A collaboration between theater and medicine leads to an innovative empathy program for LAC+USC staff
Astrid Heger, MD, professor of clinical pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, was looking for a way to teach empathy, kindness and caring that did not involve panels of talking heads or dreary online assignments. She was fed up with those. The answer, she discovered, was theater.
“When people get up out of their chairs and are acting together, nobody in the audience is on their phones,” said Heger, who is also the founder and executive director of the Violence Intervention Program at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center. “They can see themselves in the situations being portrayed and you can have real learning. This way of learning should be driving us as a university.”
Four years ago, Heger had a dinner with Brent Blair, PhD, who directs USC’s Institute for Theatre & Social Change, that planted the seeds of a program called ACT Together that debuted at two adult primary care clinics at LAC+USC in 2017. The staff of those clinics work with some of the nation’s most vulnerable patients, and often suffer from caretaker fatigue. The clinics see patients whose physical illnesses frequently coexist with mental illnesses and addictions, and poverty often complicates their ability to follow medical recommendations.
Brent Blair brings to this project his years of experience using theater to help marginalized and oppressed communities. (Photo/Chris Shinn)
Josh Banerjee, MD, who was then the medical director for the clinics, had a fellowship from the California Health Care Foundation that came with a charge to develop an innovative solution to a health care problem. Banerjee knew the problem he wanted to tackle: medical providers at the clinics feeling powerless, voiceless and burned out.
Blair, a professor of theater practice, has spent his professional life using theater to help marginalized and oppressed communities find solutions to difficult problems. Heger introduced Banerjee to Blair, and then provided funding for the project.
Blair hired actors — some from marginalized communities — to play the roles of patients. Doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and hospital social workers were recruited to work with the actors to develop six scenes that illustrated some of the tough situations the clinicians frequently face.
“We showed an ‘anti’ model of how things should not be done,” Blair said. “All the scenes were carefully designed and scripted for failure.”
One scene had a doctor recoiling in horror at the sight and smell of a patient’s badly infected leg wound. Another involved a woman who had suffered physical abuse being unable to show her scars to medical staffers because her abuser remained in the examining room. Another detailed how financial paperwork runarounds caused a patient to miss his appointment.
The scenes were presented differently by which the audience members, the clinic employees, were asked to step in and replace the actors and medical personnel originally doing the scenes. They were told to use their experience and wisdom to bring about better outcomes. The original actors and medical personnel performed the same scene repeatedly, giving the opportunity for several audience members to try different solutions.
“When doctors, nurses and medical staff get up and act instead of talk, they have body memory that lasts into their practice,” Blair said. The result is that employees feel seen and heard. “They feel better when they are on the medical floor the next day.”
Four times a year, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (DHS) — which operates the clinics — measures employee engagement with surveys and Banerjee knew the clinics’ mid-range scores could and should be better. They had tried retreats, team-building exercises and public recognition for staff members, all without much success.
The average for positive employee engagement for all DHS units was 3.69 out of a perfect score of 5. The score for the clinics Banerjee oversaw was 3.64. It’s difficult to raise scores by even one-tenth of a point, and Banerjee had an ambitious goal to raise the number to 3.75 during the six months the ACT Together program ran. Impressively, the clinics’ score went up to 3.81 during that time.
Survey questions specifically about ACT Together revealed approval ratings of 95 percent.
Banerjee has given credit to Heger’s support, and to Blair’s skill as a director.
Blair says that even when there is no intervention that neatly solves the problem in a scene, the audience has changed from being passive to feeling active, useful and engaged.
Since the program’s inception, Blair and Banerjee have done presentations on the project for the California Health Care Foundation and LAC+USC, and are planning to co-author a medical journal article about it. Banerjee is now the associate medical director for transitions of care at LAC+USC, and he and Blair are in discussions about expanding the program across the DHS.
Dr. Lefebvre is an orthopaedic surgeon at the USC Hand Center at Keck Medicine of USC.
Her specialties include the treatment of hand and wrist injuries, arthritis and post-traumatic reconstruction. Dr. Lefebvre has a special interest in brachial plexus injury, peripheral nerve disorders and microvascular reconstruction of the upper extremity. Here are some fun facts about her that you won’t find on her resume.
She’s a musician, a lover of nature and a fan of the arts.
“When I’m not working, I love to spend time hiking, playing my violin and baking. I also enjoy visiting museums in Los Angeles — the Getty is a favorite — and going to the beach.”
Fall season in New England sweeps her off her feet.
“Much of my family lives in the Northeast, so I love to travel there to visit. New England in the fall is one of the most beautiful places in the world!”
Understanding is the key to successful care.
“One of the most rewarding parts of my job is helping patients understand their anatomy and diagnosis. When the patient and I have a common knowledge base about what’s being treated, we can make informed decisions together and move toward wellness.”
Her expertise involves many different specialties.
“Hand and wrist surgery is fascinating because it involves so many topics. Every day, I draw on principles from orthopaedic and plastic surgery, vascular surgery, microsurgery, rheumatology, pathology and infectious disease.”
This advancement could change hand and wrist surgeries.
“My current areas of research focus on peripheral nerve injury as well as hand and wrist trauma. I think we’re still just beginning to understand peripheral nerve repair and reconstruction after injury. It’s an exciting, developing field that I think has big advancements on the horizon.”
She approaches each patient with kindness and respect.
“I try to approach all patients with kindness and respect. Every patient has a unique way that their hand, wrist or nerve issue impacts their life. I think it’s important to consider each patient’s individual wellness goals.”
The continual education from being at an academic medical center keeps her at her very best.
“Keck Medicine has a dynamic and engaging learning environment. Attending academic conferences regularly, collaborating with colleagues on research and working with medical trainees keeps me on top of new developments in our field and on my toes every day.”
Keck Medicine is her home.
“The multidisciplinary collaboration within our USC Hand Center is one of a kind. My physician, nursing and therapy colleagues within our subspecialty are outstanding. We collaborate on patient care, educational initiatives and research to advance our field. Keck Medicine fosters collaboration, which makes us all better at what we do and helps us provide the best care possible to our patients.”
Cancer experience inspires chemist both as a researcher and a science communicator
Michael Inkpen underwent cancer treatment for lymphoma, played indie rock and studied chemistry internationally before joining USC Dornsife
Ten years ago, Michael Inkpen had a busy schedule, shuttling from the chemistry lab where he pursued his Ph.D. studies by day to the London clubs and bars where he performed with an indie rock band well into the night. That changed abruptly when one day he felt a lump in his neck.
In retrospect, Inkpen sees something worthwhile in the life-interrupting diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma, that followed. His cancer turned out to be highly treatable and experiencing serious illness firsthand elicited a philosophical outlook that has stuck with him in the years since.
“Life is too short to get hung up on small things,” said Inkpen, assistant professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. “It was a humbling journey, realizing that you’re essentially just a bag of water, and amazing, really, that you’re here at all.”
After chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Inkpen’s cancer was in remission. He returned to juggling chemistry and club gigs before ultimately pulling back from performing to focus entirely on earning his Ph.D. Then, after a postdoctoral stint at Imperial College in the U.K., he spent two years at Columbia University in New York and one year at the University of Rennes 1 in France on an EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Global Individual Fellowship. This past January, his path led to Los Angeles, where he joined USC Dornsife and set about designing his own lab.
“Moving to Los Angeles and joining USC offered a dream opportunity to design and build my own independent lab and create a research group at a top university in a world-class city,” Inkpen said.
Inkpen’s research is located at the interface of chemistry and physics; his goal is to better understand how molecular systems can be used to transport electric charges. Building on his interdisciplinary training, he aims to both synthesize new materials and then study their properties by connecting them between tiny, nanoscale electrodes.
