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Studying Maternal Stress

By Stuart Wolpert

 

Through their research with women and children, UCLA scientists are homing in on some of the great mysteries of life and some of society’s most pressing concerns.

One example: the question of why some people age faster than others.

A potential answer, a recent study indicates, is that a mother’s stress prior to giving birth may accelerate her child’s biological aging.

Researchers found evidence that maternal stress adversely affects the length of a baby’s telomeres — the small pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that act as protective caps, like the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shortened telomeres have been linked to a higher risk of cancers, cardiovascular and other diseases, and earlier death. The findings are reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Research on aging is beginning to identify some factors that might put a person on an accelerated aging path, potentially leading to diseases of aging such as metabolic disorder and cardiovascular disease much earlier in life than would be expected,” said the study’s lead author, Judith Carroll, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

While several studies have reported that telomere length is shorter in newborns whose mothers reported high stress during pregnancy, this study also measured maternal stress prior to conception and then, once women were pregnant, the researchers followed up in the second and third trimesters. Their analyses identified the third trimester as an especially important period — but not earlier — during which children are at higher risk for shortened telomeres.

Christine Dunkel Schetter, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry and senior author of the study, said the findings support the case for devoting more resources to screening and treatment programs for preconception health and well-being.

The research team followed 111 mothers living in North Carolina, Illinois and Washington, D.C., from preconception until their children reached early childhood. Between the ages of 3 and 5, the children provided cell samples from inside their cheeks, from which the researchers extracted DNA that was used to measure telomeres. They were then able to test for associations of childhood telomere length with the mothers’ stress levels when the children were in utero.

Carroll said, “We see evidence into childhood that telomere length continues to be shorter in those children exposed in utero to maternal stress.

“How does maternal stress alter cellular aging?”

We know that stress can activate inflammation and metabolic activity, both of which, in high amounts, can damage DNA,” Carroll said. “Telomeres are vulnerable to damage and, if unrepaired before cell division, they can become shortened by this damage. During in utero development, we know there is rapid cell replication, and we suspect there is increased vulnerability to damage during this time.”

High maternal stress oftenleads to preterm births

A second UCLA-led study from the same research group found that women suffering from high stress — defined as feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope — during the months and even years before conception had shorter pregnancies than other women. Women who experienced the highest levels of stress gave birth to infants whose time in utero was shorter by one week or more.

“Every day in the womb is important to fetal growth and development,” said Dunkel Schetter. “Premature infants have higher risk of adverse outcomes at birth and later in life than babies born later, including developmental disabilities and physical health problems.”

Dunkel Schetter, who heads the Stress Processes and Pregnancy Lab, which conducted the studies, noted premature birth rates are unusually high in the U.S., compared with other nations with similar resources, and low-income and African American women have higher rates of preterm birth.

“Preventing preterm birth, with its adverse consequences for mothers and children worldwide and in the U.S., is a top priority,” she said.

These results, published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, are based on extensive in-home interviews with 360 mothers, many of whom live near or below the poverty level. In addition to collecting data on these women’s general stress levels, the interviewers obtained information about various types of environmental stress, including financial worries, job loss, a lack of food, chronic relationship troubles, parenting challenges, interpersonal vi0lence and discrimination.

The researchers found that women who were exposed to the lowest or highest amounts of stress in their environment had the shortest pregnancies, while women who had a moderate level of environmental stress before conception had the longest pregnancies.

“Women exposed to moderate stressors in their environment may have developed coping strategies that serve them well both before and during pregnancy, while exposure to more severe stress challenges even women who normally cope very effectively,” said lead author Nicole Mahrer, who conducted the research as a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in health psychology and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne. She is also a co-author of the other study.

A moderate amount of stress prior to the pregnancy may also help prepare the developing fetus for the environment to come, Mahrer said.

“What we have not known until now,” Dunkel Schetter said, “is whether a mother’s psychosocial health before conception matters for her birth out-comes. This study is among the first to point out that, yes, it does matter. It may even be more influential than prenatal health because some of what is put in motion before conception may be hard to stop during pregnancy. For example, a mother with dysregulated immune function due to stress may be at risk when she becomes pregnant.”

