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UCLA receives $20 million to establish UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute

Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris ‘84.

The Bedari Foundation, established by philanthropists Jennifer and Matthew C. Harris, has given $20 million to the UCLA College to establish the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.

The institute, which is housed in the division of social sciences, will support world-class research on kindness, create opportunities to translate that research into real-world practices, and serve as a global platform to educate and communicate its findings. Among its principal goals are to empower citizens and inspire leaders to build more humane societies.

“Universities should always be places where we teach students to reach across lines of difference and treat one another with empathy and respect — even when we deeply disagree,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “The UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute will bring the best thinking to this vital issue and, I think, will allow us to have a real social impact on future generations.”

The institute, which will begin operating immediately, will take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding kindness — through evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. It will focus on research about the actions, thoughts, feelings and social institutions associated with kindness and will bring together researchers from across numerous disciplines at UCLA and at external organizations.

The inaugural director of the institute is Daniel Fessler, a UCLA anthropology professor whose research interests include exploring how witnessing acts of remarkable kindness can cause an uplifting emotional experience that in turn motivates the observer to be kind. Studies by Fessler and his colleagues have shed light on why some people are open to that type of “contagious kindness” experience.

The Bedari Foundation is a private family foundation whose aim is to enable significant cultural shifts in the fields of health and wellness, community displacement and environmental conservation.

“Our vision is that we will all live in a world where humanity discovers and practices the kindness that exists in all of us,” said Matthew Harris, the foundation’s co-founder and a 1984 UCLA graduate. “Much research is needed to understand why kindness can be so scarce in the modern world. As we seek at Bedari to bridge the divide between science and spirituality, through the establishment of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute we hope to educate and empower more and more people in the practice of kindness.”

Already, a range of researchers at UCLA are studying the types of questions that will be the basis of the institute’s work. For example, UCLA anthropologists are examining how kindness spreads from person to person and group to group. UCLA sociologists are analyzing how people who regularly act unkind might be encouraged to engage in kind acts instead, and UCLA psychologists are researching how kindness can improve people’s moods and reduce symptoms of depression. Others are pursuing research on changes in neurobiology and behaviors resulting from mindfulness, and how those changes can influence kindness and people’s mental, physical and social well-being.

“In the midst of current world politics, violence and strife, the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute seeks to be an antidote,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA division of social sciences. “Rooted in serious academic work, the institute will partner and share its research on kindness broadly in accessible formats. The Bedari Foundation’s extraordinary gift is truly visionary and we are grateful for its support and leadership.”

The Kindness Institute will provide seed funding for research projects that examine the social and physical mechanics of kindness and how kindness might be harnessed to create more humane societies. It also will provide mindfulness awareness training to students, faculty and staff and in underserved Los Angeles communities, and host an annual conference at which presenters will examine new discoveries in kindness research, among other activities.

“The mission of the Kindness Institute perfectly aligns with that of the division of social sciences, where engaging the amazing diversity and social challenges shaping Los Angeles routinely inspires research that has the potential to change the world,” Hunt said.

The gift is part of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which is scheduled to conclude in December.

Disabled dancers learn to redefine the aesthetics of movement at UCLA

Photo of two women performing a dance duet.

Harmanie Taylor, left, and Vanessa Cruz perform a duet during the Dancing Disability Lab at UCLA. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

As the 10 dancers moved across the studio floor in Kaufman Hall, their instructor closely watched how each dancer’s body movements transitioned from one to the next.

Victoria Marks, associate dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and professor of choreography, offered encouragement and challenged the dancers to pay closer attention to the way they could shape space both individually and in pairs. Two dancers in wheelchairs faced each other, raising their arms in intricate patterns. Others incorporated crutches or a chair into their actions.

“You are a mover and a maker. You can make us see things,” Marks said to the group, her voice the only sound in the studio as the dancers worked without music. “You have that power, not just in what you’re doing but how you’re doing it.”

The dancers, hailing from around the world, came together for a week in June for UCLA’s Dancing Disability Lab, which was hosted by world arts and cultures/dance and the disability studies minor. They spent their time discussing disability activism and performance, developing their movement skills, creating choreography and exploring how dance can transform and challenge ideas about the body and personhood.

