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A photo collage of Kristy Hinds, Leann Pham, Genevieve Finn and Kai Huang

UCLA alumna awarded Mitchell Scholarship, first in 20 years

A photo collage of Kristy Hinds, Leann Pham, Genevieve Finn and Kai Huang

Top row, from left: Genevieve Finn, Kristy Hinds. Bottom row, from left: Leann Pham, Kai Huang (Photo Credits: Genevieve Finn – Jacelyn O’Neill; Leann Pham – Anthony Ismail; Kristy Hinds – Daniel Hinds; Kai Huang – Kai Huang)

This time next year, Genevieve Finn ’20 will be studying creative writing at Trinity College in Dublin as one of 12 winners of this year’s prestigious Mitchell Scholarship. She is only the second UCLA alum to win a Mitchell Scholarship, and the first to win in 20 years.

The George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program is a national, competitive scholarship sponsored by the US-Ireland Alliance. Up to 12 Mitchell Scholars between the ages of 18 and 30 are chosen annually for one academic year of postgraduate study in any discipline offered by institutions of higher learning in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

A native of San Anselmo, Calif., Finn majored in English in the College Honors program and completed her degree in just two and a half years, thanks to AP credits and some “excellent” academic counselors who helped her manage her course load, she said. She was a reporter for the Daily Bruin and interned at the New York Times’ Australia bureau and GQ Australia. She will work at the Mexico bureau of the Associated Press when travel is safe. Finn was also awarded an Overseas Press Club Foundation fellowship for her reporting about her experience sailing on a container ship from Hong Kong to Singapore.

Finn is currently a reporter at the Malibu Times, working to create a Spanish-language insert in the paper’s print edition to serve Malibu’s Latinx day laborer-commuter population. With the Mitchell Scholarship, she plans to develop her skills in long form journalism and poetry, report on Ireland’s unique political and cultural narratives, and explore her own Irish heritage.

Finn said her love of journalism was cemented during a summer she spent traveling around Mexico and writing about the people she met while couch surfing and hitchhiking.

“I love talking to people and am just genuinely interested in other people’s lives,” Finn said. “I love the craft of writing and storytelling and find it exhilarating to be edited.”

She said UCLA’s creative writing program, in particular its poetry workshops, helped prepare her for graduate study.

“My absolute favorite memories of undergrad are far and away the times I got to sit in the Sculpture Garden in the sun with my peers and listen to them read their poetry out loud,” she said. “The workshops taught me so much about how to edit and be edited, made me a nimbler poet and bolder essayist, and gave me so many really wonderful, lasting friends and mentors. I’m going to take all of those skills and relationships with me to Europe!”

In other scholarship news, three UCLA students were finalists for prestigious scholarships this year.

UCLA students Kai Huang and Kristy Hinds were finalists for the Marshall Scholarship, which also funds graduate study in the UK.

Huang, a senior majoring in psychobiology, is an advocate for the transgender community at UCLA. They serve as Undergraduate Student Representative for the Trans Wellness Team, a team of healthcare professionals from Ashe, CAPS and UCLA Health who seek to improve transgender healthcare at UCLA, and are on the Community Advisory Board for the UCLA Gender Health Program Research Collaborative. He co-founded the LGBT Student Advocacy Committee and is the Activism Coordinator for the pre-health student organization Lavender Health Alliance. Huang plans to become a primary care physician for transgender people.

“I never had the opportunity to study abroad before, especially before I legally changed my name and gender marker to match who I am, and it meant a lot to me to be considered as a Marshall finalist as a nonbinary trans person in higher education, since I don’t know of many other trans people in healthcare,” Huang said.

Hinds, a senior majoring in English, is a recipient of the UCLA College Reentry Scholarship for non-traditional students as well as the English department’s Fallen Leaves Creative Writing Prize.

She is working on a directed research project producing a short story fiction collection that looks at women and race, and is researching black authors from the 18th century to the First World War in the areas of sermons, spirituals and autobiography. Hinds said UCLA’s rigor, academic opportunities and support system has inspired her success.

“For me, being a Marshall finalist was a confirmation of what took years to uncover and believe about myself—I am good enough and I am worth it,” Hinds said. “I know it is not despite my story but because of it that makes me a Marshall finalist.”

