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A portrait of Clara Pratte.

Tribal leader Clara Pratte wins Pritzker Award for young environmental innovators

A portrait of Clara Pratte.

Clara Pratte: “There’s a Navajo saying that when there’s a world to heal, there’s going to be a mother to do it — a woman to do it.” (Photo Courtesy of Clara Pratte)

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability presented the 2020 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award to Clara Pratte, a Navajo advocate for tribal communities and a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team who focuses on tribal engagement.

Pratte advises tribes across the United States on economic development issues, with the goals of alleviating poverty and advancing tribal sovereignty. She founded Strongbow Strategies, a firm that assists tribal and government clients with business and technical issues, in 2013. She is also part of the leadership team of Navajo Power, a public benefit corporation that transitions tribal lands from extractive energy industries such as coal to large-scale solar energy.

The annual award carries a prize of $100,000, which is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Pratte said the award, which was presented Dec. 16 in an online ceremony, brought to mind traditional wisdom.

“There’s a Navajo saying that when there’s a world to heal, there’s going to be a mother to do it — a woman to do it,” Pratte said.

A screen shot of Pratte reacting to the announcement of her selection as the 2020 winner of the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award.

Pratte reacts to the announcement of her selection as the 2020 winner of the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award. (Photo Credit: UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability)

Through her work with Navajo Power, Pratte gathers input to make sure prospective clean energy projects serve the community’s needs. In many cases, she said, companies trying to work on Native lands fail because they lack an understanding of the everyday realities facing residents. They often communicate only with tribal leadership, which may not understand the needs of each individual community. The results create injustices, such as power lines that run over homes lacking electricity. Navajo Power makes sure that’s not the case on its projects.

The company reinvests its profits in the community — reimbursing people for the use of their land and making sure every home has electricity and water.

“I was born and raised in the Navajo community with no water or electricity, thinking that the only way we could survive is to join the capitalist community we’re part of,” Pratte said. “We destigmatize and demystify what it’s like to work on tribal lands.”

The Pritzker Award is open to anyone working to solve environmental challenges through any lens — from science to advocacy and entrepreneurism. For the second straight year, the winner represents an indigenous group and, for the third consecutive year, all three finalists were women.

In addition to Pratte, the finalists were Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet and climate activist who performed at the United Nations Climate Summit, and Leah Penniman, who co-founded a community farm centered on Black and Indigenous people that aims to end racism and injustice in the food system. A panel of UCLA faculty members selected the finalists from among 20 candidates who were nominated by an international group of environmental leaders.

Pratte was chosen as winner by a panel of four distinguished judges: Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPrize Foundation; Kevin de León, Los Angeles City Councilmember; Lori Garver, CEO of Earthrise Alliance; and Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon.

“I don’t need to convince this crowd that climate change is an existential threat,” de León said. “We cannot solve it unless all individuals can access the latest and greatest energy technologies and live in a sustainable community.”

The announcement of Pratte as the winner was made by Tony Pritzker, who founded the award and is a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s advisory board. He praised all of the nominees for their practical efforts during a difficult time.

“2020 obviously has been a different sort of year,” Pritzker said. “The word that I have in my mind is ‘grateful.’ I’m grateful for my health and the health of my family in a way I’ve never appreciated before. I’m grateful for your perseverance and dedication to the Earth and its various environmental needs. You’re all working toward solutions that can make this a better place to live.”

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

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 flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Extreme rainfall projected to get more severe, frequent with warming

A photo of flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007.

Flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Erin in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in August 2007. (Photo Credit: Marvin Nauman/FEMA)

Across the continental United States, massive, often-devastating precipitation events — the kind that climate scientists have long called “hundred-year storms” — could become three times more likely and 20% more severe by 2079, UCLA-led research projects.

That’s what would happen in a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a rapid rate — what the paper calls a high-warming scenario. Extreme rainfall events, the so-called hundred-year storms, would then be likely to occur once every 33 years.

The paper, published in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future, finds that warming has a more profound effect on both the severity and frequency of extreme precipitation events than it does on common precipitation events.