The UCLA Disability Inclusion Lab is a cross-disciplinary initiative designed to reframe cultural understanding and practices around the concept of disability through academic courses and community engagement. Each lab will build and strengthen networks of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and community leaders to transform the discourse and awareness surrounding disability. The Dancing Disability Lab was UCLA’s second such project following the Autism Media Lab in the spring.

“I felt from the conception that UCLA was in a position to do something very different from what dance companies across the country are doing for dancers with disabilities,” Marks said. “Because we have a disability studies minor and a dance major, I thought UCLA could combine those resources, making dances and also talking about how what they create engages and changes ideas about disability.”

Each day included seminars on the history of disabled dance and performance, which included watching clips of dance and performance art made by disabled artists and discussions on topics such as access and the use of mobility aids in dance. In one discussion, the dancers and instructors debated whether mobility aids like wheelchairs and crutches could be considered “costumes” (while some supported the idea, others were staunchly opposed).

After the daily seminar, the dancers attended workshops on movement development and choreography. They practiced breathing techniques and explored how their experiences inform their dancing.

Mel Chua, a postdoc in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech, said she was hesitant to apply for the program because she assumed that her previous dance training (through classes and a contemporary dance company as an undergraduate) wasn’t advanced enough. But Chua came to realize that she only felt unqualified precisely because, as a deaf person, she hasn’t ever had access to dance training like what she experienced at UCLA.

American Sign Language interpreters provided for her throughout the week enabled Chua to engage in spoken, scholarly discussions about dance for the first time, she said.

“I’ve mostly followed dance classes in the past through sight, just watching and copying, but I don’t know the language for dancing since I don’t know how people talk about dancing in English,” Chua said. “Having access to the rhetoric of dance, the way we talk about dance in English — the terminology — in discussion for the first time was amazing because I got to be part of dancers discussing dance, and that’s something I never get to do.”

Another first for Chua and many other dancers was getting to dance with a group of exclusively disabled dance artists. Instead of being the only disabled person in the class, feeling pigeonholed by their disability or having to translate choreography designed for non-disabled dancers, they were united in how they each expanded dancing conventions, Chua said.

Photo of a group of dancers performing on stage,

Instructor Alice Sheppard, left, performs a piece with the Dancing Disability Lab participants at the public showcase. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Vanessa Cruz, a dance major at Cal State Long Beach who has arthrogryposis (a condition in which the joints are fixed or their movement is restricted) and scoliosis, said she has only ever trained with non-disabled dancers and is accustomed to figuring out how to fit into an art form that caters to people without disabilities, which can be lonely.

Being in a dance workshop where everyone had a disability was empowering and eye-opening.

“It made me feel like I have a voice in this crazy world,” Cruz said. “It was the first time I felt like I belonged anywhere.”

Cruz and Chua both said they are not looking to inspire others or receive sympathy for the challenges they face. Although the idea of inclusion often focuses on bringing disabled and non-disabled people together, Chua believes it’s important for disabled people to have spaces that are just their own. Dancing Disability was exactly what she and her fellow participants needed to advance the field of dance and disability.

“It’s only when we figure out our own maturation of our own practice that we can come out from that place of having our own disabled practice and engage with yours,” Chua said. “There is something that abled people cannot give us, and they don’t need to understand or see what it is, but they need to trust that something is there and that it is important and they should support us having it, even if they never see it or perceive themselves as benefiting from it or learning from it.”

For Cruz, the lab gave disabled artists a chance to be heard and seen differently than what some might be accustomed to — a necessary step in ensuring that non-disabled people will be allies who provide ongoing support for equal access and inclusion.

“People need to know we exist. Dance is the perfect platform to allow our humanity to come through,” Cruz said. “People are either inspired by me or they feel sorry for me because that’s how the media has shaped our identity, but dance can change that.”

Dancing Disability was co-taught by Marks, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor of English and bioethics at Emory University and co-director of the Emory College Disability Studies Initiative, and Alice Sheppard, a disabled dancer and choreographer. The week concluded with a public showcase at Kaufman Hall’s black box theater on June 28.

Marks said the lab showed her how much disabled dancers have to offer to an ever-changing exploration of what dance is and can be.

