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Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics awarded $25M renewal from NSF

UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics, through which mathematicians work collaboratively with a broad range of scholars of science and technology to transform the world through math, has received a five-year, $25 million funding renewal from the National Science Foundation, effective Sept. 1.

The new award represents the latest investment by the NSF, which has helped to support IPAM’s innovative multidisciplinary programs, workshops and other research activities since the institute’s founding in 2000.

“The continued NSF funding will enable IPAM to further its mission of creating inclusive new scientific communities and to bring the full range of mathematical techniques to bear on the great scientific challenges of our time,” said Dimitri Shlyakhtenko, IPAM’s director and a UCLA professor of mathematics. “We will be able to continue to sponsor programs that bring together researchers from different scientific disciplines or from different areas of mathematics with the goal of sparking interdisciplinary collaboration that continues long after the IPAM program ends.”

Mathematics has become increasingly central to science and technology, with applications in areas as diverse as search engines, cryptography, medical imaging, data science and artificial intelligence, to name a few, Shlyakhtenko said. Future developments, from sustainable energy production to autonomous vehicles and quantum computers, will require further mathematical innovation as well as the application of existing mathematics.

IPAM’s goal is to foster interactions between mathematicians and doctors, engineers, physical scientists, social scientists and humanists that enable such technological and social progress. In the near future, for example, IPAM will be partnering with the new NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computation, which was launched in July with a five-year, $25 million award to UC Berkeley, UCLA and other universities.

Over its two decades of existence, IPAM has helped to stimulate mathematical developments that advance national health, prosperity and welfare through a variety of programs and partnerships that address scientific and societal challenges. Its workshops, conferences and longer-term programs, which last up to three months, bring in thousands of visitors annually from academia, government and industry.

IPAM also helps to train new generations of interdisciplinary mathematicians and scientists and places a particular emphasis on the inclusion of women and underrepresented minorities in the mathematics community.

In addition to the IPAM funding, the NSF recently announced five-year awards to five other mathematical sciences research institutes.

“The influence of mathematical sciences on our daily lives is all around us and far-reaching,” said Juan Meza, director of the NSF Division of Mathematical Sciences. “The investment in these institutes enables interdisciplinary connections across fields of science, with impacts across sectors of computing, engineering and health.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Professor Paula Diaconescu.

Chemist Paula Diaconescu to lead new NSF Center for Integrated Catalysis

A photo of Professor Paula Diaconescu.

Professor Paula Diaconescu leads the Center for Integrated Catalysis with the goal to mimic biological systems in development of synthetic chemical catalytic processes.

The National Science Foundation announced a five year, $1.8 million award to establish the NSF Center for Integrated Catalysis (CIC), effective Sept. 1. The center is led by Paula Diaconescu, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Diaconescu said the inspiration for the research conducted in CIC comes from nature’s remarkable ability to construct structurally complex products by combining different processes. Synthetic chemists, in contrast, usually run each chemical reaction individually. The goal of the CIC is to mimic biological systems in the development of synthetic chemical catalytic processes.

The center will develop the fundamental chemistry needed to prepare synthetic plastics in a single reactor using spatially separated and switchable catalysts. Simple starting materials will be used to supply networks of multiple catalysts operating together on a single platform, with the aid of temporal and spatial control, to produce new polymeric materials.

Switchable catalysts can be activated or deactivated as needed using external stimuli, such as light or electrochemical potential. The center’s research may lead to new materials that are sustainable and degradable and are of high complexity for commercial uses.

The center will host monthly seminars, including sessions on business and entrepreneurship topics, as well as chemistry and other scientific topics.

A goal of the center is to ensure the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in the center’s research and activities. Students will be trained in interdisciplinary collaborative chemistry, including students who are underrepresented in the sciences.

Chong Liu, UCLA assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who holds the Jeffery and Helo Zink Development Chair, is among the faculty members of the center.

This article was originally published by the UCLA Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

If relaxed too soon, physical distancing measures might have been all for naught

A graphic of the Coronavirus.

Coronavirus (Photo Credit: NIAID-RML)

If physical distancing measures in the United States are relaxed while there is still no COVID-19 vaccine or treatment and while personal protective equipment remains in short supply, the number of resulting infections could be about the same as if distancing had never been implemented to begin with, according to a UCLA-led team of mathematicians and scientists.

The researchers compared the results of three related mathematical models of disease transmission that they used to analyze data emerging from local and national governments, including one that measures the dynamic reproduction number — the average number of susceptible people infected by one previously infected person. The models all highlight the dangers of relaxing public health measures too soon.

“Distancing efforts that appear to have succeeded in the short term may have little impact on the total number of infections expected over the course of the pandemic,” said lead author Andrea Bertozzi, a distinguished professor of mathematics who holds UCLA’s Betsy Wood Knapp Chair for Innovation and Creativity. “Our mathematical models demonstrate that relaxing these measures in the absence of pharmaceutical interventions may allow the pandemic to reemerge. It’s about reducing contact with other people, and this can be done with PPE as well as distancing.”

A photo of Andrea Bertozzi

Andrea Bertozzi (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Bertozzi)

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is applicable to both future spikes of COVID-19 and future pandemics, the researchers say.

If distancing and shelter-in-place measures had not been taken in March and April, it is very likely the number of people infected in California, New York and elsewhere would have been dramatically higher, posing a severe burden on hospitals, Bertozzi said. But the total number of infections predicted if these precautions end too soon is similar to the number that would be expected over the course of the pandemic without such measures, she said. In other words, short-term distancing can slow the spread of the disease but may not result in fewer people becoming infected.