Leann Pham ’19 was a finalist for the Schwarzman Scholarship, which funds a one-year master’s degree in global affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. At UCLA, in addition to majoring in political science and Asian American studies, she led a multi-year research study on responses to violence and taught a class to empower survivors of gender-based violence in the Asian/Pacific American community. She was also a Resident Assistant with UCLA Residential Life and helped organized sexual violence response training for over 300 RAs.

Pham is currently in Taiwan on a Fulbright Scholarship, where she is teaching and studying the Gender Equity Act in primary schools. She said it was an honor not only to be a Schwarzman finalist but also to see how her professors, advisors and friends all rallied to support her throughout the application process.

“Being a Schwarzman finalist meant that someone saw potential in me and my approach to gender-based violence between the U.S. and China,” Pham said. “But the experience of being a finalist showed me how lucky I was to have an entire ‘UCLA village’ support me.”

To learn more about scholarship opportunities for UCLA students, visit http://www.scholarshipcenter.ucla.edu/.

This article was written by Robin Shawn Migdol.

 

A photo of Royce Hall.

Match funds stimulate establishment of nine centennial term chairs

UCLA College donors gave gifts to establish nine endowed centennial term chairs in the final year of the Centennial Campaign, taking advantage of the opportunity to enhance the impact of their philanthropy through a $5-million dollar match fund.

A photo of Royce Hall.

The Centennial Term Chair Match Fund was set up by Dean of Physical Sciences Miguel García-Garibay using proceeds of UCLA’s sale of royalty interest in the prostate cancer drug Xtandi, which was developed by chemists in the UCLA College’s physical sciences division. The fund was intended to bolster efforts to hire and retain early-career faculty through the establishment of faculty term chairs. Centennial chair holders also will form a distinct cohort that brings College faculty together and advises the College deans on various initiatives.

Senior Dean of UCLA College David Schaberg said, “By ‘sharing the wealth’ through the match fund, Dean García-Garibay found an innovative way to spur investment in faculty throughout the College and engage donors who share our commitment to faculty excellence.”

Prestigious endowed chairs play a key role in recruiting and retaining premier faculty whose interdisciplinary research, commitment to mentoring students, and talent for teaching are essential to the university’s vitality and impact. UCLA vies with other top-tier universities, including many with much larger endowments, for the best faculty. Along with the prestige and recognition that come with an endowed chair, chair holders receive funds for research costs as well to support graduate students who teach and mentor undergraduates. Term chairs, while renewable, generally are awarded every five years to ensure representation of a cross-section of academic fields.

Below are the nine centennial term chairs established or committed:

Division of Humanities

– Theresa McShane Biggs and Henry P. Biggs Centennial Term Chair in Linguistics

– George P. Kolovos Family Centennial Term Chair in Hellenic Studies

 

Division of Life Sciences

– George and Nouhad Ayoub Centennial Chair in Life Sciences Innovation

– Kevin Love Fund Centennial Chair in Psychology*

 

Division of Physical Sciences

– Randy Schekman and Sabeeha Merchant Centennial Term Chair

– The Andrea M. Ghez Centennial Term Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics (gifts from Astrid and Howard Preston, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, and the Heising-Simons Foundation)

 

Division of Social Sciences

– Benjamin Graham Centennial Endowed Chair in Value Investing (gift from the Havner Family Foundation)

– Mark Itkin Centennial Chair in Communication honoring Andrea L. Rich* (gift from Mark Allen Itkin)

 

Division of Undergraduate Education

– Centennial Director for Philanthropy Education (gift from Madeline and Mark Asofsky)

 

*Pending approval by UCOP

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald. 

A photo of Rong Fu, Karen Sears and Graciela Gelmini.

Three professors named 2020 fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

A photo of Rong Fu, Karen Sears and Graciela Gelmini.

