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A photo of Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA .

A step toward a more efficient way to make gene therapies to attack cancer, genetic disorders

A photo of Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA .

(From left) Dr. Steven Jonas, Jason Belling and Paul Weiss of UCLA (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

A UCLA-led research team today reports that it has developed a new method for delivering DNA into stem cells and immune cells safely, rapidly and economically. The method, described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could give scientists a new tool for manufacturing gene therapies for people with cancer, genetic disorders and blood diseases.

The study’s co-senior author is Paul Weiss, a UCLA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, of bioengineering and of materials science and engineering. “We are figuring out how to get gene-editing tools into cells efficiently, safely and economically,” he said. “We want to get them into enormous numbers of cells without using viruses, electroshock treatments or chemicals that will rip open the membrane and kill many of the cells, and our results so far are promising.”

In current practice, cells used for genetic therapies are sent to specialized labs, which can take up to two months to produce an individualized treatment. And those treatments are expensive: A single regimen for one patient can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We hope our method could be used in the future to prepare treatments that can be performed at the patient’s bedside,” Weiss said.

The method could be used with CRISPR, the genetic engineering technique that enables DNA to be edited with remarkable precision. However, using CRISPR efficiently, safely and economically in medical therapies has proven to be a challenge — one this new method may be able to solve.

The technique uses high-frequency acoustic waves coupled with millions of cells that flow through an “acoustofluidic device” in a cell culture liquid. The device was invented by the research team as part of the study; inside of it are tiny speakers that convert electrical signals to mechanical vibrations that are used to manipulate the cells.

That procedure opens up pores along the cells’ membranes that allow DNA and other biological cargo to enter the cells, and it enables the researchers to insert the cargo without the risk of damaging the cells by contacting them directly.

Dr. Steven Jonas, the study’s co-senior author and a UCLA clinical instructor in pediatrics, likened the soundwaves’ ability to move cells to the experience when audience members actually feel the sound at a concert.

“At a concert hall, you can feel the bass — and if you can feel the sound, the cell can feel the acoustic wave,” said Jonas, a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “We can engineer the acoustic waves to direct the cells as needed.”

The researchers delivered short strands of DNA called plasmids into human blood cells and blood-forming stem cells that were intended specifically for laboratory research, and pumped millions of such cells through the acoustofluidic device. Once inside a cell, a plasmid can be made into a protein that may be missing or damaged, or it can give the cell new capabilities.

“When combined with new gene-editing approaches, the method enables us to correct a DNA sequence that is miscoded in a disease,” said Weiss, who also is a member of CNSI.

Plasmids used as templates for gene editing can make the correction because they have the right coded sequence for the desired protein, he explained.

Lead author Jason Belling, a UCLA graduate student in chemistry and biochemistry, was able to insert plasmids into the model cells used for testing about 60% of the time, without using any chemical and physical treatments.

“The viability is very high compared with other techniques,” Weiss said, “but we still want higher efficiencies and are working toward that.”

Jonas — whose expertise is in treating childhood cancer and blood disorders — said the research has the potential to benefit adults and children with cancer, immune system disorders and genetic diseases.

“If the delivery works, and it seems to, this research is an important step toward bringing new therapies more broadly to the patients who need them,” Jonas said. “Traditionally, we have treated cancers with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and bone marrow transplantations. Now, we’re at an amazing era of medicine, where we can use different types of gene therapies that can train the immune system to fight cancer.”

A photo of a prototype of the acoustofluidic device developed by UCLA researchers.

A prototype of the acoustofluidic device developed by UCLA researchers. (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Jonas said some existing treatments can take a patient’s T cells and adapt them with a gene that encodes for a receptor that allows it to target the cancer.

“We want to be the delivery service that gets these therapeutic packages to the cells,” he said. “I want to treat my patients with cells that are engineered in this way.”

For the technique to lead to viable treatments for disease, it would need to allow doctors  to process at least a couple hundred million cells — and in some cases, billions of cells — safely, rapidly and cost-effectively for each patient.

The new approach is still the subject of research and is not available to treat human patients.

The study’s other co-authors include Duke University professor Tony Huang, a pioneer of acoustofluidics and a UCLA alumnus; Dr. Stephen Young, distinguished professor of medicine and human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; and Dr. Satiro De Oliveira, a UCLA assistant professor of pediatrics.

