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A photo of professors Floridalma Boj Lopez, Leisy Abrego and Karina Alma..

We see you: New department name uplifts Central Americans

A photo of professors Floridalma Boj Lopez, Leisy Abrego and Karina Alma..

From left: professors Floridalma Boj Lopez, Leisy Abrego and Karina Alma. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

  • Adding “Central American” to the Chicana and Chicano studies department name recognizes students and faculty from a region whose individual cultures are often overlooked.
  • UCLA scholars have long focused on expanding knowledge of cultural production, identity and indigeneity about Central America and its people.
  • A minor in Central American studies is in the works.

Though named after a renowned labor leader of Mexican American heritage, the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies has been, since its founding in 1993, a diverse ideological container that allows vital scholarship centered on many different perspectives and nationalities to thrive.

So as the 2019–2020 school year began in July, leaders in the department finalized a broadly supported plan to add “Central American” to the official name. And thus, the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano and Central American Studies was born. Far more than an internal name change, it’s a move that reflects the department’s already established approach to embrace research, teaching, advocacy and lived experiences that countervail the narratives of criminality, victimhood and deportation that persist about people from Central America.

“We need to lead the way nationally. And hopefully through that effort, we will open bridges and spaces where we learn more about each other,” said Leisy Abrego, the new department chair. Abrego is a member of the first large wave of Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. She has been teaching courses about Central American politics and migration and immigrant experiences at UCLA for years.

“The demand was for a department name that reflected the work that we have been doing for some time,” she said. “So adding ‘Central American’ is a recognition of that, and an acknowledgement of our Central American students and colleagues.”

Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Central American migrants in the country, many of them second- or third-generation American citizens who have been navigating multiple identities and cultures in the city since the 1970s when Central American migration to the United States began expanding.

The work of re-framing perceptions of Central America has become increasingly important over the last several years, largely in the wake of increased migration from the region, particularly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as migrants flee war, privation and violence — often the result of U.S. foreign policies. This migration has been met with increasingly strident and cruel immigration policies at the U.S.–Mexico border.

At UCLA the desire to shine a different kind of light on Central America has also resulted in the recent formation of community-building student group UNICA de UCLA (Union Centroamericana) and the graduate-student support group, Central American Isthmus Graduate Association, known as CAIGA.

Karina Alma has been part of the that progress, having joined UCLA as a lecturer in 2013. She became an assistant professor in 2019 and teaches a wide range of Latino, Chicano and Central American topics for the department.

“A move like this brings visibility, it brings presence, which also helps counter sensationalist stereotypes,” she said. “When I teach, I let my students know I am a Salvadoran woman, that I still consider myself an immigrant woman, though I was born and raised in Pico-Union in the inner city of L.A. That transparency and perspective is important.”

Embracing Central American studies means understanding intersecting communities, Alma said.

“Our communities intersect in the very bodies of our students,” she pointed out. “Many of our students are actually Salvadoran and Mexican, Honduran and Chicano. It’s about more than just what’s there in the written text we study. It’s about how we live our lives and how we treat one another.”

In the past, Central American scholarly topics have been exoticized or hyperfocused on politics and war, primarily from the gaze of American or European writers, she said.

“Often students are taught that Central America is a space devoid of knowledge production, but we have a long history of cultural production, of literary production, of knowledge, philosophy and ideas,” said Alma, whose expertise is on Central American literature and cultural production. Alma makes it a point to introduce Central American authors from the diaspora to UCLA students.

Layered within the those intersecting communities is the concept of indigeneity and the dual identities carried by many people from Central America, especially Guatemala, where the population is still majority Indigenous.

Floridalma Boj Lopez, who migrated from Guatemala to Los Angeles when she was 2 years old joined the department as an assistant professor in July and is teaching a course this fall focused on the topic of indigeneity and the role it plays as Central American migrants move through transnational spaces.

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz taking courses in Latin American and Central American Studies, Boj Lopez often thought about how she might center and approach Central American studies differently from her position as a member of the community.

“It’s important to have students exposed to people who come from these particular communities, but also who remain committed to the future of those communities,” Boj Lopez said. “That’s often how I articulate what it means for me to be Maya and to be an academic — is that I’m talking about a group of people whose future and my future are intertwined.”