Mathematically modeling and forecasting the spread of COVID-19 are critical for effective public health policy, but wide differences in precautionary approaches across the country have made it a challenge, said Bertozzi, who is also a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Social distancing and wearing face masks reduce the spread of COVID-19, but people in many states are not following distancing guidelines and are not wearing masks — and the number of infections continues to rise.

What are the implications of these findings for policymakers who want to relax social distancing in an effort to revive their economies?

“Policymakers need to be careful,” Bertozzi said. “Our study predicts a surge in cases in California after distancing measures are relaxed. Alternative strategies exist that would allow the economy to ramp up without substantial new infections. Those strategies all involve significant use of PPE and increased testing.”

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, social distancing was first enforced and then relaxed in some areas. Bertozzi points to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007 that looked at several American cities during that pandemic where a second wave of infections occurred after public health measures were removed too early.

That study found that the timing of public health interventions had a profound influence on the pattern of the second wave of the 1918 pandemic in different cities. Cities that had introduced measures early in the pandemic achieved significant reductions in overall mortality. Larger reductions in peak mortality were achieved by those cities that extended the public health measures for longer. San Francisco, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Kansas City, for instance, had the most effective interventions, reducing transmission rates by 30% to 50%.

“Researchers Martin Bootsma and Neil Ferguson were able to analyze the effectiveness of distancing measures by comparing the data against an estimate for what might have happened had distancing measures not been introduced,” Bertozzi said of the 2007 study. “They considered data from the full pandemic, while we addressed the question of fitting models to early-time data for this pandemic. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the early relaxation of social distancing measures led to a swift uptick in deaths in some U.S. cities. Our mathematical models help to explain why this effect might occur today.”

The COVID-19 data in the new study are from April 1, 2020, and are publicly available. The study is aimed at scientists who are not experts in epidemiology.

“Epidemiologists are in high demand during a pandemic, and public health officials from local jurisdictions may have a need for help interpreting data,” Bertozzi said. “Scientists with relevant background can be tapped to assist these people.”

Study co-authors are Elisa Franco, a UCLA associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and bioengineering; George Mohler, an associate professor of computer and information science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis; Martin Short, an associate professor of mathematics at Georgia Tech; and Daniel Sledge, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UC to lead group awarded $25M by NSF to launch quantum computing institute

A photo of Eric Hudson.

UCLA physics professor Eric Hudson will co-direct the new NSF institute. (Photo Credit: Stuart Wolpert)

The National Science Foundation today announced a five-year, $25 million award to UC Berkeley, UCLA and other universities to create the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computation. The institute will work to overcome scientific challenges to achieving quantum computing and will design advanced, large-scale quantum computers that employ state-of-the scientific algorithms developed by the researchers.

Unlike conventional computers, quantum computers seek to harness the mysterious behavior of particles at the subatomic level to boost computing power. Once fully developed, they will be capable of solving large, extremely complex problems far beyond the capacity of today’s most powerful supercomputers. Quantum systems are expected to have a wide variety of applications in many fields, including medicine, national security and science.

“Scientific problems that would take the age of the universe to solve on a standard computer potentially could take only a few minutes on a quantum computer,” said Eric Hudson, a UCLA professor of physics and co-director of the new institute. “We may get the ability to design new pharmaceuticals to fight diseases on a quantum computer, instead of in a laboratory. Learning the structure of molecules and designing effective drugs, each of which has thousands of atoms, are inherently quantum challenges. A quantum computer potentially could calculate the structure of molecules and how molecules react and behave.”

If quantum computers were available today, they might be able to better reveal how the new coronavirus binds to human cells, for example, and indicate how that process could be disrupted, noted Hudson, who is also co-director of UCLA’s Center for Quantum Science & Engineering.

The new NSF institute — which includes six other universities, three of them in California — will be directed by UC Berkeley professor of physics Dan Stamper-Kurn.

“The Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computation establishes California as a leader nationally and globally in quantum computing,” Stamper-Kurn said.

“Quantum technologies could have a tremendous impact on jobs in California and the United States in the future, and a profound impact on our lives,” said UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter. “The new NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computation will lay the foundation for this high-tech future, and I am delighted that UCLA, the University of California and the National Science Foundation will play a major role in helping shape it.”

The institute will be multidisciplinary, spanning physics, chemistry, mathematics, optical and electrical engineering, computer science, and other fields and will include scientists and engineers with expertise in quantum algorithms, mechanics and chemistry. They will partner with outside institutions, including in the emerging quantum industry, and will host symposia, workshops and other programs. Research challenges will be addressed jointly through a process that incorporates both theory and experiment.

In addition to research, the institute will train graduate students for the quantum industry of the future. UCLA’s department of physics and astronomy is establishing a master’s program in quantum science and technology that will incorporate a variety of academic disciplines and offer students access to cutting-edge, world-class instrumentation. The institute also will advance education from high school through graduate school and plans to offer online courses that advanced high school students, as well as college students, can take.

In the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, a single atom or subatomic particle can exist simultaneously in multiple conditions. While today’s computers rely on a binary system in which data units can be in only one of two possible states, quantum data units can be in multiple states, resulting in greater computational possibilities.

“It’s as if a magnet, instead of pointing up or down, can be in more than one state at a time,” said Hudson who is a primary investigator on a three-year, $2.7 million Quantum Information Science Research Award given by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2018. “The magnet can be equally up and down at the same time.”

While quantum computers are likely to have an enormous impact on national and global economies and societies in the future, both Stamper-Kurn and Hudson emphasize that several critical scientific challenges remain.

