Understanding what makes rainforests distinct from one another could advance conservation efforts

Even when they’re located near each other, not all rainforests are the same, UCLA-led research finds

Dipterocarp Forest at Danum Valley | Mike Prince/Flickr

A rainforest in Danum Valley, Malaysia. New UCLA-led research demonstrates how diverse rainforests can be, even when they are located in the same region. | Mike Prince/Flickr

Anna Novoselov | October 27, 2022

For many people, the phrase “tropical rainforest” might conjure the image of a landscape teeming with vegetation, exotic animals and extraordinary beauty.

But while the world’s rainforests do share some qualities — including serving as habitats for a diverse range of wildlife and storing vast amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide — new UCLA-led research shows just how different rainforests can be, even when they’re located near each other.

“Tropical forests are not a monolith,” said UCLA ecologist Elsa Ordway, lead author of the study, which was published Oct. 20 in Communications Earth & Environment.

The study is significant because understanding how forests vary from one another could help shape conservation initiatives and efforts to fight climate change. Decision-makers and stakeholders could use the research to more accurately predict how much forests mitigate climate change — and how vulnerable they are to it.

Vegetation in tropical forests, which draws carbon dioxide from the air for photosynthesis, stores about one-fourth of Earth’s terrestrial carbon in leaves, trunks and roots. The specific species living in a forest affect how much carbon it can hold and determine how it responds to natural and human disturbances.

Ordway and her co-authors analyzed two tropical landscapes in the Malaysian portion of Borneo, categorizing them into seven different types based on their growth rates, mortality rates, how much carbon they can hold and other characteristics.

To categorize the rainforests, the researchers used two types of remote sensing technology: a satellite-based laser detection system called LiDAR to measure the height and distribution of vegetation, and spectroscopy to determine the forests’ chemical composition.

Those measurements helped crystallize how the forests vary both in terms of their structure — tree height, foliage shape and gaps in the canopy, for example — and their function — how ecosystems work and how natural resources are distributed.

The researchers found that the two most important variables for distinguishing forest types were leaf mass per area and the amount of phosphorus contained in the canopy — the upper layer of the forest that is formed by treetops. Phosphorus is a chemical essential to plant growth.

“To be able to actually characterize these differences at large scales has really huge value for our ability to understand these forests and how they function,” Ordway said.

Borneo is the world’s third largest island. Its forests harbor a diverse range of habitats that support more than 15,000 plant species and more than 1,400 animal species. Just 25 acres of Bornean forest coud contain about 700 different tree species — nearly as many as in all of North America.

Since the 1960s, huge swaths of the island’s forests have been destroyed due to deforestation, fires, illegal logging and agricultural expansion — especially for palm oil plantations.

Mapping forests gives policymakers a better understanding of rainforests’ conservation value so they can pass laws and regulations to protect them. In addition, accurately determining rainforests’ carbon storage capacity can help shape market-based conservation programs such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries — known as REDD+ — which places a cash value on the carbon that rainforests prevent from being released into the atmosphere. Through such programs, large international banks have invested large sums to benefit countries that protect their forests.

And as satellite-based remote sensing improves, so too will the data available to scientists and policymakers. Upcoming satellite missions, such as a NASA hyperspectral satellite mission that is scheduled to launch in 2028, are expected to make vast amounts of data available for free, which could open the door to further studies on differences in forest function. The UCLA-led study could serve as a framework for future analyses and for identifying which variables are meaningful.

“We will soon have available an incredible amount of remote sensing data that’s going to be game-changing for what we’re able to measure and monitor across ecosystems globally,” Ordway said.

Until now, forest types have been mapped by researchers on the ground who identify different species and measure functional traits. But that type of analysis is limited by cost and scientists’ ability to access certain parts of rainforests.

Ordway said the same approach her team used could also be extended to studying other types of forests and other ecosystems.

This article originally appeared at UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit

UCLA’s Jim Varney Scholarship pays the actor’s generous legacy forward

 Jim Varney, as the beloved character Ernest P. Worrell, holds a portrait of himself.

Emmy-winning actor and comedic icon Jim Varney played the beloved character Ernest P. Worrell. | Courtesy of Paganomation

Jonathan Riggs | December 20, 2022

The Kentucky-born comedian Jim Varney cared deeply about young people and their dreams.

Millions of kids — and kids at heart — delighted in the onscreen antics of the Emmy-winning actor, in and out of his beloved character of Ernest P. Worrell.

Before he died of cancer in 2000, Varney took his compassion one step further by laying the groundwork for a scholarship to support promising, financial-aid-eligible students from two states that meant a great deal to him personally: Kentucky and Tennessee. Recipients of the Jim Varney Scholarship must also plan to complete an undergraduate degree in the UCLA College and have an interest in the performing arts.