Thinking about these multiple identities and how they transcend borders and labels is nuanced.

“But if you go at a pace that makes sense, but also remain open to challenging what students think, even those who are not indigenous respond really well,” Boj Lopez said. “They learn about themselves and they learn about what it means to be an ally to indigenous migrants.”

Boj Lopez said she is eager to see the pipeline of Central American academics continue to expand. And she chose to come to UCLA because she wanted to stay in the city she loves and be part of the campus’s social justice efforts.

Former department chair Eric Avila said there are also plans to also launch a Central American studies minor.

“As public university in one of the largest cities in the world, we felt our department had an obligation to more faithfully represent the diverse Latino communities of L.A.,” Avila said. “We believe our department is the perfect place to bring a focus to Central American history, identity and culture.”

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

Astrophysicist France Córdova to deliver UCLA’s Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership

France Córdova, internationally renowned astrophysicist and the first woman to be appointed chief scientist for NASA, will deliver UCLA College’s fifth Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership on Nov. 10, titled “The Learn’d Astronomer Discovers the Policy World.” Córdova is the former director of the National Science Foundation and served in five presidential administrations.

A photo of Astrophysicist France Córdova.

Astrophysicist France Córdova (Photo Courtesy of France Córdova)

Córdova will discuss the world of science policy, which affects scientific progress as much as scientific discoveries themselves. Through examples such as the writing of the U.S. Constitution to the present day challenges faced by universities and federal science agencies, she will illustrate how difficult — and important — it can be to form good policy.

Registration is required for this virtual event, which is free and open to UCLA students, alumni and the general public. Following her talk, Córdova will take part in a moderated discussion informed by questions submitted by students and alumni.

“As an influential leader and trailblazer in science, engineering and education, France Córdova offers invaluable perspective on meeting the challenges of our rapidly changing world,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said.

During her career as a scientist, Córdova specialized in multi-spectral research on X-ray and gamma ray sources and in developing space-borne instrumentation. She was the first woman to be appointed president of Purdue University and the first Latina chancellor of UC Riverside. She previously served as vice chancellor for research at UC Santa Barbara. Córdova also served as chair of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution and on the board of trustees of Mayo Clinic. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology.

Among her numerous honors, Córdova is the recipient of NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal — the agency’s highest honor, and the Kilby International Award, which is presented for significant contributions to society through science, technology, innovation, invention and education. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a National Associate of the National Academies, an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Women in Science. She was appointed to the board of trustees of Caltech in June.

“France Córdova’s groundbreaking achievements are inspiring to all who value progress and discovery,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the UCLA College. “Her Luskin Lecture will undoubtedly motivate and challenge all of us to create a better world through education and exploration, as she herself as done.”

The Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership 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 opportunity to share knowledge and expand the dialogue among scholars, leaders in government and business, and the greater Los Angeles community.

This article, written by Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a California poll tax receipt from 1857

California has removed most obstacles to voting. Why are so many still not going to the polls?

A photo of a California poll tax receipt from 1857

During California’s early years, paying a poll tax was considered an obligation of citizenship. (Photo Credit: Edson Smith Photo Collection/Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Public Library)

A new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy takes a historical view to understand why, in 2020, the electorate in California remains demographically and socioeconomically skewed.

The authors contend that vote-by-mail, near-automatic voter registration, a vote-by-mail ballot tracing system and other practices have expanded voting rights to most Californians. Yet longstanding inequities in voting patterns persist.

Despite persistent statewide policy efforts to increase voting access since 1960, voter registration and turnout are lower among people of color than among white people, the report notes. And California voters today — especially those who vote by mail — tend to be older, wealthier and whiter than the state’s overall population. For example, in Los Angeles County, wealthier and whiter districts cast as many as 40% more votes than those with heavily Latino and working-class populations.

The paper suggests that ongoing factors like gerrymandering and the disenfranchisement of former felons who are on parole may explain part of that phenomenon. (If it passes in November, however, California’s Proposition 17 would enable people on parole for felony convictions to vote.)