From left: Rong Fu, Karen Sears and Graciela Gelmini were named fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (Courtesy of Karen Sears, Rong Fu and Graciela Gelmini)

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the world’s largest scientific society, named three UCLA College faculty members as 2020 fellows. Since 1874, the AAAS, which publishes the journal Science, has chosen members for their distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

UCLA College’s new fellows are:

Rong Fu, professor and vice chair of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, conducts research on the role of the atmospheric hydrological cycle and its interaction with Earth’s surface in determining the stability of the Earth’s climate at global and regional scales, and applying climate science to support regional decision-making. Her research has focused on topics including the mechanisms that control the rainfall variability over Amazonian and Pan-American monsoon regions and various factors that influence rainfall variability in the recent past and will influence rainfall and droughts in the future. She is being honored for “seminal contributions to the understanding of rainfall and ecosystem interactions, and the scientific application for improving societal drought preparedness at regional scale.”

Graciela Gelmini, professor of physics and astronomy, conducts research on astro-particle physics, especially dark matter. The vast majority of the matter in the universe is dark matter, which so far has been observed only through its gravitational interaction. What dark matter consists of remains one of the most important open questions in physics, astrophysics and cosmology. She is a theoretical physicist who has extensively studied dark matter candidates, as well as the physics of neutrinos. She is being honored for her outstanding contributions “to our understanding of dark matter and the universe.”

Karen Sears, professor and chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department, harnesses the diversity in mammals to study how evolution works. Her research explores the developmental rules that shape evolution and provide insights into human health. She is being honored for distinguished contributions to biology, “particularly the developmental mechanisms driving morphologic diversification in mammals.”

A total of to 489 scholars were selected as fellows this year. They will be honored Feb. 13, 2021, at a virtual Fellows Forum.

For the full article, written by Stuart Wolpert, please visit the UCLA Newsroom

A graphic of the predictive model.

UCLA model ID’s areas that should have priority for vaccine, other COVID-19 help

The predictive model can guide public health officials and leaders across the nation in harnessing local data that can help prevent infections and save lives, the UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: UCLA CNK-BRITE)

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, UCLA public health and urban planning experts have developed a predictive model that pinpoints which populations in which neighborhoods of Los Angeles County are most at risk of becoming infected.

The researchers hope the new model, which can be applied to other counties and jurisdictions as well, will assist decision makers, public health officials and scientists in effectively and equitably implementing vaccine distribution, testing, closures and reopenings, and other virus-mitigation measures.

The model maps Los Angeles County neighborhood by neighborhood, based on four important indicators known to significantly increase a person’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 infection — preexisting medical conditions, barriers to accessing health care, built-environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges.

The research data demonstrate that neighborhoods characterized by significant clustering of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households and unmet medical needs are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, specifically areas in and around South Los Angeles and the eastern portion of the San Fernando Valley. Communities along the coast and in the northwestern part of the county, which are disproportionately white and higher-income, were found to be the least vulnerable.

“The model we have includes specific resource vulnerabilities that can guide public health officials and local leaders across the nation to harness already available local data to determine which groups in which neighborhoods are most vulnerable and how to prevent new infections to save lives,” said research author Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Mays, who also directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy, worked with urban planner Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, to develop the indicators model, along with study co-authors Chhandara Pech and Nataly Rios Gutierrez. The maps were created by Abigail Fitzgibbon.

Utilizing data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s California Health Interview Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the researchers were able to determine how the four vulnerability indicators differentially predicted which racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County were the most vulnerable to infection based on their geographical residence.

Racial and ethnic groups with the highest vulnerability

Preexisting conditions. The authors found that 73% of Black residents live in neighborhoods with the highest rates of preexisting health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as poor overall health and food insecurity. This was followed by 70% of Latinos and 60% of Cambodians, Hmongs and Laotians, or CHL. Conversely, 60% of white residents live in areas with low or the lowest vulnerability.

Barriers to accessing services. Forty percent of Latinos, 29% of Blacks, 22% of CHL and 16% of “other Asians” reside in neighborhoods with the greatest barriers to health care, characterized by high proportions of non–U.S. citizens, poor English-language ability, a lack of access to computer broadband service, lower rates of health insurance and poor access to vehicles for medical purposes. Only 7% of whites live in these neighborhoods.

Built-environment risk. Sixty-three percent of CHL, 55% of Latinos, 53% of Blacks and 32% of whites live areas considered to be at high or the highest vulnerability due to built-environment challenges, which include high population density, crowded housing and a lack of parks and open spaces.