His approach is reminiscent of LEGO bricks — he explores relationships between individual molecular building blocks and their extended, assembled chemical structures in one, two and three dimensions. This research might eventually bring about insights into and breakthroughs in energy storage or molecular-scale electronics.
Moore’s Law famously predicted in the 1960s that improvements in microchip transistor manufacturing would yield ever-smaller components, resulting in steadily increasing computing capability. This principle has so far held true, as seen in today’s compact, more powerful devices. (Think smartphones.)
“If you extrapolate Moore’s Law, you eventually get to molecular-sized circuit components,” Inkpen said. “In addition to their small size, molecular components are highly customizable and demonstrate unique properties tied to quantum mechanics. Today there is growing interest in exploring what molecules can do that traditional silicon-based technologies cannot.”
Inkpen is particularly interested in how the introduction of positive or negative charges may change the electronic properties of materials. This is akin to how charging a balloon by rubbing it against hair will let it stick to a wall, whereas, demonstrating a different behavior, an uncharged balloon simply falls to the ground.
Beyond the science itself, Inkpen is fascinated by how science can be shared with diverse audiences in innovative, creative ways. Human connection is important in science, he said, and the desire for it is what led him to co-found a band so many years ago.
“The Ph.D. can sometimes be a lonely business, particularly when your experiments aren’t working out and you don’t know why,” Inkpen said. “Writing songs and gigging was fun, and provided a healthy counterpoint to long hours at the chemistry bench.”
Today, Inkpen attends science cafes and follows science bloggers and vloggers, including Derek Lowe of In The Pipeline, Dianna Cowern of Physics Girl, and the University of Nottingham’s Periodic Videos. Inkpen is a fan of the late physicist Richard Feynman, legendary for popularizing science in unique ways as well as for bongo drumming. Feynman, a Nobel laureate, published accessible works on the philosophy of science and delivered TV interviews and lectures in a timeless, inimitable style.
“These scientific rock stars didn’t stay in their ivory towers doing experiments, they embraced unconventional approaches to show millions of people why what they do, and how they think, is fascinating and relevant,” Inkpen said.
It’s no surprise that besides teaching and mentoring graduate students, Inkpen enjoys occasionally blogging about chemistry and life as a researcher and plans to boost his involvement in science outreach to K-12 and underserved college populations.
“For me, being a scientist is not only about the results and hard data; you are part of a community,” he said. “I have frequently been inspired over the years by captivating school experiments, science documentaries, blog posts or even simple tweets, and I am determined to pay it forward.”
If there’s one thing USC has going for it as it embarks on a journey of culture change, it’s that its community of faculty, staff, students and alumni care deeply about its mission. It’s a strength that Paul S. Adler, a professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, believes will help the university through this multi-year process.
Adler should know, as he’s dedicated his research to the business of organization — and reorganization — design. And he’s just taken on a new role as co-chair of the Working Group on University Culture.
That commitment to USC’s mission, he said, is a huge asset. People who work at USC are not just doing it to pay the rent. For many at the university, a belief in higher education and the goal of transforming people’s lives through education and research keeps them coming back every day, year after year.
Research Into Lasting Change
Adler is optimistic about USC’s prospects for change because of his research into how big organizations mobilize people toward new goals successfully.
The research — which includes Adler co-authoring a 2009 book about organizational change at Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plans — identifies high-level concerns that can make real change elusive.
Broadly speaking, lasting change arises from three factors: motivation, process, and ability. According to Adler, USC is on track with all three. High levels of motivation to engage can be found at all levels of the university, and that’s a good thing.
As for the process, Adler said the aim is to create a method where people can effectively engage in the work to be done around culture. “We’re putting into place a process that will bring the right people together, around the right issues and in the right ways, over the coming year or so,” he said.
Similarly, efforts to ensure that community members have the ability to make and sustain changes are underway.
“I see serious commitment toward giving people the facilitation and management skills and tools they’ll need to make a difference,” he said.
One challenge to overcome will be something that is also considered to be one of the university’s strengths: its decentralization. The university — with its medical center, 21 schools and dozens of departments — allows each of those units to run autonomously. The schools operate independently of each other and of the central administration.
“A number of people see intuitively that the university’s decentralized administrative and budget systems form a fairly serious impediment to the work ahead of us,” Adler said.
He shares that view but also sees the culture-change initiative as a step toward transforming that structure. “It’s hard to imagine that we’ll make much progress on these culture issues without modifying that highly decentralized, federated model,” he said.
One approach that has worked for other organizations is creating accountability not just for results but also for how they are achieved. The intent? To counterbalance the autonomy that has served USC well in some ways with a degree of accountability for the process as well as outcomes.
“I think part of our work is to build these new overlay systems and structures. In some cases, it may just be a matter of creating room for more or different groups of people discussing how schools or units are operating,” he said.
Forums — like the one held in March 2019 by faculty, staff and student organizations — may be one answer.
“People are going to have to get comfortable sitting in more of these multi-level forums where the way they achieve results is under scrutiny just as much as the results themselves,” Adler said.
A New Way of Thinking
People say that changing culture takes time, often many years. Adler made a finer point: it’s not culture change itself that takes so long, it’s the complexity involved in changing broad organizational structures, systems, and procedures.
“There’s nothing so mysterious about culture change that requires it to take a long time,” he said.
He recalled the poor-performing General Motors plant in Northern California that was reopened as a joint venture between GM and Toyota in 1984. In that case, Toyota took over management of the plant, transforming one of GM’s worst plants in terms of quality, productivity, absenteeism, and worker safety into the second-most efficient plant in their organization in under a year, using the same employees but hiring an all-new management team.
It’s a dramatic story that’s not replicable for complex organizations like USC. But it does underscore Adler’s point that culture change itself isn’t what takes so long — without a dramatic Toyota-like intervention — it is the complex underlying modifications.
USC is a complicated organization with many layers and units, and its culture is a reflection of all of the university’s facets: the schools and units and all the processes that go into hiring, promotion, how work is done, how decisions are made and what people are rewarded for doing.
All of those “managerial systems and procedures need changing if we really want to sustain the new values that we aspire to,” Adler said.
The culture-change journey can be a time to question and rethink the way things are done across the university. It can even be a time to rethink what it means to be in the Trojan family.
While the best traits of a family are that we share responsibilities, make decisions together and trust one another, it can also require a strong sense of loyalty that may not make sense as the main value for a complex community like USC.
“People need to feel they can challenge others who are stepping out of line, rather than to feel that they must be loyal at all costs,” Adler said. “In a community like ours, people need to feel like their concerns will be heard. I think people are optimistic now that leaders are paying attention.”
Chantelle Rice Collins champions culture change: “It will have a radiating impact on people’s health”
Chantelle Rice Collins isn’t sure who nominated her to participate in USC’s culture change efforts, but their reasons for doing so become clear once she starts talking about her passion for cultivating individual well-being.
Rice Collins directs the USC Occupational Therapy Faculty Practice, the private clinic at the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy where occupational therapists help patients transform their lifestyles to deal with a variety of medical diagnoses and conditions.
Her expertise in how people make positive changes has been invaluable to the Working Group on University Culture, of which Rice Collins is a member. She hopes that her work in this effort and the earlier Task Force on Workplace Standards and Employee Wellness will help create a more positive environment at the university.
“This isn’t fluff,” Rice Collins said. “Creating nurturing environments at USC is for the benefit and the effectiveness of the university. We can start small, but we need to think long term.”
Achieving Lasting Change
As Rice Collins sees it, the university community’s focus shouldn’t be on how quickly change is achieved. Instead, she urges those involved to pay attention to how well the foundation is being laid to sustain those positive changes over time.
“One of the most difficult parts of change is consistency. We can implement changes, but if we don’t have structures in place to reinforce them then the effort is not worth it,” she said.