“Notwithstanding the efforts of the past 60 years, California still has work to do,” said Alisa Belinkoff Katz, the report’s lead author and a fellow at the center, which is housed in the UCLA College. “California’s electorate does not reflect the diversity of its population. We can only meet the present moment if we understand and eliminate policies that have historically restricted the franchise.”

For the first hundred years after 1850, when California became a state, voting laws limited access to the franchise, in effect suppressing the vote of poor and minority populations. The state passed several such policies during the late 1800s, including English literacy tests. And the federal government banned citizenship for most Native Americans and all Chinese immigrants, excluding them from the franchise altogether.

California also implemented stringent voter registration rules that made voting more difficult for people with lower incomes and those without a settled address.

After World War II, however, state officials changed course. They worked diligently both to overturn discriminatory policies and to make it easier to register and vote, launching voter registration drives, expanding absentee voting, and experimenting with all-mail elections. The state has passed legislation designed to expand the franchise almost every year since 1960.

But the study reinforces the reality that structural inequality still keeps many Californians from participating in the political process.

“California, and American society at large, must reckon with and overturn the racial and socioeconomic barriers that discourage or prevent large numbers of eligible voters form voting,” said David Myers, a UCLA professor of history and director of the Luskin Center.

Other key takeaways from the report:

– California enacted voter registration — requiring a settled address — in 1866. This limited access to the vote for the working class, poor, immigrants and racial minorities.

-From the 1890s to 1924, voter turnout in presidential elections dropped dramatically across the United States, from around 80% of eligible voters to just 49%, in part because of voter registration laws.

-California suppressed the vote with an 1899 law requiring voters to re-register every two years. The state established permanent voter registration in 1930, but that law also purged thousands of registered voters from the rolls each year if they had failed to vote in prior elections.

-A constitutional amendment allowing absentee voting barely passed in 1922 after failing three previous times. But the use of absentee voting was limited until a series of reforms beginning in 1978. Today, the vote-by-mail option is open to all, but it has not been used by all Californians at equal rates.

-An English literacy requirement for voting remained on the books until the early 1970s. It was rarely applied to European or Asian immigrants, but in the 1950s it was sometimes used by political candidates to challenge Mexican American voters at the polls.

Katz is also associate director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The research team also included Zev Yaroslavsky, a senior fellow at the center; Izul de la Vega, a UCLA doctoral student; Saman Haddad, a UCLA undergraduate; and Jeanne Ramin, a recent UCLA graduate. As part of their research, the authors interviewed California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan, two of the state’s most important elections officials.

This article, written by Maia Ferdman, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Diagnosing Hidden Brain Injuries Drives Student Success

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Hana Abdirahman (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Hana Abdirahman has always focused hard on something: In high school it was sports. Later on, it was work. But she wasn’t ready for college when she tried, right out of high school, and she dropped out pretty quickly. A few years later – in her mid-20s – she decided to try focusing on higher education for real, on her own terms. Two years at a community college showed her she could succeed as an undergraduate; she just needed to find the next step if she was going to study the brain, a subject of longtime fascination, at a high level. She was looking for a large university, with a hospital and network of labs, to get deep into the subject.

That’s when she found UCLA’s highly regarded neuroscience program and the Division of Undergraduate Re-entry Scholarships, which allow students past the traditional undergraduate age to return to school when they’re better suited to a university’s rigor. Abdirahman was able to help support her own education as the recipient of several re-entry scholarships from donors to the division of Undergraduate Education.

“What’s expected of people is to go to college right after high school,” Abdirahman says. “The reentry scholarship gives older students an incentive to go back to school: at UCLA, there’s no one path to higher education.”

When Abdirahman enrolled at UCLA, she was able to take advantage of a university lab on brain injury. Brain injury had interested her ever since she’d heard about an athlete who’d had part of her brain removed because of seizures, and who went on to compete after the operation. Her work in the lab led to a research project, in which Abdirahman measures proteins in the bloodstream, a process that helps doctors diagnose injuries they can’t see in an MRI. Some of the findings will be part of a paper she and her colleagues expect to publish; and the research also became the basis of her senior honors thesis.

Abdirahman has made an impact at UCLA doing what she loves, and hopes to use her skills to help others. She couldn’t have done it without the Scholarship Resource Center, a no-charge support program established to provide scholarship information, resources, and support services to all UCLA students, regardless of financial aid eligibility.  “The Center connects you with a counselor; it really helps people like me who haven’t had the normal college experience. Every quarter I would go in and talk with them about how I was doing.”