Social vulnerability. According to the Centers for Disease Control, neighborhoods with high social vulnerability are characterized by lower socioeconomic status and education attainment, a higher prevalence of single-parent and multigenerational households, greater housing density, poorer English-language ability and a lack of access to vehicles, among other factors. While only 8% of whites live in these neighborhoods, 42% of both Blacks and Latinos do, as do 38% of CHL.

How the model can help with COVID-19–mitigation efforts

“When the pandemic hit, we were slowed down by a lack of science and a lack of understanding of the ways in which health disparities in the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations made their risk of COVID-19 infection even greater,” Mays said. “We thought elderly and people in nursing homes were the most vulnerable, yet we found that lacking a number of social resources contributes to a greater likelihood of getting infected as well.”

► Read an interview with Mays on the how COVID-19 is affecting Black Americans and how better data can help prevent its spread.

And while nationwide statistics have shown that the virus has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities and communities of color, knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources and when to open or close areas, Mays and Ong said.

If, for example, English-language ability is a barrier to accessing health information and services in a vulnerable neighborhood, health officials should develop campaigns in Spanish or another appropriate language highlighting the availability of testing, the researchers stress. If access to a car is a barrier for families in an at-risk area, walk-up testing sites should be made available. When crowded housing in a high-risk neighborhood is the predominant housing stock, testing resources should be set up for entire households and hotel vouchers made available to help with quarantining after a positive test.

The data can also provide critical knowledge and insights to social service providers, emergency agencies and volunteers on where to direct their time and resources, such as where to set up distribution sites for food and other necessities. And importantly, identifying the areas and populations with the highest vulnerability will help decision-makers equitably prioritize vaccine-distribution plans to include the most vulnerable early.

In the longer term, the researchers say, the model will also provide valuable information to urban planners so that they can target specific areas for the development of less-dense housing and more parks and open spaces, creating healthier neighborhoods that can better withstand future pandemics while promoting equity in long-term health outcomes.

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

12 UCLA College scientists among world’s most influential researchers

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

A researcher in the lab. Photo Credit: iStock.com

Thirty-six UCLA scholars have been named as the world’s most influential scientific researchers. Twelve are from UCLA College.

Clarivate released its annual list of the most highly cited researchers, which includes dozens of UCLA scientists across various disciplines. The list is compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate using data based on scholarly publication counts and citation indexes. The selected researchers wrote publications that ranked in the top 1% by citations in their field for that year, according to the Web of Science citation index.

Current UCLA College faculty members and researchers who were named to the list, noted with their primary UCLA research field or fields, are:

For the full list and article, written by Max Gordy, please visit the UCLA Newsroom

Birthrates, marriage, gender roles will change dramatically in post-pandemic world, scientists predict

Marriage rates will plummet and people will put off having children in a virus-plagued world, potentially leading to a drop in nations’ populations, UCLA professor Martie Haselton and colleagues say. (Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com)

COVID-19 and America’s response to it are likely to profoundly affect our families, work lives, relationships and gender roles for years, say 12 prominent scientists and authors who analyzed 90 research studies and used their expertise to evaluate our reaction to the pandemic and predict its aftermath.

The group, which included three UCLA researchers, foresees enduring psychological fallout from the crisis, even among those who haven’t been infected. Their predictions and insights, published Oct. 22 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, include:

– Planned pregnancies will decrease in a disease-ridden world, birthrates will drop, and many couples will postpone marriage, said senior author and UCLA professor of psychology and communication studies Martie Haselton.

– People who are single are less likely to start new relationships. Women who can afford to be on their own are likely to stay single longer, Haselton said.

– With children home due to the pandemic, women are spending more time providing care and schooling, are less available for paying work and may come to rely more on male partners as breadwinners, Haselton said. This will push us toward socially conservative gender norms and potentially result in a backslide in gender equality.

– Unlike many past crises, this pandemic is not bringing people closer together and, despite some exceptions, it is not producing an increase in kindness, empathy or compassion, especially in the U.S., said lead author Benjamin Seitz, a UCLA psychology doctoral student with expertise in behavioral neuroscience.