“We still do not know fully what quantum computers do well,” Stamper-Kurn said, “and we face deep challenges that arise in scaling up quantum devices. The mission of this institute is to address fundamental challenges in the development of the quantum computer.”

The institute’s initial members are all senior faculty from UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to Hudson, UCLA faculty members include Wesley Campbell, an associate professor of physics, and Jens Palsberg, a professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.

The project will also include a partnership between UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics and UC Berkeley’s Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing.

“A goal of these significant partnerships is to establish both institutes as the premier international centers for applied mathematics and quantum computer science,” Stamper-Kurn said.

“This new NSF institute is founded on the outstanding research contributions in theoretical and experimental quantum information science achieved by investigators from across the UC system through our multicampus California Institute for Quantum Entanglement,” said Theresa Maldonado, UC vice president for research and innovation. “The award recognizes the team’s vision of how advances in computational quantum science can reveal new fundamental understanding of phenomena at the tiniest length-scale that can benefit innovations in artificial intelligence, medicine, engineering and more.”

Hudson expressed gratitude to UCLA’s Carter; Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences; and Jayathi Murthy, the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Dean of UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering, for their vision and continual support for quantum science and technology.

The NSF also announced two other five-year, $25 million Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes to support quantum systems research and development: The Institute for Enhanced Sensing and Distribution Using Correlated Quantum States and the Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks.

More information on NSF-supported research on quantum information science and engineering is available at nsf.gov/quantum.

A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa

A piece of artwork titled "Hand in Hand Across Africa."

Hand in Hand Across Africa (Photo Credit: Andrea Ucini)

By the end of this century, 1 in 4 people in the world could be African, says Thomas Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, quoting United Nations data. He believes this massive demographic shift will prompt countries to rethink partnerships with Africa, a youth-dominated continent that’s larger than the United States, China, India and most of Europe combined.

And UCLA is ahead of the game, as hundreds of Bruin students, scientists, doctors and administrators work hand in hand with local colleagues across the 54 incredibly varied countries that make up Africa today.

Unlike past “parachute doctors” — who would jump into a crisis, often perform heroically and then go home — UCLA people are deeply embedded in African communities, helping to prevent the next medical, economic or environmental calamity.

In January 2020, Chancellor Gene Block and his team of UCLA administrators attended the Diversity in Higher Education Colloquium in Bloemfontein, South Africa — co-hosted by the University of the Free State in South Africa, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and UCLA — to promote diversity and equality in global education. They met tireless and passionate advocates for change, many of whom work through malaria and deprivations unthinkable to many colleagues.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that their roles are vital to the future of the world. “UCLA’s partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa have been incredibly successful in helping tackle regional issues to improve the quality of life,” Block said upon his return. “It is important for UCLA, as a public research university, both to share our expertise and to learn from and collaborate with colleagues around the world for the advancement of society.”

It’s a paradigm shift away from previous efforts to help Africa through “aid with strings” packages or infrastructure investments that have bred monstrous civil wars and ugly kleptocracies.

Smith, who has been working in Cameroon for three decades, agrees that there are still widespread corruption and brutal struggles, which create mass displacements — 750,000 people were driven from their homes in Burkina Faso last year. But there are also extraordinary reasons for optimism. These include the global legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the promise of peaceful nations such as Ivory Coast, whose gross domestic product has nearly doubled over the past decade, challenging gloomy stereotypes.

Among a wave of fresh-thinking UCLA scholars who might have never expected to be working in Africa, three inspirational leaders spoke with UCLA Magazine.

Unexpected Journeys

Smith started out as an evolutionary biologist chasing an unusual finch, which led him to the jungles of Cameroon in West Africa. Anne Rimoin M.P.H. ’96, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, might have become a Hollywood lawyer if the Peace Corps had not offered her a position to track 30-inch-long worms in West Africa. And Sundeep Gupta was an epidemic intelligence officer working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before UCLA and Malawi came calling.

From Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, it’s 600 miles of rough road and river south to Rimoin’s bare-bones offices in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And it’s another 1,500 miles south to Gupta’s desk at the Partners in Hope offices in Malawi. The UCLA trio face very different challenges, but they’re united in their deep commitment to working with African partners.

When Smith got started, he recalls, “I was in Central Africa studying a fascinating species [of bird] called the black-bellied seedcracker, which shows unique variations in the size of its bill. I went to the rainforests in Central Africa, where my passion for biodiversity, sustainability and people was reinforced.

“In those days, I was living in a tent. But decades later [in 2015], we developed the Congo Basin Institute [CBI] to host scholars studying topics ranging from the rainforest’s enormous capacity to sequester carbon to zoonotic [species-jumping] diseases such as Ebola.” Located in Cameroon, the CBI is UCLA’s first foreign affiliate.

Smith adds: “In 2011, my colleagues and I discovered that the swine flu, [which was] first identified in Mexico, had taken a U-turn. It had moved from people back to swine, and no one — including the World Health Organization — knew it had reached Africa. Swine are the mixing vessels for influenza. This is how new pandemics start — there are no borders anymore.”

Smith saw something like the coronavirus coming. He remembers a prescient research paper from 13 years ago that referred to “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats that, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

Smith adds, “Even more than China, Central Africa is ground zero for infectious diseases that spill over from animals to humans. These include the ones we know — Ebola and SIV [the origin of HIV/AIDS] — but many we don’t. It turns out there are varieties of coronavirus circulating in African bats. Motivated by the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, our lab has launched a new study to assess the risk of these potentially dangerous, yet undescribed coronaviruses — both now and under future climate change.”

A photo of Thomas Smith (center) with friends.