Now, after graduating from UCLA this past June, Hana is still on track to succeed.  She’s pursuing her dream as a first-year medical student, hoping to specialize in neurology or surgery. Both the Re-entry Scholarship and the Scholarship Resource Center paved the way for her future success.

“The support I received helped me stay on course at UCLA as an undergraduate.”

Guts and brains: How microbes in a mother’s intestines affect fetal neurodevelopment

The gut microbiota comprises the billions of bacteria and other microbes that live in the intestines. (Photo Credit: Alpha Tauri 3D Graphics/Shutterstock.com)

During pregnancy in mice, the billions of bacteria and other microbes that live in a mother’s intestines regulate key metabolites, small molecules that are important for healthy fetal brain development, UCLA biologists report Sept. 23 in the journal Nature.

While the maternal gut microbiota has been associated with abnormalities in the brain function and behavior of offspring — often in response to factors like infection, a high-fat diet or stress during pregnancy — scientists had not known until now whether it influenced brain development during critical prenatal periods and in the absence of such environmental challenges.

To test the impact the gut microbiata has on the metabolites and other biochemicals that circulate in maternal blood and nurture the rapidly developing fetal brain, the researchers raised mice that were treated with antibiotics to kill gut bacteria, as well as mice that were bred microbe-free in a laboratory.

“Depleting the maternal gut microbiota, using both methods, similarly disrupted fetal brain development,” said the study’s lead author, Helen Vuong, a postdoctoral scholar in laboratory of UCLA’s Elaine Hsiao.

Depleting the maternal gut microbiota altered which genes were turned on in the brains of developing offspring, including many genes involved in forming new axons within neurons, Vuong said. Axons are tiny fibers that link brain cells and enable them to communicate.

In particular, axons that connect the brain’s thalamus to its cortex were reduced in number and in length, the researchers found.

“These axons are particularly important for the ability to sense the environment,” Vuong said. “Consistent with this, offspring from mothers lacking a gut microbiota had impairments in particular sensory behaviors.”

The findings indicate that the maternal gut microbiota can promote healthy fetal brain development by regulating metabolites that enter the fetal brain itself, Vuong said.

“When we measured the types and levels of molecules in the maternal blood, fetal blood and fetal brain, we found that particular metabolites were commonly decreased or missing when the mother was lacking a gut microbiota during pregnancy,” she said.

The biologists then grew neurons in the presence of these key metabolites. They also introduced these metabolites into the microbiata-depleted pregnant mice.

“When we grew neurons in the presence of these metabolites, they developed longer axons and greater numbers of axons,” Vuong said. “And when we supplemented the pregnant mice with key metabolites that were decreased or missing when the microbiata was depleted, levels of those metabolites were restored in the fetal brain and the impairments in axon development and in offspring behavior were prevented.

“The gut microbiota has the incredible capability to regulate many biochemicals not only in the pregnant mother but also in the developing fetus and fetal brains,” Vuong said. “Our findings also pinpoint select metabolites that promote axon growth.”

The results suggest that interactions between the microbiota and nervous system begin prenatally through the influence of the maternal gut microbiota on the fetal brain, at least in mice.

The applicability of the findings to humans is still unclear, said the study’s senior author, Elaine Hsiao, a UCLA associate professor of integrative biology and physiology, and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College.

“We don’t know whether and how the findings may apply to humans,” said Hsiao, who is also an associate professor of digestive diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “However, there are many neurodevelopmental disorders that are believed to be caused by both genetic and environmental risk factors experienced during pregnancy. Our study suggests that maternal gut microbiota during pregnancy should also be considered and further studied as a factor that could potentially influence not only the health of the mother but the health of the developing offspring as well.”

Hsiao, Vuong and colleagues reported in 2019 that serotonin and drugs that target serotonin, such as antidepressants, can have a major effect on the gut’s microbiota. In 2018, Hsiao and her team established a causal link between seizure susceptibility and gut microbiota and identified specific gut bacteria that play an essential role in the anti-seizure effects of the ketogenic diet.