 

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Neuroscientist Adriana Galván named 2021 Gold Shield Faculty Prize winner

A photo of Adriana Galván.

Adriana Galván designed one of UCLA’s most popular classes, “Puberty and Sleep.” Students say they’ve learned a lot about their own sleeping habits from the class. (Photo Courtesy of Adriana Galván)

Adriana Galván, dean of undergraduate education at UCLA, describes herself as “painfully shy” as a child, but by the time she enrolled at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, she’d gotten over her bashfulness. Active in student government, a cheerleader and member of the marching band, Galván looks back at her teenage years as a period of life she loved.

So it makes sense that Galván, a psychology professor in the UCLA College, chose to specialize in adolescent brain development and behavior, particularly in the domains of learning, motivation and decision-making.

“There was a gap in knowledge about the adolescent brain,” she said, “and I was curious to learn how the brain contributes to the normal behavioral changes that happen as kids transition into teenagers.”

Galván has since contributed 113 papers to top journals and has written a book, “The Neuroscience of Adolescence,” published by Cambridge University Press (2017). Her research on adolescent reward sensitivity and risk-taking behavior has played a central role in landmark Supreme Court decisions regarding the culpability and punishment of juvenile offenders.

Galván’s work on the teenage brain and its decision-making process is just one of the many reasons she was recently awarded the 2021 Gold Shield Faculty Prize, a $30,000 award given annually to an exceptional mid-career full professor with a distinguished record of undergraduate teaching, research and university service. The prize is sponsored by Gold Shield, Alumnae of UCLA, an organization that was founded in 1936 by 12 women to provide service to the university and its community.

Several of Galván’s peers and former scholars came forward to nominate her for the award, citing her research as well as her contributions to teaching, mentoring, service to UCLA and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. Beloved by her students, Galván has taught more than 10 different courses and seminars since her arrival in 2008, including two new undergraduate and three graduate courses she developed. One of them, a specialized seminar called “Puberty and Sleep,” is extremely popular with students who say they’ve learned a lot about their own sleeping habits from the class.

The daughter of parents who immigrated from Mexico City, Galván became the first in her immediate and extended family to earn a doctoral degree (a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2006 from Cornell University). She serves as an exemplary role model, mentoring students through the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research — Life and Biomedical Sciences and the Brain Research Institute Summer Program for Undergraduate Research, both of which aim to engage underrepresented students in research opportunities.

“I had always longed for a mentor who would be able to provide me not only with exceptional advice, but also someone with whom I could feel a sense of community,” said Jasmine Hernandez, a former student of Galván’s and currently a predoctoral research fellow at Yale University. “Being a Latina first-generation woman has afforded its own challenges, but people like Professor Galván continue to make a significant impact on my life. She is definitely a powerhouse scholar in the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience and psychology.”

Named dean of undergraduate education in July 2020, Galván has already proposed new initiatives, including the establishment of a research center tasked with improving graduation rates, student learning and preparation for success after college with an emphasis on addressing equity and inclusion issues.

Galván, who is raising son Gustavo, 10, and daughter Lucia, 7, with her husband, William Lowry, a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at UCLA, said she was “ecstatic” when she found out she had won the Gold Shield Faculty Prize.

“I felt so much gratitude for the colleagues who nominated me. They each make UCLA a very special place,” she said.

As for the $30,000 award, Galván’s already got plans for spending it: “I’m excited to support a postdoctoral fellow on a new project related to learning and motivation during adolescence!”

This article, written by Wendy Soderburg, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of D’Artagnan Scorza filming his address to the UCLA College’s class of 2021.

UCLA College to host virtual commencement celebration June 11

A photo of D’Artagnan Scorza filming his address to the UCLA College’s class of 2021.

D’Artagnan Scorza filming his address to the UCLA College’s class of 2021. (Photo Credit: Mike Baker/UCLA)

Civic leader, social justice advocate and UCLA alumnus D’Artagnan Scorza will deliver the keynote address at the UCLA College’s virtual commencement celebration on Friday, June 11. The program, which begins at 6 p.m. PDT, will also feature remarks by Chancellor Gene Block, Nobel laureate Andrea Ghez, class of 2021 student speakers and others.

