single reactor using spatially separated and switchable catalysts. Simple starting materials will be used to supply networks of multiple catalysts operating together on a single platform, with the aid of temporal and spatial control, to produce new polymeric materials.

Switchable catalysts can be activated or deactivated as needed using external stimuli, such as light or electrochemical potential. The center’s research may lead to new materials that are sustainable and degradable and are of high complexity for commercial uses.

The center will host monthly seminars, including sessions on business and entrepreneurship topics, as well as chemistry and other scientific topics.

A goal of the center is to ensure the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in the center’s research and activities. Students will be trained in interdisciplinary collaborative chemistry, including students who are underrepresented in the sciences.

Chong Liu, UCLA assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who holds the Jeffery and Helo Zink Development Chair, is among the faculty members of the center.

This article was originally published by the UCLA Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

A photo of the Rev. James Lawson.

UCLA’s Rev. James Lawson Jr., civil rights icon, eulogizes Rep. John Lewis

A photo of the Rev. James Lawson.

Center: Rev. James Lawson (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

Acclaimed civil rights activist and UCLA College Lecturer Rev. James Lawson Jr. stood among national leaders including former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on July 30 to eulogize late civil rights leader U.S. Representative John Lewis.

Lawson and Lewis met in the 1960s, when Lewis attended Lawson’s classes on nonviolent confrontation and civil disobedience. Lawson recalled Lewis and other civil rights workers, linking their early struggle to today’s ongoing racial strife.

“John Lewis must be understood as one of the leaders of the greatest advance of the Congress and the White House on behalf of we the people of the USA,” Lawson said.

He added, “If we would honor and celebrate John Lewis’ life, let us then re-commit our souls, our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our strength to the continuing journey to dismantle the wrong in our midst.”

Lawson co-teaches UCLA students in a unique course called “Nonviolence and Social Movements” with Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

In 2017, the UCLA Labor Center published “Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.,” a book that emerged from the class.

In 2018, Lawson himself was presented with the UCLA Medal for his contributions to the civil rights movement, the highest honor bestowed by UCLA. Read more about Lawson here: https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/civil-rights-activist-james-lawson-awarded-ucla-medal.

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

If relaxed too soon, physical distancing measures might have been all for naught

A graphic of the Coronavirus.

Coronavirus (Photo Credit: NIAID-RML)

If physical distancing measures in the United States are relaxed while there is still no COVID-19 vaccine or treatment and while personal protective equipment remains in short supply, the number of resulting infections could be about the same as if distancing had never been implemented to begin with, according to a UCLA-led team of mathematicians and scientists.

The researchers compared the results of three related mathematical models of disease transmission that they used to analyze data emerging from local and national governments, including one that measures the dynamic reproduction number — the average number of susceptible people infected by one previously infected person. The models all highlight the dangers of relaxing public health measures too soon.

“Distancing efforts that appear to have succeeded in the short term may have little impact on the total number of infections expected over the course of the pandemic,” said lead author Andrea Bertozzi, a distinguished professor of mathematics who holds UCLA’s Betsy Wood Knapp Chair for Innovation and Creativity. “Our mathematical models demonstrate that relaxing these measures in the absence of pharmaceutical interventions may allow the pandemic to reemerge. It’s about reducing contact with other people, and this can be done with PPE as well as distancing.”

A photo of Andrea Bertozzi

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is applicable to both future spikes of COVID-19 and future pandemics, the researchers say.

If distancing and shelter-in-place measures had not been taken in March and April, it is very likely the number of people infected in California, New York and elsewhere would have been dramatically higher, posing a severe burden on hospitals, Bertozzi said. But the total number of infections predicted if these precautions end too soon is similar to the number that would be expected over the course of the pandemic without such measures, she said. In other words, short-term distancing can slow the spread of the disease but may not result in fewer people becoming infected.

Mathematically modeling and forecasting the spread of COVID-19 are critical for effective public health policy, but wide differences in precautionary approaches across the country have made it a challenge, said Bertozzi, who is also a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Social distancing and wearing face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19, but people in many states are not following distancing guidelines and are not wearing masks — and the number of infections continues to rise.

What are the implications of these findings for policymakers who want to relax social distancing in an effort to revive their economies?

“Policymakers need to be careful,” Bertozzi said. “Our study predicts a surge in cases in California after distancing measures are relaxed. Alternative strategies exist that would allow the economy to ramp up without substantial new infections. Those strategies all involve significant use of PPE and increased testing.”

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, social distancing was first enforced and then relaxed in some areas. Bertozzi points to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007 that looked at several American cities during that pandemic where a second wave of infections occurred after public health measures were removed too early.

That study found that the timing of public health interventions had a profound influence on the pattern of the second wave of the 1918 pandemic in different cities. Cities that had introduced measures early in the pandemic achieved significant reductions in overall mortality. Larger reductions in peak mortality were achieved by those cities that extended the public health measures for longer. San Francisco, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Kansas City, for instance, had the most effective interventions, reducing transmission rates by 30% to 50%.