“This is one of UCLA’s few full-ride scholarships, and every single one of the students I’ve worked with who received it has had a phenomenal experience,” said Angela Deaver Campbell, director of the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center. “It’s so special, not just because it is a life-transforming opportunity for students and for their families, but also because we are honoring the final wishes of Mr. Varney, who wanted to make this opportunity possible.”

There have been 11 Varney Scholars so far, including the most recent, Joshua Hays, a current second-year biology major from Louisville, Kentucky whose dream is to become a physician specializing in pediatric orthopedics.

Joshua Hays, Varney Scholar

Joshua Hays, Varney Scholar

“Receiving this scholarship was one of the greatest honors and blessings in my life — I am the fifth of six children, and so the Varney Foundation’s generosity relieves such a burden from my family,” Hays said. “I am and will always be forever grateful to the Varney Foundation’s generosity for making the dreams of some kid from Kentucky a reality. I hope to pay it forward one day, following Mr. Varney’s example in changing lives.”

Over the course of his career, the Shakespearean-trained Varney built an impressive resume that includes more than 3,000 commercials, nine Ernest movies and originating the role of Slinky Dog in the “Toy Story” franchise. His career almost didn’t get started, though, due to an actors’ strike when he first came to Hollywood, forcing Varney to return to Kentucky and earn a living driving a truck.

“Jim always said if he’d had a college education, he could have stuck it out here sooner, and that a college education was the key to achieving your dreams,” said Jane Varney, president of the Varney Foundation, which funds the scholarship. “Jim wanted to pay his success forward and ensure that kids from Kentucky and Tennessee would have the opportunity to make it at a world-class school like UCLA.”

Without exception, that is what each scholarship recipient has done.

“Each year, the Varney Scholars thrive academically, bring diverse artistic expression and follow their passions as a result of these generous awards that honor Jim Varney’s remarkable legacy,” said Adriana Galván, dean of the division of undergraduate education. “We deeply value our longstanding partnership with the Jim Varney Foundation and look forward to many more years of working together to celebrate Jim and foster future generations of bright young change-makers at UCLA.”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.

Morris Herbert, professor emeritus of law and philosophy at UCLA.

In memoriam: Herbert Morris, 94, landmark figure in law and philosophy

Morris Herbert, professor emeritus of law and philosophy at UCLA.

Herbert Morris | UCLA

UCLA Law | December 16, 2022

Professor emeritus Herbert Morris, a globally renowned scholar and teacher of law and philosophy and a foundational member of UCLA School of Law’s faculty, died on Dec. 14. He was 94.

An instrumental leader at UCLA for seven decades, Morris earned his bachelor’s degree at UCLA, law degree from Yale Law School and doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University. He joined the faculty of UCLA’s philosophy department in 1956 and the law school in 1962.

During his uncommonly distinguished career, Morris served as dean of humanities of in the UCLA College from 1983 to 1992 and interim provost of the college from 1992 to 1993. He also chaired the board of the University of California Humanities Research Institute from 1988 to 1990, among many prominent leadership roles in academia.

“Herbert Morris was a seminal figure in the tradition of research and teaching in law and philosophy at UCLA, a tradition that he participated in for seven decades and that flourishes today,” says Mark Greenberg, who holds the Michael H. Schill Endowed Chair in Law at the law school and is a professor of philosophy who directs UCLA’s Law and Philosophy Program. “Thanks to his sharp and probing mind and warm and charismatic personality, he will have a lasting influence on his many students and colleagues.”

Morris was widely recognized for his prolific and wide-ranging scholarship on moral and legal philosophy. His book “On Guilt and Innocence: Essays in Legal Philosophy and Moral Psychology” (University of California Press, 1976) is a landmark in the field. He also authored several works of literary criticism: “The Masked Citadel: The Significance of the Title of Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme” (University of California Press, 1961), “What Emma Knew: The Outrage Suffered in Jorge Luis Borges’s Emma Zunz” (Indiana Journal of Hispanic Literatures, 1997) and “Disclosures: Essays on Art, Literature, and Philosophy” (2017). Additionally, he served as editor of “On Guilt and Shame” (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971) and “Freedom and Responsibility: Readings in Philosophy and Law” (Stanford University Press, 1961).

The biennial Herbert Morris Lecture in Law and Philosophy – one of the law school’s most important public academic lectures – was established in his honor in 2009. The event, which hosts leading scholars from around the world, has featured presentations by preeminent philosophers including Ronald Dworkin and Martha Nussbaum.

Long after his 1994 retirement, Morris – who also trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst – continued his work on deep philosophical topics. He published “On the Soul” in the journal Philosophy in 2019, and began publishing art criticism, with a focus on the French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin. Until quite recently, he continued to conduct research and teach at UCLA, producing new scholarship in philosophy, art and literature, and teaching the popular undergraduate class Law, Philosophy and Literature.