Once those systems and processes are in place, it’s up to the individuals within the university to make sure that they are assisting and mentoring others to achieve their full potential.
“That starts at the top, and the university leaders need to model those behaviors,” she said.
Managers Are on Front Lines of Change
As a manager and culture change proponent, Rice Collins seeks to create an environment where people want to show up at work every day. It’s part of her personal management philosophy to see co-workers and direct reports holistically as individuals, not just as a means to an end.
It also requires shifting the focus beyond the workplace to think about the impact of the organization on the health and well-being of employees outside of the office.
“I want their loved ones to know that when they go to work, they’re being well taken care of, that they’re respected and that they’re able to serve and help other people in the ways they want to,” she said. “That is what really drives me on a daily basis and why I want to improve the culture.”
At the end of the day, Rice Collins said, people want to work and want to contribute to a larger purpose, such as the one embodied in USC’s central mission — the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit. But she understands that working in unhealthy or unsupportive environments can inhibit rather than promote a good quality of life.
“If we can change the culture at USC and we can improve the quality of the work experience for the employees, then that will have a radiating impact on people’s health,” she said.
The Power of the Individual
While the workplace has a definite impact on an individual’s well-being, the good news is that there are small steps each person can take to improve their own healthy outlook. In other words, you have the power to enhance your well-being with your own actions.
For those seeking to boost their productivity and creativity, Rice Collins has some advice that might seem counter-intuitive but works. That advice: Take care of yourself first, whether that means finding a few minutes for yourself during the workday, getting up and moving around more or socializing with friends.
Often, she said, patients who come to her practice feeling stressed and anxious put themselves last on the list. They skip lunch and mandatory breaks; they stop socializing with friends; they forego exercise.
Rice Collins admits that it can be hard to get back into the habits of putting one’s self first, particularly in times of stress and change. Even those who acknowledge the importance of self-care may encounter an internal natural resistance to doing things that are good for them.
“It seems like taking care of ourselves is going to detract from productivity, but it’s not,” she said.
Most people, she added, find that building healthy habits doesn’t detract from work performance. Once they take the leap, they come to realize that simple things like getting enough sleep and asking others for help make them more effective.
It’s especially true in health care environments, like the faculty practice Rice Collins manages.
“If we don’t take care of our health care providers, we’re not going to be effective practitioners for our patients,” she said.
For skeptics or those who feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of changes that might be needed, personally or university-wide, Rice Collins draws on her knowledge of the complexities of human behavior change.
Even when people do not like the way things are, they often stay stuck because they find comfort in the familiar. A way to break through and make real change is to start small with a first step.
“Small changes have a radiating impact on the greater whole,” she said. “Once a person experiences the positive benefits of those changes, their mind expands and self-efficacy increases. The end result? They start to think, ‘What else am I capable of?’”
“People always ask me if it’s too late to go back to school and I always say no,” says George Shannon.
Take one of George Shannon’s gerontology classes and he might look a bit familiar — like a leading man from a 1980s soap opera. Or maybe it’s the voice. You swear you heard it in a Cadillac commercial.
That’s because you did. Shannon, now 78, became a gerontologist at the age of 64, after a decades-long career as an actor, starring in shows like General Hospital and being the face of the Chevy Nova.
“The best teachers are born actors,” said Shannon, a USC instructional associate professor since 2006. “They love being in front of a group. They learn their material and they enjoy communicating.”
Drawn to gerontology
Shannon went back to school, with only a high school diploma, at age 55. He was drawn to gerontology after taking a class on women and aging.
“I was appalled,” he said, after learning about aging women in poverty, many reeling from the gender pay gap or losing the sole breadwinner in their household. “I have four daughters. I thought this is something I can learn more about and contribute to.”
“People always ask me if it’s too late to go back to school and I always say no,” Shannon said, who was named Kevin Xu Chair in Gerontology last year.
It was a night-and-day comparison to the last time he was in college, when he was in his 20s, married with four kids while juggling work and night classes at the University of Illinois.
“I was somewhat intimidated by the whole thing when I was young,” he said.
He dropped out to support the family, working as an elevator repairman in Chicago skyscrapers. On the way to a repair job, he got “discovered.”
“I was walking down Michigan Avenue with a toolbox in my hand and a woman asked if I ever thought of doing print work,” he said.
She was an agent. All of a sudden, he had headshots and auditions for modeling or acting parts.
“I was like Superman,” he said. “I would change into a suit [in my car], go into an agency and audition or actually do a job.” Then he’d run back to his car to change back into his work clothes.
New York times: furthest thing from teaching gerontology
But a couple of years in, he and his wife divorced. He decided to give acting a go full-time and move to New York. There he studied under Lee Strasberg, a teacher known for training the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, and Al Pacino.
“I probably did 1,200 commercials,” he said. “I was the Tiparillo man. I just did every car [ad] imaginable — Ford, Lincoln, Chevy, Mercedes-Benz. For 10 years, I pretty much always had a commercial on air.”
He did about 50 plays, from Hamlet to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. He lived in a Paris for a bit, starring in a surreal film called I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse — apparently a cult favorite in France.
After a few years, likely lured by the weather, he moved to L.A.
He went on to star on several soap operas, from General Hospital to The Young and the Restless and How to Survive a Marriage from the ’70s into the early ’90s. He did a lot of voice-over work for automakers like Cadillac and Isuzu.
And just like a Hollywood movie, he met his wife here, locking eyes while shopping at a Sherman Oaks supermarket.
Getting into his 50s, his career was pretty steady, but he saw others struggle.
“I just knew I needed to do something more meaningful than act.”
“I decided to go back to school — it wasn’t because I was cracking,” he said. “It hit me and I don’t know what it was. I just knew I needed to do something more meaningful than act.”
And he’s found that.
Next role: teaching gerontology
“I’ve taught just about every class that there is in the last 10 years,” he said, from sociology and aging to classes on social policy, economics and the moral dilemmas of caring for aging adults in society.
He’s also the chief investigator of Dor Vador, which shares the stories of Holocaust survivors with children. The project is an intergenerational exchange in which young people watch a film of survivor stories and turn it into art, which they then share with the older adults they had seen on screen. It’s funded by the Jewish Community Foundation.
And he’s the executive producer of Motionless, a documentary on paralysis featuring a voice-over from actress Helen Mirren. One in 50 in the U.S. deal with paralysis, he said.
Actor and gerontology professor
He had the chance to combine his two passions, recently consulting on a Norman Lear TV pilot set at a Palm Springs retirement community. Lear wanted to make sure writers were accurate in their portrayal of a woman in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I was sitting right next to Norman while they were filming,” he said. “It was wonderful being on set again.”
And as for acting, he’s not opposed to getting on stage again. When he’s not teaching, that is.
“I would do a play in a minute,” he said. “I just told my wife last night that I might grow a beard and play King Lear.”
A 28-year partnership between Elizabeth Daley and Marlene Loadvine helped shoot the school to the top.
She was a producer, not an academic. So when Elizabeth Daley became dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 1991, she needed a right-hand man — or woman. In stepped Marlene Loadvine, senior associate dean of external relations. Together they increased the school’s endowment from $6 million to more than $228 million. They also added new divisions: Interactive Media & Games and Media Arts + Practice. And, of course, they oversaw the creation of the state-of-the-art Cinematic Arts Complex. The duo recently took a look back at a changing industry and their 28 years of partnership.
Timing the rise of the School of Cinematic Arts in the 1990s
Marlene Loadvine: Everyone knew that the school had some amazing alumni, but the school itself struggled. Elizabeth came in and saw the potential. Many people in the industry had never had formal education or weren’t graduates of film school. But there were people like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas who had gone to film school, and now that they had made incredible films, they became household names. So high school kids said, “I want to be a filmmaker, where do I go to do that?”