“Researchers Martin Bootsma and Neil Ferguson were able to analyze the effectiveness of distancing measures by comparing the data against an estimate for what might have happened had distancing measures not been introduced,” Bertozzi said of the 2007 study. “They considered data from the full pandemic, while we addressed the question of fitting models to early-time data for this pandemic. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the early relaxation of social distancing measures led to a swift uptick in deaths in some U.S. cities. Our mathematical models help to explain why this effect might occur today.”

The COVID-19 data in the new study are from April 1, 2020, and are publicly available. The study is aimed at scientists who are not experts in epidemiology.

“Epidemiologists are in high demand during a pandemic, and public health officials from local jurisdictions may have a need for help interpreting data,” Bertozzi said. “Scientists with relevant background can be tapped to assist these people.”

Study co-authors are Elisa Franco, a UCLA associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and bioengineering; George Mohler, an associate professor of computer and information science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis; Martin Short, an associate professor of mathematics at Georgia Tech; and Daniel Sledge, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Marcus Hunter.

Professor’s work informs proposed U.S. commission on racial healing

A photo of Marcus Hunter.

Marcus Hunter, UCLA professor of sociology and chair of the African American studies department. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A recently proposed U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, which U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee introduced into Congress shortly after protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death, could be a powerful next step in the fight for racial justice in America.

The draft of the proposal, however, has been in the works for more than three years, with collaboration on the language from Marcus Hunter, UCLA professor of African American studies, whose forthcoming book will focus on slavery and reparations. He’s been part of a coalition that meets regularly to advance the resolution.

On July 18, they will launch the #BreatheWithMe campaign in support of the proposed resolution and to coincide with Nelson Mandela’s birthday. It will feature celebrities and supporters reading sections of the resolution and sharing on social media.

The #BreatheWithMe campaign includes a People’s Petition that will help citizens request that their Congressional representatives support the resolution, which currently has 130 co-sponsors, but needs 218 backers in the House of Representatives, ideally by the end of August when the current congressional session ends.

“People are wondering how they can help, what’s next in the movement,” said Hunter, who is the Scott Waugh Professor in the Division of Social Sciences. “This is a very simple but very tangible way for people to take action.”

The resolution gained early and critical support from the NAACP as well as fellow leaders in Congress including John Lewis, Los Angeles’ own Karen Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and Deb Harland, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

“I have a lot of hope and aspirations right now,” Hunter said. “And I think Representative Lee felt this was a great time to propose this resolution as an extension of the support we are seeing across the country for the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Hunter got involved in the process when Lee saw him host a discussion on the topic on CSPAN’s “Book TV” back in April 2017 and got in touch to enlist his help drafting the resolution. Last year the United States marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ships arriving in North America in 1619 and the text of the resolution addresses the “long overdue debt of remembrance to not only those who lived through the egregious injustices … but also to their descendants.”

Once put into practice, a commission like this will also pave the way for tangible support when it comes to reparations, not just for dependents of American slavery, but also Native American populations, Hunter said.

“This will create another way of studying the phenomenon of slavery and racial inequity,” Hunter said. “It should almost be the least we can do, an assessment of slavery and its aftermath. Can we at least document our past nationally so it’s not a matter of opinion? Can we put the evidence and memory of it down in one place? It will result in a database of quantitative information that can be used in specific reparations cases and to inform future policy.”

The resolution also cites that 40 other countries have “reckoned with historical injustice and its aftermath through forming Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UC to lead group awarded $25M by NSF to launch quantum computing institute

A photo of Eric Hudson.

UCLA physics professor Eric Hudson will co-direct the new NSF institute. (Photo Credit: Stuart Wolpert)

The National Science Foundation today announced a five-year, $25 million award to UC Berkeley, UCLA and other universities to create the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computation. The institute will work to overcome scientific challenges to achieving quantum computing and will design advanced, large-scale quantum computers that employ state-of-the scientific algorithms developed by the researchers.

Unlike conventional computers, quantum computers seek to harness the mysterious behavior of particles at the subatomic level to boost computing power. Once fully developed, they will be capable of solving large, extremely complex problems far beyond the capacity of today’s most powerful supercomputers. Quantum systems are expected to have a wide variety of applications in many fields, including medicine, national security and science.

“Scientific problems that would take the age of the universe to solve on a standard computer potentially could take only a few minutes on a quantum computer,” said Eric Hudson, a UCLA professor of physics and co-director of the new institute. “We may get the ability to design new pharmaceuticals to fight diseases on a quantum computer, instead of in a laboratory. Learning the structure of molecules and designing effective drugs, each of which has thousands of atoms, are inherently quantum challenges. A quantum computer potentially could calculate the structure of molecules and how molecules react and behave.”

If quantum computers were available today, they might be able to better reveal how the new coronavirus binds to human cells, for example, and indicate how that process could be disrupted, noted Hudson, who is also co-director of UCLA’s Center for Quantum Science & Engineering.

The new NSF institute — which includes six other universities, three of them in California — will be directed by UC Berkeley professor of physics Dan Stamper-Kurn.

“The Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computation establishes California as a leader nationally and globally in quantum computing,” Stamper-Kurn said.

“Quantum technologies could have a tremendous impact on jobs in California and the United States in the future, and a profound impact on our lives,” said UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter. “The new NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computation will lay the foundation for this high-tech future, and I am delighted that UCLA, the University of California and the National Science Foundation will play a major role in helping shape it.”