In 2020, Morris became the first law professor ever to receive the prestigious Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award, an honor that goes to retired professors from the entire University of California system, in celebration of their longstanding influence and leadership in their fields.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit

When using virtual reality as a teaching tool, context and ‘feeling real’ matter

People remember foreign vocabulary better when lessons are associated with distinct environments, UCLA study finds

Still image from a fairyland virtual reality environment

Subjects in the study were asked to learn Swahili or Chinyanja names for the objects they encountered in a fantasy fairyland, pictured here, or a science fiction landscape. | Courtesy of Jesse Rissman

Holly Ober | December 15, 2022

A new study by UCLA psychologists reveals that when VR is used to teach language, context and realism matter.

The research is published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

“The context in which we learn things can help us remember them better,” said Jesse Rissman, the paper’s corresponding author and a UCLA associate professor of psychology. “We wanted to know if learning foreign languages in virtual reality environments could improve recall, especially when there was the potential for two sets of words to interfere with each other.”

Researchers asked 48 English-speaking participants to try to learn 80 words in two phonetically similar African languages, Swahili and Chinyanja, as they navigated virtual reality settings.

Wearing VR headsets, participants explored one of two environments — a fantasy fairyland or a science fiction landscape — where they could click to learn the Swahili or Chinyanja names for the objects they encountered. Some participants learned both languages in the same VR environment; others learned one language in each environment.

Participants navigated through the virtual worlds four times over the course of two days, saying the translations aloud each time. One week later, the researchers followed up with a pop quiz to see how well the participants remembered what they had learned.

The results were striking: Subjects who had learned each language in its own unique context mixed up fewer words and were able to recall 92% of the words they had learned. In contrast, participants who had learned both sets of words in the same VR context were more likely to confuse terms between the two languages and retained only 76% of the words.


Jesse Rissman | Courtesy of Jesse Rissman

The study is particularly timely because so many K-12 schools, colleges and universities moved to develop online learning platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Apps like Zoom provide a rather bland context for learning,” Rissman said. “As VR technology becomes more ubiquitous and affordable, remote learners could be instantly teleported into unique and richly featured contexts for each class.”

The experiment was designed by Rissman and Joey Ka-Yee Essoe, the study’s first author who was a UCLA doctoral student at the time.

Rissman said a key predictor of the subjects’ ability to retain what they had learned was how immersed in the VR world they felt. The less a participant felt like a subject in a psychology experiment — and the more “at one” they felt with their avatar — the more the virtual contexts were able to positively affect their learning.

“The more a person’s brain was able to reconstruct the unique activity pattern associated with the learning context, the better able they were to recall the foreign words they had learned there,” Rissman said.

Psychologists have long understood that people tend to recall things more readily if they can remember something about the surrounding context in which they learned it — the so-called “context crutch” phenomenon. But when information is tied to contextual cues, people can have trouble recalling it later in the absence of those cues.

For example, students might learn Spanish in the same kind of classroom where they learn other subjects. When that happens, their Spanish vocabulary can be tied to the same contextual cues that are tied to other material they’ve been taught, like the Pythagorean theorem or a Shakespeare play. Not only does that similar context make it easier to mix up or forget what they have learned, but it also can make it harder to remember any of the information outside of a classroom setting.

“A key takeaway is that if you learn the same thing in same environment, you’ll learn it really fast,” said Essoe, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “But even though you learn fast, you might have trouble with recall. What we were able to harness in this research takes advantage of both learning fast and improving recall in new environment.”

To understand the brain mechanisms that support context-dependent learning, the researchers recruited a separate group of participants and scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. As the subjects attempted to recall foreign words while in the scanner, their brain activity indicated that they were thinking about the context in which they had learned each word.

That finding suggests that virtual reality can enhance learning if it is convincingly produced and if different languages or scholastic subjects are taught in highly distinctive environments.

Rissman said although the study only assessed how people learned a foreign language, the results indicate that VR could be useful for teaching other subjects as well. Similar approaches could also be used for mental and behavioral health therapies and to help patients adhere to doctors’ instructions after medical visits: Patients might be able to remember such guidance better if they’re in their own homes while chatting online with their doctors, for example.

Said Essoe: “Variable contexts can ground information in more environmental cues.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit

Making a difference through the power of storytelling

UCLA undergraduate student Arushi Avachat on writing and publishing her first novel

Arushi Avachat

Arushi Avachat, a third-year English and political science student at UCLA, will see her debut novel hit bookstore shelves in fall 2023. | Photo by Haven Hunt

Lucy Berbeo | December 16, 2022

Now in her third year as an English and political science student at UCLA, Arushi Avachat is celebrating an extraordinary milestone: the forthcoming publication of her debut novel, which is set for release in fall 2023. “Arya Khanna’s Bollywood Moment,” a work of young adult fiction inspired by Bollywood dramas from decades past, was picked up by Wednesday Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group at Macmillan.