Elizabeth Daley: The ’60s generation, with Lucas, kind of changed the view of Hollywood about film schools. Then you had the next wave, like Robert Zemeckis — who did the successful Back to the Future series — and they were reaching their peak.
Growing diversity in academia and Hollywood
ED: Coming here, in my first faculty meeting, the only other woman in the room was my assistant. There were a couple of other women on the faculty who just didn’t happen to be there, but it was very clear that this needed to change. We actively recruited women as students, and it was also critical to recruit women faculty. We began to change the faculty by sheer will.
ML: In terms of content, the industry is just now starting to be diverse. Kids from different ethnicities and cultures haven’t seen what is being portrayed on the screen and on television as replicating what they know.
Education for an industry in evolution
ED: What we train people to do today is the same thing we’ve always done: create compelling experiences. Those can be educational experiences, those can be purely entertainment experiences, they can be interactive experiences. But you’re always focused on creating an experience that people want to participate in. And then we have people in our Division of Cinema and Media Studies who are able to really study and look at the implications of that for our society, as well.
Looking back, looking forward
“Our school has proudly been at the forefront of every movement and innovation in the last nine decades of moving image media”
ML: I saw, in Elizabeth, immediately that she could articulate the mission of the school, she saw what she wanted to do, had enormous energy, and got it. As far as the fundraising goes, we don’t always agree on things—
ED: Thank goodness.
ML: —which is good, and I’m glad she’s a person who wants a lot of opinions and advice. My input means something, and that keeps this exciting. I think when we both took on these jobs, we said, ‘Well, I’ll do this for two or three years.’
Christine Acham is the first Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Christine Acham, a professor in the Division of Cinema and Media Studies, has been appointed the School of Cinematic Arts’ first Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion. Acham, who received her Ph.D. from SCA and has been teaching at the School since 2013, has focused her research on African American film, television, and popular culture.
This past year, the USC Provost had requested a 5-year plan for diversity and inclusion from every school within the University. Part of SCA’s plan was establishing the deanship to provide leadership on issues of inclusion at the School. “SCA having an established division shows how SCA makes it a priority to see change,” Acham says. In a time when words like diversity and inclusion become buzz-words that are quickly forgotten, Professor Acham says her goal is to have “concentrated and sustainable change over time.” Acham says the focus of her new position is to make sure everyone has a voice and to do so in ways that aren’t combative. “The notion of diversity is not threatening, and the point of inclusion is that we are not trying to exclude anyone from the conversation. Encouraging change means including everyone, and my hope is that we have conversations across gender and race that reflect our diverse student body.”
The ongoing dialogue about representation, access, and change is extremely present and relevant in communities all across the country, and Acham sees SCA as a very unique place in the midst of it all. “We have been the number one film school for years. We are directly feeding people into the industry, and they are going to be the next writers, directors, producers, animators, and cultural creators. We have a responsibility to give these people new ideas and new perspectives on the history of racism, sexism, and how it all factors together.” Acham is also acutely aware that SCA exists in a multi-cultural epicenter. “In L.A. we are used to diversity on every level,” she says. “We can forget that people who want to make films come from everywhere, including places in the country where people don’t run into people of color or different sexual orientations.”
Acham, who originally hails from Trinidad & Tobago and came to the United States when she was doing her undergraduate work at Clark University, has spent her career analyzing the interplay of media and culture. “Our over-all society is changing, and SCA needs to change too because large portions of America still rely on media and popular culture for their views of other cultures,” she says. “We are a large school with many demands. We produce media. It is important that our students understand the issues of representation in all marginalized groups so that they are not just replicating tropes they have seen before in their work.” Having already taken climate surveys in which students have laid out some of the challenges for the Diversity and Inclusion Council, Acham wants the conversations around these themes to “be a part of the culture for both students and faculty all the way through.”
As part of her role, Acham teaches a class known as the Diversity and Inclusion Lab, which is a requirement for all graduate students. “Our lab is not only a lecture, we bring in guests to discuss the issues of race, gender, and sexuality they encounter in the industry,” Acham says. When asked about what advice she would give as the new Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Acham points out that, “Change is always difficult.” She also stresses that everyone will be challenged to be more inclusive. “We need openness and willingness from our staff, faculty, and students. We are going to be doing things differently, don’t be threatened by it. We [SCA] are cutting edge, we do all these things differently from other schools, so we have to be cutting edge and embrace this [Diversity and Inclusion] and look at this differently too.” She also stresses patience: “Everyone hopes change happens faster than it does.”
For Acham, it is important that ideas around diversity and inclusion extend beyond race, gender, and sexuality. She is also focused on providing resources to help first-generation college students. “First-generation and non-traditional students [older students who have taken breaks between their education] have no tradition of family members who have done this before,” she points out. “They come here and are completely intimidated by USC as well as SCA. We have to remember that a lot of different communities are coming together here, and we have to be open to all of them.”
With plans to gather feedback from students, faculty, and staff, Acham says that this academic year is “going to be a real investigative year for what is going on.” Acham will continue to lead the School’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion which meets every month during the semester, with the current semester schedule currently review. There, students are invited to attend the second hour of the meeting, from 4 o’clock on, for an open discussion where they are free to bring up any issues they might have experienced in their classrooms or other parts of the USC campus. The council also sponsors events including the “Our Voices” series, which brings industry professionals like director Tim Story to speak to students about diversity issues in the professional world.
Despite the challenges of the job, Acham’s greatest asset is her optimism about what can be achieved at SCA. “Having a dean-level position is good because when you institutionalize something it means it won’t go away. It brings people together from all divisions, and gives student someone to talk to if there are any issues,” she says. “My goal is to create an environment that is normalized for everyone,” she adds.
Since her appointment, Acham has received support from the larger SCA community “I have talked to many of the chairs across the departments, and they have been very open about this new position. That trickles down into all of the faculty members. I have had a lot of support from the Dean [Elizabeth Daley], and am going into this with enthusiasm and hope.” Ultimately, Acham says her goal is “having the conversations to lead to awareness to lead to change.”
The new Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion says she not only wants to “deal with issues and concerns” but also thinks it’s important “to celebrate our student body!”
Steve Lamy is known throughout campus for his inspirational classes and his ability to remember hundreds of his students’ names.
One of USC’s most beloved professors, Steven Lamy holds the distinction of being the only member of its faculty to have been portrayed by Robert Redford on the silver screen.
Redford played the inspirational Professor Stephen Malley (the name is a twist on Lamy’s) in the 2007 play-turned-movie Lions for Lambs, written by Lamy’s former student, Matthew Carnahan, and directed by Redford.
In a letter to Lamy explaining he was the basis for Redford’s character, Carnahan wrote, “Frankly, at the end of the day, Redford didn’t really come close to his character’s inspiration.”
Carnahan is not alone in feeling this: Alumni and students frequently cite Lamy as their most inspirational professor. He’s also (in)famous across campus for knowing everybody’s name and whether they attended class the previous week. No mean feat when his international relations classes are often packed with upwards of 250 students.
So, what’s his secret?
“Getting people to sit in the same place,” Lamy says, eyes twinkling. “And I make them wear name tags.”
But that’s not all. When Lamy joined USC Dornsife in 1982, he invested in a Polaroid camera. He takes mugshots of each student on the first day of class and keeps them pinned to his office wall. He grades all papers himself. (His teaching assistants use pencil; he uses pen.)
On the morning of this interview, Lamy had received an email from a former student he taught in 2011 requesting a letter of recommendation for law school. “I’m the kid who went to Tokyo for a marathon and burned his hand trying to climb right before graduation. Remember?” writes Marcus Knoll.
Lamy does remember — he still has Knoll’s photograph in his files.