A decorated U.S. Navy veteran, Scorza is the inaugural executive director of racial equity for Los Angeles County and president of the UCLA Alumni Association. He is also a lecturer at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

“D’Artagnan Scorza has given back to his fellow Bruins and his fellow Americans in myriad ways since his graduation,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the UCLA College and dean of humanities. “His incredible life experiences and dedication to social change make him the ideal person to inspire our graduating seniors to aim high and make a difference in the world.”

In 2008, Scorza founded the nonprofit Social Justice Learning Institute and as its executive director over the next 12 years led efforts to open up academic and career opportunities to Black and Latino youth while establishing community gardens, a farmers’ market and healthy lifestyle centers in his hometown of Inglewood, California. His research, policy initiatives and grassroots organizing have had a significant impact on high-need communities throughout California.

“This year’s graduating class deserves so much credit for their achievement and resilience in the face of the pandemic,” Scorza said. “It’s an incredible honor to have been asked to give the commencement address to this remarkable group of Bruins.”

While studying as an undergraduate UCLA, Scorza enlisted in the Navy following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and served for four-and-a-half years, including a deployment to Iraq. He later returned to UCLA, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in the study of religion in 2007 and earned his doctorate in education in 2013. As a UC student regent from 2007 to 2009, he helped pass policies that established veterans’ service centers and prioritized $160 million for student services across UC campuses.

Scorza also served as president of the Inglewood Unified School District Board of Education and chaired a campaign to secure $350 million in school improvement bonds for the district’s schools.

Scorza was invited to be the 2021 commencement speaker after being selected from among wide field of candidates by UCLA’s Commencement Committee, which comprises students, faculty members and administrators.

Along with his UCLA degrees, Scorza holds a bachelor’s in liberal studies from National University in San Diego.

Virtual and in-person commencement ceremonies

In addition to the virtual celebration, UCLA plans to recognize members of the class of 2021 individually and in person at a series of events beginning the weekend of June 11; these events will be held over the course of several days and will adhere to public safety guidelines. For information on the in-person and virtual celebrations, please visit the UCLA College’s commencement website and UCLA’s campus commencement website.

Campus leaders announced in April that while the UCLA College and other units would be hosting commencement ceremonies virtually due to the continued public health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCLA remains committed to hosting in-person commencement ceremonies for the classes of 2021and 2020 and their families and friends at a later date.

This article, written by Margaret MacDonald, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

Migratory songbirds’ travels disrupted by earlier springs

A scarlet tanager perched on a tree branch. (Photo Credit: Jen Goellnitz/Flickr)

Spring has arrived in North America. Leaves have sprouted, flowers are in bloom and migratory birds are bringing color and song to large swaths of the continent.

The timing of this so-called spring green-up — the beginning of a new cycle of plant growth each year — affects migratory birds’ behaviors and ability to survive their move north. They tend to travel later if winter lasts a little long, and sooner if spring comes early.

In North America, climate change is causing spring to arrive an average of 0.4 days earlier each year. According to a new paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, some species could be unable to keep pace with this rapid change.

Although a change of less than half a day per year might not sound like much, it adds up to an entire week’s worth of change every 20 years, and it could alter what food is available along their migration routes and breeding grounds, how much time fledglings have to leave the nest, and how the birds interact with other plant and animal species. Previous research has found that such changes could lead to population declines and cascading effects to ecosystems.

“Some birds are quite accurate on the coming of spring because they are highly sensitive to the rhythms and cycles of nature,” said Morgan Tingley, a UCLA ecologist and the paper’s senior author.

Tingley and his co-authors crowdsourced 7 million observations by birdwatchers from the online platform eBird and compared the data to the timing of spring green-up as seen from space via two NASA satellites from 2002 through 2017.

The researchers analyzed how 56 species of migratory birds, primarily small songbirds, responded to these earlier springs. All species travel to breeding grounds in North America but some winter farther south, in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The authors found that species with shorter, slower migration routes that winter farther north adjusted to changes better — the pine warbler and eastern phoebe, for example. Others had more trouble keeping pace, particularly those that winter in South America and have longer migration routes — such as the bobolink and willow flycatcher.