Thomas Smith (center) with friends. (Photo Credit: Congo Basin Initiative)

Losing and Learning Skills

As an investigator, Smith works closely with the Baka people, seminomadic hunter-gatherers who intimately know the rainforests of Cameroon and Gabon. He pays tribute to his friend Augustin Siec, a Baka chief who could hear a rustle in the canopy and identify not only the species of the animal but also its gender and role in the forest’s ecology.

Smith has been worried that the younger among the 30,000-strong Baka community — under pressure from urban officials to settle in villages — have been losing this indigenous knowledge. But the CBI, which employs Baka research assistants, has created opportunities for them to relearn the skills of the “professors of the forest,” including herbal medicines that could unlock future cures for diseases. Siec’s recent death from misdiagnosed tuberculosis reminds Smith that health projects across Africa still have a long way to go.

Smith’s dream is that one day Africans themselves will run the CBI, including its labs. But first, Cameroonians will have to become more economically self-sustaining. To help achieve that, Smith partnered with San Diego–based Taylor Guitars on The Ebony Project, which is planting 15,000 ebony trees, interspersed with high-value fruit saplings, in Cameroon. According to Taylor Guitars, ebony wood creates richly ringing overtones with a clear lineal quality across the spectrum — and guitarists can hear the African difference.

The Congo Basin Institute provides a center for science in Africa for Africans, says Smith, offering facilities to young Africans who otherwise might have taken their skills abroad.

In a 2017 TED Talk, Cameroonian Kevin Njabo — the Africa director and an assistant adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Center for Tropical Research — mourns the wholesale exportation of “the best and the brightest” from Africa.

Njabo says he was drawn to UCLA not only because of its ability to develop programs that could save lives — like the 1 million people, mostly children, who die from malaria each year — but also by its ability to encourage expatriates to return home. “For every African who returns home, nine new jobs are created,” Njabo says. At the Congo Basin Initiative, he says, “we are building a one-stop shop for logistics, housing and development of collaborative projects, empowering Africans to find their own solutions. If this had existed when I was 18, I would have never left home — but I am coming back.”

A Joyful Day

The brain drain is a dilemma that haunts Rimoin, a popular voice across media who urged for calm during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Raised in Los Angeles, she credits a “brilliant” French language teacher for opening her eyes to Francophone Africa.

“My father [David Rimoin, who was famed for his work on inheritable diseases] was in medicine, but I was considering becoming an entertainment lawyer. [Then] the Peace Corps offered to send me to Benin [in West Africa] to track and eradicate Guinea worm infections. Who could resist? And my French made all the difference,” she says. Rimoin remembers a joyful day when a Benin woman said to her: “You have found who you are.” And she was right.

Since 2002, Rimoin has worked in the DRC, the troubled country once known as Zaire, and her research has revealed the zoonotic secrets of monkeypox and other emerging pathogens in remote areas along the Congo River.

Every day brings light and dark, she says. For example, in 2019, 50,000 Congolese died from measles, a disease that was thought to have been eradicated from the world.

But there’s also hope: In February 2020, after the latest Ebola outbreak in North Kivu, DRC, the last few patients were safely released from the hospital. Even more good news: Rimoin’s team tracked down survivors of the first-recorded Ebola outbreak in 1976 — people living in remote areas of the Congolese forest — and discovered that they still had lifesaving antibodies in their systems. This precious data could help prevent or treat future outbreaks.

“It’s incredible and hopeful, but we still have to raise more funds to protect those workers on the front line,” Rimoin says, with her characteristic blend of enthusiasm and practicality.

The sources of many such outbreaks have been tracked back to “wet markets,” where trapped wild animals are sold as food — as in Wuhan, China, which was ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s complicated,” Rimoin says. Wet markets “are built into the culture, and the people need the protein in areas where it’s difficult to find alternatives.”

A photo of hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi.

Hope workers in Kakoma, Malawi. (Photo Credit: Anne Rimoin)

Mama Étêté

“Right from the start, I was not interested in parachute medicine,” Rimoin says. “I was there for the long term — to build trust and my understanding of the issues. And I love it.”

As director of the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for Global and Immigrant Health, Rimoin appreciates the colleagues who have relocated to the DRC, such as Nicole Hoff Ph.D. ’14, the UCLA-DRC Research Program’s country director and senior administrative analyst, and Kirstin Chickering M.P.H. ’95, the program’s associate director. “Kirstin and I were together at elementary school in Palos Verdes, but did not know each other,” Rimoin says. “Kirstin came to Kinshasa to help me set up a project for three months, and that was 11 years ago. Kirstin, Nicole and I are three tough UCLA sisters!”

Rimoin is well-known around Kinshasa, fighting for causes such as protecting the bonobo ape from being hunted as bush meat. Although her knowledge has been in demand during the COVID-19 crisis, and she has appeared frequently on NPR, HBO and MSNBC, she has no plans to walk away from the DRC — even if its bloody spasms of civil war continue to displace 5 million people. After all, she and UCLA have work to do. Plus, she jokes, “phone reception is better than in Benedict Canyon.”

When a Fielding colleague described Rimoin as “just so boss,” the epidemiologist admits, “I am very persistent. When I go see a local official, he will say, ‘Oh, it’s you. I will just say yes, yes, yes now, to save time!’ In [the Bantu language] Lingala, I am called ‘Mama Étêté,’ or ‘the woman who never gives up.’”

Malawi Miracle

Gupta takes a low-key approach to his clinical work in the AIDS wards in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi — one of the Central African countries most severely weakened by the HIV pandemic. He says that what he has witnessed over the past decade is a miracle of modern medicine and thinking about flexible approaches to diseases.