The study was funded in part through a National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award for Jonas; the University of California Center for Accelerated Innovation; and Belling’s predoctoral fellowship through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Jonas also has received young investigator awards from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research, Hyundai Hope on Wheels Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research, and the Tower Cancer Research Foundation. UCLA’s Technology Development Group Innovation Fund also provided funding.

Weiss’ research group has applied for patents on the acoustofluidic device and related devices, working with the Technology Development Group.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Keeping Our First Responders in LA County Hospitals Safe

A photo of a first responder receives safety glasses and goggles.

A first responder receives safety glasses and goggles. (Photo Courtesy of UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry)

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, spurred on by Professor Neil Garg, donated hundreds of safety glasses and goggles to help keep first responders in Los Angeles County hospitals safe. The distribution, orchestrated in a single weekend, was a way to express thanks to the selfless medical personnel in Los Angeles.

This post originally appeared on the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s Facebook.

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

UCLA Students Find COVID-19 Silver Linings

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

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

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

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

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

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

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A photo of Lynn Vavreck and Miguel García-Garibay.

Two elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

A photo of Lynn Vavreck and Miguel García-Garibay.

From left: Lynn Vavreck, Miguel García-Garibay

Six exceptional UCLA professors and leaders — including the UCLA College’s Physical Sciences Dean Miguel García-Garibay and Political Science Professor Lynn Vavreck — were elected April 23 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies. The other honorees include School of Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin, Education Professor Pedro Noguera, environmental champion Mary Nichols and Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin.

“I am delighted to congratulate each of this year’s UCLA inductees, who are all deserving of this wonderful honor,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a testament to the exceptional work of our scholars and leaders. The entire campus community can take pride in this news and their many accomplishments.”

A total of 276 artists, scholars, scientists and leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors who were elected to the Academy today. More about UCLA’s honorees:

Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has earned worldwide recognition in the fields of artificial molecular machines, organic photochemistry, solid-state organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. He studies the interaction of light and molecules in crystals. Light can have enough energy to break and make bonds in molecules, and García-Garibay’s research team has shown that crystals offer an opportunity to control the outcome of these chemical reactions.

His research has applications for green chemistry — the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances — and it could lead to the production of specialty chemicals that would be very difficult to produce using traditional methods. Among his many honors, he was elected a fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2019.

Lynn Vavreck is UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy, a contributing columnist to the Upshot at the New York Times, and a recipient of many awards and honors, including the Andrew F. Carnegie Prize in the Humanities and Social Sciences. She is the author of five books, including “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” and “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election,” which has been described as the “definitive account” of that election.

Consultants in both political parties refer to her work on political messaging in “The Message Matters” as required reading for presidential candidates. “Identity Crisis” was awarded the 2019 Richard E. Neustadt Prize for the Best Book on Executive Politics by the Presidents and Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Vavreck’s 2020 election project, Nationscape, is the largest study of presidential elections ever conducted in the United States. Interviewing more than 6,000 people a week, Nationscape will complete 500,000 interviews before next January’s inauguration.

► Read more about the Nationscape election project.

“The members of the class of 2020 have excelled in laboratories and lecture halls, they have amazed on concert stages and in surgical suites, and they have led in board rooms and courtrooms,” said David Oxtoby, president of the Academy. “With [the] election announcement, these new members are united by a place in history and by an opportunity to shape the future through the Academy’s work to advance the public good.”

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and others who believed the new republic should honor exceptionally accomplished individuals. Previous fellows have included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

It also is an independent policy research center that undertakes studies of complex and emerging problems. Current academy members represent today’s innovative thinkers in many fields and professions, including more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An image of dust over the Sahara Desert.

Earth’s atmosphere far dustier than previously believed

An image of dust over the Sahara Desert.

Dust over the Sahara Desert (Photo Credit: NASA GSFC)

Dust is a key component of Earth’s climate system. When it interacts with clouds, oceans and the sun’s radiation, it has an overall impact on our planet’s living systems, affecting everything from weather and rainfall to global warming.

There are two types of dust in the atmosphere, both kicked up by high-velocity winds in dry areas. Fine dust tends to cool because it scatters sunlight, much like clouds do. Coarse dust, which is larger in size and originates in places like the Sahara Desert, tends to warm the atmosphere, much like greenhouse gases.