The institute will be multidisciplinary, spanning physics, chemistry, mathematics, optical and electrical engineering, computer science, and other fields and will include scientists and engineers with expertise in quantum algorithms, mechanics and chemistry. They will partner with outside institutions, including in the emerging quantum industry, and will host symposia, workshops and other programs. Research challenges will be addressed jointly through a process that incorporates both theory and experiment.

In addition to research, the institute will train graduate students for the quantum industry of the future. UCLA’s department of physics and astronomy is establishing a master’s program in quantum science and technology that will incorporate a variety of academic disciplines and offer students access to cutting-edge, world-class instrumentation. The institute also will advance education from high school through graduate school and plans to offer online courses that advanced high school students, as well as college students, can take.

In the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, a single atom or subatomic particle can exist simultaneously in multiple conditions. While today’s computers rely on a binary system in which data units can be in only one of two possible states, quantum data units can be in multiple states, resulting in greater computational possibilities.

“It’s as if a magnet, instead of pointing up or down, can be in more than one state at a time,” said Hudson who is a primary investigator on a three-year, $2.7 million Quantum Information Science Research Award given by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2018. “The magnet can be equally up and down at the same time.”

While quantum computers are likely to have an enormous impact on national and global economies and societies in the future, both Stamper-Kurn and Hudson emphasize that several critical scientific challenges remain.

“We still do not know fully what quantum computers do well,” Stamper-Kurn said, “and we face deep challenges that arise in scaling up quantum devices. The mission of this institute is to address fundamental challenges in the development of the quantum computer.”

The institute’s initial members are all senior faculty from UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to Hudson, UCLA faculty members include Wesley Campbell, an associate professor of physics, and Jens Palsberg, a professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.

The project will also include a partnership between UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics and UC Berkeley’s Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing.

“A goal of these significant partnerships is to establish both institutes as the premier international centers for applied mathematics and quantum computer science,” Stamper-Kurn said.

“This new NSF institute is founded on the outstanding research contributions in theoretical and experimental quantum information science achieved by investigators from across the UC system through our multicampus California Institute for Quantum Entanglement,” said Theresa Maldonado, UC vice president for research and innovation. “The award recognizes the team’s vision of how advances in computational quantum science can reveal new fundamental understanding of phenomena at the tiniest length-scale that can benefit innovations in artificial intelligence, medicine, engineering and more.”

Hudson expressed gratitude to UCLA’s Carter; Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences; and Jayathi Murthy, the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Dean of UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering, for their vision and continual support for quantum science and technology.

The NSF also announced two other five-year, $25 million Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes to support quantum systems research and development: The Institute for Enhanced Sensing and Distribution Using Correlated Quantum States and the Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks.

More information on NSF-supported research on quantum information science and engineering is available at nsf.gov/quantum.

A photo of Chancellor Gene Block bestowing the UCLA Medal on U.S. Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis.

Remembering John Lewis

A photo of Chancellor Gene Block bestowing the UCLA Medal on U.S. Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block bestows the UCLA Medal on Congressman John Lewis. (Photo Credit: Marc Roseboro/UCLA)

Patricia Turner is professor of African American studies in the UCLA College and professor of world arts and culture/dance in the School of the Arts and Architecture.

As I was driving from UCLA to my home in the Valley, on April 10, 2017, I was warmed by the knowledge that my meeting with Congressman John Lewis constituted a personal milestone that I would always treasure. With the news in December 2019 of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I was moved again by the quiet power of the man I had studied and taught about and the man I got to watch in action that day two years prior. Now, with the news of Lewis’ death, I have lost a personal hero.

As a faculty member, I discourage my students from over-indulging in hero worship. All too often the men and women whom we read about don’t match the ones we meet. They are —like us — flawed, human and self-serving.

But I couldn’t take my own advice with Congressman Lewis. I had taught about him numerous times in my African American Studies courses, drawing the students’ attention to his unswerving commitment to nonviolence, even when others in the then nascent Black Power movement were trying to marginalize him for his convictions. The 1965 image of him in his tan raincoat and with his backpack on being savagely beaten while marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is seared in my mind.

Several decades later, I heard Lewis speak at a Smithsonian event on the mall featuring samples of the AIDS quilt, and I, like almost everyone else under the tent, was moved to tears to hear him talk about the honor he felt that his home district in Georgia had been selected as the one to care and preserve such an important expression of art and social justice. And now, no trip to D.C. is complete for me without a stop by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an extraordinarily significant cultural resource that he shepherded through all of the requisite partisan and bureaucratic challenges that come with erecting a new museum in Washington.

When the call went out at UCLA to nominate deserving individuals for our highest honor, the UCLA Medal, I nominated Lewis and pitched bestowing the medal on him at our annual Winston C. Doby Distinguished Lecture, an annual event conceived by UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program in honor of a leader who dedicated his career to increasing student diversity and access at UCLA and throughout the University of California system. Within the acreage of UCLA, Doby was a John Lewis.