Avachat, a Bay Area native who finished drafting the novel during her first year at UCLA, also works in political communications and as an organizer for progressive social causes. She spoke with the UCLA College about writing through the pandemic, navigating the publishing world — and why storytelling is a powerful means to create social change.

What was it like writing a novel while navigating life as an undergraduate student?
I finished the first draft of “Arya” during the winter quarter of my first year at UCLA. As a COVID freshman, writing my novel was often a meaningful escape from the stress and uncertainties of that time. Virtual school also meant I had a lot more time to devote to writing. I was able to write for several hours each day in addition to coursework, which would definitely not be possible anymore!

What does it mean to you to see your first book slated for publication? What were some of your inspirations and challenges on this journey?
It feels so exciting and still so unbelievable! I have wanted this for as long as I can remember. The biggest challenge for me was definitely finishing my first draft. I have been a writer for most of my life, and from middle school onward, I was never not working on a novel-in-progress — “in progress” being the operative phrase, as I inevitably abandoned each manuscript in pursuit of a new, shinier idea. It was one of my proudest moments to finally complete my novel. I found a lot of inspiration from prominent South Asian writers such as Sanjena Sathian, Roshani Chokshi and Sabaa Tahir, whose careers I deeply admire and who were all so generous with advice during my publishing journey.

How has your experience at UCLA influenced your journey as a writer?
My time at UCLA has completely reinforced my desire to pursue a career as a writer. I am a third-year English student, and I am hoping to concentrate in creative writing. The fiction workshops I’ve taken so far have been really rewarding — it’s so exciting to belong to a community of writers, and I’ve loved learning from professors who have built long-lasting careers for themselves as authors. Workshop has also forced me to write much more than I typically do. By nature, I am a very slow writer, and having to produce a new short story every week (while challenging!) has helped me get into the habit of writing daily — and being comfortable with bad first drafts.

What inspired “Arya Khanna’s Bollywood Moment,” and what do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
When I was fourteen, I wrote a short story about two sisters and their mother that I was very attached to. I felt like I had a lot more to say about those characters, and slowly, a novel idea started to emerge. I had the thought that I wanted this book to read like my favorite Bollywood dramas from the ‘90s and 2000s, and the wedding backdrop and cinematic structure evolved from there. My protagonist Arya’s older sister is home for the first time in three years to plan her wedding, and shaadi season is filled with family conflict, gossipy aunties and a rivals-to-lovers romance in the school setting.

Sisterhood is at the heart of this novel. While drafting, I spent a lot of time thinking about the moment when an elder sibling leaves home, and the younger sibling becomes a de facto only child. There can be a lot of resentment and messy feelings attached to this shift, especially if one’s home life is far from perfect. I wanted to explore this dynamic deeply. I also just had a lot of fun drafting this dramatic, hopeful, joyful book. I hope “Arya” will bring readers the same comfort that writing it brought me.

“In addition to creative writing, I have also worked extensively in political communications. Both fields have helped me realize how storytelling works to generate empathy, shape public opinion, and help people feel seen. I hope to contribute to this cause through my novels, which will always center the voices of Indian women, who remain largely underrepresented in literature.”

You’ve said that you see storytelling as an important means to achieve social change. Can you share more about this?
In addition to creative writing, I have also worked extensively in political communications. Both fields have helped me realize how storytelling works to generate empathy, shape public opinion, and help people feel seen. I hope to contribute to this cause through my novels, which will always center the voices of Indian women, who remain largely underrepresented in literature.

I was eighteen the first time I read a YA novel by an Indian author (“When Dimple Met Rishi” by Sandhya Menon), and I still remember the wonder and excitement I felt reading a story about a girl that looked like me. During my childhood, the books I had access to were overwhelmingly white, as was the publishing industry at large. Only recently has that begun to shift, and the young adult category in particular has led the charge in creating space for diverse stories.

I feel really proud to belong to that change. It’s so important for young people specifically to see themselves positively represented in media and to know they deserve to have their voices centered, not relegated to the sidelines as has historically been the case. I have much respect and admiration for the South Asian authors who came before me and made my career a possibility, and I’m hopeful that the book industry will continue to grow truly representative of its readers in the years to come.

What advice would you give to other young writers navigating the publishing world?
Really internalize the message that your publishing goals are a matter of when, not if. In an industry where nothing is guaranteed but rejection, and lots of it, it’s so important to have a strong sense of self-confidence in your work. I received over 40 nos from agents before receiving my first offer of representation. It was easy to get anxious during this time, but I kept reminding myself that I would always be a writer, and if not this book, then the next, or the next, would get me published. Having this mentality helped take some of the stress away from the process and kept my love for writing untainted by insecurity.