Co-authors of the current study are Geoffrey Pronovost and Elena Coley, UCLA doctoral students in Hsiao’s laboratory; Emily Siegler, Austin Qiu and Chantel Wilson, former UCLA undergraduate researchers in Hsiao’s laboratory; Maria Kazantsev, a former graduate student in Hsiao’s laboratory; Tomiko Rendon, a former germ-free facility manager in Hsiao’s laboratory; and Drake Williams, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health.

The Nature research was supported by funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, a Klingenstein–Simons Fellowship Award, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, and the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Vahagn Aldzhyan Selected as Second Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholar

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

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

A photo of Vahagn Aldzhyan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a legacy worth leaving.

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

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

UCLA faculty couple leaves nearly $9 million for psychology and other programs

A photo of Jeffrey and Wenzel.

Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel outside Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Andrews)

UCLA has received more than $8.7 million from the estate of the late Bernice Wenzel and Wendell “Jeff” Jeffrey, UCLA professors who were well known for their longtime commitment to the university.

More than $4.5 million of their gift will support four faculty chairs, scholarships, fellowships and colloquia in the UCLA College’s psychology department. The couple had previously endowed the department’s annual Jeffrey Lecture series and the Wendell Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel Term Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“Bernice Wenzel and Wendell Jeffrey were incredible supporters of UCLA Psychology and firm believers in collaborative education and research among students and faculty alike,” said department chair Annette Stanton. “We are deeply grateful for their own contributions to science and society and for their continuing commitment to training talented students and retaining exceptional faculty.”

The rest of the funds will support the Hammer Museum at UCLA, the UCLA Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center and the UCLA Library, along with the annual Henry J. Bruman Chamber Music Festival in the UCLA College’s division of humanities. The range of benefiting areas highlights Wenzel’s and Jeffrey’s diverse interests. Lifelong learners, the two led distinguished careers as scientists but also enjoyed music, art and travel together, giving not only to UCLA but also to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Ojai Music Festival.

The couple maintained a unique connection with UCLA, where they spent significant portions of their careers. Wenzel was a professor in the department of physiology and the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and served as an assistant dean for educational research at the medical school from 1974 to 1989. Known for her groundbreaking discovery that pigeons smell and use sight and sound to guide themselves, she also helped break the glass ceiling as part of the first generation of female professors.

Jeffrey was a developmental psychologist in the psychology department, studying the learning processes of young children and mentoring graduate students by supervising research, facilitating collaboration and introducing them to well-known experts. Many of his protégés went on to become professors themselves.

The two hosted numerous student gatherings on campus and at their home, and they remained deeply engaged with UCLA after their retirement. They regularly visited campus, and Wenzel served as president of the emeriti association in 1994–95. She also was part of the Wednesday Group, a group of retired faculty and campus leaders that continued to meet weekly at the Faculty Center. Jeffrey died in 2015 and Wenzel in 2018.

“Bernice and Wendell were Bruins through and through, and their investment in education and the arts at UCLA will remain a fitting testament to their generosity and wisdom,” said Lynn Andrews, the couple’s niece, who recalls visiting her aunt and uncle on campus and benefiting from their philanthropic and artistic influences. “Having them in the family — whether my own or UCLA’s — was always an extra-special blessing.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Norma Mendoza-Dutton.

Q&A: Norma Mendoza-Denton on how Donald Trump weaponizes words

Norma Mendoza-Denton, professor of anthropology in the UCLA College, studies the language used by President Donald Trump and politicians of all stripes. She’s co-editor (with Janet McIntosh of Brandeis University) of a new book, “Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies,” which brings together 27 academics — including three other UCLA professors, H. Samy Alim, holder of the David O. Sears Presidential Endowed Chair in the Social Sciences and professor of Anthropology and African American Studies; Otto Santa Ana, professor emeritus of Chicana and Chicano studies, and Aomar Boum, associate professor of anthropology and Near Eastern languages and cultures — to analyze and understand the language of our current political moment. In this interview, Mendoza-Denton talks about how Trump uses words to manipulate reality, and how linguists can help us view politics through a more critical lens.

A photo of Norma Mendoza-Dutton.