The findings have serious implications for how we prepare for the future, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said.

“The five-year flood, the 10-year flood — those aren’t the ones that cause huge amounts of damage and societal disruption,” said Swain, who is also a fellow with the Nature Conservancy. “That comes when you get 50- or 100-year floods, the low-probability but high-consequence kinds of events.”

For example, the occurrence of historic rainfall events such as the one that caused California’s Great Flood of 1862 or Houston’s flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 is increasing much faster than that of lower-magnitude events that happen every decade or so.

The paper predicts extreme precipitation increases for the entire continental United States, but some areas are expected to see bigger relative increases than others, including the West Coast and the hurricane-prone Southeast.

The paper also delves into the consequences of those extreme rainfall events: the increases in the number of floods and the number of people who would be exposed to them.

Combining climate, water physics and population models, the paper also projects that, in a high-warming scenario, the increases in extreme precipitation alone would put up to 12 million additional people at risk of exposure to damage and destruction from catastrophic flooding —  29.5% more people than face that risk today.

The paper also made projections using other scenarios that combine the effects of warming and projected population growth. For example, high warming juxtaposed with high population growth would increase the number of people exposed to risk of so-called 100-year floods by around 50 million in the continental U.S.

And even in the absence of climate change — at least some of which is unavoidable over the next 30 years — medium or large population growth would expose an additional 20 million or 34 million, respectively, to such floods, highlighting the importance of demographic factors in driving the growing risk.

Combining the factors would compound the changes in some regions that have so far been outside of flood zones and are sparsely populated because, thanks to climate change and population growth, those areas are likely to be within flood plains and have higher population density in the future. That “hot spot effect” could put up to 5.5 million more people at risk of devastating floods than warming or population growth alone would.

“There’s a huge difference between best- and worst-case scenarios,” Swain said. “People’s exposure to flooding in a warming climate is definitely going to increase. It could increase by a somewhat manageable amount or by a truly massive amount, and that depends both on the climate trajectory we take and on the demographics of the U.S.”

Previously, projections for extreme precipitation events relied on limited historical records that go back only 100 years. For the new study, the researchers used a modeling technique to create multiple plausible pasts and futures, essentially increasing the amount of available data by 40 times over what was available from history alone.

“We don’t just have one 100-year event we can pull from the historical record; we have lots of really severe, rare events we can pull out to give us a better sense of how they’re likely to change,” said Swain, who is a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Importantly, the authors write, the risk of flooding in the U.S. will increase significantly over the next 30 years, even with moderate warming — meaning a temperature increase of 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) globally. That would expose more than 20 million additional people to a 100-year flood within the next 30 years, they projected.

Even the term “100-year flood” is probably already something of a misnomer, Swain said. With global temperatures already having increased by about 1.2 degrees Celsius (about 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past century, the term is fast becoming outdated.

James Done, a co-author of the paper and a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said further work is required to understand exactly why extreme events are increasing more rapidly than less extreme ones.

“It’s not just because of a shift in the distribution of the flooding,” Done said. “There’s something else that’s reshaping the most extreme of the very dangerous rainfall events.”

The precipitation changes predicted are already beginning, he added. And the nation’s infrastructure — from flood control channels to concrete-heavy urban design that drains slowly — were not designed for the scenarios that now seem likely to occur.

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

Chemical biologist receives award for development of imaging technology

Ellen Sletten, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, has been selected as one of four recipients of the 2020 International Chemical Biology Society Young Chemical Biologist Award. The award is given annually to young scientists across the globe who have made significant research and service contributions to chemical biology.

A photo of Ellen Sletten.

Ellen Sletten (Photo Credit: UCLA)

Sletten is being recognized for her development of fluorophore technology that allows for multicolor, real-time imaging in mice, facilitating the translation of optical chemical tools to mammals. She is the first UCLA faculty member to receive the award since its inception in 2013. Sletten received her award and gave a lecture on “Multicolor, High Resolution, Non-invasive Imaging in Mice” during a special “Rising Stars” session at the ICBS 2020 Virtual Conference.