Most were unable to entirely keep up with an earlier arrival of spring. For each day earlier that green-up occurred, species generally adjusted their migration schedules by less than a half-day.

That inability to adjust to an earlier spring can have serious consequences, said Casey Youngflesh, the study’s lead author and a UCLA ecology and evolutionary biology researcher.

“If birds show up days or weeks later than optimal, they may not have enough food, which could result in lower success breeding and fewer chicks that survive to leave the nest,” Youngflesh said. “That’s really the main concern — that it may cause overall declines in how many birds there actually are.”

The study also notes that the consequences for birds could indirectly affect other animals and even plants. For example, caterpillars are a primary source of food for migratory birds, but if bird populations were to decline, it is possible that more caterpillars than normal would survive each year. Were that to happen, the health of trees could be affected because leaves are a primary food source for caterpillars.

“Everything is interconnected. If you remove a piece of the ecosystem, it’s hard to say exactly what will happen,” Youngflesh said, adding that further research would be needed to determine exactly what the consequences of earlier green-ups would be for any individual species.

Changes in climate have always been a major factor in the evolution of birds’ migratory patterns. However, Youngflesh said, those adaptations have occurred over tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. Modern climate change, largely resulting from increased carbon dioxide emissions, is happening far faster, over years and decades — so rapidly that many species are unable to adapt quickly enough.

That’s thought to be one of the primary reasons bird populations have declined rapidly across North America in recent decades. A 2019 paper published in Science concluded that the number of birds on the continent has diminished by about 3 billion since 1970, when the total population was around 7 billion. In addition to climate change, other factors such as habitat loss, outdoor-dwelling cats and more windows — with which birds collide — are likely reasons for the decline.

The new study, whose co-authors included researchers from the University of Florida, University of North Carolina and Pennsylvania State University and others, outlines a framework for further research into why and how the decline is happening, and it could help conservationists target their efforts to protect the species that are most at risk, Tingley said.

“Climate change is producing winners and losers,” Tingley said. “We are mapping for the first time why some are winning and others are losing.”

This article, written by David Colgan, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of the UCLA 2021 AAAS members.

Five UCLA College professors elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

A photo of the UCLA 2021 AAAS members.

UCLA 2021 AAAS members
Top row: UCLA professors Terence Blanchard, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Barbara Geddes and Elisabeth Le Guin.
Bottom row: UCLA professors Kelly Lytle Hernández, Daniel Posner, Marilyn Raphael and Victoria Sork. (Photos Courtesy of UCLA)

Eight faculty members, five of whom are from the UCLA College were elected today to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies. A total of 252 artists, scholars, scientists and leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors were elected to the academy today, including honorary members from 17 countries.

UCLA College’s 2021 honorees are:

Barbara Geddes, professor emeritus and former chair of political science, conducts research on the breakdown of authoritarian regimes, democratization, authoritarian transitions and political development, with a focus on Latin American politics. Geddes’ early work included studies of bureaucratic reform and corruption in Brazil and the politics of economic policy-making in Latin America. Early conclusions from her research about regime duration and modes of transition were published in “What Do We Know about Democratization after Twenty Years, Annual Review of Political Science 2” (1999). Geddes also published a book on comparative political research methods called “Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics” (2003).

Kelly Lytle Hernández, a professor of history and African American studies, is the director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. Lytle Hernández was awarded a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which said her research on “the intersecting histories of race, mass incarceration, immigration, and cross-border politics is deepening our understanding of how imprisonment has been used as a mechanism for social control in the United States.” One of the nation’s leading experts on race, immigration and mass incarceration, she is the author of the award-winning books, “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol” (University of California Press, 2010), and “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles” (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). She holds UCLA’s Thomas E. Lifka Chair in History, and is the principal investigator for Million Dollar Hoods, a university-based, community-drive research project that maps the fiscal and human cost of mass incarceration in Los Angeles.

Daniel Posner, UCLA’s James S. Coleman Professor of International Development, focuses his political science research on ethnic politics, research design, distributive politics and the political economy of development in Africa. His most recent co-authored book, “Coethnicity: Diversity and the Dilemmas of Collective Action,” (Russell Sage, 2009) employs experimental games to probe the sources of poor public goods provision in ethnically diverse communities. His first book was “Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa.” (Cambridge, 2005). He is the co-founder of the Working Group in African Political Economy, a member of the Evidence in Governance and Politics network, a faculty associate of the Center for Effective Global Action and a research affiliate of the International Growth Center.