“I keep them all,” Lamy says, “because you never know when somebody’s going to need a letter of recommendation.”
Born in Goffstown, in rural New Hampshire, one of five children of a French-Canadian regional sales manager for Miller Brewing Company and a homemaker who later became a bank manager, Lamy spent his childhood outdoors, fishing, hiking and riding his bike. He grew up hearing and speaking French at home and was an avid reader who showed an early predilection for world affairs.
Returning home from his first day of elementary school, Lamy tried to read the local newspaper, then burst into tears. “I started crying because my mother had told me as soon as I went to school, I’d learn to read,” Lamy said.
By his senior year of high school, he was a foreign exchange student with the American Field Service, spending 16 months in Flemish-speaking Belgium where he learned to speak Dutch, perfected his French and taught himself to read German. Later, he would add Afrikaans.
Lamy’s Belgian classmates were supportive, but critical of America’s role in Vietnam.
“I found myself in a situation of trying to defend America, but not defend the war,” Lamy said. “I learned a lot about the importance of different narratives and belief systems.”
The death of his father shortly after Lamy’s return narrowed his college choices.
“I had to be closer to home. Often in life you have dreams to do one thing, and something else intervenes,” he says, adding philosophically, “but it’s all been to the good.”
Lamy earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Siena College near Albany, New York. Despite his love for the great outdoors, and the fact that all his college career aptitude tests said he should become a forest ranger, Lamy’s passion for world affairs won out. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where he was taught by Korbel, father of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“We don’t learn by PowerPoint, we learn by decision-making stories. It’s not stepping on the student’s toe, the top of their head opening up, and pouring in knowledge. It’s wrestling with that knowledge.”
A firm believer in case-based learning, Lamy says, “We don’t learn by PowerPoint, we learn by decision-making stories. It’s not stepping on the student’s toe, the top of their head opening up, and pouring in knowledge. It’s wrestling with that knowledge.”
His case-based class remains among the most popular he’s created at SIR. One of the first case studies he teaches is titled “Keeping the Cold War Cold: Dick Cheney and the Department of Defense.”
“It looks inside Cheney’s head, examining theoretical and analytical concepts like the importance of belief systems,” Lamy says. “I’ve got lots of emails from kids who saw Vice (the 2018 biographical film about Cheney), saying, ‘It’s just like the case study.’ ”
One of his particular gifts is to break down complex world problems into relatable, human concepts. He encourages students to analyze global affairs from multiple perspectives using what he calls DEPPP skills — Describe, Explain, Predict, Prescribe and Participate — that allow them to go beyond ideological labels.
“The whole concept of PWP was to get kids involved in thinking about global challenges and problems and finding ways to resolve them,” he said.
He’s led undergraduates on four PWP trips to the Arctic, visiting Finland, Norway and Iceland and looking at the impact of climate change on culture, economics and politics.
Lamy tells his students that “what happens in the Arctic never stays in the Arctic” because the region is considered a canary in the coal mine for climate change.
Just Do It
Lamy was a serious runner for many years, participating in the Los Angeles, Skylon (renamed in 2007 the Niagara Falls International Marathon) and Boston marathons. He still runs or cycles for 45 minutes a day. Two years ago, he was knocked off his bicycle by a hit-and-run driver who ran a red light. Lamy’s watch was ripped off by the impact as he went face first into the asphalt.
Two black eyes and a couple of bruised ribs later, Lamy’s motto remains, “just keep going.” He cites an old Nike commercial showing a man rising at 4:30 a.m. to run in the dark and rain. “It’s that ‘Just Do It’ kind of thing. I love that,” Lamy says.
He also established the Fisher Fellowship for first-generation students and founded TIRP (Teaching International Relations Program), which gives high school students a basic grounding in the key principles of foreign relations. Now he wants to concentrate on a new master’s program he’s developing and the Global Policy Institute he recently created.
“I’m very proud of the classes I teach and the work I’ve done intellectually,” he says. “There are some regrets in terms of not spending enough time writing the best book or the best article in the world. I still have time to do that.”
But when asked what he considers his greatest achievement, Lamy talks about how good he always feels when he sees students graduating.
“I don’t have children, so they’re like my kids, and to see them go on, it’s kind of neat.”
Smith is the go-to academic for this moment, churning out nearly a dozen reports a year that not only describe the state of inclusion but also offer clear remedies.
“…Dr. Stacy Smith, who reminds us that we have these small victories, but the numbers don’t lie. Her Annenberg [research on representation in Hollywood] is essential for us to remember that there’s still lots of work to do.” – Lorie Bartlett
She first suggested the concept of an inclusion rider in a 2014 THR op-ed; has partnered with Sundance Institute and Women in Film to examine the pipeline from independent to studio filmmaking; and has armed celebrities including Brie Larson and Tessa Thompson with data to compel studios to diversify press access and director ranks. “It’s been an inside-outside approach,” says Smith, who leads a team of seven full-time researchers and 100 students: “Informing the outside world about this problem so that consumers and audiences can demand more, but also working with insiders to give them the information they need to set target inclusion goals and create a path forward.”
“Stacy Smith [of USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative]. Never has the evidence of the need to change been more clear, and the data she’s generated from the work she’s done is the main reason why.” – Franklin Leonard of Black List
Most Egregious Example of Unconscious Bias I’ve Experienced in Hollywood
“The idea that bias is unconscious. In Hollywood, bias is frequently conscious. Framing the problem as ‘unconscious’ makes it very difficult for people to take personal responsibility and create change.”
Childhood interest in chemistry leads to studies of large-scale energy solutions
Smaranda Marinescu now draws inspiration from nature to develop efficient and inexpensive catalysts for harnessing energy from renewable sources.
Smaranda Marinescu now draws inspiration from nature to develop efficient and inexpensive catalysts for harnessing energy from renewable sources.
While an eighth-grader in Romania, Smaranda Marinescu hungered to try out for a coveted spot in a National Chemistry Olympiad. A chemistry teacher, recognizing Marinescu’s talent and drive, encouraged the young scientist and provided practice tests.
The teacher also took an extraordinary step.
“She gave me the keys to the lab and said, ‘Go have fun,’’’ Marinescu said. With the freedom to experiment with mixing different chemicals on her own, the intrepid student mastered the basics and moved on to compete in that Olympiad as well as others through her high school career.
“One hour of sunlight provides more than all of the energy consumed by the planet in one year,” she said. “We need to develop methods to capture solar light and store it efficiently so that we can use it at night when we need it.”
Marinescu and her team are working to convert stored energy into electricity by using what are called metal-organic frameworks. These flexible, ultra-thin and highly porous crystalline structures have unique properties that may one day efficiently store renewable energy at a very large scale.
Her research also might help combat catastrophic effects of climate change. With global annual energy consumption projected to grow 50 percent within 30 years, the need for renewable non-fossil fuel technologies is not only urgent, but it is also driving innovation and investment dollars, Marinescu said.
Finding efficient solutions that have the potential to be scalable presents a challenge in sustainable energy research. Scientists must develop catalysts that are not only active and selective for one particular reaction, but also contain only inexpensive elements.
Following cues from nature, Marinescu has developed materials that contain biologically available elements and structural features and facilitate the conversion of abundant small molecules into chemical fuels.
“What I really enjoy is coming up with new solutions. Developing metal complexes and materials that display unique physical and chemical properties is very exciting, and this keeps me going.”
Marinescu completed her undergraduate studies at Caltech, where she conducted research in organometallic and organic chemistry. After graduating, she attended MIT, where she worked on olefin metathesis, receiving her Ph.D. in 2011. Returning to Caltech as a postdoctoral scholar, she investigated the mechanism of hydrogen formation with a cobalt catalyst. She launched her independent career at USC Dornsife in 2013.