“There was a sense of full-bodied moving and a ton of imagination — the wit, intelligence and signature of each of the artists,” Marks said. “These artists have so much to offer all of us in terms of opening ourselves to what it means to be human and to be joyous and witty and funny and live life in all the complexities that life offers.”

She also recognized the need for disabled people to be leaders in discussions about inclusion and equal access, which is what the Dancing Disability Lab was designed to facilitate.

“UCLA has always been at the forefront of social justice movements and has recognized the need to address diversity, equity and inclusion, and so this lab is part of what UCLA continues to do,” Marks said. “It’s a tremendous contribution to the field of dance, and if dance represents people and our values and ideas, then it becomes part of that larger civic conversation about who we are.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Study shows how serotonin and a popular anti-depressant affect the gut’s microbiota

Senior author Elaine Hsiao says researchers hope to build on their current study to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

A new study in mice led by UCLA biologists strongly suggests that serotonin and drugs that target serotonin, such as anti-depressants, can have a major effect on the gut’s microbiota — the 100 trillion or so bacteria and other microbes that live in the human body’s intestines.

Serotonin — a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger that sends messages among cells — serves many functions in the human body, including playing a role in emotions and happiness. An estimated 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, where it influences gut immunity.

The team — led by senior author Elaine Hsiao and lead author Thomas Fung, a postdoctoral fellow — identified a specific gut bacterium that can detect and transport serotonin into bacterial cells. When mice were given the antidepressant fluoxetine, or Prozac, the biologists found this reduced the transport of serotonin into their cells. This bacterium, about which little is known, is called Turicibacter sanguinis. The study is published this week in the journal Nature Microbiology.

“Our previous work showed that particular gut bacteria help the gut produce serotonin. In this study, we were interested in finding out why they might do so,” said Hsiao, UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology, and of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College; and of digestive diseases in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Hsiao and her research group reported in the journal Cell in 2015 that in mice, a specific mixture of bacteria, consisting mainly of Turicibacter sanguinis and Clostridia, produces molecules that signal to gut cells to increase production of serotonin. When Hsiao’s team raised mice without the bacteria, more than 50% of their gut serotonin was missing. The researchers then added the bacteria mixture of mainly Turicibacter and Clostridia, and their serotonin increased to a normal level.

That study got the team wondering why bacteria signal to our gut cells to make serotonin. Do microbes use serotonin, and if so, for what?

In this new study, the researchers added serotonin to the drinking water of some mice and raised others with a mutation (created by altering a specific serotonin transporter gene) that increased the levels of serotonin in their guts. After studying the microbiota of the mice, the researchers discovered that the bacteria Turicibacter and Clostridia increased significantly when there was more serotonin in the gut.

If these bacteria increase in the presence of serotonin, perhaps they have some cellular machinery to detect serotonin, the researchers speculated. Together with study co-author Lucy Forrest and her team at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the researchers found a protein in multiple species of Turicibacter that has some structural similarity to a protein that transports serotonin in mammals. When they grew Turicibacter sanguinis in the lab, they found that the bacterium imports serotonin into the cell.

In another experiment, the researchers added the antidepressant fluoxetine, which normally blocks the mammalian serotonin transporter, to a tube containing Turicibacter sanguinisThey found the bacterium transported significantly less serotonin.

The team found that exposing Turicibacter sanguinis to serotonin or fluoxetine influenced how well the bacterium could thrive in the gastrointestinal tract. In the presence of serotonin, the bacterium grew to high levels in mice, but when exposed to fluoxetine, the bacterium grew to only low levels in mice.

“Previous studies from our lab and others showed that specific bacteria promote serotonin levels in the gut,” Fung said. “Our new study tells us that certain gut bacteria can respond to serotonin and drugs that influence serotonin, like anti-depressants. This is a unique form of communication between bacteria and our own cells through molecules traditionally recognized as neurotransmitters.”

The team’s research on Turicibacter aligns with a growing number of studies reporting that anti-depressants can alter the gut microbiota. “For the future,” Hsiao said, “we want to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease.” Hsiao wrote a blog post for the journal about the new research.

Other study co-authors are Helen Vuong, Geoffrey Pronovost, Cristopher Luna, Anastasia Vavilina, Julianne McGinn and Tomiko Rendon, all of UCLA; and Antoniya Aleksandrova and Noah Riley, members of Forrest’s team.