Marilyn Raphael, professor of geography and interim director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is the co-author of the award-winning book “The Encyclopedia of Weather and Climate Change: A Complete Visual Guide,” and the author or co-author of more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles. Raphael was elected vice president of the American Association of Geographers, the world’s largest geography society effective July 1 of this year. Her research expertise includes atmospheric circulation dynamics, Antarctic sea ice variability and global climate change. She has been committed to introducing undergraduates to the world of climatology and graduate students to the joys of research.

Victoria Sork, is a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a renowned plant evolutionary biologist. Sork was award the 2020 Molecular Ecology Prize, which recognizes an outstanding scientist who has made significant contributions to the field. Elected in 2004 as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she has conducted pioneering research in the field of landscape genomics, which integrates genomics, evolutionary biology and conservation science. She is particularly concerned with the ecological and genetic processes that will determine whether California oaks will tolerate climate change. She and members of her laboratory conduct research throughout California and Western North America from Baja California through Alaska. Research she led in 2019 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.

Other UCLA 2021 honorees are:

Terence Blanchard, a six-time Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter, composer and music educator, holds UCLA’s Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies in UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Blanchard has released 20 solo albums and composed more than 60 film scores. Blanchard served as artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz (now named the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz) from 2000 to 2011. In this role, he presented masterclasses and worked with students in the areas of artistic development, arranging, composition and career counseling. Today, the institute partners with music school to offer the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA, a special college-level program that allows masters of jazz to pass on their expertise to the next generation of jazz musicians.

Elisabeth Le Guin, professor of musicology in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, is a Baroque cellist, and was a founding member of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Artaria String Quartet. In recent years, Le Guin has become involved in the movimiento jaranero, a transnational grassroots musical activism in Mexico and Mexican immigrant communities in the United States. She has written two books, “Boccherini’s Body: an Essay in Carnal Musicology” (2006) and “The Tonadillo in Performance: Lyric Comedy in Enlightenment Spain” (2014), both published by UC Press. She received the American Musicological Society’s Alfred Einstein and Noah Greenberg Awards. She re-started UCLA´s Early Music Ensemble in 2009 after a 15-year hiatus.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a distinguished professor of law in the UCLA School of Law, is an expert on race and the law, structural racism and discrimination based on race, gender and class. A renowned scholar on civil rights and constitutional law, Crenshaw was a founder and has been a leader in the intellectual movement called critical race theory. She is the executive director of the African American Policy Forum, an innovative think tank connecting academics, activists and policy-makers to dismantle structural inequality and engage new ideas and perspectives to transform public discourse and policy. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” more than 30 years ago to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap.

“We are honoring the excellence of these individuals, celebrating what they have achieved so far and imagining what they will continue to accomplish,” said David Oxtoby, president of the academy. “The past year has been replete with evidence of how things can get worse; this is an opportunity to illuminate the importance of art, ideas, knowledge and leadership that can make a better world.”

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., Nelson Mandela and UCLA astrophysicist Andrea Ghez.

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

Psychology professor working to eliminate health disparities

A photo of Vickie Mays

“We are all connected. The extent to which we allow members of our society to be unequal is the extent to which we endanger the health of all,” says Vickie Mays, professor of psychology in the UCLA College whose work focuses on understanding the physical and mental health challenges of underserved populations.

A vital part of the UCLA faculty since 1979, Mays is a highly regarded thinker, scholar and leader. She is director of the UCLA Center on Bridging Research, Innovation, Training and Education (BRITE) for Minority Health Disparities Solutions, an NIH-funded center with approximately 80 faculty, staff, students and community partners working to eliminate physical and mental health disparities in racial/ethnic minority populations. Last year, Chancellor Block appointed Mays as Special Advisor to the Chancellor on Black Life.

Mays, who holds a joint appointment in health policy and management in the Fielding School of Public Health, has worked with members of Congress on a bill that would require better data on the race and ethnicity of people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. She also is conducting research on the data needed to create better models to predict the spread of COVID-19, in order to reduce the number of infections and deaths in Black communities.

