2020 reflections: A year of accomplishments, challenges and compassion
UCLA Newsroom |
Looking back on 2020, UCLA reached the highest of highs — astrophysicist Andrea Ghez became a Nobel laureate for her discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. And of course we dealt with the hardest of challenges — the pandemic.
Meanwhile, professors carried on with their research, students kept doing the amazing and UCLA charted a bold new course for its athletic department while saying goodbye to one of the greatest of Bruin athletes.
Add to the mix a presidential election and a reckoning with racial inequality this country hasn’t seen in in decades, and capturing everything in a single list becomes a difficult task.
So here we present a look back at the most memorable UCLA moments, achievements and stories that do not have anything to do with COVID-19. Because even without the stories of how Bruins responded to and were affected by the pandemic, this was a year packed with indelible experiences and stories worth revisiting.
Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics, was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics on Oct. 6.
Ghez shared 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.”
“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.”
Vickie Mays was named special advisor to the chancellor on Black life on Aug. 31. Earlier in the year, on June 30, Chancellor Gene Block and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter emailed the campus community details of new plans designed to have a positive impact on Black life on campus and to ensure lasting change, including the creation of a Black Student Resource Center, new faculty positions, fellowships, fundraising and research support.
“More changes will be coming,” the message read. “Our deans are actively exploring how to improve their schools’ efforts around equity, diversity and inclusion. We will reach out to Staff Assembly leadership and others to better understand the concerns of staff members of color and how we can ensure a supportive professional environment for all, including through new initiatives to benefit staff. We will also build upon UCLA Enrollment Management’s efforts to recruit a diverse student body.”
Taking everything that makes this list into consideration, it’s not hard to see why UCLA once again sits atop the list of the nation’s public universities in U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Colleges.”
“It’s always wonderful to see UCLA recognized nationally, but it’s especially heartening at this challenging time,” Chancellor Gene Block said. “UCLA stands resolute in our mission of education, research and service and in our commitment to advancing access, opportunity and diversity as a top public institution. Bruins everywhere can take pride in this recognition and our continued excellence.”
In a major breakthrough in understanding the function of sleep, scientists discovered that after age 2-and-a-half, sleep’s primary purpose switches from brain building to brain maintenance and repair, a role it maintains for the rest of our lives. This transition, according to researchers led by UCLA professors Gina Poe and Van Savage, corresponds to changes in brain development.
All animals naturally experience a certain amount of neurological damage during waking hours, and the resulting debris, including damaged genes and proteins within neurons, can build up and cause brain disease. Sleep helps repair this damage and clear the debris — essentially decluttering the brain and taking out the trash that can lead to serious illness.
Empower the powerless. Give a voice to the voiceless. Change a life. For Romen Lopez, such phrases are more than platitudes or marketing slogans. They describe his life.
In June, Lopez, a deeply engaged single father of three children and a leader of multiple efforts to direct youth from disadvantaged circumstances toward potentially life-altering educational opportunities, graduated with a master’s degree in social welfare. But a dozen years ago? Romen Lopez was a convicted gang member cycling in and out of prison, seemingly on a path to self-destruction.
“I never in a million years thought I would be doing a master’s at UCLA,” Lopez said of his younger self. “That would have made no sense to me.”
Against the backdrop of rampant health, social and economic inequality, women studying and working at universities know that systemic inequities won’t change without radical thinking and eventually a radical restructuring of what the academy itself represents and how it functions. To support that paradigm shift, in late fall 2019, UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, with backing from the social sciences division in the UCLA College, launched the Black Feminism Initiative.
“In the current cultural moment, Black feminism has a lot to teach us all about institutionalized modes of care and institutionalized modes of harm,” said Sarah Haley, director of the initiative.
UCLA student Devin Mallory attracted huge attention this year for breaking barriers and starting new traditions by becoming the first male member of the spirit squad’s dance team. He is the featured dancer in their performance of “Smooth Criminal.”
“I am so proud of Devin,” said the team’s coach, Tiphanie McNiff. “I am honored to be part of a program that has embraced this step forward, highlighting the talent, dedication, hard work and maturity of this team.”
Rafer Johnson, a UCLA alumnus and two-time Olympic medalist whose work helping to found the Special Olympics and advance racial and social justice transcended his athletic achievements, died Dec. 2 at the age of 86. Following a storied athletic career that culminated with a gold medal in the Olympic decathlon in 1960, Johnson dedicated his life to public service, a mission he carried out with a strength and grace he said was shaped in part by his experiences at UCLA.
“That commitment to helping others get over the hurdles in life — be they racial discrimination or developmental disabilities — was clearly a driving force for Rafer,” Chancellor Gene Block said in a message to the UCLA community. “He reminds us that everyone needs the help of others at times and that all of us can extend our help to others as well. Helping those who need it may be the truest Bruin value of all.”
This fall “Central American” was added to the official name of the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano and Central American Studies. More than an internal name change, the move reflected the department’s already established approach to embrace research, teaching, advocacy and lived experiences that countervail the narratives of criminality, victimhood and deportation that persist about people from Central America.
“We need to lead the way nationally. And hopefully through that effort, we will open bridges and spaces where we learn more about each other,” said Leisy Abrego, the new department chair. Abrego is a member of the first large wave of Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. She has been teaching courses about Central American politics and migration and immigrant experiences at UCLA for years.
Every week, observations and analysis from the massive Nationscape voter-data project led by UCLA professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch was published in USA Today. The newspaper’s first report on the initiative — a partnership among UCLA, the Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Fund and the market research firm Lucid, came out Feb 28 and lasts through January 2021.
”At a moment when everyone from voters to pundits is focused on who is ahead and who is most electable in November, our data about what people care about and how this varies across geography and demographic groups in the United States can hopefully inject a dose of substance in to conversations about electioneering and strategy,“ Vavreck said.
As thousands of people across the United States took to the streets to protest against police brutality and systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd, UCLA professors from across campus shared ideas and insights with media outlets to help put these demonstrations into historical context. Among those who were quoted: Darnell Hunt, Brenda Stevenson, Robin D.G. Kelley, Tyrone Howard, Safiya Noble and Kimberlé Crenshaw.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love, a former Bruin basketball player who has publicly shared his struggles with panic attacks, anxiety and depression, established a chair to support teaching and research activity centered around the diagnosis, prevention, treatment and destigmatizing of anxiety and depression. “I’m concerned about the level of anxiety that people are feeling. Recent events, including the novel coronavirus outbreak, have put our society under enormous stress,” Love said.
“I am happy to be able to help UCLA, my alma mater, work toward solving some of society’s biggest underlying issues. I hope one day we are able to erase the stigma around anxiety and depression, and we can only do that by improving diagnosis and treatment, fostering public conversations about mental health and encouraging people to seek help when they need it.”
Inclusiveness, and making room for the whole person, is part of why UCLA’s LGBTQ Campus Resource Center added the Q to its name shortly before the coronavirus quarantine began. The Q is part of the center’s ongoing growth, said Andy Cofino, director of the center, which marked its 25th anniversary on Oct. 15, in the middle of National Coming Out week.
“If you look at centers like ours around the country, there’s an evolution of names, because there’s an evolution of understanding and vocabulary,” said Cofino, adding that while “queer” used to be primarily a slur, the community has reclaimed it as an intentionally vague, expectation-free, inclusive word, but also a word of liberation and empowerment.
Witness the sci-fi novels of one-time UCLA Extension student Octavia E. Butler. The saxophone epics spawned by former UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music student Kamasi Washington. Marvel’s blockbuster “Black Panther” and the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” executive-produced and co-directed, respectively, by Bruins. Or Jay-Z and Beyonce’s “Family Feud” music video, set in 2444 and directed by UCLA’s own Ava DuVernay.
These are all examples of Afrofuturism, a term coined in the 1990s to describe a decadeslong cultural wave that’s now being recognized as a powerful creative force. Not only are these captivating, provocative works being brought forth by Bruin creators, but an entire body of UCLA scholarship also offers perspective on and gives shape to this multidisciplinary movement.
Dellara Gorjian, a 2020 graduate of UCLA School of Law, received the UC President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership for her advocacy on behalf of DACA recipients and her prominent role in the University of California’s successful Supreme Court challenge to the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the program. The award was announced by President Janet Napolitano at the July 30 UC Regents meeting.
Gorjian came to Southern California from Canada with her family when she was 5 years old and is among the estimated 800,000 DACA recipients who would have faced deportation if the program was rescinded. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was enacted in 2012 by Barack Obama to provide protections for young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
UCLA student Nikolai Ursin’s eight-minute student film about a Black transgender woman, “Behind Every Good Man,” provides “an illuminating glimpse into the life of an African American trans woman,” wrote Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell Television Archivist in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “In strong contrast to the stereotypically negative and hostile depictions of transgender persons as seen through the lens of Hollywood at the time, the subject of Ursin’s independent film is rendered as stable, hopeful and well-adjusted.”
This makes “Behind Every Good Man” just one of many essential films in the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, the world’s largest publicly accessible collection of LGBTQ films — 41,000 irreplaceable items of LGBTQ motion picture history. The Legacy Project is a collaboration between the UCLA Film & Television Archive — a division of the UCLA Library and the world’s largest university-held collection of media materials — and Outfest, a global LBGTQIA+ arts, media and entertainment organization best known for its annual Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival.
Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources
By the 2070s, global warming will increase extreme rainfall and reduce snowfall in the Sierra Nevada, delivering a double whammy that will likely overwhelm California’s reservoirs and heighten the risk of flooding in much of the state, UCLA climate scientists predicted in an August study.
Warmer temperatures will increase rainfall during heavy wintertime precipitation events and reduce snowpack that usually melts throughout the spring and summer. This means mountain reservoirs that currently catch this runoff could be overwhelmed in the winter and dry in summer, according to Xingying Huang, who led the research as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Climate Science in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
“Being UCLA’s first Black athletic director is something I don’t take lightly,” Martin Jarmond told UCLA Magazine in September. “I know it’s important, and I understand it’s historically significant. But it stops there for me because of the work we have to do to make it so that it’s no longer a big ‘first.’ But I do believe that for people to decide where they want to go professionally, it’s nice to see professionals handling their business who look like you. It might give some of our minority students the motivation to say, ‘I can go into whatever field I choose to, because I see someone who looks like me.’”