What’s next on your horizon?
It’s surreal to remember that this is just the beginning of my career — in so many ways, publishing “Arya” feels like a culmination of something; this is the end goal I have worked toward for so long. But I have so many more books left in me, and I feel so exhilarated by the variety of projects I have planned for the future. After “Arya,” I have a second young adult contemporary novel slated to release with Wednesday Books. Beyond that, I have ideas for a YA high fantasy, a YA historical fiction, an adult rom-com, and a middle grade contemporary. At some point in my life, I would love to write a murder mystery, too.

For more of Our Stories at the UCLA College, click here.

Graduates wearing caps and gowns at the 2-18 American Indian Studies graduation ceremony at UCLA.

To enhance Indigenous scholarship, UCLA formally establishes American Indian studies department

The goal is eventually to increase the Native student, faculty and staff populations

Graduates wearing caps and gowns at the 2-18 American Indian Studies graduation ceremony at UCLA.

Even before achieving departmental status, the American Indian studies program has helped scholars thrive, as seen in this 2018 commencement photo. | UCLA American Indian Studies

Jonathan Riggs | December 15, 2022

As they look ahead to the end of their senior years, both Desirae Barragan (Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians) and Lorraine Mazzetti (Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians) have a lot to be proud of — including the news that UCLA’s American Indian studies interdepartmental program will become a full-fledged department.

“Many generations of Native Bruins, including myself, have provided their voices, energy and advocacy efforts to prove the need to departmentalize American Indian studies,” said Barragan, who is double majoring in American Indian studies and human biology and society. “As a Gabrieleno student studying on my ancestral homelands, it is an absolute privilege to be the first of my tribal community to be graduating from UCLA this spring.”

Said Mazzetti, who is double majoring in American Indian studies and political science: “I’m very excited that American Indian studies is becoming a department. American Indian studies has given me the space to talk about my experiences living on the reservation and to learn about other Native students’ experiences in a single classroom.”

The goal is eventually to increase the Native student, faculty and staff populations while deepening UCLA’s commitment to research and scholarship into Indigenous studies. The change to department status marks a transformation from the program that created one of the world’s first master’s degrees in American Indian studies in 1982 and draws its roots from UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, which was established in 1969.

“I’ve been the American Indian studies chair off and on for nearly 30 years, and this has been a goal for as long as I can remember. To say I’m delighted would be an understatement,” said Paul Kroskrity, interim chair of American Indian studies and professor of anthropology. “This represents a reprioritization by UCLA and the UC system to do the best job they can for Native American students and the field itself. I’m proud we can build this department in the proper way.”

The existing American Indian studies program offers an undergraduate major, a minor and a master’s degree and seeks to merge the concerns and aims of higher education with those of Indigenous communities.

With its new status, the department will be able to hire its own faculty and staff and to make key decisions on its own. When it was an interdepartmental program, American Indian studies faculty and staff were hired by and held appointments in other departments. Although the new American Indian studies department looks forward to continuing and expanding these rich engagements and collaborations, having this autonomy will make a big difference, both symbolically and in practice.

“This is really exciting, important and a long time in the making,” said Shannon Speed (Chickasaw Nation), director of the American Indian Studies Center in UCLA’s Institute of American Cultures and a professor of anthropology and gender studies. “It puts us on par with UCLA’s other ethnic studies centers, which have all departmentalized, and it gives us a little more freedom to create our own future.”

The move is the third in a series of initiatives that signal increased resources, opportunities and representation for Native American communities and voices at UCLA and beyond, including the University of California’s Native American Opportunity Plan and UCLA’s Native American and Pacific Islander Bruins Rising Initiative.

“This is a landmark moment that will give us a greater platform to elevate research and scholarship, recruit more Native and non-Native students, and propel our ascension in terms of being the place to do American Indian studies in the United States,” said Angela Riley (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), director of UCLA School of Law’s Native Nations Law and Policy Center and a professor of law and American Indian studies.

Tim Topper (Cheyenne River Sioux), a student services advisor in the new department, echoed others in saying that departmental status sends a powerful message of inclusion and investment.

“American Indian studies becoming a department is a huge deal because it represents a foundation for us to better recruit and retain Native faculty and staff,” said Topper, who noted how excited he was to come to UCLA to work directly with California Indigenous communities. “It can be hard for Native students to find that mentor they can connect with, and I think we’ll set our students up even better for success when they can see themselves more reflected in and out of the classroom. It’s going to take time, but we’re creating a pipeline for true change.”

And word can travel fast across Indian country, Topper added, where many people are deeply connected to and invested in what colleges and universities are doing in this field. Both at UCLA and far beyond, this formal recognition reflects a renewed commitment to further elevating Native American representation in higher education.

This is especially important to Barragan and Mazzetti, who hope to see the department tackle new priorities, such as reimagining the curriculum to include additional undergraduate courses in traditional ecological knowledge, tribal leadership and federal Indian law.