Mays is co-senior author of a new UCLA-led study that found that Black men of all income levels reported experiencing higher levels of discrimination than their white counterparts. Published March 8 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the study may help explain why increased income levels among Black men aren’t accompanied by improved physical and mental health outcomes, as they are for whites.

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald.

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

UCLA-led study reveals ‘hidden costs’ of being Black in the U.S.

A photo of a Black man in suit and tie.

The study’s findings may help explain why increased income levels among Black men aren’t accompanied by improved physical and mental health outcomes, as they are for whites, researchers say. (Photo Credit: iStock.com/FlamingoImages)

A woman grips her purse tightly as you approach. A store manager follows you because you look “suspicious.” You enter a high-end restaurant, and the staff assume you’re applying for a job. You’re called on in work meetings only when they’re talking about diversity.

The indignities and humiliations Black men — even those who have “made it” — regularly endure have long been seen as part and parcel of life in the United States among the Black community, a sort of “Black tax” that takes a heavy toll on physical and mental health.

Now, a new UCLA-led study reveals these “hidden costs” of being Black in America. Researchers who analyzed a national sample of the views of Black men and white men found that Black men of all income levels reported experiencing higher levels of discrimination than their white counterparts.

“Black men face constant experiences of discrimination and disappointment when they try to contribute. They are treated like criminals in a society where they often are not allowed to achieve their full potential,” said the study’s co-senior author, Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

“Successful Black men,” she said, “hope their hard work will pay off and instead are tormented to find their education and income often do not protect them from racial discrimination. The ‘return on achievement’ is reduced for Blacks in the U.S. It’s a disturbing wake-up call.”

The study, “Money protects white but not African American men against discrimination,” is published today in the peer-reviewed open-access International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

To measure perceived discrimination, the researchers analyzed data from the National Survey of American Life that assessed the mental health of 1,271 Black and 372 non-Hispanic white adults who live in the same areas across the U.S. Survey questions inquired about chronic, daily experiences over the past year. For example, respondents were asked how often in their day-to-day lives any of the following had occurred: “being followed around in stores,” “people acting as if they think you are dishonest,” “receiving poorer service than other people at restaurants” and “being called names or insulted.” Scaled response options ranged from 1 (“never”) to 6 (“almost every day”).

The results indicate that many Black men face discriminatory indignities on a nearly daily basis, year after year — and the experience is exhausting, said Mays, who directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is a special advisor to UCLA’s chancellor on Black life. “It takes a toll on your physical and mental health. You get depleted.”

The daily discrimination measured by the survey did not include other frequently cited injustices, such as being pulled over and questioned by police officers without cause and facing discrimination in housing, education, jobs and health care, said Mays. She noted that while the study’s results were distressing, they were not particularly surprising.

“We’ve known this,” she said, “but now it’s documented. This is evidence.”

Higher incomes and achievement offer Black men little relief

While the study found that for white men, increases in household income were inversely associated with perceived discrimination, this did not hold true for Black men, who continued to report high levels of discrimination regardless of any boost in income level.

The findings may explain why Black men, even as they attain greater financial and educational success on average, don’t gain much protection against negative physical and mental health outcomes the way white men generally do, said co-senior author Susan Cochran, a professor of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health.

“In the United States, many people believe that higher levels of income and education provide relief against being treated differently, badly or unfairly,” Cochran said. “The results of our study show that is truer for white men, but it’s clearly not the case for many Black men. Structural barriers limit the benefits of Black men’s economic achievements, and perceived discrimination increases the risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes.”

For Black men, increases in income at all financial levels actually lead to more perceived discrimination, perhaps because they come into increased contact with whites, according to lead author Shervin Assari, who conducted the analysis as a researcher with the BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy and is currently an associate professor of urban public health and family medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

“It was upsetting to write this study,” Assari said. “Successful Blacks expect better treatment and think they deserve it but often do not get it.”

Discrimination, the authors say, is embedded in the fabric of U.S. institutions and harms Black men in their daily lives. For Mays, the damage this does to equal opportunity brings to mind the 1951 Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” in which the poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”

“Change has to come faster,” Mays said. “Change has to be permanent. We are tired of hearing ‘wait your turn.’ Black men’s dreams have been deferred for far too long.”