Knowing precisely how much coarse dust is in the atmosphere is essential for understanding not only the atmospheric phenomena that dust influences but also the degree to which dust may be warming the planet.

Now, UCLA scientists report that there is four times the amount of coarse dust in Earth’s atmosphere than is currently simulated by climate models. Their findings appear in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers found that Earth’s atmosphere contains 17 million metric tons of coarse dust — equivalent to 17 million elephants or the mass of every person in America put together.

“To properly represent the impact of dust as a whole on the Earth system, climate models must include an accurate treatment of coarse dust in the atmosphere,” said the study’s first author, Adeyemi Adebiyi, a postdoctoral researcher in UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a recipient of the University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.

By plugging this amount of missing coarse dust into models, Adebiyi said, it increases the likelihood that the net amount of dust overall — both fine and coarse — is warming rather than cooling the Earth’s climate system, from air to oceans.

Coarse dust particles warm the Earth’s entire climate system by absorbing both incoming radiation from the sun and outgoing radiation from the Earth’s surface. These particles can impact stability and circulation within our atmosphere, which may affect atmospheric phenomena like hurricanes.

Adebiyi worked with Jasper Kok, a UCLA associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, to determine the actual amount of coarse dust in the atmosphere by analyzing dozens of published aircraft-based observations, including recent measurements taken over the Sahara Desert, and comparing those with half a dozen widely used global atmospheric model simulations.

“When we compared our results with what is predicted by current climate models, we found a drastic difference,” Kok said. “State-of-the-art climate models account for only 4 million metric tons, but our results showed more than four times that amount.”

In addition, Adebiyi and Kok found that coarse dust leaves the atmosphere less quickly than current climate models predict. Air has a tendency to mix more turbulently when dust is present. In the case of the Sahara, air and dust mix in ways that push the dust upward, which can work against gravity and keep the dust in the air much longer, they said.

The scientists’ findings also show that because dust particles stay in the atmosphere longer, they are ultimately deposited further from their source than has been predicted by these models or explained by current theory. Dust particles blown from the Sahara, for example, can travel thousands of miles in the atmosphere, reaching as far as the Caribbean and the United States.

When desert dust ends up in oceans, it may stimulate the productivity of ocean ecosystems and increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans.

Due to the way coarse dust interacts with the sun’s energy and clouds, it can also have a major impact on the timing of precipitation, as well as how much, or how little, rain falls.

“Models have been an invaluable tool for scientists,” said Adebiyi, “but when they miss most of the coarse dust in the atmosphere, it underestimates the impact that this type of dust has on critical aspects of life on Earth, from precipitation to cloud cover to ocean ecosystems to global temperature.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College.

Spanish professor wins award for book on the cultural uses of garbage

A photo of Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College.

Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College. (Photo Courtesy of Matie Zubiaurre)

Maite Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College, has been awarded the 2020 Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Prize from Vanderbilt University Press for her book “Talking Trash. Cultural Uses of Waste.” The award recognizes the best book in the area of art and medicine.

In “Talking Trash,” Zubiaurre looks at refuse in its early stages, when it is still litter that can be found on city streets. She also focuses on a significant non-urban scene: the desert landscape and the clothing and other items that immigrants discard as they make their journey across the border.

Zubiaurre’s other books include “El espacio en la novela realista. Paisajes, miniaturas, perspectivas,” a book-length study of the dialectics of space and gender in European and Latin American realist fiction, and of “Cultures of the Erotic. Spain 1898-1939”, the first scholarly monograph that analyzes the diverse visual and textual representations of the erotic in Spanish popular culture during the so-called Silver Age between 1898 and 1936.

Some of Zubiaurre’s areas of expertise include comparative literature, gender studies, urban studies, cultural studies, European and Latin American Realism and Latina and Chicana fiction. She is also the author of numerous articles and critical editions and co-editor of an anthology of Spanish feminist thought, “Antología del pensamiento feminista español: 1726-2008.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

UCLA College Celebrates Earth Day

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

Not only does this mark its 50th anniversary, this Earth Day is unlike any other we have seen as the global pandemic continues to impact the way we live our lives. Yes, it has disrupted our daily routines but it has also benefited the environment in myriad ways. For example, freeways once clogged with traffic have opened up, clearing the air and making way for bright blue skies and views for miles. Even before COVID-19, UCLA College faculty members and teams were out in the field and in their labs, working on groundbreaking research and advising on county and statewide plans. In honor of Earth Day, we are highlighting stories about conservation, sustainability, global warming, solar geoengineering and protecting our precious ecosystems.