“It is hard for Native students to relearn generational trauma and apply it to our essays for a grade, and I hope the new department realizes that they are teaching the next tribal leaders,” Mazzetti said. “I am ready to see what the department will bring to UCLA and what they provide to the next generation of Native students.”

“I look forward to the new opportunities that future generations of Native Bruins will get to experience,” Barragan said. “I am honored to contribute to Indigenizing UCLA and hope that as an institution, it will amplify and uplift Native voices, wants and needs while supporting Native-led initiatives.”

Ensuring that this milestone development runs smoothly is a priority for many beyond the new department as well.

“The sky is the limit for what AIS can accomplish in this new chapter,” said Abel Valenzuela, interim dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College. “We are very fortunate to build on our base of excellence in AIS where we have some of the best — if not the very best — American Indian studies faculty, staff and students in the country.”

This article originally appeared at UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim

Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim ’16 named UCLA’s fourth Schwarzman Scholar

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim has been named a Schwarzman Scholar and will study in Beijing next year.

UCLA alumnus Yoon Jae (Eric) Lim ’16 has been named a Schwarzman Scholar, receiving one of the world’s most prestigious graduate awards. As part of a cohort of 151 distinguished young candidates selected from nearly 3,000 applicants worldwide, Lim will receive a fully funded scholarship to complete a one-year master’s degree and leadership program in global studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

Established in 2016 by Stephen A. Schwarzman of Blackstone and inspired by the Rhodes Scholarship, the Schwarzman Scholars program seeks to prepare future leaders from a variety of fields and backgrounds to respond to pressing geopolitical challenges and to foster cross-cultural understanding between China and the rest of the world.

“I am excited and grateful for this amazing opportunity,” said Lim, who studied political science at UCLA and hails from South Korea and the U.S. “China has one of the world’s most developed fintech economies, its economy is largely cashless, and its technology ecosystem has grown at an incredible rate. My goal is to leverage the expansive Schwarzman Scholar and Tsinghua network to learn as much as I can about the technological innovation happening in China.”

As an immigrant, entrepreneur and product leader in fintech, Lim hopes to leverage financial technology to better lives. After graduating from UCLA, he cofounded the blockchain company DApperNetwork, building a community of students and mentors that have gone on to create enormous value in blockchain protocols and applications. Currently a director of product at Sure, a top 100 fintech company, he previously served as a crypto entrepreneur-in-training at FJ Labs. He is a Riordan Fellow with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and has served as an advisor to UCLA’s blockchain lab.

Lim is the fourth UCLA graduate to be named a Schwarzman Scholar. He will enroll in August 2023 as part of the program’s 2023–2024 cohort, which comprises candidates from 36 countries and 121 universities around the world. Each year, Schwarzman Scholars are selected based on a variety of factors including “their leadership qualities and the potential to understand and bridge cultural and political differences,” according to the program’s website; the program’s international network of scholars now includes more than 1,000 members.

“I’m proud to be a UCLA alumnus — the communities and education I got access to during my time as a student have been formative building blocks for me,” Lim said. “Many years ago, UCLA was a launchpad for my entrepreneurial journey, and I am excited to represent my alma mater at such a renowned program as I continue on that journey.”

For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit

Prineha Narang, physical sciences professor in the UCLA College of Letters and Science

Quantum matter pioneer Prineha Narang appointed 2023 US Science Envoy

Narang is the first appointed in the field of quantum science and technology

Prineha Narang, physical sciences professor in the UCLA College of Letters and Science

Prineha Narang, professor of physical sciences in the UCLA College

UCLA quantum matter pioneer Prineha Narang has been appointed a 2023 US Science Envoy by the State Department.

Narang, on the faculty in Physical Sciences, will help initiate new partnerships with countries that are building their own quantum programs. Narang is the first science envoy to be appointed in the field of quantum science and technology. Narang joins the first cohort of Science Envoys since the covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.

“Quantum science and technology is an area not only of critical importance nationally but requires international partnerships,” Narang said. “Part of my role will be to connect scientists in these countries what we’re doing here at UCLA, what our National Quantum Initiative centers are doing, and how to get started. This is an incredible opportunity to initiate new partnerships with countries that are building their own quantum programs, and strengthen collaborations with existing partners.”

Through the Science Envoy Program, eminent U.S. scientists and engineers apply their expertise and networks to forge connections and identify opportunities for sustained international cooperation. Science Envoys focus on issues of common interest in science, technology, and engineering fields and usually serve for one year. They travel as private citizens and help inform the Department of State, other U.S. government agencies, and the scientific community about opportunities for science and technology cooperation.

“We are honored that the State Department has recognized UCLA’s strengths in the field of quantum materials with the appointment of Professor Narang as US Science Envoy. She is a perfect choice to forge the international relationships necessary to realize the potential of this new field of science,” Chancellor Gene Block said.