A recipient of an NSF Career Award in 2016, Marinescu created a mentoring program that pairs incoming female graduate students with more experienced female classmates to foster friendship and support.
While the ratio of women to men in graduate chemistry is roughly 50-50, female representation drops off precipitously at the postdoctoral and faculty levels. By providing a women-specific mentoring program to facilitate female-to-female peer networking and mentorship early on, she hopes to help increase participation of this underrepresented group in science.
“They get the chance to talk and connect with somebody right away to ask questions about picking classes or choosing a lab and so on,” she said. “Then they have a friend right there who can show them the ropes and provide support.”
9/11 first responder and social work professor inspires students around the world
When social work professor Laura Owen is talking, it’s hard not to get completely absorbed. Like when the former U.S. Air Force captain tells the story of responding to 9/11.
“Do you remember the show M.A.S.H.?” she asks, referring to the 1970s and 1980s CBS show. Well, that’s what she was doing, part of a combat support hospital that arrived outside New York City in the wee hours of Sept. 12 to help those wounded in the attack on the twin towers.
“The injuries people sustained – they were emotional injuries,” said the trained social worker, noting the busiest people weren’t doctors and surgeons but social workers, psychologists and chaplains.
Stationed on a base since she joined the Air Force in 1999, her position hadn’t been much different than a civilian social worker up until that point. But 9/11 changed that. It was her introduction to military service. “It absolutely changed the trajectory of my career and who I am,” Owen said.
Weeks later, President George W. Bush announced the deployment of troops to Afghanistan. Owen would be among the first deployed to an air base in Oman, to a mobile medical unit where she would do mental health work.
A former Peace Corps volunteer, she never saw herself as the military type. But her husband, who she married right after graduate school, had always wanted to serve.
“I could never stay at home and be an officer’s wife while my husband had these great adventures,” she said. She joined with him. Plus, it was peacetime.
“I couldn’t imagine a social worker deployed to war,” Owen said, an adjunct assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, who teaches in its online master’s program. “It turned out to be the biggest event in U.S. history.”
The value of military social work
After serving more than three years, she moved to Washington, D.C. for a few years before settling down in San Diego in 2009. Since then, she’s thrown herself at veterans issues.
She researched the connection between mental health and military deployment, studying both the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and worked as a researcher for the the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System. She co-founded San Diego-based nonprofit American Military Muscle, which provides rehabilitation and mental health services to combat veterans in the area.
She realized veterans were a microcosm of the marginalized populations she cared about.
“If you care about kids, abused children, join the military,” she said. “If you care about women’s issues and sexual trauma, that happens in the military. Everything you see in the civilian population – mental illness, addiction, family violence – it happens in military populations too.”
Oftentimes youth who grew up in difficult circumstances see the military as a way out. They can benefit from the GI Bill and go to college or buy their first home with a Veterans Administration loan, she noted.
“In my own family, that has certainly been true,” she said. “My maternal grandfather was a descendant of slaves. He and his brothers joined the military, one in each branch of service. The career success [my grandfather] found in his Army career solidified his place in the American middle class. I think that’s a common story, particularly now that we have an all-volunteer military.”
Connecting with students virtually
Owen has been teaching at USC for eight years, including courses on leadership, policy and advocacy. Students say her enthusiasm for her career is infectious.
“We would all agree she’s the greatest instructor we’ve ever had,” said Vanessa Reiser, who graduated with her master’s in social work in 2016. “It’s a lot of admiration to have for a person I’ve never met in person.”
Owen hasn’t met most of her students in person because she teaches online through the school’s virtual academic classroom. Her students are all over the world, including Canada, Germany, Korea and Tallahassee, Fla.
“We would all agree she’s the greatest instructor we’ve ever had.”
“Because classes are offered on Pacific Time, I’ve also had a handful of students log into class at 2 a.m. their local time because they were so committed to getting that Trojan diploma,” she said. “When I see the lengths my students will go to get their MSW from USC, it makes me want to be a better professor for them. I show up and give everything I’ve got because they show up and give everything they’ve got.”
For Owen, it’s the only way she could teach, since her work schedule wouldn’t allow her to commute from San Diego to Los Angeles regularly. And for students, it’s exposure to someone they might never meet any other way, a mentor who has exciting stories and practical advice, greeting them via their screens – sometimes in the middle of the night.
To connect with students through a screen takes a certain personality and Owen is built for it, says June Wiley, who oversees the online program.
“There’s a fair amount of showmanship in my teaching,” Owen said. “I tend to teach big. I have salty language. I always have. I think I can get away with it because I’m a combat veteran.”
Social work beyond therapy
In social work, like many caring professions, burnout or “compassion fatigue” is common, she said. Because of that, she’s straight with students.
“The pay isn’t always good and the clients aren’t always particularly receptive and appreciative,” she said. “I’ve been very lucky in my career in that I’ve never burned out.”
A big tip: play to your strengths. She knows from personal experience.
“I thought I would be a brilliant clinician,” she said. “I turned out to be terrible at it.”
In a one-on-one therapy setting, she wanted to fix things – which is the worst approach, she said. Instead, she followed what she was good at: advocacy, management and fixing institutional problems.
The advice hit home for Kristal Ibrahim, who graduated from the master’s program in December. She had planned to become a therapist but wasn’t enthusiastic about it.
“It’s not like I’m waking up in the morning rubbing my hands together,” she said. “It just opened my eyes to what social work could be beyond therapy. You don’t have to be a clinician if that’s not for you.”
When it came time for her internship placement, Ibrahim opted against a clinical setting. She instead interned in cause marketing, which is using marketing tools like social media to get the word out about social issues. In doing so, she found a possible career path.
“I would love to do cause marketing,” she said. “I’m kind of artistic and I found the opportunities to make memes and infographics a form of self expression for me, while getting the word out on causes that are important to me as a social worker.”
Inspiring passion in policy
And even though Owen isn’t in the classroom with her students, she’s accessible. Regardless of time zone, they have access to her cellphone, to call or text.
“They text me at 9 at night or 4 in the morning,” she said.
Sometimes it’s about assignments but sometimes it’s also advice about their professional or personal lives, since many of the students juggle jobs with the course load. She’s comforted students who’ve experienced personal tragedies. She’s also talked them through workplace issues or when they’ve lost a patient to suicide.
Her passion for certain issues, such as policy work, has rubbed off on her students as well.
Simon Parker, a student based in New York but originally from England, wasn’t too interested in American politics. But Owen’s policy class got him thinking. It was around the 2016 election when immigration was – and continues to be – a divisive issue. The formerly politically apathetic Parker decided to take a trip to Nogales, Ariz., to see what was happening at the border firsthand. Owen gave him tips on who to meet and where to go. He ended up accompanying a soon-to-be Jesuit priest to a shelter on the Mexico side of the border.
“She inspired me to do that,” he said. “Her class was the most useful class I took – by far. It was a bit life changing.”
Myrna Ayoub is a lecturer at the USC School of Architecture and also received her Bachelor of Architecture at the school.
Can you tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles to immigrant parents from Lebanon. I grew up in an environment where heritage and culture were an important part of everyday life. I had the privilege of traveling and spending my summers in the Middle East as well as interacting with people from various cultures across the globe. Inherently, that’s been a huge influence on my view of architecture and how the places I visited were so differently shaped by specific identities, rituals, traditions, and governance.
I received my Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Southern California. After practicing in design offices in Los Angeles, France, and Lebanon, I pursued a Master of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. While teaching on the East Coast, I worked at several Design Research Labs where part of my research focused on various sensory experiences in relation to the urban environment. I collaborated with people across disciplines to run seminars, lead workshops, curate exhibits, and lecture around issues of identity, displacement, sanctuary, and refuge. Last year, I made my way back to my hometown of Los Angeles. In addition to teaching at USC, I pursue architecture projects, design research, and design education mentorships with several collaborators in Los Angeles and internationally.
What will you be teaching at USC Architecture?
I currently teach an undergraduate studio ARCH 102b, “Architectural Design I,” and a seminar for non-architecture majors ARCH 106x, “Workshop in Architecture.” This past fall I taught the undergraduate core classes, ARCH 102a, “Architectural Design I,” and ARCH 105, “Fundamentals of Design Communication.” The past two years, I have also taught the summer program for high school students called “Exploration of Architecture.”
What drew you to the USC School of Architecture?
I’ve been a part of the Trojan family for a long time. As a high school student, I decided to enroll in the summer Exploration of Architecture program for two weeks. It was my first taste of any formal understanding of architecture, and that experience led me to apply for a B.Arch at USC. I’ve been in and out of the USC School of Architecture in several roles ever since – as a prospective student, undergraduate, alumna, critic, and now faculty member. It’s been really important for me to teach while practicing – teaching is a platform to exchange ideas, and sometimes what’s conducive in practice isn’t in academia or vice versa. At USC, there is an environment with such diverse backgrounds that I often feel like I am learning as much I am teaching. It’s been an honor being back and teaching alongside people that inspired me and had such a huge influence in shaping my outlook on architecture.
What excites you about your faculty role?
I’m most excited when working with students directly; I enjoy mentoring a new generation. I have a long standing interest in design education and I believe it’s an environment to foster creative confidence, cultivate curiosity, and encourage an inventive culture. As an instructor, I try to invoke in my students the power of design in everyday life. I encourage students to exchange ideas, critique, and learn from each other’s work in the classroom and beyond. In return, they offer as many perspectives as I do, with an understanding that different perspectives help reveal several truths and possibilities—a vital discernment when addressing any design solution.
What are your thoughts on the current state of architecture across the globe?
I strongly believe that architecture has the power to make a difference in society. It is the physical manifestation of space that represents the uniqueness found in cultures across the globe—we must retain that. There are many challenges the field is facing to regain architecture’s agency in today’s society. Architecture is political, it is social, and it is rapidly changing—often without time to consider its implications. Collectively, we must find a way to make people aware of the values we hold when shaping today’s built environment. We are taught to imagine possibilities, think outside the box, challenge conditions, and visualize spatial constructs. The discipline of architecture can lend itself to many scales of intervention. By understanding that what we do is part of a larger discourse in history and a powerful tool for change, we can begin to take part in timely conversations and offer a meaningful perspective on global issues.
Who or what inspires you?
My main source of inspiration is traveling. Sometimes that’s across borders, states, and countries but often it’s exploring a new neighborhood or place in the city I’m living in. I’m known as an urban explorer—I get lost in cities, climb lookouts, crawl into alleyways—I’m fascinated with sociology and ethnography. Traveling is a lens into new urban environments and the customs found in many societies. In my work, these customs are often a starting point when constructing a project. Recently, I’ve used photography and collage as an avenue to document these rituals and spaces. I’m also inspired by the work of Lewis Hine, Martha Rosler, Walid Raad, and Akraam Zaatari—these explorations challenge the notion of narrative and archive.
I’ve always been inspired by fashion; my first job after undergrad was as an architecture designer at Louis Vuitton Malletier. That was an opportunity for me to infuse fashion, exhibition, and branding in the production of retail spaces and furniture. The work of designers such as Dries Van Noten, Kenzo Takada, Miuccia Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Elie Saab, and Coco Chanel have played a major role in the way that I look at craft, form, texture, material, and color.
In addition, as an avid oil painter, I’m inspired by traditional artwork and paintings. I was classically trained in baroque, impressionist, post-impressionist, surrealist, and romantic styles. I love mixing colors, layering paints on canvas, and experimenting with brushstrokes. I enjoy cooking, which lends itself to a more temporal avenue to creatively experiment with flavors and textures. These eclectic resources of inspiration play a large part in my projects—sometimes offering a new lens through which I can address a proposal or a new source of representation. I find that a strong knowledge in historical and theoretical practices in architecture are vital in terms of understanding how to intervene, but all these other fields and interests you take part of spark inspiration; they help conceive.
What are your research interests? What drew you to the work you are doing now?
My interests are quite diverse in scale and content but they all to touch upon themes of social and cultural dynamics within the public sphere. Currently, my research has been primarily directed at understanding the urban conditions in spaces of conflict. These are often spaces, cities, or countries that have been affected by wars, political turmoil, social disparities, or natural disasters. My research attempts to understand the forces of conflict and the challenges they place on the development of urban environments. Currently, this research is explored through cartographic practices and photography, specifically in Syria and Lebanon, looking at context and identity. This research began as a way to understand the complexities existing in the Middle East, with a desire to contribute to the landscape in the region.
Why is now such an exciting time to study urbanism and architecture?
It’s both an exciting and challenging time to study urbanism and architecture. The changes in recent decades are rapidly affecting the access we have to spaces, the way we use them, and the way we interact with people within them. The factors are many: you can attribute this to the development of technology, the depletion of resources and climate change, social disparities, economic fluxes, and even humanitarian issues. Currently, there are more displaced persons than there were during World War II! Now more than ever, there are opportunities to translate the imaginative, theoretical, and farfetched into real long-lasting spatial impacts.
Any advice to current students?
Explore several mediums when presenting your ideas—read, write, make, draw, build, curate, discuss, teach—you’ll be surprised what emerges when you engage in more than one medium. Find inspiration outside of architecture. Architecture school is quite demanding but don’t lose interest in the hobbies and activities you took part in while growing up; you’ll regret giving them up and they often can be integrated into your work and lead to a unique perspective. An education in architecture is invaluable; it’s a way of thinking that can be used in several fields. The way you are taught to iterate and critically address a project through creative solutions can be translated to so many things. Don’t limit yourself. The skills you acquire here will take you a long way. Be critical, understand your surroundings, and start questioning how you can intervene to make a mark on society.
Meet the lawyer-turned-professor behind USC Gould’s Small Business Clinic
In law school, class work is largely theoretical, which students will apply when they graduate and go off to a firm.
But Michael Chasalow, a professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, thought what if you could approach teaching the other way around? Take real world experiences and make it an academic exercise.
That’s what led him to start USC Gould’s Small Business Clinic a decade ago. It’s a competitive year-long program, only a couple students get in a semester, and although he oversees it as the practicing attorney on each case, students really lead the charge – each assigned to clients who likely wouldn’t afford legal help otherwise.
For the most part, it’s helping small businesses start – such as creating an LLC — and protecting founders from personal liability. They’ve launched a vegan ice cream company and helped two beekeepers partner up — including combining their bees.
Chasalow, who cut his teeth in big firms, was happiest working with small businesses, counseling investors working with start-ups from roughly 1999 to 2008. On top of his Juris Doctor degree, he also has an MBA.It’s really hard to be with people who are starting a business and not be caught up in the enthusiasm.
“It’s really hard to be with people who are starting a business and not be caught up in the enthusiasm.”
“It’s really hard to be with people who are starting a business and not be caught up in the enthusiasm,” he said.
“There’s so much possibility and so much excitement. People just find it incredibly rewarding.”
USC Gould’s Small Business Clinic: A safe place to learn
Since its inception, the clinic has helped nearly 3,000 clients – most of whom would not be able to afford the services of a law firm — receiving free services valued at up to $25,000. Roughly half its clients are women and people of color.
They handle every facet of a client’s project — explaining paperwork and legal implications to meeting deadlines, he said. He’s there for feedback and guidance.
It feels like a safe place to learn, students said. Graduating and jumping into a big firm – where one mistake could cost your job – can be dizzying for some students. In the clinic, Chasalow trains students to be detail-oriented and to respond to crises directly.