In 2000, Perry Jansen, a doctor who had completed his residency at UCLA in 1994, established the nonprofit Partners in Hope, Malawi, to bring antiviral drugs to the country. At that time, the life expectancy at birth was 45 years; today, it’s 64 and rising. The number of HIV treatment clinics has increased from one to around 20, with UCLA contributing funding and personnel on the ground. So far, around 200 UCLA students and staff have worked in Malawi.

Gupta wears many hats: He is an epidemiologist, a family physician, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and programs director at Partners in Hope. “You go where the need is greatest,” says Gupta, speaking from Lilongwe. He says the stable UCLA presence in Malawi is key, allowing recently arrived doctors, such as Faysal Saab ’07, M.D. ’12, to focus on improving medical practices, using both textbook theory and evidence-based medicine.

One diagnostic issue was that many young men were embarrassed to go to an HIV clinic. But UCLA doctors introduced self-testing kits, and this experimental switch increased the number of Malawians who got tested for and diagnosed with HIV. Ten years ago, 100,000 Malawians were undergoing treatment; today it’s around 830,000. There are still problems, but for many observers, it’s an emotional revitalization of a nation.


There are as many positions of interest for Bruins in Africa as there are countries spanning the continent. It’s not about what Westerners think should happen, but about what works for the Africans themselves, Smith says.

So what is UCLA’s role in Africa? “There is an incredible awareness of the university, earning respect with its research from South Africa and Mozambique to the Congo Basin,” Rimoin says. “The way we practice global health is much more collaborative than in the past. It’s been decolonized, as we have helped nations develop their own health infrastructures. We have made a promise to be here, to maintain funding, and the Africans are learning to trust that. Our first priority is to not let Africa down.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of the Colgan-Coral Reef.

Discovery opens up new path in study of marine evolution and biodiversity

A photo of the Colgan-Coral Reef.

Two studies — one of reef-dwelling marine snails, the other of similar mollusks called nudibranchs — show for the first time that new species of both groups may be emerging as a result of host-switching, (Photo Credit: Sara Simmonds/UCLA)

New UCLA research indicates that an evolutionary phenomenon never before observed among marine life could help explain why there is such immense biodiversity in the world’s coral reefs and the ocean beyond.

Two studies — one of reef-dwelling marine snails, the other of similar mollusks called nudibranchs — show for the first time that new species of both groups may be emerging as a result of host-switching, in which populations of these animals that rely on a single species of coral for food and habitat switch to a new coral species, leading to wide genetic and physical differentiation. The phenomenon had only been seen previously in viruses, insects and several other organisms.

“This is the first time that anyone has seen this, but no one has ever looked,” said UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Paul Barber, whose lab conducted both studies. “This very well could be the tip of the iceberg.”

The findings suggest the possibility that the formation of new and distinct marine species through host-shifting may occur among other marine organisms as well, Barber said, opening up new avenues for research into the causes of marine biodiversity.

On land, new species are typically thought to evolve when natural barriers like mountains, canyons or rivers separate individuals or groups from one another. The ocean, however, has different barriers, including reef structures and currents, both of which contribute to host-shifting among snails and nudibranchs, the researchers note.

The larvae of snails and nudibranchs that subsist on a single species of coral will at times be swept away by ocean currents; if they aren’t lost or eaten, they can land on an entirely different coral species, where they imprint and spend their whole lives. Eventually, the scientists say, a generational line of snails or nudibranchs will evolve to prefer that particular coral and form a new species.

“It’s pretty likely that the corals are helping the nudibranchs form new species, in a way,” said Allison Fritts-Penniman, lead author of the nudibranch study, which reported a three-fold increase in known species for this group. “The more corals they can live on, the more different nudibranch species can evolve.”

The two new papers may mark the beginning of marine speciation discoveries — for nudibranchs and snails, which are common but understudied, as well as more broadly, said Sara Simmonds, lead author of the snail study, which used genomics to catch speciation in the act.

“Finding that divergence and speciation can happen in the oceans even with gene flow is an important discovery, not just for the marine environment but also for understanding evolution and speciation in general,” Simmonds said.

Both studies focused on a relatively small area of the western Pacific Ocean known at the Coral Triangle, which has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, including 600 different coral species.

“If there are so many corals, and so many of them have these strong associations, this very well could be an incredibly important process in generating all of this diversity,” said Barber, who also stressed the importance of protecting reef systems like the Coral Triangle from the devastating effects of climate change and industry-related threats.

Preserving the Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle spans roughly 6.3 million square miles, accounting for about 1.6% of the world’s oceans, and is bordered by several countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. With hundreds of coral species and thousands of species of fish and other marine organisms, it is, Barber says, one of the most biodiverse, least studied and most threatened locations in the world.

While coastal development, unsustainable tourism and habitat destruction through “bomb fishing” with homemade explosives all pose significant dangers to the region, the biggest threat is climate change, which is damaging the reefs that underpin the Triangle’s biodiverse ecosystem. Ocean warming, acidification and rising sea levels are causing mass coral bleaching, in which coral expel living algae from their tissues and turn completely white; this can lead to coral death if the stressful conditions continue for too long. The World Wildlife Fund predicts that at the current rate of climate change, the Coral Triangle will disappear by 2100.

Major climate change–induced damage to the region’s biodiversity also puts the economies of the surrounding countries at risk, Barber notes, and a collapse of the marine ecosystem would result in the destruction of the region’s vast fishing industry and subsequent food insecurity for hundreds of millions of people.

Continuing to carry out research to boost our understanding what generates biodiversity in the Coral Triangle and other reefs is one of the major keys to protecting them in the fight against climate change, Barber said.