Narang’s groundbreaking research is at the intersection of computational science, quantum matter, and quantum information science. Her work has been recognized with international awards from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Max Planck Society, American Physical Society, among others. In 2017, she was named by Forbes Magazine on their “30 under 30” list for her work in atom-by-atom quantum engineering.

Narang designs materials at the smallest scale, using single atoms, to enable the leap to quantum technologies. Quantum materials are used in emerging computing and communications technologies with capabilities that far surpass conventional technologies but still face many scientific and practical challenges.

“International collaborations are crucial in driving the field forward. I am delighted to see Professor Narang taking on this prestigious role building on her leadership across science, workforce development, and industry relations in the quantum domain,” Miguel García-Garibay, dean of physical sciences and senior dean of the College, said.

One of the personal goals Narang has set is to get students interested in quantum science at early stages in their education, including through exchange programs. She will give public lectures for early career scientists, budding engineers, and people interested in STEM about how to get involved in quantum science and engineering.

Black Americans’ COVID vaccine hesitancy stems more from today’s inequities than historical ones

UCLA study urges medical community to pursue changes that build better trust

Woman receives vaccine shot

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Holly Ober | October 27, 2022

Key takeaways:
• Doctors and distrust.
Black Americans are more likely than whites to report poor interactions with their physicians.
• Not history but here and now.
These personal experiences — rather than wrongs of the past — tend to heighten their distrust of the health care system and lead to skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccination rate in the Black community lagged well behind that of whites, a gap many in the media speculated was the result of fears based on historical health-related injustices like the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

But new research by UCLA psychologists shows that vaccine hesitancy and mistrust of medical professionals among Black Americans may hinge more on their current unsatisfactory health care experiences than on their knowledge of past wrongs.

The findings, the researchers say, clearly illustrate the need for both broad and specific changes within the medical community to improve experiences and build better trust with Black patients. The research is published in the journal Health Psychology.

“History is important, no doubt, but Black Americans do not have to reach into the past for examples of inequity in health care — many have experienced it themselves,” said Kimberly Martin, who led the research as a UCLA doctoral student and is now a UC President’s Postdoctoral Scholar at UC San Francisco.

In the first of two studies, Martin and her UCLA colleagues surveyed approximately 300 Black and white participants in December 2020, just as vaccines were becoming available. Black respondents expressed less trust in medical professionals and reported significantly less positive experiences with the health care system than their white counterparts. They were also less likely to report an intention to get vaccinated.

Participants were also queried about their familiarity with the 1932–72 Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which the U.S. government studied Black men with syphilis without their informed consent and intentionally withheld treatment, leading to medical complications, fatalities and transmission of the disease to family members. Some 66% of Black participants and 62% of white participants said they were familiar with the study, though Black participants generally knew more about it. Familiarity, however, was not associated with greater medical mistrust or vaccine hesitancy in either group, the researchers found.

Ultimately, the authors concluded, Black respondents’ trust in medical professionals had been undermined by a lack of positive health care experiences, contributing to a hesitancy to get vaccinated.

“A damaging narrative suggested in popular media has been that Black Americans were less likely to want a COVID-19 vaccination primarily because of the Tuskegee study,” said Martin, who along with her co-researchers found that the study had been mentioned 168 times in TV news reports on vaccine hesitancy between October 2020 and November 2021. “However, Tuskegee is only one of many relevant historical examples of medical mistreatment toward Black Americans, and this framing completely disregards current inequity and injustice in health care.”

Co-author Annette Stanton, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA, said implications that Black Americans can and should “get over the past” as a means to reducing health inequities are not only offensive but misguided, given the findings.

“The findings point to Black Americans’ present-day experiences in the medical system as an important factor among multiple contributors to inequities, and physicians and health systems can indeed take action to improve these experiences,” she said. “Respectful, competent and caring medical professionals can be agents of change.”

A second study, conducted several months after the first, surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 12,750 Black and white Americans and found no statistically significant racial difference in the proportion of those who had been vaccinated or were intending to get vaccinated. But once again, Black participants reported less medical trust than whites. Black respondents also reported feeling less cared-for by their physicians than white respondents, which the researchers said contributes to lower levels of trust.

Among those who were not yet vaccinated, both Black and white participants who had less trust in the medical community and felt less cared-for by their personal physician were also less likely to report an intention to get vaccinated.

The current studies add to an extensive body of research showing that Black Americans have worse health care experiences than whites. And while the vaccination gap between Blacks and whites has decreased, issues of inequitable treatment and medical mistrust remain and need to be addressed in the context of present-day experiences, the researchers emphasized.

“Characterizing race-related disparities in health care experiences as a relic of the past excludes current medical experiences and absolves the current health care system from making needed change,” said co-author Kerri Johnson, a UCLA professor of communication and psychology.