One of the first senior African American administrators on the campus, Doby fought tirelessly on behalf of all of students but he had a determined goal of increasing the number of Black admitted students and graduates. When Proposition 209 threatened to curtail the number of Black admits, Doby assembled an impressive and generous cohort of alumni and raised significant funds from them to underwrite scholarships for Black students — a practice that required a significant work around to be both legal and compliant with the new legislation. Hundreds of Black students have UCLA on their transcripts because of Doby’s efforts.

Lewis accepted our invitation and I knew as the senior dean of the UCLA College and the person who nominated him, I would get some face time with him. Inspired by his comments in his moving autobiography, “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” I thought I would give him copies of my books and tell him that the work he and his generation had accomplished enabled me to achieve so much in a realm that was forbidden to us before the civil rights movement. He had noted in his autobiography, that his collection of books by Black authors was one of his most prized possessions. But then I realized that my story was the story of so many of my Black colleagues at UCLA. So I put out a call asking everyone to donate books for a gift.

We constructed a suitably academic backdrop for the question-and-answer period on the stage of Royce Hall — oversized leather chairs framed by bookshelves. At the end of a candid Q&A, Professor Tyrone Howard, who now holds the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Strengthening Families, told Lewis that the books weren’t props, they were all written by faculty of color at UCLA who agreed that his work on the front lines enabled our own in our laboratories and libraries and that we were sending them to Georgia for his library. He was quite moved.

I did get my face time with him and had no problem getting him to sign my copy of “Wind.” He asked about my teaching, and when I mentioned how much my students enjoyed reading about Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a relatively unknown but vastly important figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his face lit up. I had been temporarily uneasy about telling a civil rights icon how much my students liked someone else from the movement but he turned out to be an ardent and hardcore Robinson fan and showered me with praise for making sure my students knew about her.

At the luncheon, he was seated at the table with his long-time mentor and lecturer at UCLA, the Rev. James Lawson, Chancellor Gene Block, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Meyer and Renee Luskin, myself and others. The Doby family was spread out at other tables but when I called them up to present him with the plaque that comes with the lecture, he professed admiration for all he had learned about Winston Doby. He offered to host them at the museum should they come to D.C. Meyer and Renee Luskin were so moved that they created a scholarship that now underwrites the cost of books for a UCLA student admitted from his congressional district.

In pre-event planning, we had fretted about security. In prior months, Lewis had been in an inelegant exchange with then President-elect Donald Trump. We didn’t get a lot of guidance from his staff. We opted for the regular “important speaker” contingent in the hall itself and arranged for one plain-clothes security officer to be around in the green room, backstage and at the luncheon. After all of the luncheon guests had departed, the man working security came up to him and said, “Congressman Lewis, can I have a picture with you?” Lewis thanked him for his service, handed me the officer’s cell phone and smiled with the profound sincerity, respect and dignity we had seen all day.

The world has truly lost a bright light, who provided an example by action, with dignity and grace.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa

A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa (Photo Credit: Andrea Ucini)

By the end of this century, 1 in 4 people in the world could be African, says Thomas Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, quoting United Nations data. He believes this massive demographic shift will prompt countries to rethink partnerships with Africa, a youth-dominated continent that’s larger than the United States, China, India and most of Europe combined.

And UCLA is ahead of the game, as hundreds of Bruin students, scientists, doctors and administrators work hand in hand with local colleagues across the 54 incredibly varied countries that make up Africa today.

Unlike past “parachute doctors” — who would jump into a crisis, often perform heroically and then go home — UCLA people are deeply embedded in African communities, helping to prevent the next medical, economic or environmental calamity.

In January 2020, Chancellor Gene Block and his team of UCLA administrators attended the Diversity in Higher Education Colloquium in Bloemfontein, South Africa — co-hosted by the University of the Free State in South Africa, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and UCLA — to promote diversity and equality in global education. They met tireless and passionate advocates for change, many of whom work through malaria and deprivations unthinkable to many colleagues.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that their roles are vital to the future of the world. “UCLA’s partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa have been incredibly successful in helping tackle regional issues to improve the quality of life,” Block said upon his return. “It is important for UCLA, as a public research university, both to share our expertise and to learn from and collaborate with colleagues around the world for the advancement of society.”

It’s a paradigm shift away from previous efforts to help Africa through “aid with strings” packages or infrastructure investments that have bred monstrous civil wars and ugly kleptocracies.

Smith, who has been working in Cameroon for three decades, agrees that there are still widespread corruption and brutal struggles, which create mass displacements — 750,000 people were driven from their homes in Burkina Faso last year. But there are also extraordinary reasons for optimism. These include the global legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the promise of peaceful nations such as Ivory Coast, whose gross domestic product has nearly doubled over the past decade, challenging gloomy stereotypes.

Among a wave of fresh-thinking UCLA scholars who might have never expected to be working in Africa, three inspirational leaders spoke with UCLA Magazine.

Unexpected Journeys

Smith started out as an evolutionary biologist chasing an unusual finch, which led him to the jungles of Cameroon in West Africa. Anne Rimoin M.P.H. ’96, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, might have become a Hollywood lawyer if the Peace Corps had not offered her a position to track 30-inch-long worms in West Africa. And Sundeep Gupta was an epidemic intelligence officer working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before UCLA and Malawi came calling.

From Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, it’s 600 miles of rough road and river south to Rimoin’s bare-bones offices in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And it’s another 1,500 miles south to Gupta’s desk at the Partners in Hope offices in Malawi. The UCLA trio face very different challenges, but they’re united in their deep commitment to working with African partners.

When Smith got started, he recalls, “I was in Central Africa studying a fascinating species [of bird] called the black-bellied seedcracker, which shows unique variations in the size of its bill. I went to the rainforests in Central Africa, where my passion for biodiversity, sustainability and people was reinforced.

“In those days, I was living in a tent. But decades later [in 2015], we developed the Congo Basin Institute [CBI] to host scholars studying topics ranging from the rainforest’s enormous capacity to sequester carbon to zoonotic [species-jumping] diseases such as Ebola.” Located in Cameroon, the CBI is UCLA’s first foreign affiliate.

Smith adds: “In 2011, my colleagues and I discovered that the swine flu, [which was] first identified in Mexico, had taken a U-turn. It had moved from people back to swine, and no one — including the World Health Organization — knew it had reached Africa. Swine are the mixing vessels for influenza. This is how new pandemics start — there are no borders anymore.”

Smith saw something like the coronavirus coming. He remembers a prescient research paper from 13 years ago that referred to “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats that, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

Smith adds, “Even more than China, Central Africa is ground zero for infectious diseases that spill over from animals to humans. These include the ones we know — Ebola and SIV [the origin of HIV/AIDS] — but many we don’t. It turns out there are varieties of coronavirus circulating in African bats. Motivated by the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, our lab has launched a new study to assess the risk of these potentially dangerous, yet undescribed coronaviruses — both now and under future climate change.”

A photo of Thomas Smith (center) with friends.

Thomas Smith (center) with friends. (Photo Credit: Congo Basin Initiative)

Losing and Learning Skills

As an investigator, Smith works closely with the Baka people, seminomadic hunter-gatherers who intimately know the rainforests of Cameroon and Gabon. He pays tribute to his friend Augustin Siec, a Baka chief who could hear a rustle in the canopy and identify not only the species of the animal but also its gender and role in the forest’s ecology.

Smith has been worried that the younger among the 30,000-strong Baka community — under pressure from urban officials to settle in villages — have been losing this indigenous knowledge. But the CBI, which employs Baka research assistants, has created opportunities for them to relearn the skills of the “professors of the forest,” including herbal medicines that could unlock future cures for diseases. Siec’s recent death from misdiagnosed tuberculosis reminds Smith that health projects across Africa still have a long way to go.

Smith’s dream is that one day Africans themselves will run the CBI, including its labs. But first, Cameroonians will have to become more economically self-sustaining. To help achieve that, Smith partnered with San Diego–based Taylor Guitars on The Ebony Project, which is planting 15,000 ebony trees, interspersed with high-value fruit saplings, in Cameroon. According to Taylor Guitars, ebony wood creates richly ringing overtones with a clear lineal quality across the spectrum — and guitarists can hear the African difference.

The Congo Basin Institute provides a center for science in Africa for Africans, says Smith, offering facilities to young Africans who otherwise might have taken their skills abroad.

In a 2017 TED Talk, Cameroonian Kevin Njabo — the Africa director and an assistant adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Center for Tropical Research — mourns the wholesale exportation of “the best and the brightest” from Africa.

Njabo says he was drawn to UCLA not only because of its ability to develop programs that could save lives — like the 1 million people, mostly children, who die from malaria each year — but also by its ability to encourage expatriates to return home. “For every African who returns home, nine new jobs are created,” Njabo says. At the Congo Basin Initiative, he says, “we are building a one-stop shop for logistics, housing and development of collaborative projects, empowering Africans to find their own solutions. If this had existed when I was 18, I would have never left home — but I am coming back.”

A Joyful Day

The brain drain is a dilemma that haunts Rimoin, a popular voice across media who urged for calm during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Raised in Los Angeles, she credits a “brilliant” French language teacher for opening her eyes to Francophone Africa.

“My father [David Rimoin, who was famed for his work on inheritable diseases] was in medicine, but I was considering becoming an entertainment lawyer. [Then] the Peace Corps offered to send me to Benin [in West Africa] to track and eradicate Guinea worm infections. Who could resist? And my French made all the difference,” she says. Rimoin remembers a joyful day when a Benin woman said to her: “You have found who you are.” And she was right.

Since 2002, Rimoin has worked in the DRC, the troubled country once known as Zaire, and her research has revealed the zoonotic secrets of monkeypox and other emerging pathogens in remote areas along the Congo River.

Every day brings light and dark, she says. For example, in 2019, 50,000 Congolese died from measles, a disease that was thought to have been eradicated from the world.

But there’s also hope: In February 2020, after the latest Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, the last few patients were safely released from the hospital. Even more good news: Rimoin’s team tracked down survivors of the first-recorded Ebola outbreak in 1976 — people living in remote areas of the Congolese forest — and discovered that they still had lifesaving antibodies in their systems. This precious data could help prevent or treat future outbreaks.

“It’s incredible and hopeful, but we still have to raise more funds to protect those workers on the front line,” Rimoin says, with her characteristic blend of enthusiasm and practicality.