The research was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health’s Director’s Early Independence Award, Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award, and David & Lucile Packard Foundation’s Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Minds Matter: Raising the Curtain on Depression and Anxiety

Photo of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love and UCLA College’s Clinical Psychology expert Michelle Craske.

Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love and UCLA College’s Clinical Psychology expert Michelle Craske.

UCLA students, community members and supporters joined Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love and UCLA College’s Clinical Psychology expert Michelle Craske for a standing-room only hybrid class and public lecture on Monday, August 19, for “Minds Matter: Raising the Curtain on Depression and Anxiety,” a free hour-long discussion on the causes of depression and anxiety, public stigma, and potential advances for the future. The series was the first in an ongoing exploration of brain health that will continue with additional events focusing on bullying, aging well, and other topics.

Love, an NBA Champion and five-time NBA All-Star for the Cleveland Cavaliers, has publicly discussed his struggle with panic attacks and anxiety and his decision to seek therapy, and has become a leading voice in mental health advocacy and founded the Kevin Love Fund in 2018 with the mission of inspiring people to live their healthiest lives while providing the tools to achieve physical and emotional well-being.

“Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing, it’s an issue that affects everyone in some way. The more we can normalize the conversation around mental health, the more we can do to help those that are struggling,” said Love. “My goal in sharing my personal experience is to connect with others who are going through something and keep this dialogue top of mind.”

Michelle G. Craske is a UCLA Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, Director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center, and Associate Director of the Staglin Family Music Center for Behavioral and Brain Health. Craske has published extensively in the area of fear, anxiety and depression.

“We need to work together to bring anxiety and depression out of the dark. People who suffer will only seek help when they can do so without fear of shame. Event series such as ‘Minds Matter’ aim to shed a light on these critical issues, and to help make a positive breakthrough,” said Craske.

Craske also is Director of the Innovative Treatment Network within the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a campus-wide effort to cut the global burden of depression in half. The innovative treatment component, which Craske leads, seeks to develop novel and more effective treatments for depression and anxiety and increase the scalability and accessibility of existing evidence-based treatments.

The “Minds Matter” series leverages the strengths of UCLA College’s Psychology faculty as well as high-profile guests who provide specialized insight about the discussion topic. Upcoming sessions will include discussions on addiction, adolescent brain development and behavior, bullying, healthy aging, and thriving under stress. The “Minds Matter” series is made possible through the longstanding UCLA College and Geffen Playhouse partnership and the generous support of donors.

Check back for information on future “Minds Matter” events at  https://www.college.ucla.edu/minds-matter/.

Addressing Africa’s Pressing Challenges: Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation Gives $1 Million to UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute

The Congo Basin Institute creates a bridge between UCLA and Africa, which is expected to be home to 40% of the world’s population by the end of the century.

UCLA has received a $1 million donation from the Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation to support UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute.

The funds will advance the institute’s core mission of finding sustainable solutions to food and water insecurity, climate change, biodiversity loss, public health concerns and emerging diseases.

“The Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation’s generous gift will help establish UCLA as one of the world’s university leaders in developing solutions to some of Africa’s greatest challenges,” said Thomas Smith, co-director of the institute.  “It also will aid in leveraging efforts such as UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge on an international scale

Established in 2015 in Cameroon by UCLA and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, the Congo Basin Institute brings together faculty from the UCLA College and four professional schools, two UCLA research institutes and numerous academic departments, as well as leading thinkers from institutions in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Africa. Operating programs in five African countries, the institute creates a bridge between UCLA and Africa, which experts forecast will be home to 40% of the world’s population by the end of the century.

“Our foundation aims to enrich humanity not just for the present, but for generations to come,” said Tony Pritzker, the foundation’s president, and the chairman and CEO of Pritzker Private Capital. “By supporting UCLA’s Congo Basin Institute, we are investing in research that will help sustain the future of our planet.”

The gift furthers the foundation’s commitment to the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which is scheduled to conclude in December 2019 during UCLA’s 100th anniversary year. Tony Pritzker is a co-chair of the campaign, and in 2018, the foundation gave $10 million to establish the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families, a hub for research, prevention and intervention efforts that works to support families so that fewer children are at risk of entering our nation’s child welfare system.