Even the public is getting involved in furthering that understanding, with citizen snorkelers and divers all over the world contributing to an effort by the nonprofit iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, to search for new coral-associated nudibranch species and helping scientists with the fieldwork needed for further study.

“The Coral Triangle is the world’s largest, most biodiverse marine ecosystem,” said Barber. “There is still so much to learn from it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An image of the Earth's magnetosphere.

The full moon may not be protected by Earth’s magnetic field after all

An image of the Earth's magnetosphere.

Rendering showing how the flapping tail of Earth’s magnetosphere (dark region) can leave the full moon exposed to solar wind radiation (yellow-orange). (Photo Credit: Emmanuel Masongsong/UCLA)

A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics shows that the magnetosphere can flap across the moon much like a windsock, exposing it to hazardous solar wind particles. Previous simulations suggested that lunar satellites and astronauts on the surface could be considered safe during a full moon while it resides within the magnetosphere.

The paper’s authors included two UCLA researchers, Jiang Liu and Xiaoyan Zhou, and the study used findings from the UCLA-led Themis and Artemis lunar probes.

One side of the moon always faces Earth due to synchronization with ocean tides, so understanding the effects of the solar wind at the full moon’s surface is critical for manned activity.

“Before we send astronauts back for longer periods, it is crucial that we understand the dynamics of space weather around our moon,” said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a professor of space physics who oversees the Themis and Artemis missions at UCLA. “There are still many science and safety questions to address.”

Potential hazards to lunar missions include increased static charging of surface dust, which can cling to space suits and damage equipment, and the degradation of solar panels over time. Solar wind exposure might also influence the placement of long-term lunar bases and mining operations. Because water is spontaneously formed when solar wind protons impact the lunar soil, the phenomenon could influence where water, which could be used for fuel and human consumption, is deposited on the moon’s surface.

Read the full news release on the Physical Sciences website.

A photo of a panorama of Los Angeles at dusk.

Clean energy revolution may leave disadvantaged communities behind

A photo of a panorama of Los Angeles at dusk.

Historically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County are at risk of getting left behind in the transition to lower-carbon energy sources and energy-efficient technologies, according to a UCLA study. (Photo Credit: haykatomts/Pixabay)

Historically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County are at risk of getting left behind in the transition to lower-carbon energy sources and energy-efficient technologies, according to a new study by the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.

The research, published in the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, looks particularly at how public incentive programs aimed at reducing emissions and promoting energy efficiencies disproportionately benefit wealthier individuals — people who use more energy than their less-affluent peers. In essence, the researchers say, such policies help to subsidize and encourage this excess consumption.

On average, residents of L.A. County’s most affluent communities consume twice the amount of energy each year as their counterparts in lower-income areas, according to Eric Fournier, the study’s lead author and research director of the center.

“When we look at the distribution of per capita energy consumption across Los Angeles County, at the low end, people are often not using enough energy to satisfy their basic needs, like maintaining a comfortable temperature inside their home,” Fournier said. “On the high end of this range, we see that people are consuming energy at levels that go well beyond what is required to satisfy their basic needs.”

In general, it is these high-consumption communities that are increasingly transforming their relationship to grid-supplied energy by taking advantage of technologies that improve household energy efficiency and that generate and store renewable energy. Some are even becoming electricity generators themselves. Meanwhile, the degree to which disadvantaged communities have been able to participate in this transition and benefit from these technologies remains unequal.

The team analyzed historical county data that measured building energy use and the adoption of renewable energy technology. In addition to finding that per capita use of electricity and natural gas is higher — in some cases as much as 100 times higher — among the wealthiest residents, they found that rates of adoption of rooftop solar systems and electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were dramatically lower among disadvantaged communities. Furthermore, these disparities are expected to persist based on recent trends in the historical data, the researchers say.

The study also shows that public programs intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy — including rebates for energy-efficient appliances and vehicles, solar installations, and building retrofit programs — are primarily being taken advantage of by affluent residents. This is due in part to the fact that many programs require participants to make up-front payments for energy-efficiency upgrades, as well as to own the property on which they live.

When it comes to government incentive programs, providing equal access doesn’t always result in equal participation, notes study co-author and UCLA energy researcher Robert Cudd.

“Incentive programs designed to be equally accessible to all consumers are easy to implement and politically inoffensive, but they also do almost nothing to encourage the adoption of renewable energy technology in disadvantaged communities,” Cudd said. “If these programs were re-designed based on the preferences and needs of people in these communities, participation would likely increase. Current programs’ eligibility requirements are simplistic and reflect old notions of equity.”

The energy system, as it exists today, places a larger burden of cost on those who can least afford it, says co-author Stephanie Pincetl, a professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Ironically, it also rewards those who consume the most energy by giving them access to a host of programs, incentives and other benefits.

“Policy aims need to get beyond efficiency to address absolute levels of consumption and to reflect reasonable need rather than excessive use,” Pincetl said. “If not, efficiencies will continue to chase increased demand with limited effect, and the disadvantaged communities will be left out of improving their well-being, though they use the least energy of all.”

Going forward, the researchers will continue to explore the unequal distribution of energy use across incomes and demographics to understand the consequences and needs for a just energy transition.

“We must ask ourselves how much energy is enough to live a decent and modern life,” Pincetl said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of three UCLA students studying physics and engaging in their lab work.

Instructors’ foresight leads to remote learning success for physics labs

A photo of three UCLA students studying physics and engaging in their lab work.