 

A photo of vegetation and mountains in California's Anza-Borrego State Park.

Vegetation and mountains in California’s Anza-Borrego State Park. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner/UCLA)

UCLA to lead $10 million California conservation project

UCLA scientists are leading a $10 million project to help California officials make ecologically wise decisions as the state continues to confront the effects of climate change. The initiative will give California officials scientific data they can use to make decisions about conserving the state’s ecosystems.

A photo of a valley oak tree.

The valley oak, the largest oak in California, grows to over 100 feet tall and provides habitat and food for a variety of animals. (Photo Credit: Victoria Sork/UCLA)

One of California’s iconic tree species offers lessons for conservation

New research led by UCLA evolutionary biologist Victoria Sork examines whether the trees being replanted in the wake of California’s fires will be able to survive a climate that is continuing to warm. The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, focuses on California’s iconic valley oak.

A photo of a Griffith Park vista; the view of the Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Park.

Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct species of plants and animals, and the sustainability plan aims for “no loss of native biodiversity.” (Photo Credit: Jake Dobkin)

L.A. County taps UCLA to help create first-ever sustainability plan

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ambitious sustainability plan that calls for phasing out fossil fuels to address climate change and improve quality of life in the region. Sixteen UCLA researchers contributed to the OurCounty plan, which was created by the county’s Chief Sustainability Office.

A photo of the Santa Monica Pier at night.

The Santa Monica Pier at night. Artificial light can cause problems for a range of species that live and breed in coastal environments. (Photo Credit: William Chen/Pexels)

Study draws Southern California coastal light pollution into focus

Artificial light is known to disrupt mating cycles in species along the Southern California coast. A team of UCLA and University of Southern California researchers led by Travis Longcore, UCLA adjunct professor of urban conservation biology, has mapped light pollution conditions that will be used to inform decisions about future infrastructure and construction plans.

A photo of members of the UCLA Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Aradhna Tripati, associate professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Members of the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which was founded by Professor Aradhna Tripati, third row, far right, and their colleagues. (Photo: Courtesy of Aradhna Tripati)

Professor pays it forward by promoting diversity and environmental justice

When she was appointed in 2009, Aradhna Tripati was the first woman of color out of 50 faculty in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Along with colleagues in UCLA’s Anthropology department and American Indian Studies Center, she conducts community engaged research on water in the context of global warming in the southwestern United States. She also formed the first university-based center for diversity in environmental science, with the goal of inspiring a generation of leaders that matches the demographics of the U.S. population.

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

Mathematics professors earn NSF grant to calculate COVID-19 transmission rates

A photo of Andrea Bertozzi

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

Uncertainty about COVID-19 transmission rates has been one of the major challenges for health care systems in the United States and around the world.

UCLA mathematics professors Andrea Bertozzi and Mason Porter will use mathematical modeling, incorporating the specific features of COVID-19, to provide insights to those who are developing strategies to mitigate the spread of the disease.

Bertozzi and Porter have been awarded a $200,000 rapid-response research grant from the National Science Foundation, which has called for proposals with the potential to address the spread of COVID-19.

Many public health and infectious disease experts believe the actual transmission of COVID-19 is likely much higher than what has been publicly reported. The UCLA project will extend prior research on contagions, factoring in multiple transmission methods, human behavior patterns, current data and more. It also will provide training for a postdoctoral scholar, a doctoral student and two undergraduates.

Bertozzi and her research team have already published a preprint of a research paper on the challenges of modeling and forecasting the spread of COVID-19, and she and Porter are conducting research on another related paper as part of the project.

Bertozzi holds UCLA’s Betsy Wood Knapp Chair for Innovation and Creativity.

The award is co-funded by NSF programs in applied mathematics and computational mathematics and its office of multidisciplinary activities.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

 

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

With record unemployment filings, federal stimulus will help, but more is needed

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

COVID-19 will plunge the United States economy into a recession. Photo Credit: by James Yarema on Unsplash

As an economist and director of the California Policy Lab, Till von Wachter is continually spearheading research projects and policy recommendations related to labor and employment as well as homelessness, education and crime.