Funds from the gift will be used in part to support UCLA undergraduates and graduate students studying and conducting research in Africa, where they will investigate a variety of critical issues that affect the continent and the planet as a whole.

The Pritzkers’ gift was matched by a $1 million grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund’s Research and Innovation Fund, which is directed by the government of the United Kingdom.

“As UCLA celebrates its centennial and the incredible work accomplished over the last century, this forward-thinking investment in the Congo Basin Institute very much positions UCLA to be a leader in the study of climate change and biodiversity in Africa,” said Scott Waugh, UCLA’s former executive vice chancellor and provost. “The institute gives UCLA a permanent presence in one of the planet’s most biodiverse areas, allowing researchers the opportunity to pioneer solutions to critical challenges that affect the future of humanity. The Pritzker Foundation’s gift extends this important work.”

The Congo Basin Institute’s work aligns on an international scale with the goals of UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, a university-wide research initiative to develop clean energy, local water solutions, and preserve biodiversity in order to transition the Los Angeles region to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent local water and enhanced ecosystem health by 2050.

The Congo Basin Institute is supported by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. It is co-led by UCLA and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, with more than a dozen institutional partners from Africa and around the world, including UC Davis and UC Riverside.

For more than a decade, the Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation has been investing in strengthening many of the unique institutions that define Los Angeles. The foundation aims to enrich the community not just for the present, but for generations to come, with a particular focus on medicine, higher education, the environment and the arts. In 2014, the foundation launched the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative to highlight its commitment to supporting transition-age foster youth and the families that care for them.

Photo of smoggy Los Angeles skyline

Air quality app influences behavior by linking environment to health

Photo of smoggy Los Angeles skyline

An air quality app prompted a majority of its users to take measures to reduce air pollution’s effects on their health.

Nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air and 7 million die every year from air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. Air quality mobile applications could mitigate these health risks by educating people and promoting preventive behavioral changes, a UCLA study found.

“I think information can be very powerful to change your behavior,” said the study’s lead author, Magali Delmas, a professor of management at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Anderson School of Management.

To test the effectiveness of an air quality app, a team of UCLA researchers created AirForU. Similar to a weather app, AirForU gave users information such as hourly air quality updates, next-day air quality forecasts and seven-day historical averages. Data was taken from the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website.

Sixty-nine percent of the app’s 2,740 users said the app prompted them to take measures to reduce air pollution’s effects on their health, and 58% said they learned new information about the health impacts of air pollution.The researchers tracked how often users checked the app and surveyed them to find out how often they shared air quality information with others.

Engagement was found to be highest among health-conscious users, including those who exercised frequently or had preexisting conditions — such as asthma or heart disease — that can be aggravated by air pollution. These users opened the app one to two more times a week than other users.

Additional motivations such as emails and in-app notifications increased engagement, generating two to three more app visits a week. However, the paper’s authors noted that too many notifications could backfire, annoying users.

As part of an end-of-study feedback survey, researchers measured behavioral changes. The most common actions users took to protect their health were not exercising outdoors when air pollution levels were high (21.7%) and closing windows (20.2%). Their knowledge of air quality rose as well, from 10% in the intake survey to 70% in the exit survey.

The study ran from 2015 to 2017, but it was cut short. “[A] company used lawyers to try to influence the type of information we provided in the app,” the study stated, after “one app user contacted a facility about their toxic releases.” The letter was written by attorneys representing an unidentified company. Though all of the app’s information was publicly available through government sources, UCLA Health decided to remove the app from the store. By that time, the information needed for the study had already been collected.

The researchers suggested increasing transparency about data sourcing and potentially including attorneys in development teams for similar apps.

Maintaining long-term engagement was another challenge. App engagement dropped 90 percent about three months after signup. The paper’s authors suggest it could indicate that users learned enough during that time, or that additional strategies are needed to engage them further.

While users can no longer download AirForU, Delmas and Kohli see potential for future apps to go beyond educating users and promote behavioral change — informing public advocacy to address air pollution through policies and responsible business practices.

“I hope others will learn from what we did to build something that is even more effective,” Delmas said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Mathematician named a Great Immigrant by Carnegie Corporation

Photo of Terence Tao

Terence Tao. Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson

 

Terence Tao, professor of mathematics, who holds the James and Carol Collins Chair in the UCLA College, has been named by Carnegie Corporation of New York on its 2019 annual list of Great Immigrants — a salute to 38 naturalized citizens who “strengthen America’s economy, enrich our culture and communities, and invigorate our democracy through their lives, their work, and their examples.”

Tao became the first mathematics professor in UCLA history to be awarded the Fields Medal in 2006, often described as the “Nobel Prize in mathematics.” He has earned many other honors, including the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, Royal Society’s 2014 Royal Medal for physical sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize. National Geographic magazine featured him in its “What makes a genius?” May 2017 issue.

Every Fourth of July since 2006, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has sponsored the public awareness initiative to commemorate the legacy of its founder, Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, who believed strongly in both immigration and citizenship.

“As we celebrate these 38 extraordinary individuals, we are reminded of the legacy of our founder, Andrew Carnegie, who showed the country how immigrants contribute to the great, unfinished story that is America,” said Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of students on a study abroad program in Scotland.

Early graduation within reach for most bruins

 

Photo of students on a study abroad program in Scotland.

Students on a study abroad program in Scotland. Photo Credit: Michael Le

To her surprise, Qiyuan (Grace) Miao realized during her sophomore year that she could graduate a year early, allowing her to begin graduate school ahead of schedule.

Miao is one of many Bruins who choose to complete their undergraduate degrees in less than the traditional four years. Although on different academic paths, these students all share a common message: With good planning and by taking advantage of UCLA programs designed to reduce time to degree, almost anyone can graduate early.

Miao, who graduated in June, pointed to several opportunities at UCLA that enabled her to get ahead on her coursework and finish her communication degree in three years while still enjoying a full undergraduate experience.

Opportunities start freshman year

UCLA offers two intensive programs to introduce incoming students to campus and academic life: the Freshman Transfer Summer Program in the Academic Advancement Program, for students from underrepresented populations, and the College Summer Institute (CSI). Students in both programs take courses that fulfill graduation requirements, giving them a head start before their first fall quarter even begins.

CSI is where Miao first met with Brian Henry, an academic adviser who helped her map out her academic path — something all undergraduates are encouraged to do at least once a year. In advising sessions, students discuss their academic, personal and career goals and learn about opportunities to enrich their university experience. Academic counselors can also advise students on effective ways to maximize their time to degree if their goal is to graduate early.

Another way Miao optimized her time at UCLA was by taking a Freshman Cluster course, “Frontiers of Aging.” These are year-long general education courses offered on topics such as “Evolution of the Cosmos and Life” and “History of Modern Thought.” Each cluster, over the course of a year, satisfies four general education requirements and the Writing II requirement.

“Clusters are a great way to fulfill a lot of requirements very quickly,” Miao said.

UC’s study-abroad intensives

Graduating early doesn’t require students to sacrifice meaningful experiences outside of the classroom.  Michael Le, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience in winter 2019, one quarter early, was still able to study abroad one summer at the University of Glasgow, where UC offers an intensive three-course physics program over two months.

“I completed all three courses in a mere eight weeks, something that would [normally] take 30 weeks,” Le said. “This is an excellent way to get your study abroad ‘fix’ in and be efficient with course planning.”

Shrey Kakkar, a junior majoring in computer science, is on track to graduate one or two quarters early and said many of his peers could do the same, even in a demanding major like computer science. He credits his fast track to his commitment to enroll in four classes every quarter, plus one summer class.  And he still has had time for other activities such as doing research and working for a startup.

Fitting more into four years

Graduating early isn’t every student’s goal. For some, like Mac Casey, maximizing time to degree meant packing a lot into the traditional four years: He was in the rigorous College Honors program, studied abroad for a year, and graduated in 2016 with degrees in both political science and business economics.

“The faculty at UCLA are excellent, and I loved taking courses – the more courses the better,” Casey said. “I really wanted to learn as much as I could and interact with great faculty and researchers.”

Casey said that accomplishing so much in four years is not out of reach for most students. By choosing courses strategically and enlisting the expertise of his honors academic counselor, he was able to complete all his major requirements and stay on track.

Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Patricia Turner said that although UCLA already does an excellent job of graduating students in a timely manner, she will continue to work with her faculty colleagues to develop new opportunities to allow students to graduate on time or early while still having a personalized, fully engaged undergraduate experience.

“A student’s undergraduate years are the perfect time to discover what they’re most passionate about,” Turner said. “Students who take advantage of credit-earning opportunities such as service learning, civic engagement and entrepreneurship often find themselves on career paths they otherwise might not have discovered. And because of the way these programs are designed, students can still graduate in four years or less.”

Photo of Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed.

Creating electricity from snowfall and making hydrogen cars affordable

Photo of Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed.

Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson

Professor Richard Kaner and researcher Maher El-Kady have designed a series of remarkable devices. Their newest one creates electricity from falling snow. The first of its kind, this device is inexpensive, small, thin and flexible like a sheet of plastic.

“The device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries,” said Kaner, the senior author who holds the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation.“It’s a very clever device — a weather station that can tell you how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling and the direction and speed of the wind.”

The researchers call it a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG. Findings about the device are published in the journal Nano Energy.

The device generates charge through static electricity. Static electricity occurs when you rub fur and a piece of nylon together and create a spark, or when you rub your feet on a carpet and touch a doorknob.

“Static electricity occurs from the interaction of one material that captures electrons and another that gives up electrons,” said Kaner, who is also a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing.”

Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. Silicone — a synthetic rubber-like material that is composed of silicon atoms and oxygen atoms, combined with carbon, hydrogen and other elements — is negatively charged. When falling snow contacts the surface of silicone, that produces a charge that the device captures, creating electricity.

“Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity?” said El-Kady, assistant researcher of chemistry and biochemistry.

“After testing a large number of materials including aluminum foils and Teflon, we found that silicone produces more charge than any other material,” he said.

Approximately 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow each winter, El-Kady noted, during which time solar panels often fail to operate. The accumulation of snow reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar array, limiting their power output and rendering them less effective. The new device could be integrated into solar panels to provide a continuous power supply when it snows.

The device can be used for monitoring winter sports, such as skiing, to more precisely assess and improve an athlete’s performance when running, walking or jumping, Kaner said. It could usher in a new generation of self-powered wearable devices for tracking athletes and their performances. It can also send signals, indicating whether a person is moving.

The research team used 3-D printing to design the device, which has a layer of silicone and an electrode to capture the charge. The team believes the device could be produced at low cost given “the ease of fabrication and the availability of silicone,” Kaner said.

New device can create and store energy

Kaner, El-Kady and colleagues designed a device in 2017 that can use solar energy to inexpensively and efficiently create and store energy, which could be used to power electronic devices, and to create hydrogen fuel for eco-friendly cars.

The device could make hydrogen cars affordable for many more consumers because it produces hydrogen using nickel, iron and cobalt — elements that are much more abundant and less expensive than the platinum and other precious metals that are currently used to produce hydrogen fuel.

“Hydrogen is a great fuel for vehicles: It is the cleanest fuel known, it’s cheap and it puts no pollutants into the air — just water,” Kaner said. “And this could dramatically lower the cost of hydrogen cars.”

The technology could be part of a solution for large cities that need ways to store surplus electricity from their electrical grids. “If you could convert electricity to hydrogen, you could store it indefinitely,” Kaner said.

Kaner is among the world’s most influential and highly cited scientific researchers. He has also been selected as the recipient of the  American Institute of Chemists 2019 Chemical Pioneer Award, which honors chemists and chemical engineers who have made outstanding contributions that advance the science of chemistry or greatly impact the chemical profession.

Co-authors on the snow TENG work include Abdelsalam Ahmed, who conducted the research while completing his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, and Islam Hassan and Ravi Selvaganapathy at Canada’s McMaster University, as well as James Rusling, who is the Paul Krenicki professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut, and his research team.

More devices designed to solve pressing problems

Last year, Kaner and El-Kady published research on their design of the first fire-retardant, self-extinguishing motion sensor and power generator, which could be embedded in shoes or clothing worn by firefighters and others who work in harsh environments.