A UCLA faculty member since 2015, Sletten is the John McTague Career Development Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. She is a 2019 ACS Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering Young Investigator, 2018 Sloan Research Fellow, UCLA Hellman Fellow and NIH Director’s New Innovator.

Sletten’s research group takes a mutidisciplinary approach to the development of molecules, methods and materials to detect and perform chemistries in vivo, ultimately enabling next-generation therapeutics and diagnostics. To learn more about Sletten’s research, visit the Sletten Group website.

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

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 photo of Andrea Ghez receiving her Nobel Prize citation and medal.

Andrea Ghez delivers Nobel Lecture, receives Nobel medal

A photo of Andrea Ghez receiving her Nobel Prize citation and medal.

Ghez received her Nobel Prize citation and medal on Dec. 9 in Beverly Hills. (Photo Credit: Annette Buhl)

Editor’s note: This news release was updated Dec. 10 with a new headline and photographs covering the presentation of the Nobel medal. The video of her medal ceremony was added Dec. 11.

“How do you observe something you can’t see?”

Andrea Ghez, who in October won the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics, answers that question and many others in her Nobel Lecture.

Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, shared the prize for her discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, where the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere made it difficult to see much of anything.

In the talk, Ghez discusses the research she conducted at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, which houses the world’s largest telescopes. She also recounts a huge leap forward she made in the 1990s, when she helped to pioneer adaptive optics, a powerful technology that corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghez delivered her lecture in a mostly empty Lani Hall at UCLA. (Photo Credit: UCLA Broadcast Studio/Nobel Prize Outreach)

And she shares the story of how her initial proposal to conduct the research that led to the Nobel Prize was turned down. “People didn’t think it would work,” she recalled. Ghez wrote another proposal to better explain that it would work.

Her lecture, titled “From the Possibility to the Certainty of a Supermassive Black Hole,” was delivered in UCLA’s Lani Hall. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the auditorium was mostly empty at the time. Traditionally, Nobel laureates travel to Stockholm — or Oslo, Norway, in the case of the Peace Prize — to receive their awards. This year, because of the pandemic, their medals are being brought to them.

Ghez received her Nobel diploma and medal Dec. 9 in the backyard of Leichtman and Levine’s home in Beverly Hills. Today, she will participate in a “Nobel Minds” discussion that will stream live on the organization’s website at 12:35 p.m. PST, and she will be interviewed about her research for a Nobel Prize podcast.

Andrea Ghez with Lars-Erik Tindre, representing the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., at the presentation of Ghez’s Nobel medal in Beverly Hills on Dec. 9. (Photo Credit: Annette Buhl)

Ghez and fellow Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor of biochemistry, were joined by UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter for a webinar on Dec. 16 at 9 a.m. PST. They discussed the science behind their Nobel-winning discoveries, their current research and the significance of their Nobel Prizes for women and young aspiring scientists.

You can view the webinar on the UCLA Connections website.

Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her role in the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a powerful genome editing breakthrough that allows scientists to rewrite DNA in any organism, including human cells.

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

Wildfires should be considered a top threat to survival of species

A post-fire landscape in Kangaroo Island, Australia, evidence that wildfires have become larger and more severe in already fire-prone regions. (Photo Credit: Luke Kelly/University of Melbourne)

A new study by 27 prominent scientists from around the world — including UCLA’s Morgan Tingley — emphasizes the need to include fire among the list of potential threats to the survival of plant and animal species.

Traditionally,  fires have been viewed as a standard part of ecological cycles, necessary for species to survive and breed. But with increases in the frequency and severity of major wildfires, the way scientists view fires might need to change.

“If you ask a random scientist what the major threats are to biodiversity, they will generally list three: climate change, land use change, and invasive species,” said Tingley, a UCLA professor of ecology and a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Undoubtedly, that’s true. What we’re seeing here is that fire should be included on the list.”

The paper, published in the journal Science, also offers strategies to manage fires more successfully.

The authors write that wildfires have become larger and more severe in already-fire-prone areas such as California and Australia, and that they are occurring in new regions — including the Arctic tundra and tropical forests of Asia and South America. At the same time, fire is disappearing from environments that depend on fires, like the grasslands of North America and Brazil.