As the U.S. economy further slows because of how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many businesses to close, UCLA Newsroom asked von Wachter, who is also the associate dean of research for the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, to help parse through current employment statistics, why the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package called the CARES Act — which was signed into law March 27 — is so critical and what its immediate and far-reaching effects might be for U.S. workers and the economy.

How do you interpret the unemployment numbers that came out April 2?

The number of new claims to unemployment insurance — 6.6 million — was deeply alarming because that number is so much higher than what we’ve seen in previous recessions. Moreover, these numbers do not capture the many people out of work that are self-employed, have low wages, or for some other reason do not qualify for unemployment insurance. As CNBC noted, even in the worst week of the Great Recession, the number of claims were only 665,000 in March of 2009. The highest since the 1960s was 1,073,500 in the 1982 recession. Having studied unemployment, recessions and the policy responses to them for most of my academic career, I’m deeply concerned that if policymakers don’t act quickly, we could see a recession the likes of which our country has never experienced before. It will impact Americans for decades to come. There is still hope that the economy will turn back to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic is contained, but prolonged large-scale unemployment may be hard to reverse.

What will this mean for the U.S. economy and Americans who could be laid off in the coming weeks?

I have studied a range of situations where workers were hit by a sudden shock in the labor market, such as a job loss when a business suddenly lays off a large number of workers. The key here is to compare people who lost their jobs to a counterfactual of luckier workers who kept their jobs and that otherwise would have looked like them. The result from my research is that a worker with a steady job at a good employer that loses their job during a mass layoff in a recession will die 1.5 years sooner than they would have if they had not been laid off.  When you extrapolate that to an expected unemployment rate of 10% (approximately 10 million additional unemployed workers, which given the most recent week’s numbers may be a conservative scenario), my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest a loss of 15 million life years. Beyond increased mortality, in separate research I have found these workers also suffer immediate and permanent earnings losses. Again, if those accrued to 10 million workers, it would amount to over $1 trillion dollars in earnings capacity lost over their lifetimes.

It’s also important to keep in mind more than 6 million individuals will graduate high school or obtain a college degree this year, and about 13 million workers age 16-24 are currently in the labor force. Hence about 20 million young individuals are of particularly high risk of exposure to a recession. Existing evidence suggests that unlucky labor market entrants suffer losses in earnings that last 10 to 15 years, depending on the severity of the recession. Yet, it appears their socioeconomic status declines again in middle age, and several studies have found that they experience higher rates of death over the long term. For example, entering the labor market during a large recession appears to reduce life-expectancy of young workers by about half a year. There would be an additional 10 million of life years lost from a prolonged recession.

Will the CARES Act help? 

The CARES Act is a good start. It includes significant funding spread out in a variety of ways to help sustain the economy while people practice safe distancing to defeat COVID-19. The additional pandemic unemployment assistance provided to the self-employed and others not covered by unemployment insurance benefits is of course an important aspect of the law. Yet, I argue in a recent proposal (PDF) that states need to act decisively and creatively to quickly scale up programs included in the CARES Act.

The funding Congress included for several programs that help firms to keep workers on their payroll could be a game-changer. This includes federal funding for “short-time compensation,” or STC, programs, sometimes also called work-sharing, as well as short-term emergency loans that include provisions for job stability.

In the same way that we are all “sheltering in place,” state employment departments — the agencies that administer unemployment benefits in every state — can use STC programs and equip companies to keep their employees in place. Under STCs, firms are able to reduce the hours of a large group of their employees (instead of laying just a few of them off), and employees can partially make up the difference in pay through receiving unemployment benefits. For a state like California that already has a functioning STC program, these STC benefits will be paid entirely by the federal government. This could lead to substantial saving for the state’s finances that will be likely very stretched in other ways.