Johnson and the other authors said that going forward, health care professionals and researchers need to identify and implement changes that could provide Black Americans with more equitable and satisfying health care experiences.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit

Shirlee Smith, UCLA alumna and creator of Black Boyle Heights Facebook group

UCLA alumna seeks to preserve history of Black Boyle Heights

Shirlee Smith wants you to know about the Black community that used to live in the neighborhood: ‘We were there.’

Shirlee Smith, UCLA alumna and creator of Black Boyle Heights Facebook group

Shirlee Smith wrote a book about parenting titled “They’re Your Kids, Not Your Friends.” | Courtesy of Shirlee Smith

Nancy Gondo | November 7, 2022

Though Boyle Heights has a storied history as a multi-ethnic enclave of the 20th century, Shirlee Smith has noticed the Black community there often gets overlooked — something the UCLA alumna hopes to change.

“I’ve spent my adult years closing gaping mouths when asked where I’d grown up and my reply was Boyle Heights,” said Smith, 85. “People saw Boyle Heights as Jewish, as Latina, as Japanese. And so, the feedback has been, ‘Oh yes, the world needs to know: We were there.’”

The former Boyle Heights resident is working on a project to document and preserve the history of the Black people who used to live in the neighborhood. In some ways, Smith’s mother had started the legwork by collecting stories from families and entrusting them to one of her granddaughters.

“I read the 20 or so masterpieces and knew our stories had to be brought to light,” Smith said. She published some of the stories in Brooklyn and Boyle magazine, started the Black Boyle Heights Facebook group and in February, organized a virtual event with more than 50 people gathered online to share memories and honor their elders.

‘I’ll Take You There’

The event, called “I’ll Take You There,” honored four former residents who ranged in age from 93 to 101. Smith plans to turn the event into an annual celebration. She’s also collecting photos and stories, locating people, reviewing census data and getting in touch with local historians. Black Boyle Heights’ goals include publishing a directory of where the Black residents lived, setting up a podcast to tell their stories and creating a museum exhibit.

Boyle Heights drew a diverse mix of people in the early 20th century because the neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River was one of the few without restrictive racial covenants. Smith remembers hearing mariachi music up and down the block and walking past the Japanese Baptist church at the intersection of Evergreen and 2nd Street.

She didn’t think much about the diversity of Boyle Heights as a kid. But “as I grew up and interacted with a wide range of people, I discovered that fond memories were the opportunity to know up close people from so many cultures and be part of their traditions,” Smith said.

The close-knit Black community provided a built-in value system. Her next-door neighbor taught her how to knit and embroider; hairdresser Dolores Jones made house calls with straightening combs and curling irons in hand; Daddy Fred and Ma’ Bessie helped watch the neighborhood kids. But if anyone was caught acting out of line, word spread quickly.

“When you did wrong, it wasn’t just that Shirlee Pickett did wrong. It was the Pickett family,” Smith, née Pickett, said. “So when Dolores Jones came to your house to do your hair, you had to be polite. You may not have wanted to get your hair done, but you had to appreciate her.”

The neighborhood makeup started to change in the back half of the 1900s as racial covenants in Los Angeles lifted and families moved out of Boyle Heights. Today, few Black families remain in the now predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Meeting UCLA

Most minority students in Boyle Heights at the time weren’t being prepped for college, according to Smith. There were four paths, called “tracking” — academic, commercial, shop and home economics. Black and Latino girls were often tracked into home economics and commercial, where they would learn how to file papers. Few were put on the academic track.

“UCLA was not on my menu — there was no history,” Smith said. But in 1969, UCLA established the high potential program (now part of the Academic Advancement Program) to identify Black and Chicano students who might not meet the general entry criteria but are likely to succeed at the university. She applied and was accepted. “And that’s how I met UCLA,” she said.

The program started with a year of preparing students for university life. Smith wasn’t your typical college student fresh out of high school. She was a single mother of five children ranging in age from 7 months to 11 years.

“I was 30 years old when I hit the campus, and I had my youngest child in a stroller,” Smith said. “I took her to class with me, and that did not happen in 1968. There was no old lady on campus with a baby.”

As if that wasn’t tough enough, she got a C- on the first paper she wrote. She went to see the instructor, who told her she could redo the paper and gave her a copy of an A+ paper. That was a pivotal learning moment — Smith went on to graduate in 1973 with the distinction Department Scholar in Sociology.

Smith has since worked as a columnist for the Pasadena Star News, produced and hosted a cable TV show and written a book about parenting.

“Without UCLA, I doubt seriously that I would have had the courage to pursue any of my many accomplishments,” she said. “It’s really the reason I became a writer.”

If you’d like to contact Shirlee Smith regarding the Black Boyle Heights project:
(626) 296-2777

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit