For more than a year, UCLA faculty, researchers, students, medical staff and many others have dedicated themselves to the fight against COVID-19. From developing faster and cheaper testing technology to tracking the disparate racial impact of the disease to vaccinating thousands of health workers and community members, UCLA has embraced its public service role and mobilized to address one of the defining global crises of our era.
Even as we direct time, energy and resources toward combatting the pandemic, though, our university’s research enterprise continues to turn out vital discoveries in many other realms. While they may have flown under the radar in a year like no other, I’d like to highlight a few UCLA breakthroughs and discoveries that illustrate the incredible reach and continued impact of our scholarship.
At the heart of one exciting development is innovative technology from bioengineers at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. Led by Jun Chen, assistant professor of bioengineering and principal investigator of the Wearable Bioelectronics Research Group, a team of researchers has designed a glove-like device that translates American Sign Language into English speech through a smartphone app. The technology allows sign language users to communicate directly with non-signers without needing a translator. Using sensors to pick up sign language hand motions and finger placements, the group’s prototype can recognize and translate more than 650 words at a rate of about one word per second. Our researchers’ hope is that their advances will help simple sign language translation equipment become commonplace.
On a separate front, our researchers are making important progress in understanding and contributing solutions to California’s homelessness crisis. A far-reaching new report by a team of researchers at the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy draws on the history of homelessness in Los Angeles County to offer ways to address this critical issue. Among the findings, the report recommends that officials should stop treating homelessness as a criminal act, address rental and land use policies, and improve residents’ access to mental health and other social services. The authors hope the research helps reframe housing as a basic human right.
And in a development that might seem like science fiction, but is indeed fact, a UCLA team, led by psychology and neurosurgery professor Martin Monti, used low-intensity sonic stimulation to excite neurons and “jump-start” the brains of patients who had been in long-term minimally conscious states. One patient was a 56-year-old man who had suffered a stroke and had been unable to communicate for more than 14 months. Following two treatments, he was able to use a pen on paper, raise a bottle to his mouth and answer questions for the first time since the stroke. Another patient was a 50-year-old woman who had been in even less of a conscious state for more than two-and-a-half years following cardiac arrest. In the days after her first treatment, she showed the ability to understand speech and recognize a pencil and other objects. While this technique has been used successfully on only a few patients so far, the results may put these patients on the road to recovery, and this technology may eventually be put into inexpensive portable devices for home use.
Of course, any look at UCLA research highlights from this past year must also mention our very own Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics last fall for her discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
These are just a handful of the exciting advances that have come out of our institution during the pandemic. Across campus and beyond, Bruins are driving innovations that are making our communities more accessible, more equitable and healthier. This is what it means to be a research university committed to the public good. I hope you are proud of the difference Bruins are making, and thank you for all you have done to make this work — and so much more — possible.