Even better, the CARES Act also included a substantial subsidy for firms that were impacted by COVID-19 to help pay their workers’ wages. A small to mid-size firm that pays average wages could reduce the hours of their workers by 50% through shared-time compensation and have up to half of the remaining 50% of wages paid for by the federal government. This would be an instantaneous reduction of their wage bill by 75% while workers are kept on the job instead of flooding unemployment offices. Some businesses may find it hard to pay for even part of their workforce, perhaps because of large reductions in revenues or substantial fixed costs. The CARES Act also provides struggling businesses with the option to apply for short-term emergency loans through the Small Business Administration that would help them pay rent, wages and other operating costs. The key is that the repayment of these loans can be waived if the firm refrains from laying off their workers. Overall, firms now have a range of options to adjust to the economic conditions without laying off their workers.

How would states use short-time compensation?

Twenty-six states, including California, already have STC programs, meaning about 70% of the U.S. workforce could be covered. There is also funding in the law for the administrative costs of expanding these programs. For those 26 states, the federal government agreed to pay 100% of the benefits under STC programs.

Unfortunately, many employers are not currently aware of the program. Yet, states can be proactive in making the STC more attractive than layoffs to employers. Typically, if a firm lays off workers who receive unemployment insurance benefits, its payroll tax increases to help offset the costs to the unemployment insurance system. Yet, states could choose to pass on some of the cost-savings (from the federal government paying 100% of STC benefits) by committing not to raise the payroll tax for those firms that use STC instead of unemployment insurance. This incentive would help states to make a strong case for employers to use this program.

The key is to dispatch these funds quickly because failure to do so will likely lead to skyrocketing claims for unemployment insurance and serious bottlenecks in processing claims. It can also lead to substantial long-term effects on the income and health of people who are losing their jobs, young labor market entrants and others directly affected by the economic crisis. Unfortunately, many states’ STC programs are understaffed, such that there is a concern that bottlenecks may arise. In a recent proposal, I outline a proposal as to how states could quickly enroll thousands of firms despite these issues, such that these problems could also be surmounted.

The CARES Act also included $100 million in start-up grants for states that do not yet have STC programs, and if they do create them, the federal government will fund 50% of the benefits. While this is less than existing programs receive, it is still a great deal for workers, for firms, and for states because it means fewer layoffs, lower payroll taxes, and lower program expenditures, respectively.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Notre-Dame.

Bringing Notre-Dame and Other Buildings Back to Life, UCLA Professor Reconstructs the Lost Monuments of Medieval Paris

A photo of Notre-Dame.

Notre-Dame (Photo Credit: Cassie Gallegos / Unsplash)

When Notre-Dame burned last April, people all over the world – Catholics and atheists, French people and Australians – felt it like a body blow. One of them was Meredith Cohen, associate professor of art history at UCLA. “I didn’t believe it was happening,” she says. “It was terrifying.”

Buildings, as Californians know all too well, burn all the time. But Notre-Dame has a special place in cultural history. Constructed primarily from the 11th to 13th centuries, Notre Dame’s early years coexisted, Cohen says, with the consolidation of Paris as “a center of wealth and cultural power.” Its religious weight – the cathedral is consecrated to the Virgin Mary and houses the Biblical crown of thorns – is just as substantial.

Now, centuries later, the question of how to restore the cathedral after the fire, which destroyed a 300-foot spire and badly damaged its wooden roof, is generating strong opinions. Journalists are seeking Cohen’s point of view; she’s also a member of the Scientifiques de Notre-Dame association, a scholarly group that advocates for a responsible restoration to the French government.

Cohen, grew up on L.A.’s Westside and was pleasantly surprised – after a decade in New York and Europe – to find herself returning to California in 2011 to take a post at UCLA. Besides teaching, research and her public role in the restoration, she is the Principal Investigator of a project called Paris, Past & Present, a site that allows her, with help from students, to virtually reconstruct the city’s medieval monuments.

“The majority of these buildings are lost,” she says. “Many were destroyed in the French Revolution. But we have a lot of information on them – fragments of drawings and engravings. I piece them together like puzzles in a 3-D environment.”

As for Notre-Dame, there is no consensus on the route forward. Because some of its iconic status arrived thanks to Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which rescued the Gothic style from disfavor, some want to return the cathedral to its brooding 19thcentury grandeur. Others want to leave it as is, damage included. “There are different schools of thought,” Cohen says. Her view is nuanced, and tries to honor both past and present without faking anything: In short, don’t pretend it’s 1860. “Rebuild it in a way that’s of our time,” she says, “but still respect the building’s proportions.”