Kaner’s lab produced a separation membrane that separates oil from water and cleans up the debris left by oil fracking. The separation membrane is currently in more than 100 oil installations worldwide. Kaner conducted this work with Eric Hoek, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The stone faces and human problems on Easter Island

Photo of Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati. Photo credit: Easter Island Statue Project

In 1981, archaeology graduate student Jo Anne Van Tilburg first set foot on the island of Rapa Nui, commonly called Easter Island, eager to further her interest in rock art by studying the iconic stone heads that enigmatically survey the landscape.

At the time, Van Tilburg was one of just a few thousand people who would visit Rapa Nui each year. Although the island remains one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, a surge in visitors has placed its delicate ecosystem and archaeological treasures in jeopardy.

“When I went to Easter Island for the first time in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” said Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, the longest collaborative artifact inventory ever conducted on the Polynesian island that’s part of Chile. “As of last year the number of tourists who arrived was 150,000.”

Journalist Anderson Cooper interviewed Van Tilburg on the island for a segment that aired Easter Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper spoke with Van Tilburg about efforts to preserve the moai (pronounced MO-eye) — the monolithic stone statues that were carved and placed on the island from around 1100 to 1400 and whose stoic faces have fascinated the world for decades. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

Van Tilburg, who is research associate at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive since 1997, was the first archaeologist since the 1950s to obtain permission to excavate the moai, granted from Chile’s National Council of Monuments and the Rapa Nui National Park, with the Rapa Nui community and in collaboration with the National Center of Conservation and Restoration, Santiago de Chile.

She has spent nearly four decades listening, learning, establishing connections, making covenants with the elders of Rapanui society and reporting extensively on her findings. Major funding has been provided by the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Fund.

“I think my patience and diligence were rewarded,” she said. “They saw me all those years getting really dirty doing the work.”

Photo of Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg.

Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg. Photo credit: Keith Sharman.

Bringing together research and teaching

Van Tilburg credits the sustained support of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute as critical to her work on the island. She regularly includes both UCLA undergraduates from a variety of academic disciplines and passionate volunteers in the hands-on work on Rapa Nui.

Van Tilburg, who received her doctorate in archaeology from UCLA in 1989, is working on a book project that will harness her massive archive as an academic atlas of the island. She used the proceeds of a previous book to invest in local businesses, the Mana Gallery and Mana Gallery Press, both of which highlight indigenous artists. She also helped the local community rediscover their canoe-making history through the 1995 creation of the Rapa Nui Outrigger Club.

Her co-director on the Easter Island Statue Project, Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, is Rapanui and a graphic artist by trade. Van Tilburg exclusively employs islanders for her excavation work. She’s traveled the world helping catalog items from the island that are now housed in museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the British Museum in London. Van Tilburg does this to assist repatriation efforts.

Culture and environment at risk

Her work is important to the 5,700 residents of the island, who also are coping with increasing waves of tourists into their fragile ecosystem, Van Tilburg said. Only in the last decade or so have they been given governance of the national park where the moai are located.

“But by Rapa Nui standards, on an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 annual visitors is a mob,” she said.

What’s more disheartening are travelers who ignore the rules and climb on the moai, trample preserved spaces and sit on top of graves, all in service of getting a photo of themselves picking the nose of an ancient artifact, Van Tilburg said.

Hierarchy and inequity in Rapanui society

Van Tilburg’s original impetus behind studying the moai is rooted in her curiosity about migration, marginalized people and how societies rise and fall.

Rapanui society was traditionally hierarchical, led by a class of people who believed themselves God-appointed elites. These leaders dictated where the lower classes could live and how they would work to provide food for the elites and the population at large.

The ruling class also determined how and when the moai – used as the backdrop for exchange and ceremony – would be built.

“This inherently institutionalized religious hierarchy produced an inequitable society,” Van Tilburg said. “They were very successful in the sense that their population grew. But they were unsuccessful at understanding that unless they managed what they had better, and more fairly, that there was no future.”

Population growth and rampant inequity in a fragile environment eventually led to wrenching societal changes, she said. Internal collapse (as outlined in UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s book Collapse), along with colonization and slave-trading in the 1800s, caused the population of Rapa Nui to drop to just 111 in the 1870s.

As an anthropologist, Van Tilburg is concerned with equity.

“I’m interested in asking why we keep replicating societies in which people are not equal, because in doing so, we initiate a crisis,” she said. “Inequity is at the heart of our human problems.”