Norma Mendoza-Dutton, professor of anthropology in the UCLA College. (Photo courtesy of Norma Mendoza-Dutton)

What did you set out to do with “Language in the Trump Era”? 

For me, the main purpose of this book has been to try to equip people to do their own analyses on the fly. So that when you hear something coming from a political figure or from somebody in authority, you have some tools to say, “Oh my gosh, I recognize this, it’s a discourse pattern that somebody is putting out there. And as a discourse pattern, I’m able to name it and I’m able to have it not take me in.” It’s a kind of tool set for people to make their own determination about what they believe.

As a linguistic anthropologist, how do you study Trump? Do you watch his rallies and read his tweets, just like the rest of us?

Yeah. He’s a very productive data source, you can just imagine. There’s a really excellent resource that you can get if you go to Factba.se. It’s a compendium of everything he’s ever said, tweeted and videoed out. And it’s searchable.

The introduction describes Trump as a “linguistic emergency.” What does that mean?

One of the ways that we mean “linguistic emergency” is that Trump is using language to shape reality. He’s able to say, “This agency can no longer talk about climate change.” When you’re able to legislate something in this way, it means that unless people are aware of the way that language is being regimented around them, their reality is changing right under their feet.

Another example is when he accuses someone of a crime, even though they’ve been exonerated. With Kamala Harris and the “Birther 2.0” thing, he says, “I don’t know, but somebody very highly qualified says that she’s not able to run.” When he keeps repeating it and the airways repeat it for him — because he’s news, he’s the president — it goes a long way toward creating the reality that all of us share. Even if it’s not true, it plants a little bit of a doubt in the average person’s mind: is she really not qualified? Or wait, I know that she is, but should she be? It creates a discourse, and that’s why it’s a linguistic emergency. We haven’t had somebody that holds so much power who so continuously changes the linguistic ground under our feet. That’s really a pressing thing for us to understand.

The book breaks down a lot of phrases that we’re all familiar with at this point. One chapter, written by co-editor Janet McIntosh, professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, discusses the terms “crybabies” and “snowflakes.” Why are politicians using these words?

McIntosh’s term “semiotic callusing” is really applicable here. It’s a way of saying to everybody else, “the people that have complaints about this are just weak.” It’s a continuation of a discourse that we have in the U.S., first identified by George Lakoff, which is that the Republicans are like the strict father and the Democrats are the indulgent, overprotective mother. By setting up the crybabies and snowflakes discourse, the Republicans have managed to continue the discourse of the strict father. And Trump is like the ultimate strict father in this way. He’s calling out the weaklings, showing his own power, but also demonstrating to people how they should be treating others. It’s setting the stage for us to not only understand ourselves as being subject to this kind of power, but to regard each other in this way. To regard somebody who needs help to make ends meet as a weakling or somebody who yells on the street as acceptable, because they’re not being a snowflake, or to see people who are trying to get redress for past wrongs as crybabies.

It’s also mimicked by the left, where they start calling out people on the right, saying, “Who’s the snowflake now?” It’s amplified on both sides.

Yeah, that’s a great point. Again, because the language is creating reality, you get swept up in the logic and you start reproducing that same idea, instead of challenging the premise of it to begin with.

The phrase “fake news” seems to be another major new feature of our discourse. Is this just a part of our politics now, referring to something as fake news?

I don’t think the strategy is new. This is a strategy that was used by Mao Zedong, it was used by Stalin, it was used by Hitler. Victor Klemperer has a book about the ways in which the Nazis crafted language and a big part of it was basically going against the press and questioning independent news. It’s not a new thing at all, but definitely “fake news” —that’s part of the genius of Trump. He’s able to come up with these incredibly audiogenic, pithy little sayings like “fake news” that just stick. Now people are using “fake news” in non-Trump contexts all the time. At first it starts as a joking thing, they’re kind of making fun of Trump. But now it’s just used in a kind of normal way. So, you can see he’s a source of linguistic innovation, and that’s really interesting.

Trump famously said that he was going to “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” Obviously, Mexico was not going to pay for it, and everybody knew this. What is he doing when he says things like that?