The researchers determined that changes in fire activity around the world are a threat to 15% of species already categorized as in danger of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including koalas and orangutans.

Tingley said the more diverse a system is, the faster it can bounce back from ecological disruptions like wildfires.

“The more species you have packed into an area, the more resilient that area is,” he said. “We want a forest that has burned to become a healthy, beautiful forest of mature trees down the line. One of the ways that happens is by attracting biodiversity to it. If you can attract birds to an area after a fire, you’re going to get more seed dispersal. You’re going to get more nutrient cycling. You’re going to get more decomposition.”

The 2020 Apple Fire in Riverside County, California, burned more that 33,000 acres. (Photo Credit: Brody Hessin)

The paper’s lead author, University of Melbourne professor Luke Kelly, said he’d never seen fires like this year’s Australian bushfires.

“I stood on a ridgeline looking out across the landscape and, almost as far as the eye could see, all living vegetation had been consumed,” Kelly said. “Scientists rarely use the term ‘unprecedented’ but it’s a good way to describe the total area burnt in 2019–20 in eastern Australia. I’d never seen anything like it.”

The paper also recommends improvements to fire management practices.

One problem with existing strategies, they write, is that the combined forces of climate change, human development, past fire suppression efforts and invasive species are changing the way fires behave. The outcome came into stark relief during California’s 2020 wildfire season, which burned twice the acreage of any other season in recorded history.

Fire management typically focuses on protecting people and property, but neglects the broader ecosystems in which human communities exist. And wildfires are often managed the same way across ecosystems, even though fire behaves in different ways. In the Northern California, for example, the coniferous Sierra Nevada experiences frequent surface fires, while coastal shrublands in the southern part of the state experience infrequent but high-intensity fires.

Those differences are mirrored in regions around the world.

One recommendation is that fire management incorporate more ecological knowledge. But that doesn’t need to come at the cost of protecting human life, said Alexandra Syphard, a co-author of the paper and the chief scientist at Vertus Wildfire, a San Francisco-based insurer.

“If there are two different actions that result in equal benefits to humans, but one has ecological costs and the other doesn’t, a fire manager without an understanding of biodiversity may unintentionally choose the most ecological harmful one,” Syphard said.

In practice, this might mean letting small, natural fires burn to clear dead vegetation from the forest floor and make room for new plants to sprout. It also means passing zoning laws to prevent development in fire-prone areas.

Although ecosystems react differently to fire, they are also rapidly being altered by climate change and other human impacts. Some wildfire ecosystems are becoming more like others, so the paper recommends that experts around the world collaborate more to share effective strategies.

“Understanding the complexities from a global perspective helps to get a better sense of what is unique and what is general,” Tingley said. “It helps us understand if there are approaches people are taking in other areas that could be really important here.”

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, 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

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.

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez wins 2020 Nobel Prize in physics

Photo of Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics. Photo Credit: Elena Zhukova

Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, today was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics.

Ghez shares half of the prize with Reinhard Genzel of UC Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The Nobel committee praised them for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” The other half of the prize was awarded to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

In July 2019, the journal Science published a study by Ghez and her research group that is the most comprehensive test of Albert Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity near the monstrous black hole at the center of our galaxy. Although she concluded that “Einstein’s right, at least for now,” the research group is continuing to test Einstein’s theory, which she says cannot fully explain gravity inside a black hole.

Ghez studies more than 3,000 stars that orbit the supermassive black hole. Black holes have such high density that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light. The center of the vast majority of galaxies appears to have a supermassive black hole, she said.

“I’m thrilled and incredibly honored to receive a Nobel Prize in physics,” said Ghez, who is director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. “The research the Nobel committee is honoring today is the product of a wonderful collaboration among the scientists in the UCLA Galactic Center Orbits Initiative and the University of California’s wise investment in the W.M. Keck Observatory.

“We have cutting-edge tools and a world-class research team, and that combination makes discovery tremendous fun. Our understanding of how the universe works is still so incomplete. The Nobel Prize is fabulous, but we still have a lot to learn.”