The research was supported by the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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

Nandita Garud named a distinguished investigator by Paul Allen Frontiers Group

Nandita Garud, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.

Nandita Garud (Photo courtesy of Nandita Garud)

The award will provide Garud and two faculty colleagues — Aida Habtezion at Stanford University and Carolina Tropini at University of British Columbia — with $1.5 million in research funding over three years to study the role of gut microbiota and other factors in patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Patients with IBD, a disease that stems from chronic inflammation in the intestines, have widely varied symptoms and responses to treatment, which cannot be fully explained by human genetics.

Garud and her colleagues are leading a project to explore how patients’ immune responses, metabolism, gut microbiota and environments may contribute to that variability. The research has the potential to lead to better, more tailored treatments for this class of immune diseases.

Despite the close links between human health — including our immunity — and how our bodies process what we eat, the intersection of immunology and metabolism remains a poorly understood area of human biology, Garud said.

“It is uncharted territory as to how the microbes inside of us contribute to the inflammation phenotype,” she said. “We are excited to explore these questions using a combination of techniques, ranging from metabolomics to imaging to statistical development that leverage the team’s diverse expertise.”

“In so many diseases, a tipping point is reached where entire systems in our bodies are thrown off balance,” said Frontiers Group Director Kathy Richmond. “Studying the complex and fascinating interactions between the immune system and energy metabolism will give us a better understanding of what it means to be healthy and how it might be possible to return those systems to balance after damage or disease.”

The Frontiers Group was founded by the late philanthropist Paul G. Allen in 2016.

Read more about Garud’s research on her website.

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

Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

A UCLA researcher prepares to lower a specialized bottle into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Cruz Island to capture samples of eDNA. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

Researchers used to need to scuba dive to find out which fish live in any given area of the ocean. Now, a new UCLA study has found that environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be used to identify marine organisms living in a certain space.

Environmental DNA is the term for the DNA from cells that are constantly released by organisms into their environments — much like the hair and skin people normally shed in the shower. In the past decade eDNA technology has advanced rapidly, making it a competitive tool for assessing ecosystem biodiversity.

The findings, which were published in PLOS One, could have major implications for monitoring of marine protected areas, sections of ocean where fishing and other activities are prohibited to conserve marine life and habitat.

In 2012, California established 124 marine protected areas covering about 16% of state waters. Regular monitoring of those areas is critical for understanding if marine life is being protected successfully, said UCLA ecologist Paul Barber, the study’s senior author. Before eDNA, the only way to tell if marine protected areas were working was for scuba divers to count and identify every fish they saw, a method known as visual surveying.

“These surveys typically require experienced divers with specific training to spend hours and hours underwater,” said Barber, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Now we can simply lower a bottle into the ocean from the side of a boat.”

The researchers compared which species were detected using eDNA and which were counted using visual surveying during summer 2017 at three sites inside and outside of the State Marine Reserve near Santa Cruz Island. Using eDNA, they identified nearly all of the same species as the visual surveys.

The only fish that did not show up using the technique were five species of rockfish — an issue the researchers said could be easily fixed by tweaking the genetic test to recognize that specific DNA when it appears in water samples.

A photo of a garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California's marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island.

A garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California’s marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

The eDNA also revealed an additional 30 species that had been seen in the same areas in previous years but that were not spotted during the 2017 visual surveys.

“We demonstrated that that we can use eDNA as a tool to monitor these ecosystems,” said Zachary Gold, the study’s lead author, a former UCLA doctoral student who is now a researcher at the University of Washington and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an opportunity going forward to expand the scope and scale of monitoring marine protected areas.”

Wider use of eDNA could help scientists overcome some of the challenges of visual surveying as a technique for monitoring marine species. For one, the new method could be far less expensive than the current one: Each eDNA sample costs around $50, while the National Park Service spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to survey 33 sites in the Channel Islands.

And in part because of those costs, visual surveys are conducted only once a year, which means seasonal variations in fish species have rarely been studied.