He’s basically creating a show. He’s creating a form of entertainment that we are supposed to participate in. By saying, “I have the biggest crowd. I have the most beautiful wall. It’s getting made,” — first of all, it doesn’t matter that half of the assertions that he makes are actually suspect, right? But they paint a particular picture. And frankly, when you’re one of his supporters, you’re in a mode of suspending disbelief as it is. So, once you’re in that suspension of disbelief, it paints the whole tableau so that you can get carried away in the illusion.

What can linguists do to help ordinary people understand and cope with Trump’s language on a daily basis? 

All of us are linguists in a way. All of us try to be critical when somebody makes an argument and they’re trying to pull a fast one on you, each one of us has to use our critical capacity, to try to figure out how reality is being constructed for us. And I think that that’s for me the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what spectrum of politics you’re coming from. As long as you’re equipping yourself to be able to understand when somebody is pulling a fast one or working against your interests, even though they claim to be working for your interests, when they reverse themselves, when they contradict themselves, when they’re calling someone names just to be memorable, instead of accurate.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a sleeping baby.

UCLA-led team of scientists discovers why we need sleep

A photo of a sleeping baby.

A UCLA-led team of scientists explains why sleep is so vital to our health and shows for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com)

Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to severe health problems in humans and other animals. But why is sleep so vital to our health? A UCLA-led team of scientists has made a major advance in answering this question and has shown for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half.

Before that age, the brain grows very rapidly. During REM sleep, when vivid dreams occur, the young brain is busy building and strengthening synapses — the structures that connect neurons to one another and allow them to communicate.

“Don’t wake babies up during REM sleep — important work is being done in their brains as they sleep,” said senior study author Gina Poe, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology who has conducted sleep research for more than 30 years.

After 2-and-a-half years, however, sleep’s primary purpose switches from brain building to brain maintenance and repair, a role it maintains for the rest of our lives, the scientists report Sept. 18 in the journal Science Advances. This transition, the researchers say, corresponds to changes in brain development.

All animals naturally experience a certain amount of neurological damage during waking hours, and the resulting debris, including damaged genes and proteins within neurons, can build up and cause brain disease. Sleep helps repair this damage and clear the debris — essentially decluttering the brain and taking out the trash that can lead to serious illness.

Nearly all of this brain repair occurs during sleep, according to senior author Van Savage, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of computational medicine, and his colleagues.

“I was shocked how huge a change this is over a short period of time, and that this switch occurs when we’re so young,” Savage said. “It’s a transition that is analogous to when water freezes to ice.”

The research team, which included scientists with expertise in neuroscience, biology, statistics and physics, conducted the most comprehensive statistical analysis of sleep to date, using data from more than 60 sleep studies involving humans and other mammals. They examined data on sleep throughout development — including total sleep time, REM sleep time, brain size and body size — and built and tested a mathematical model to explain how sleep changes with brain and body size.

The data were remarkably consistent: All species experienced a dramatic decline in REM sleep when they reached the human developmental equivalent of about 2-and-half years of age. The fraction of time spent in REM sleep before and after that point was roughly the same, whether the researchers studied rabbits, rats, pigs or humans.

REM sleep decreases with the growth in brain size throughout development, the scientists found. While newborns spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep, that falls to about 25% by the age of 10 and continues to decrease with age. Adults older than 50 spend approximately 15% of their time asleep in REM. The significant dropoff in REM sleep at about 2-and-a-half happens just as the major change in the function of sleep occurs, Poe said.

“Sleep is as important as food,” Poe said. “And it’s miraculous how well sleep matches the needs of our nervous system. From jellyfish to birds to whales, everyone sleeps. While we sleep, our brains are not resting.”

A chronic lack of sleep likely contributes to long-term health problems such as dementia and other cognitive disorders, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few, Poe said. When you start to feel tired, she said, don’t fight it — go to bed.

“I fought sleep and pulled all-nighters when I was in college, and now think that was a mistake,” Savage said. “I would have been better off with a good night’s sleep. Now when I feel tired, I don’t have any guilt about sleeping.”

For most adults, a regular seven-and-a-half hours of sleep a night is normal — and time lying awake doesn’t count, Poe says. While children need more sleep, babies need much more, roughly twice as much as adults. The large percentage of REM sleep in babies is in stark contrast to the amount of REM sleep observed in adult mammals across an enormous range of brain sizes and body sizes. Adult humans have five REM cycles during a full night of sleep and can have a few dreams in each cycle.

A good night’s sleep is excellent medicine, Poe says. And it’s free.

Co-authors of the study are Junyu Cao, who conducted research in Savage’s laboratory and is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Alexander Herman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Geoffrey West, a physicist who is the Shannan Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Funding sources included the National Science Foundation and the Eugene and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

What the wildfires tell us about the shortcomings of California’s electric grid

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

Powerlines along a road in Playa del Rey, California. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

In addition to the vast destruction they have caused, the wildfires that have engulfed California in recent weeks have laid bare serious concerns about the state’s electric grid.

In an email interview, UCLA’s Eric Fournier explains why the architecture of California’s grid isn’t well suited for such extreme conditions and what it would take to improve it. Fournier has been research director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability since 2018 — he joined UCLA as a postdoctoral researcher in 2016 — and his research involves analyzing energy systems and the mechanics of the electric power system.

What are the core issues that the wildfires have exposed about our power grid?

The wildfires are exposing some of the inherent weaknesses of the grid’s current architecture, which relies upon highly centralized sources of power generation.

The grid has historically been designed to support the unidirectional flow of power from a few large generator stations to many smaller consumers. That architecture seeks to take advantage of the economies of scale in power production that come from building generator stations as large as possible.

One thing that happens under this approach, however, is that these large generator stations tend to be built far away from the consumers. For fossil fuel–based generator plants, that’s because their operations produce large amounts of harmful air emissions that can negatively affect public health. For renewable generator plants, it’s because they need to be on sites with access to renewable energy flows — whether that’s wind, sun or hydraulic potential, for example — and those locations are typically remote.

As a result, the grid’s operations depend heavily on transmission infrastructure to move power around. If this infrastructure becomes compromised either due to age or some other external hazard — like extremely high heat or wildfire — grid operators have a difficult time maintaining reliable service.

The public safety power shut-offs in response to wildfires and other high-risk weather conditions are attempts to mitigate the grid’s exposure to these hazards. These measures are obviously not ideal, however, because power outages result in significant disruptions to the lives of large numbers of people.

Ideally, we should be taking a longer-term view on how we can mitigate both these underlying hazards as well as the extent of the grid’s exposure to them.

What are some ways California could realistically address those problems? 

Adopting distributed renewable energy generation and storage would have a number of potential benefits, in terms of both mitigating hazards and reducing exposures.

In the former case, generating energy renewably avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases. This would help slow the rate of climate change and reduce the likelihood of more severe wildfires occurring in the future. In the latter case, generating energy in a distributed way helps reduce our reliance upon transmission infrastructure, and it would provide some capacity to continue making power available to consumers in the event of a transmission infrastructure failure.

What would it take to make those things happen? 

There are a number of barriers to achieving a more renewable, more decentralized energy future. Some of them are technical and some are legal and administrative.

On the technical side, the grid will require extensive modernization upgrades to support higher levels of distributed energy resource penetration and, even further down the road, fully bi-directional power flows. These efforts will need to be supported by a dramatic expansion in the grid’s capacity to store and share the energy that is produced by renewable sources — such as with batteries. This will be necessary to address problems related to many types of renewables’ only intermittent ability to produce electric power.

On the legal and administrative side, there needs to be a recognition of the benefits associated with decentralized energy solutions. And these benefits should be considered during long-term energy system planning.

Utility companies have extensive experience building, operating and maintaining the grid as it currently exists. The proposed alternative represents a paradigm shift within this sector and will have to be supported with strong policy mandates. Otherwise, it is highly likely that in the future we will simply replace our existing, large-scale, remote, fossil fuel generation facilities with new, large-scale, remote, renewable generation facilities. That would mean that we would be retaining all of the same systemic vulnerabilities to climate change and wildfire that are inherent to the current system.

Finally, relative to this idea that we should promote greater decentralization: It is crucial that questions of equity be considered in the process. These solutions will fundamentally not work if they are only the provenance of the rich. Thus, we need to be forceful about ensuring that residents of disadvantaged communities are not left behind due to the cost or other difficulties associated with the adoption of these types of new technologies.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.