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block lauded Ghez for her accomplishments.

“The UCLA community is exceedingly proud of Professor Ghez’s achievements, including this extraordinary honor,” Block said. “We are inspired by her research uncovering the secrets of our universe and its potential to help us better understand the cosmos.”

David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said: “The discoveries of this year’s Laureates have broken new ground in the study of compact and supermassive objects. But these exotic objects still pose many questions that beg for answers and motivate future research. Not only questions about their inner structure, but also questions about how to test our theory of gravity under the extreme conditions in the immediate vicinity of a black hole.”

Ghez and her team have made direct measurements of how gravity works near a supermassive black hole — research she describes as “extreme astrophysics.”

Einstein’s general theory of relativity is the best description of how gravity works. “However, his theory is definitely showing vulnerability,” Ghez said in 2019. “[A]t some point we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.”

Less than two months after her publication in Science, she and her research group reported in Astrophysical Journal Letters the surprising finding that the supermassive black hole is having an unusually large meal of interstellar gas and dust — and they do not yet understand why.

“We have never seen anything like this in the 24 years we have studied the supermassive black hole,” she said at the time. “It’s usually a pretty quiet, wimpy black hole on a diet. We don’t know what is driving this big feast.”

In January 2020, her team reported the discovery of a new class of bizarre objects — objects that look like gas and behave like stars — at the center of our galaxy, not far from the supermassive black hole.

Ghez and her team conducted their research at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. They are able to see the impact of how space and time get comingled near the supermassive black hole, which is some 26,000 light-years away.

“Making a measurement of such fundamental importance has required years of patient observing, enabled by state-of-the-art technology,” Richard Green, director of the National Science Foundation’s division of astronomical sciences, said in 2019.

“Andrea is one of our most passionate and tenacious Keck users,” Keck Observatory director Hilton Lewis said, also in 2019. “Her latest groundbreaking research is the culmination of unwavering commitment over the past two decades to unlock the mysteries of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.”

The National Science Foundation funded Ghez’s research for the past 25 years. More recently, her research has also been funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, Lauren Leichtman and Arthur Levine, and Howard and Astrid Preston.

In 1998, Ghez answered one of astronomy’s most important questions, helping to show that a supermassive black hole resides at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The question had been a subject of much debate among astronomers for more than a quarter of a century.

Ghez helped pioneer a powerful technology called adaptive optics, which corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time and opened the center of our galaxy as a laboratory for exploring black holes and their fundamental role in the evolution of the universe. With adaptive optics at the Keck Observatory, she and her colleagues have revealed many surprises about the environments surrounding supermassive black holes, discovering, for example, young stars where none were expected and a lack of old stars where many were anticipated.

In 2000, Ghez and her research team reported that for the first time, astronomers had seen stars accelerate around the supermassive black hole. In 2003, she and her team reported that the case for the Milky Way’s black hole had been strengthened substantially and that all of the proposed alternatives could be excluded.

In 2005, Ghez and her colleagues took the first clear picture of the center of the Milky Way, including the area surrounding the black hole, at the Keck Observatory.

Ghez has earned numerous honors for her research, including election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; she was the first woman to receive the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Crafoord Prize, and she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008. In 2019, she was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT in 1987 and a doctorate from Caltech in 1992, and she has been a member of the UCLA faculty since 1994. When she was young, she wanted to be the first woman to walk on the moon.

Ghez is the eighth UCLA faculty member to be named a Nobel laureate, joining Willard Libby (chemistry, 1960), Julian Schwinger (physics, 1965), Donald Cram (chemistry, 1987), Paul Boyer (chemistry, 1997), Louis Ignarro (physiology or medicine, 1998), Lloyd Shapley (economics, 2012) and J. Fraser Stoddart (2016). Stoddart was a Northwestern University faculty member when he received the honor, but much of the work for which he was recognized was conducted at UCLA from 1997 to 2008.

In addition, seven UCLA alumni have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Ghez is also the fourth woman to receive the physics prize, following Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and Donna Strickland in 2018.

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