In its first 50 years, Design for Sharing has served nearly half a million K–12 students in the Los Angeles area, giving them the opportunity to participate in live performing arts events on UCLA’s campus and in their classrooms.
“They are welcomed into this space — most often Royce Hall — and you just see them react to the grandness of the space itself,” said Meryl Friedman, director of education and special initiatives for UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, which oversees Design for Sharing. “And then they get to experience this art, which they also don’t either know much about or have access to. And it frankly blows their minds. Every program, small or large, involves some kind of direct interaction with the artist so that they get to hear about their lives and their story and what they do every day and how they got to where they are.”
On Aug. 4, 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 137 people, injuring more than 5,000 and displacing another 300,000 people from their homes. Shortly after, UCLA’s Dr. Faysal Saab and Dr. Neveen El-Farra organized a massive humanitarian response.
In the end, Operation: Beirut sent thousands of masks, face shields and safety goggles; hundreds of bottles of hand sanitizer and soap, syringes, sutures, gloves and burn dressings; dozens of procedure gowns and tourniquet kits; four EMT gurneys; two AESOP robotic surgical arm units; two arthroscopic carts; two Site Rite mobile ultrasound machines and one diagnostic ultrasound machine; and more to the stricken city.
Even amid an unprecedented pandemic that changed everything here in Los Angeles, a team of several dozen Bruin health care professionals mobilized to help others in even greater need, embodying the UCLA mission of service.
Bruins like Priscilla Molina exemplified how even during the pandemic, UCLA students persevere to excel. As a child, the class of 2020 graduate was inspired by how her parents stepped in to lead their community and help those in need.
Molina did the same at UCLA. She created cultural sensitivity training for her classmates before leading them on medical missions to Mexico, and she helped form a tutoring and mentorship program for K–12 students at her church who would be the first in their families to go to college. She served as a resident assistant for two themed floors in UCLA residence halls, helping build communities through activities like empowering events for other first-generation college students, and cultural celebrations like a Día de los Muertos event for the Chicanx/Latinx floor.
“UCLA was my dream school,” Molina said. “I heard about all the optimistic goals. I knew I wanted to go into medicine, and you always hear that UCLA is one of the top schools for science and medicine and research. I felt like I belonged here. When I got in, it was a very happy moment for me and my family.”
UCLA researchers are studying fire from almost any perspective you can imagine, including how it’s tied to climate change, how plants recover in burn areas and the role of policy in creating conditions that increase fire risk, among others.
“Huge amounts of land are burning up, and that’s particularly striking to me as someone who studies population fragmentation,” UCLA ecologist Brad Shaffer said. “Humans have fragmented the wild landscape in so many ways, and the more isolated a plant or animal population gets, the easier it is for a catastrophic wildfire to take out that entire population. Fires have so many bigger impacts than just their acreage.”
Helping a student like Maria Nava Gutierrez was a vital part of the Centennial Campaign for UCLA. The first member of her family to complete a four-year college education, Gutierrez was able to become a double Bruin thanks to UCLA School of Law’s Achievement Fellowship, which covers full tuition for deserving students who have overcome obstacles to get to law school. In three years, the program has fostered the success of 24 law students. The first recipients earned their law degrees and began studying for the bar exam this May. Along with Nava Gutierrez, they include the president of the graduating class; a winner of a Skadden Fellowship, often considered the top public interest fellowship in the nation; and aspiring attorneys in civil rights and corporate law who are headed for positions at eminent national law firms and leading nonprofit organizations.
In January, UCLA received a $25 million gift from Tadashi Yanai, the chair, president and CEO of Japan-based Fast Retailing and founder of clothing company Uniqlo. The funds endowed the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, which will bolster UCLA’s status as a leading center for the study of Japanese literature, language and culture.
The gift is the largest from an individual donor in the history of the UCLA College’s humanities division. A previous donation of $2.5 million from Yanai in 2014 created the Yanai Initiative, a collaboration between UCLA and Waseda University, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities. The program supports academic and cultural programming and enables student and faculty exchanges between the two universities. This latest gift will ensure the initiative’s long-term future.
Aradhna Tripati is a renowned climate researcher, an associate professor affiliated with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and a champion of diversity, mentorship and community. Using a National Science Foundation grant to support her integration of research, education and outreach, she built a pilot program that was impressive enough to be recognized with a Presidential Early Career Award from then-President Barack Obama. To expand her activities, Tripati formed the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science in 2017, creating the first university-based center for diversity in environmental science.
“So many of our students have overcome enormous adversity to come here,” Tripati said. “I see in them how challenging things were for me growing up, and I recognize and remember the importance of role models. I wanted to pay it forward, with core values, including justice and equity, to support our students so they can engage in integrative research, education and outreach activities.”