The sources of many such outbreaks have been tracked back to “wet markets,” where trapped wild animals are sold as food — as in Wuhan, China, which was ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s complicated,” Rimoin says. Wet markets “are built into the culture, and the people need the protein in areas where it’s difficult to find alternatives.”

A photo of hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi.

Hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi. (Photo Credit: Anne Rimoin)

Mama Étêté

“Right from the start, I was not interested in parachute medicine,” Rimoin says. “I was there for the long term — to build trust and my understanding of the issues. And I love it.”

As director of the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for Global and Immigrant Health, Rimoin appreciates the colleagues who have relocated to the DRC, such as Nicole Hoff Ph.D. ’14, the UCLA-DRC Research Program’s country director and senior administrative analyst, and Kirstin Chickering M.P.H. ’95, the program’s associate director. “Kirstin and I were together at elementary school in Palos Verdes, but did not know each other,” Rimoin says. “Kirstin came to Kinshasa to help me set up a project for three months, and that was 11 years ago. Kirstin, Nicole and I are three tough UCLA sisters!”

Rimoin is well-known around Kinshasa, fighting for causes such as protecting the bonobo ape from being hunted as bush meat. Although her knowledge has been in demand during the COVID-19 crisis, and she has appeared frequently on NPR, HBO and MSNBC, she has no plans to walk away from the DRC — even if its bloody spasms of civil war continue to displace 5 million people. After all, she and UCLA have work to do. Plus, she jokes, “phone reception is better than in Benedict Canyon.”

When a Fielding colleague described Rimoin as “just so boss,” the epidemiologist admits, “I am very persistent. When I go see a local official, he will say, ‘Oh, it’s you. I will just say yes, yes, yes now, to save time!’ In [the Bantu language] Lingala, I am called ‘Mama Étêté,’ or ‘the woman who never gives up.’”

Malawi Miracle

Gupta takes a low-key approach to his clinical work in the AIDS wards in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi — one of the Central African countries most severely weakened by the HIV pandemic. He says that what he has witnessed over the past decade is a miracle of modern medicine and thinking about flexible approaches to diseases.

In 2000, Perry Jansen, a doctor who had completed his residency at UCLA in 1994, established the nonprofit Partners in Hope, Malawi, to bring antiviral drugs to the country. At that time, the life expectancy at birth was 45 years; today, it’s 64 and rising. The number of HIV treatment clinics has increased from one to around 20, with UCLA contributing funding and personnel on the ground. So far, around 200 UCLA students and staff have worked in Malawi.

Gupta wears many hats: He is an epidemiologist, a family physician, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and programs director at Partners in Hope. “You go where the need is greatest,” says Gupta, speaking from Lilongwe. He says the stable UCLA presence in Malawi is key, allowing recently arrived doctors, such as Faysal Saab ’07, M.D. ’12, to focus on improving medical practices, using both textbook theory and evidence-based medicine.

One diagnostic issue was that many young men were embarrassed to go to an HIV clinic. But UCLA doctors introduced self-testing kits, and this experimental switch increased the number of Malawians who got tested for and diagnosed with HIV. Ten years ago, 100,000 Malawians were undergoing treatment; today it’s around 830,000. There are still problems, but for many observers, it’s an emotional revitalization of a nation.


There are as many positions of interest for Bruins in Africa as there are countries spanning the continent. It’s not about what Westerners think should happen, but about what works for the Africans themselves, Smith says.

So what is UCLA’s role in Africa? “There is an incredible awareness of the university, earning respect with its research from South Africa and Mozambique to the Congo Basin,” Rimoin says. “The way we practice global health is much more collaborative than in the past. It’s been decolonized, as we have helped nations develop their own health infrastructures. We have made a promise to be here, to maintain funding, and the Africans are learning to trust that. Our first priority is to not let Africa down.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Royce Hall.

Alumna’s Gift will Support the Study of Contemporary Chinese Culture

A $250,000 donation from economics alumna May C. Chong has established the Heritage and Hope Endowment in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Augmented by $125,000 from the Humanities Centennial Match, the gift will support students and faculty researching contemporary global Chinese culture and/or religion, specifically Buddhism.

A photo of Royce Hall.

Royce Hall (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“We are deeply grateful for May Chong’s generous gift, which will firmly embed contemporary Chinese cultural studies on our campus,” Dean of Humanities David Schaberg said. “More broadly, this gift further empowers UCLA in its mission to educate global citizens and foster greater cultural understanding.”

Chong, who graduated from UCLA in 1979, grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States after graduating from high school. As a student, she spent hours in the Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library in UCLA’s Young Research Library, considering it her “home away from home.” In 2011, she established an endowment for the library supporting the acquisition of books and materials, including primarily Chinese classics, culture, education and modern literature, as well as publications in Chinese or dual language (Chinese-English).

“It is my hope that these complementary gifts will help UCLA become known as a premier cultural and educational resource for both Chinese and non-Chinese-speaking people who are interested in Chinese language, teachings and cultures,” Chong said.

Chong is a longtime financial adviser currently employed by UBS Financial Services. She previously worked for Merrill Lynch. In 2014, she was named by the Financial Times among the Top 100 Women Financial Advisors. In the same year CEOWorld placed her on their America’s Top-Ranked 100 Women Financial Advisors list. She is married to Danny Yiu. They have a daughter who graduated from NYU in 2017.