Another current challenge is that visual surveying is only performed in waters up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep, which means the technique cannot be used in more than 99% of California’s marine protected areas.

To analyze eDNA, researchers run the water they collect through a filter that captures the cells and DNA of marine organisms. Those filters are frozen on the boat and taken to a lab, where researchers extract DNA from the cells, sequence it and identify which species the DNA belongs to using a reference database.

For the PLOS One study, Gold used a reference database called the Anacapa Toolkit, which was developed previously by UCLA scientists.

The authors acknowledge that eDNA surveys won’t completely replace visual surveys, because the newer method can’t reveal the sex, size, abundance or behavior of the fish being studied — all of which are important elements of a complete assessment. “There will always be value to having eyes in the water,” Barber said.

But the simplicity of eDNA could create opportunities for community science — research in which nonscientist members of the public can participate. For example, Gold set up a program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Heal the Bay that teaches volunteers how to collect water samples. The combination of eDNA tools and a wider network of people collecting samples could dramatically improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of student researchers.

Dean Tracy Johnson seeks to diversify the pipeline of future scientists and doctors

A photo of student researchers.

Over the years, the pathways program has enrolled more than 125 students, who have taken on responsibilities as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

When Tracy Johnson was an undergraduate working in a lab at UC San Diego, she found herself suddenly jolted. Conducting research on gene function using fruit flies, she realized she was involved in something deeper and more fulfilling than a traditional classroom experience.

“The idea that I was learning things that nobody else knew, that I could make some contribution,” says the dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College, “that was a game-changer.”

Johnson, who holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in Life Sciences, joined the faculty of UCLA’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in 2014. Soon after, she was awarded a $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to improve undergraduate science education, which was, in part, used to create the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success program.

Pathways gives students from diverse backgrounds an “authentic research experience, early on, and in a prolonged way.” For years, Johnson said, students of color and those who were the first in their family to attend college pursued science, technology, engineering and math degrees at equal rates as other students but left STEM majors at a higher rate.

“It was clear that these statistics had less to do with preparation,” she said, “and more to do with students not seeing themselves as part of a scientific community. Pathways was designed to rethink that.”

The goal was to help students understand they belonged and had important contributions to make.

“The Pathways program has honestly opened up the world of research to me. I come from a normal public school in a mainly minority area, so I never knew what research truly entailed,” said Venus Hagan, a second-year UCLA student majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research.

Hagan noted how getting to do research as an undergraduate helped her discover her passion for it. “Without the program,” she said, “I may have never considered minoring in biomedical research and possibly applying to MD/Ph.D. programs in the future.”

In building the program, Johnson looked around the country to find what worked best, and bring it to UCLA. She was interested not just in lab work, but in mentoring as well.

Pathways students participate in a lab course dedicated to Johnson’s field, gene expression. The DNA in every cell of a given plant or animal is identical. Expression is the process by which genes, or specific segments of DNA, get turned on. This process allows cells to perform specific functions. For example, this process can tell a cell to become part of a muscle or part of the brain, and so on.

“It’s a lot for first-year students to dive into,” Johnson acknowledged. “They’re freshmen, on campus for barely 10 weeks when they start. Some students have never taken AP biology. It is ambitious, but they rise to the occasion.”

Second-year student Nyari Muchaka said enrolling in Pathways was one of the best decisions she has ever made.

“The program has provided me with multiple opportunities for summer and during the year research opportunities, and allowed me to find a group of friends I resonate with,” said Muchaka, who is majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology and minoring in biomedical research. “Everyone is truly there to help each other which makes it one of the most fulfilling, enriching parts of my college experience. The program helps advance your interest in the biological field but also carry you through some of the best and roughest four years of your life. Pathways is truly an innovative program and provides a foundation for college studies you won’t find anywhere else.”

Johnson and her co-instructor and research collaborator, Azad Hossain, are preparing to publish some of the student research in an academic journal within the next year. Pathways has enrolled more than 125 students, and these students have taken on more and more responsibility as independent researchers, mentors, tutors and campus leaders as the years have passed. Many have gone on to doctoral programs, medical school, M.D./Ph.D. programs, and a host of other STEM-related careers.

“There isn’t anything quite like what we do,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a model for how to think about student success.”

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