The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA was announced in November 2019. Recently the institute’s inaugural director, Ann Karagozian, who is also a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, spoke about the institute’s mission and planned activities.
Tell us about The Promise Armenian Institute and its mission and goals.
The Promise Armenian Institute was established at UCLA in late 2019 through the vision of Dr. Eric Esrailian of UCLA Health and with a $20 million gift from the estate of Kirk Kerkorian, the well-known Armenian American businessman, investor and philanthropist. I was named inaugural director of the PAI in early 2020.
The PAI is designed to be a hub for world-class research and teaching on Armenian studies and for coordinating research and public impact programs on Armenia across UCLA, and with the Republic of Armenia and the global Armenian diaspora. These programs involve building and enhancing ongoing interdisciplinary research at UCLA in the social sciences, health sciences, humanities, public policy and many other fields, on one hand, and enhancing the already extraordinary impact that many existing campus programs, such as those in Armenian music or health care outreach, have made.
The Promise Armenian Institute’s size, scope and interdisciplinary approach make it the first of its kind in the world, and UCLA is ideally positioned help it make important contributions. The impact of its work could, moreover, extend well beyond Armenia and Armenians.
Why is UCLA well suited to be the home of The Promise Armenian Institute?
First, UCLA has a long history of scholarship and instructional programs in Armenian studies. In 1969, the UCLA chair for Armenian studies — later renamed the Narekatsi chair, which focuses on Armenian language and literature — was the first endowed chair to be formally established at UCLA. The Armenian studies program of the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures was founded simultaneously with the Narekatsi chair.
Armenian history has been a longstanding field in the UCLA Department of History, and the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History preserves that legacy of scholarly endeavor. Armenian history, language and literature will be the focus of the recently established Armenian Studies Center within the PAI, and Professor Sebouh Aslanian, the current Hovannisian Chair, was recently named its inaugural director.
UCLA also has an extraordinary Armenian music program, as well as research programs relevant to Armenia in sociology, archaeology and many health sciences disciplines. Finally, UCLA hosts The Promise Institute for Human Rights at the School of Law, which was established in 2017 to train future generations of human rights lawyers and leaders, as well as conduct human rights scholarship. A number of their recent programs have pertained to the Armenian Genocide, as well as refugee rights, including those of ethnic Armenians in key hotspots around the world.
Beyond this, Southern California is home to the largest concentration of people of Armenian descent outside of the Republic of Armenia. As a result, UCLA has a sizable number of students of Armenian descent. Due to increasing student interest alone, our university offers multilevel courses in Armenian language with tracks in both western and eastern Armenian, history, music and ethnomusicology, as well as relevant courses in many other fields. There are few, if any, research universities in the U.S. that come close to the range of Armenian studies programs and Armenian-related research activities that exist at UCLA.
You mentioned the health sciences at UCLA. How are they relevant to The Promise Armenian Institute?
Many departments and centers within the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Fielding School of Public Health have longstanding research programs and institutional ties with Armenia. In addition, individual faculty and health care professionals regularly conduct research on topics related to public health and medical care in Armenia and in the Armenian diaspora.
One very recent example of such collaborative work is the important health care outreach efforts of two UCLA faculty, Alina Dorian and Shant Shekherdimian, who are providing COVID-19 expertise in real time to medical and public health professionals in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. This project is being conducted under the auspices of The Promise Armenian Institute.
Another example is in the UCLA Vatche & Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases, which hosts the Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF) Clinic, the largest clinic for the study of this disease in the Western hemisphere. FMF is a rare disease that tends to strike Armenians, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Turks, Arabs and many other nationalities.
Research on the disease itself — including the historical migration patterns associated with the origins of the disease — and new treatment options are of growing interest. A world-class, comprehensive research university such as UCLA is an ideal place for the interdisciplinary study of such diseases.
You are a distinguished professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. How did you come to be involved in The Promise Armenian Institute?
Good question. As you can probably guess from my last name, I am of Armenian heritage and actually grew up in the Armenian American community in Southern California. All four of my grandparents were survivors of or escapees from the Armenian Genocide and came as refugees to the United States around 100 years ago.
Since becoming a faculty member at UCLA, my focus largely has been on my research and teaching in fluid mechanics, combustion and rocket and air-breathing propulsion systems, and in leading our UCLA Energy and Propulsion Research Laboratory and, more recently, our joint UCLA-Air Force Research Laboratory Collaborative Center for Aerospace Sciences. I have also served the UCLA campus in the past as interim vice chancellor for research and Academic Senate chair.
While these have been my career activities, throughout my life I have been involved in the Armenian community in Southern California, both through my church and other Armenian organizations, generally in ways quite separate from my UCLA life.
One activity, though, has had a bit of an overlap: for over eight years I’ve served as a UCLA representative on the Board of Trustees of the American University of Armenia, a university in the city of Yerevan, Armenia that operates under the auspices of the University of California. The AUA is one of many educational institutions in the Republic of Armenia with which we at the PAI want to build stronger ties.
Can you talk about what may be on the horizon for The Promise Armenian Institute moving forward?
In ramping up activities at the PAI in early 2020, we were moving forward with two major inaugural events planned for spring quarter. One was to focus on healthcare outreach to the Republic of Armenia, and the other — in partnership with The Promise Institute for Human Rights — was to address the 2019 recognition of the Armenian Genocide by both houses of the U.S. Congress and the attendant legal ramifications.
Both inaugural events were, of course, cancelled due to growing concerns about the rapid spread of Covid-19 and the evolution of this disease into a global pandemic. We are hoping to revisit and restructure one or both of these events, as well as others, in order to offer them, potentially online, at some point in the coming academic year.
In the meantime, PAI has cosponsored some remarkable online events, including online Facebook-based film viewings and discussions, as well as concerts in the Armenian music program. While the future remains unpredictable in terms of in-person events at UCLA or at any sizable venue, PAI is pressing forward with planning collaborative research activities and outreach activities that will be of value to the UCLA community and beyond.