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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.

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

What the wildfires tell us about the shortcomings of California’s electric grid

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

Powerlines along a road in Playa del Rey, California. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

In addition to the vast destruction they have caused, the wildfires that have engulfed California in recent weeks have laid bare serious concerns about the state’s electric grid.

In an email interview, UCLA’s Eric Fournier explains why the architecture of California’s grid isn’t well suited for such extreme conditions and what it would take to improve it. Fournier has been research director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability since 2018 — he joined UCLA as a postdoctoral researcher in 2016 — and his research involves analyzing energy systems and the mechanics of the electric power system.

What are the core issues that the wildfires have exposed about our power grid?

The wildfires are exposing some of the inherent weaknesses of the grid’s current architecture, which relies upon highly centralized sources of power generation.

The grid has historically been designed to support the unidirectional flow of power from a few large generator stations to many smaller consumers. That architecture seeks to take advantage of the economies of scale in power production that come from building generator stations as large as possible.

One thing that happens under this approach, however, is that these large generator stations tend to be built far away from the consumers. For fossil fuel–based generator plants, that’s because their operations produce large amounts of harmful air emissions that can negatively affect public health. For renewable generator plants, it’s because they need to be on sites with access to renewable energy flows — whether that’s wind, sun or hydraulic potential, for example — and those locations are typically remote.

As a result, the grid’s operations depend heavily on transmission infrastructure to move power around. If this infrastructure becomes compromised either due to age or some other external hazard — like extremely high heat or wildfire — grid operators have a difficult time maintaining reliable service.

The public safety power shut-offs in response to wildfires and other high-risk weather conditions are attempts to mitigate the grid’s exposure to these hazards. These measures are obviously not ideal, however, because power outages result in significant disruptions to the lives of large numbers of people.

Ideally, we should be taking a longer-term view on how we can mitigate both these underlying hazards as well as the extent of the grid’s exposure to them.

What are some ways California could realistically address those problems? 

Adopting distributed renewable energy generation and storage would have a number of potential benefits, in terms of both mitigating hazards and reducing exposures.

In the former case, generating energy renewably avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases. This would help slow the rate of climate change and reduce the likelihood of more severe wildfires occurring in the future. In the latter case, generating energy in a distributed way helps reduce our reliance upon transmission infrastructure, and it would provide some capacity to continue making power available to consumers in the event of a transmission infrastructure failure.

What would it take to make those things happen? 

There are a number of barriers to achieving a more renewable, more decentralized energy future. Some of them are technical and some are legal and administrative.

On the technical side, the grid will require extensive modernization upgrades to support higher levels of distributed energy resource penetration and, even further down the road, fully bi-directional power flows. These efforts will need to be supported by a dramatic expansion in the grid’s capacity to store and share the energy that is produced by renewable sources — such as with batteries. This will be necessary to address problems related to many types of renewables’ only intermittent ability to produce electric power.

On the legal and administrative side, there needs to be a recognition of the benefits associated with decentralized energy solutions. And these benefits should be considered during long-term energy system planning.

Utility companies have extensive experience building, operating and maintaining the grid as it currently exists. The proposed alternative represents a paradigm shift within this sector and will have to be supported with strong policy mandates. Otherwise, it is highly likely that in the future we will simply replace our existing, large-scale, remote, fossil fuel generation facilities with new, large-scale, remote, renewable generation facilities. That would mean that we would be retaining all of the same systemic vulnerabilities to climate change and wildfire that are inherent to the current system.

Finally, relative to this idea that we should promote greater decentralization: It is crucial that questions of equity be considered in the process. These solutions will fundamentally not work if they are only the provenance of the rich. Thus, we need to be forceful about ensuring that residents of disadvantaged communities are not left behind due to the cost or other difficulties associated with the adoption of these types of new technologies.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus

Faculty, students co-produce documentary on bipartisan environmental solutions

Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus

Earth Focus Collage
Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus. Top Left: “The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” image courtesy of KCET and LENS at UCLA; remaining images courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Photos Courtesy of KCET, LENS and Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Anew documentary exploring environmental politics, which was researched, reported and produced by UCLA faculty and students in conjunction with the Southern California public media channel KCET, is slated to air in September as part of the locally produced environmental series “Earth Focus.”

This is the third season of “Earth Focus” that UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies has worked on. LENS advised on three of the episodes in this year’s series and co-produced the fourth, a feature-length documentary. Launched in 2007, the series is the longest-running investigative environmental news program on U.S. television and features reports about the changing environment and how it affects people around the world.

The 90-minute documentary, “The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” focuses on Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s work on sustainability. The film looks at topics like bipartisan solutions to water wars and land conservation, compromises between progressive urban areas and conservative rural areas, and equitable energy transitions from coal to renewable energy.

LENS co-founder Jon Christensen, a UCLA adjunct assistant professor and member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, served as executive producer on the documentary. In collaboration with the filmmaking team at KCET, Christensen’s work included researching and shaping the story, interviewing subjects, and overseeing UCLA students working as researchers, reporters and writers on the series.

UCLA fourth-year political science student Lucas Holtz investigated environmental initiatives emerging in the western United States, while Spencer Robins, a graduate student in English, delved into Reid’s archived congressional papers, many of which were fortunately digitized before the pandemic quarantine.

Shouhei Tanaka, also a graduate student in English, researched the history of California’s reliance on coal and fossil fuels and turned it into an online article that will run with an “Earth Focus” episode about coal mining in South Africa. Geography grad student Alexandria Herr researched and wrote an article for the website about the environmental legacy of mercury used in the California gold rush, which will run as a companion piece to an episode about illegal gold mines in Peru.

“In a political season that’s as polarized as we’ve ever seen, we want to tell these stories showing that environmental politics are complicated and nuanced, and there are different paths being forged on the ground,” Christensen said. “Even among politicians who are opposed to funding climate change research, in the Midwest for example, there are many who care deeply about how changing weather patterns, drought and flooding affect farming.”

KCET partnered with the Thomson Reuters Foundation for the international filmmaking. While LENS’ work focused on the feature-length documentary, all the partners gathered for weekly calls on story development, providing Christensen and the UCLA students a voice in the development of the other three episodes in the series.

“Earth Focus” airs on KCET and Link TV beginning on Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. with “The Youth Climate Movement around the World,” and culminates with “The New West and the Politics of the Environment” on Sept. 29.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Image of Math Building Collage

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, written by Stuart Wolpert, 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.