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

How conspiracy theories emerge – and how their storylines fall apart

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

Researchers produced a graphic representation of the narratives they analyzed, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A new study by UCLA professors offers a new way to understand how unfounded conspiracy theories emerge online. The research, which combines sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured, explains how unrelated facts and false information can connect into a narrative framework that would quickly fall apart if some of those elements are taken out of the mix.

The authors, from the UCLA College and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, illustrated the difference in the storytelling elements of a debunked conspiracy theory and those that emerged when journalists covered an actual event in the news media. Their approach could help shed light on how and why other conspiracy theories, including those around COVID-19, spread — even in the absence of facts.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, analyzed the spread of news about the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey — an actual conspiracy — and the spread of misinformation about the 2016 “Pizzagate” myth, the completely fabricated conspiracy theory that a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring that involved prominent Democratic Party officials, including Hillary Clinton.

The researchers used machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to analyze the information that spread online about the Pizzagate story. The AI automatically can tease out all of the people, places, things and organizations in a story spreading online — whether the story is true or fabricated — and identify how they are related to each other.

Finding the puzzle pieces

In either case — whether for a conspiracy theory or an actual news story — the narrative framework is established by the relationships among all of the elements of the storyline. And, it turns out, conspiracy theories tend to form around certain elements that act as the adhesive holding the facts and characters together.

“Finding narratives hidden in social media forums is like solving a huge jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication of noise, where many of the pieces are just irrelevant,” said Vwani Roychowdhury, a UCLA professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in machine learning, and a lead author of the paper.

In recent years, researchers have made great strides in developing artificial intelligence tools that can analyze batches of text and identify the pieces to those puzzles. As the AI learns to identify patterns, identities and interactions that are embedded in words and phrases, the narratives begin to make “sense.” Drawing from the massive amount of data available on social media, and because of improving technology, the systems are increasingly able to teach themselves to “read” narratives, almost as if they were human.

The visual representations of those story frameworks showed the researchers how false conspiracy theory narratives are held together by threads that connect multiple characters, places and things. But they found that if even one of those threads is cut, the other elements often can’t form a coherent story without it.

A conspiracy theory unravels: The researchers found that with Wikileaks relationships removed as the “glue” for the false narrative, other elements of the Pizzagate myth quickly disconnected from one another. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“One of the characteristics of a conspiracy theory narrative framework is that it is easily ‘disconnected,’” said Timothy Tangherlini, one of the paper’s lead authors, a professor in the UCLA Scandinavian section whose scholarship focuses on folklore, legend and popular culture. “If you take out one of the characters or story elements of a conspiracy theory, the connections between the other elements of the story fall apart.”

Which elements stick?

In contrast, he said, the stories around actual conspiracies — because they’re true — tend to stand up even if any given element of the story is removed from the framework. Consider Bridgegate, for example, in which New Jersey officials closed several lanes of the George Washington Bridge for politically motivated reasons. Even if any number of threads were removed from the news coverage of the scandal, the story would have held together: All of the characters involved had multiple points of connection by way of their roles in New Jersey politics.

“They are all within the same domain, in this case New Jersey politics, which will continue to exist irrespective of the deletions,” Tangherlini said. “Those connections don’t require the same ‘glue’ that a conspiracy theory does.”

Tangherlini calls himself a “computational folklorist.” Over the past several years, he has collaborated regularly with Roychowdhury to better understand the spread of information around hot-button issues like the anti-vaccination movement.

To analyze Pizzagate, in which the conspiracy theory arose from a creative interpretation of hacked emails released in 2016 by Wikileaks, the researchers analyzed nearly 18,000 posts from April 2016 through February 2018 from discussion boards on the websites Reddit and Voat.

“When we looked at the layers and structure of the narrative about Pizzagate, we found that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up,” Tangherlini said. “In this conspiracy, the Wikileaks email dump and how theorists creatively interpreted the content of what was in the emails are the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

The data generated by the AI analysis enabled the researchers to produce a graphic representation of narratives, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers.

Quick build versus slow burn

Another difference that emerged between real and false narratives concerned the time they take to build. Narrative structures around conspiracy theories tend to build and become stable quickly, while narrative frameworks around actual conspiracies can take years to emerge, Tangherlini said. For example, the narrative framework of Pizzagate stabilized within a month after the Wikileaks dump, and it stayed relatively consistent over the next three years.

“The fact that additional information related to an actual conspiracy emerged over a prolonged period of time (here five and half years) might be one of the telltale signs of distinguishing a conspiracy from a conspiracy theory,” the authors wrote in the study.

Tangherlini said it’s becoming increasingly important to understand how conspiracy theories abound, in part because stories like Pizzagate have inspired some to take actions that endanger other people.

“The threat narratives found in conspiracy theories can imply or present strategies that encourage people to take real-world action,” he said. “Edgar Welch went to that Washington pizzeria with a gun looking for supposed caves hiding victims of sex trafficking.”