– “Our species is not wired for seeking a precise understanding of the world as it actually is,” the authors write, and our tribal predispositions toward groupthink are resulting in the large-scale spread of misinformation We tend to seek out data that supports our opinions, and we too often distrust health experts, they say.

“The psychological, social and societal consequences of COVID-19 will be very long-lasting,” Haselton said. “The longer COVID-19 continues, the more entrenched these changes are likely to be.”

COVID-19: A worldwide social experiment

As marriage rates plummet and people postpone reproduction in a virus-plagued world, some nations’ populations will shrink and fall precipitously below “replacement level,” the authors write. These birthrate drops, in turn, can have cascading social and economic consequences, affecting job opportunities, straining the ability of countries to provide a safety net for their aging populations and potentially leading to global economic contraction.

Research has shown that even before the pandemic, women were more stressed than men by family and job responsibilities. Now they are managing more household responsibilities related to child care and education. In medicine and other sciences, women scholars are already publishing substantially less research than they did a year ago, while men are showing increased productivity, Haselton said.

She and her co-authors foresee a shift toward social conservatism. A consequence of the pandemic could be less tolerance for legal abortion and the rights for sexual minorities who don’t align with traditional gender roles. In addition, in a time of economic inequality, many women will sexualize themselves more to compete with one another for desirable men, Haselton said.

People who meet online will often be disappointed when they meet in person. “Does a couple have chemistry? You can’t tell that over Zoom,” Haselton said. In new relationships, people will miss cues, especially online, and the disappointing result will often be overidealization of a potential partner — seeing the person the way you want the person to be rather than the way the person actually is.

The pandemic has become a worldwide social experiment, say the authors, whose areas of expertise include psychology, neuroscience, behavioral science, evolutionary biology, medicine, evolutionary social science and economics.

An evolutionary struggle

For the study, the authors used an evolutionary perspective to highlight the strategies the virus has evolved to use against us, the strategies we possess to combat it and the strategies we need to acquire.

Humans today are the products of social and genetic evolution in environments that look very little like our current world. These “evolutionary mismatches” are likely responsible for our frequent lack of alarm in response to the pandemic, the scientists write.

Americans in particular value individuality and the ability to challenge authority. “This combination does not work especially well in a pandemic,” Seitz said. “This virus is exposing us and our weaknesses.”

Haselton agreed, calling the virus “wily” for its ability to infect us through contact with people we love who seem to be healthy. “Our social features that define much of what it is to be human make us a prime target for viral exploitation,” she said. “Policies asking us to isolate and distance profoundly affect our families, work lives, relationships and gender roles.”

All infectious agents, including viruses, are under evolutionary pressure to manipulate the physiology and behavior of their hosts — in this case, us — in ways that enhance their survival and transmission. SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, may be altering human neural tissue to change our behavior, the authors say. It may be suppressing feelings of sickness, and perhaps even enhancing our social impulses, during times of peak transmissibility before symptoms appear. People who are infected but do not feel sick are more likely to go about their usual activities and come in contact with others whom they might infect.

Disgust is useful and motivates us to avoid people who display clear signs of disease — such as blood, pale skin, lesions, yellow eyes or a runny nose. But with COVID-19 infections, this is not what most people see. Family, friends, co-workers and strangers can look perfectly healthy and be asymptomatic for days without knowing they are infected, the authors note.

It may sound counterintuitive, but normal brain development requires exposure to a diverse set of microbes to help prepare younger animals for a range of pathogenic dangers they may encounter in adulthood. But safer-at-home and quarantine health measures have temporarily halted social activities that would otherwise bring millions of adolescents into contact with new microbes. As a result, children and adolescents whose immune systems and brains would, in normal times, be actively shaped by microbial exposures may be adversely impacted by this change, the scientists say.

By understanding how SARS-CoV-2 is evolving and having behavioral and psychological effects on us that enhance its transmission, we will be better able to combat it so it becomes less harmful and less lethal, the authors write.

Other co-authors of the study are Steven Pinker of Harvard University, bestselling author Sam Harris, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Paul Bloom of Yale University, Athena Aktipis of Arizona State University, David Buss of the University of Texas, Joe Alcock of the University of New Mexico, Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland and David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, 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 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