Thanks to off-the-shelf kits, UCLA students studying physics could do their lab work in their homes and design their own experiments. (Photo Courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka)

When UCLA announced on March 10 that the final weeks of winter quarter — and later the entire spring quarter — would be taught remotely because of COVID-19, it immediately tested everyone on campus, but in particular students and faculty who had to figure out on the fly new ways to learn and teach.

Adapting was understandably easier for some classes, like introductory courses which could more simply turn a live lecture in a big hall into a video lecture delivered through Zoom. But what about classes built around in-person group work, or the performing arts, or science and engineering labs that require the use of equipment and materials for hands-on learning?

Fortunately for the students taking the Physics 5AL/5BL/5CL series (physics for life sciences majors) or the Physics 4AL/4BL series (physics for scientists and engineers), their professors and teaching assistants in the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy were uniquely prepared for this forced period of remote instruction.

For the past few years, the department has explored ways to improve engagement for the 3,000-plus students who take these classes each year by making the labs for these courses more student-oriented. The transition to remote learning made figuring out the best ways to do that more urgent than ever, and the department’s head start on adapting the class to better fit students’ needs helped make the transition much easier.

“The key to giving a satisfying experience to students working remotely is to offer real-time solutions as quick as possible,” said Katsushi Arisaka, professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College and also of electrical and computer engineering in the Samueli School of Engineering, who emphasized how much of a team effort this has been. “That’s why we need such a good group of TAs behind the scenes.”

For Arisaka, restructuring these classes has always been about finding new ways to prepare students for future success. He has worked with teaching assistants Javier Carmona, Shashank Gowda, Erik Kramer, Grant Mitts, Pauline Arriaga and many others, to find ways to give students more control over the labs, while introducing them to concepts and skills, such as writing computer code.

To make these lab classes work from home, students needed access to the right tools, which also meant affordable equipment, such as the Arduino UNO Starter kit for Physics 4AL and 4BL and the Snap Circuit Kit for Physics 5CL, which Arisaka and his teaching assistants have been using for a couple of years.

Arduino and Snap Circuit kits provide dozens of basic hardware components that allow those without backgrounds in electronics and programming to create low-cost scientific instruments, to prove chemistry and physics principles, or to get started with programming and robotics. Students have been able purchase these kits online or the UCLA Store and their wide availability has also made the transition easier.

Students were grouped to work together remotely via Zoom breakout rooms from day one. The highlight of the course was to conduct their group final projects during the last three weeks and present the results by Zoom video-recording. It seems the only limit to students’ projects was their imagination.

Projects included: comparing human versus automated coin flips; measuring the effect of music on human reaction time; observing the energy lost by a bouncing ball; predicting the trajectory of basketball shots; comparing use of force across five sports; studying how the shape of a rolling object affects its acceleration as it rolls down an inclined surface and comparing the observations with physics theory.

“Students seem to be enjoying it, and as TAs we enjoy their creativity,” said Gowda, graduate student researcher in UCLA’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center, who noted that these types of ideas will improve student learning even once in-person instruction resumes. “They develop experiments and projects that we wouldn’t even think of.”

While previous versions of the class covered the necessary material, said Kramer, their structure seemed antiquated. “The move to this more modern hardware platform, using the coding language Python, and Arduino, has really inspired students to do amazing final projects,” he said.

According to Carmona, the way these labs were previously run just didn’t capture the imagination of students as much as they should. Speaking on the transition, he says it was a difficult task, but one that was well worth the effort.

Teaching assistant Javier Carmona, left, leads a Zoom class on how to use the Arduino kits.

Teaching assistant Javier Carmona, left, leads a Zoom class on how to use the Arduino kits. (Photo Courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka)

“It required a lot of work to get to where it’s at, but I’m glad we put in the work because now we have hundreds of students who didn’t miss out on a hands-on laboratory they could do at home,” Carmona said.

To make the hands-on, labs-at-home work the instructors “flipped” the class, encouraging students to design and test their own experiments rather than making them follow strict guidelines from teaching assistants and professors. Abandoning the old ways for physics labs proved positive according to student responses.

Among the comments from students provided as part of the course feedback: “You all are doing great, by far the most fun class I have this quarter, thank you for all the effort you guys have been putting into this, I figure it’s got to be really hard putting together a remote lab, but you guys are doing a pretty dang good job :)”

“We are learning marketable skills with Arduino and Python and the course development team is very receptive to feedback and constantly tries to make the class better. Thank you!”

Another change that the group is proud of is asynchronous operation — which allows students to learn at their own pace. This switch has given students flexibility to work at a rate they feel comfortable with, a change that can be beneficial for students who may be struggling with the material.

“The videos demonstrating how to use python and how to set up experiments have been extremely helpful, especially to someone like myself who has no experience with this as I’ve not taken 4AL,” wrote another student.

At the same time, Arisaka said, letting students work at the own pace also allows students who really understand the material to finish their work faster, and he encourages them to go back and help their peers.

Arisaka, who has been teaching physics for more than 30 years, also said it’s time to move away from the notion that students should be competing with one another for grades.

“They can boost their grade if they do better, it has nothing to do with the student next to them, and this message is very important so they can learn something useful,” said Arisaka, who noted that students’ mastery of skills was better than ever this quarter, even though labs were conducted at home.

These changes to the lab structure were possible thanks, in part, to funding and support provided from the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching. “That transition to students having ownership of the experiment is the kind of high-level learning experience that we seek for UCLA students, so we were happy to support that work,” said Adrienne Lavine, associate vice provost for the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a professor of mechanical engineering.

For Lavine, the move to remote instruction has created an opportunity for faculty to reflect on their teaching and how that affects student learning. “I think there’s a lot of faculty out there who are doing an incredible job of being thoughtful in how to handle this, and they will learn lessons that can be taken back into in-person instruction,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo montage of 2020 Virtual Celebration speakers. Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang.