The UCLA researchers have also written another paper examining the narrative frameworks surrounding conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. In that study, which has been published on an open-source forum, they track how the conspiracy theories are being layered on to previously circulated conspiracy theories such as those about the perceived danger of vaccines, and, in other cases how the pandemic has given rise to completely new ones, like the idea that 5G cellular networks spread the coronavirus.

“We’re using the same pipeline on COVID-19 discussions as we did for Pizzagate,” Tangherlini said. “In Pizzagate, the targets were more limited, and the conspiracy theory stabilized rapidly. With COVID-19, there are many competing conspiracy theories, and we are tracing the alignment of multiple, smaller conspiracy theories into larger ones. But the underlying theory is identical for all conspiracy theories.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Jason De León.

Second annual cohort of Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research to incorporate social justice into undergraduate courses

A photo of Jason De León.

Professor Jason De León, one of five 2020-21 recipients of the Chancellor’s Community-Engaged Research Award. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA undergraduates will soon have the opportunity to gather primary source documents about California Indian dance, interview migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, study emerging online platforms for community organizing, and other community research-based subjects.

Five faculty have been chosen to receive the second annual Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research.  The five $10,000 research grants, offered by the UCLA Center for Community Learning and the Chancellor’s office, will support the faculty in developing courses that will engage students in research projects in conjunction with community partners.

In each course, students will carry out research activities in partnership with local community organizations. The course will advance their professor’s research goals and also benefit the communities that the partners serve.

Over the next academic year, the five faculty will participate in a workshop on best practices for teaching undergraduate community-engaged research and attend quarterly meetings to advance their course design. By the end of spring 2021, each faculty will have a new course syllabus, ready to be offered to undergraduates in 2021-22 or 2022-23.

Shalom Staub, director of the UCLA Center for Community Learning, said that the faculty selected for this year’s award will employ anti-racist and decolonial methodologies to tackle critical issues.

“The five award recipients embody the highest standards of scholarship combined with a deep commitment to racial, economic, and gender justice,” Staub said. “Through the new courses emerging from these awards, undergraduates will have the opportunity to learn community-engaged research methodology, contribute to their faculty’s ongoing research, and produce work of value to community partner organizations.”

Though the course topics vary widely, each one places an emphasis on studying the act of community engagement in itself: How can academic institutions and researchers remain respectful, ethical and collaborative when working with the communities they are studying?

Tria Blu Wakpa, professor of world arts and cultures/dance, will develop a course called “The Politics and Possibilities of California Indian Dance.” Students will gather primary and secondary documents about and related to California Indian dances and write annotated bibliographies. They will share all of this information with California Indian representatives of the Tongva, Chumash, Ohlone, and Winnemem Wintu nations, who will draw on these texts to revitalize and innovate their dances.

“The course will show that collaborating and consulting with Native peoples when writing about their dances is vital given the problematic relationships between universities and Indigenous peoples, tribally-specific contexts and understandings that undergird Native dances, and Indigenous protocols around what information is appropriate to share,” Blu Wakpa said.

Another course, “Community-Engaged Approaches to Environmental Toxicants, Chronic Illness, and Gender,” will introduce students to the UCLA Center for the Study of Women’s Oral Histories of Environmental Illness Archive, which has recorded interviews with women who have experienced illness as a result of chemicals and environmental toxins (in beauty products and while working in nail salons, for example).

Rachel Lee, professor in the departments of English, gender studies and the UCLA Institute of Society and Genetics, will teach the course. She wants students to investigate and make contact with community organizations that could benefit the individuals in the oral history archive, enabling the students to learn from them about advocacy and activism.

“It’s always striking to me how much knowledge is had by the organizers. They are the teachers here,” Lee said.

Jason de Leon, professor of anthropology and Chicana/Chicano studies, said community-engaged coursework can show students that they are capable of doing fieldwork and taking ownership of research projects.

“There is no substitute for hands-on learning,” de Leon said. “There’s a transformation that happens when you put people into a situation where they’re no longer passive learners, and they’re put into the driver’s seat to do the work.”

In De Leon’s course, students will interview and conduct focus groups with migrants who have been held in federal detention centers at the U.S./Mexico border, as well as people who have worked in the detention centers or live in the cities where the centers are located. Their work will be incorporated into an art exhibition called Hostile Terrain 94, part of the Undocumented Migration Project.

“We really hope that we can develop a rich collaboration with the communities, to feel like they are really collaborating with us,” he said. “What can we do in the community to help?”

Rounding out the 2020 cohort is Jennifer Chun, department of Asian American studies, and Gaye Theresa Johnson, Chicano/Chicana studies and African American studies. In conjunction with the Asian Pacific Islander American Leadership Development Project, Chun’s course will instruct students on developing relationships and practices of accountability, transparency, and reciprocity in the writing of organizational case studies and movement histories.

Johnson’s course will assign students to different local social welfare organizations such as Hunger Action LA to complete a project for that organization, while studying the intersecting social justice issues that determine the organization’s central organizing principles.

“In these tumultuous times, it is more important than ever for students to be actively engaged in the world around them,” Chancellor Gene Block said. “The Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research recognizes and supports those faculty who are providing exceptional undergraduate learning opportunities, empowering students to conduct research that will benefit the community and amplify voices that are often silenced. I look forward to seeing the positive impact the courses will have on both the Bruins who take part and the communities they will serve.”