Graduates encouraged to envision and build a better future

A photo montage of 2020 Virtual Celebration speakers. Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang.

Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA’s class of 2020 celebrated their graduation today while scattered across the globe. For the first time, the university’s largest graduation celebration took place remotely, honoring the roughly 8,800 students of the UCLA College.

“Today we gather virtually to celebrate the conferral of your degrees in a uniquely 21st century high-tech way – but, rest assured, your hard-earned degrees will be real. You guys are so futuristic!” the graduates were told by actor, activist, alumnus and social media icon George Takei. The man who helped others imagine a brighter future through his role on “Star Trek” called on graduates to build a better world. “With the experience of the pandemic, challenge yourselves to imagine the unimagined. You have technology that dazzles the mind. Soar with it. Aspire as no others have.”

Though the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus means most students haven’t set foot at UCLA since March 13, classes continued remotely. While in-person ceremonies are planned once group gatherings are safe again, graduating students more than earned a celebration on what would have been their commencement day. Among the Centennial class, graduating at the close of UCLA’s first 100 years, nearly a third are first-generation college students, and more than 35 percent come from low-income households.

The ceremony opened with a moment of silence to recognize and honor victims of COVID-19 and also racial oppression. This was followed by a pledge by the six College deans to continue to fight social injustice.

“While we have all been affected by recent events, we have not all been affected equally,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences. “We will continue to shine a light on inequality.”

Speakers borrowed from an array of real and fictional inspirational figures, quoting the words of activist author James Baldwin, historian Rebecca Solnit, wizard Albus Dumbledore, and Vulcan Starfleet officer Mr. Spock. The virtual celebration featured views of familiar buildings, fountains and hilltop vistas to soothe homesick Bruins, and senior Margaret Miller sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Students viewed the livestream or the later recording from couches with their parents, in apartments with roommates, or on laptops in empty rooms. Some added homemade pomp and circumstance by crafting their own mortarboards or using free graduation profile frames and yard signs from the Alumni Association they would soon join.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block praised the graduates’ resilience at completing their studies and acknowledged those who also found ways to get involved, whether by treating COVID-19 patients, making face masks to slow the spread of the virus, or joining the nationwide wave of protests against the murder of Black men and women by police.

“A global pandemic has upended our lives and prevented us from being together,” Block said. “We’re all reeling, once again, from the pain of racial injustice … The horrible killings of unarmed African Americans have reminded us of our society’s inequities, but strengthened our resolve to address them.”

History shows that catastrophic events can expose “the failings of the status quo” and lead to reforms, Block added, referencing Solnit before calling on the graduates to build a more resilient, compassionate and just society. Though in almost any year, graduates are asked to make the world a better place, current events added extra resonance to that plea.

“The imagination to envision better times, especially in hard times, is vital,” Block said. “James Baldwin wrote that ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ … Now is your time to envision the role you’ll play in changing our world and creating a new one.”

UCLA Broadcast Studio

 

Filmed in an empty Royce Hall, student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang grieved the loss of the students’ final months on campus, but reminded her fellow graduates that they have already begun to improve the world.

“It is at UCLA where we’ve felt compassion for each other, and drove our support toward undocumented students, first-generation students and immigrants working to make a better life of their own,” she said. “We poured our minds towards driving research in hopes of finding life-saving cures … We created paths towards a greener, healthier planet … We lived and breathed the spirit of equality.”

Though the campus’ graduation season shrank from the usual 60 or so ceremonies and celebrations to a little more than 30 virtual events because of the pandemic, UCLA awarded degrees to nearly 14,000 students from its undergraduate and graduate programs. Other speakers include guitarist Carlos Santana for the Herb Alpert School of Music, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for the UCLA School of Law, and California’s first surgeon general, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris for the David Geffen School of Medicine.

In introducing Takei, Block praised his activism in speaking up for Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community, and tied Takei’s activism to his days as an actor playing Mr. Sulu beginning in 1966.

“George made history on a multi-ethnic new TV show called ‘Star Trek,’” Block said. “The show premiered at the same time that the Vietnam War was fueling decades of anti-Asian bigotry. As a Japanese-American child during World War II, George had endured that bigotry first hand in America’s shameful internment camps. George’s presence as one of the heroes of the show was a rebuke to the prejudice of the time. Star Trek imagined a future in which all of Earth’s races lived together in peace.”

Sixty years after his own graduation from UCLA, Takei observed the highs and lows of the pandemic, from tireless medical and frontline workers, to unemployment and economic havoc.

“We live in a time of heroes and menaces,” Takei said. “And where we expect leadership, we find shocking dysfunction. It is a virtual dystopian state.”

But amidst this “dark moment,” he added, the air has cleared from the decreased use of fossil fuels for vehicles and factories, giving the world a glimpse of a cleaner planet. He urged the graduates to learn from it and find ways to improve the human condition.

“We look to you, the high-tech generation, to seize this moment,” Takei said. “Revitalize our civilization. Discover new challenges. Stretch as far as you can. Boldly go where no one has gone before. May the UCLA Centennial 2020 class live long and prosper.”

The virtual celebration closed with a bittersweet view of the Inverted Fountain, where graduating seniors traditionally take a dip to celebrate their years of hard work.

“Our 2020 graduates will be the class that persevered,” said Patricia Turner, vice provost and dean of undergraduate dducation. “Let this moment of adversity forge in you a strength to overcome, to persevere, to know that the world is inherently beautiful, and that your future has only just begun.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.