“I always say to people: It’s not about whether or not you mess up; it’s what you do about what you messed up,” he said. “It’s a really hard thing to learn.”
And he’s honest. He’ll say, “Look, if you were on the job, you’d be getting yelled at.”
Lauren Stadler, who graduated from USC Gould in 2011 and practices at a public real estate company in L.A., said the ability to learn by doing was huge.
“It mentally prepared me and it also made me more confident in what I was doing,” Stadler said, whose clients included a Downtown L.A. peanut brittle maker and a life coach. “A lot of people entering their first job haven’t had any experience doing any of the work they’d be doing every single day of their careers.”
Shortly after Gould, Stadler was reminded of her time at the clinic during a trip to Napa. She was in a Dean & DeLuca, the gourmet grocer, when there it was – her client’s artisanal peanut brittle.
Eight years later, she still calls Chasalow all the time, whether it’s asking him what it’s like to go in-house or getting tips on juggling motherhood with her career. Chasalow has triplets. She and her husband recently met with him for drinks.
“He cares for his students, not just on a professional level, but as people,” she said. “He tries to be there for you in all aspects of your life.”
Although many of his students, like Stadler, go on to work with corporations or firms, those experiences with small businesses or “mom and pops” come in handy. For example, that student who helped the beekeeper went on to work with a company that dealt in agricultural products.
“She called me up and said ‘I worked on a bee acquisition,’ of course it was millions of dollars, but she said, ‘I was the only one who had bee experience,’” Chasalow said.
Going above and beyond
The clinic, and the chance to do hands-on legal work and impact the community, has been a big draw to prospective law students. It was meeting Chasalow during a USC visit, and hearing about his clinic, that solidified Katy Neubauer’s decision to study at Gould.
She’s now counseling Mahkana, a bracelet company that raises money for nonprofits. It’s already leading in the cause-marketing space. The founder, Erica Wenger, is also a USC student. She’s seen Chasalow step in to offer his expertise, like when he reached out to colleagues who were well-versed in tax regulations to address her concerns.
“He totally goes above and beyond his job description,” Wenger said.
For Chasalow, teaching became his calling sort of unexpectedly. He taught his first classes roughly 20 years ago, first at Whittier Law School and then at USC.
“My wife started pointing out when I wasn’t teaching, I wasn’t as happy,” he said. “Being able to explain things more clearly to students is a really rewarding activity for me – that I’m making what’s foggy a little bit clearer.
“Maybe that’s a simple career goal but that feels really good to me.”
Berislav Zlokovic searches for better treatments for dementia with a drive to make a difference now.
Berislav Zlokovic’s office at USC’s Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute is a jumble, stuffed with pictures of singers and musicians and diplomas written in Cyrillic script. A small waterfall burbles down a wall and gurgles steadily, punctuated every so often by Zlokovic’s avuncular chuckle. He’s a man quick to smile. On this day, he’s nursing a shoulder injury that happened while playing volleyball with “guys who were much younger and faster,” he says with a laugh.
Zlokovic is more than the charismatic character known as “Betza” to friends and colleagues. He’s committed to whatever he puts his mind to, whether it’s music, barbecue or science. And when it comes to science, he’s drawn to problems that matter to a great many. He’s changing the way modern medicine studies and treats Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that cause dementia.
Across the globe, about 35.6 million people have dementia—and that number is expected to double within 20 years. There’s no known cure for dementia, but Zlokovic is working on it.
For Zlokovic, the passion for discovery pushes him onward. His next frontier: finding markers that could predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease 10 to 15 years before symptoms arise.
While studying the vascular system as a research fellow in London in the 1980s, cognitive disorders piqued Zlokovic’s interest. He had personal reasons: His grandmother had a form of dementia. Maybe, he thought, blood vessels in the brain might play a part in the syndrome.
Many researchers studying Alzheimer’s disease focus on the tangles of proteins in the brains of people affected by the disease, but Zlokovic takes a different approach. He was the first to propose that impaired blood flow and flaws in what’s called the blood-brain barrier drive neurodegeneration, which underlies all kinds of cognitive disorders, from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s. “We began to see Alzheimer’s not as a disease of overproduction of proteins in the brain, but a lack of clearing out those proteins—and the blood vessels take an active role in the clearing process,” he explains.
His work has shown that declining memory and thinking is only a secondary symptom in people with dementia. The first signal that something is awry happens in the blood vessels, he says. By targeting the vascular system and keeping its shortcomings from damaging important nervous system cells called neurons, he believes that dementia could be halted or prevented.
Zlokovic studies the function of brain pericytes—cells that scientists have known about for more than a century, but whose purpose was unclear. He found that pericytes control key neurovascular functions, basically acting as guards for the blood-brain barrier. This barrier keeps potentially dangerous foreign substances from moving from blood vessels into brain tissue and maintains a constant environment for the brain. If pericytes start to break down, the brain ultimately suffers.
In research published two years ago while Zlokovic was working at the University of Rochester in New York, his team found that when they reduced the number of working pericytes in the brains of mice, the effects included reduced blood flow, greater exposure of brain tissue to toxic substances, impaired learning and memory, and damage to neurons—all phenomena that are likely to happen to people as they age.
A year later, the team showed that a gene linked to late-onset Alzheimer’s disease called ApoE4 appears to cause harmful levels of an inflammatory protein to accumulate in pericytes, which in turn causes blood vessels in the brain to become leaky.
Zlokovic’s work has had a huge influence on the field of neurodegenerative disorders, says former student Robert Bell, now a principal scientist and lab head at Pfizer’s neuroscience research unit in Cambridge, Mass. “He’s done it in the face of people who take a more neurocentric approach, and it hasn’t been an easy path to carve out,” says Bell, who studied with Zlokovic in Rochester. “Betza stuck with it, and now most neuroscientists agree that understanding the neurovasculature is essential to developing treatments.”
“This is why I’m so excited about what we’re doing at USC, working with colleagues from so many different departments to reduce the gap between experimental and clinical findings.”
Some of those treatments may come from Zlokovic’s own lab. Using transgenic mice and studying human brains post-mortem, Zlokovic’s team at the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute is now looking at ways to harness the power of pericytes to help patients. “What we’d really like is to detect early changes in the vascular system that predispose people to loss of cognitive function. If we can start detecting changes in someone who is 40, the declines don’t start happening for another two decades, giving a lot of time for treatments,” Zlokovic says.
Scientists have already applied his research to therapies. Zlokovic is listed as an inventor on 14 patents. He’s founded three biotech companies, and his discoveries have contributed to the development of clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
Zlokovic’s research on the connection between blood flow and brain health has led him to a surprising conclusion: Brains could function for much longer than the average human life, if only the vascular system would stay in shape. “Our brains have the capability to live 150 years if the vascular system could keep up. Heart disease or heart attack, known as infarction, isn’t disease of heart muscle. It’s a disease of vessels in the heart—coronary vessels,” he explains. “The brain was never exceptional in the body—it’s only as strong as the weakest links.”
For Zlokovic, the passion for discovery pushes him onward. His next frontier: finding markers that could predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease 10 to 15 years before symptoms arise. His research group is trying to identify such biomarkers in people who are cognitively normal today but who may develop Alzheimer’s later in life. The earlier patients can get treatment, the better the chances of slowing down the progression of the disease, Zlokovic says.
“We are searching for biomarkers in brain fluids, particularly cerebrospinal fluid, and blood, or imaging markers in the brain, in individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s and in models of Alzheimer’s and neurodegeneration that will tell us about leaky blood vessels and early damage of the brain’s vascular system and its impact on the brain,” he says. “We believe that sealing damaged vessels would allow the brain to self-repair and re-establish its normal functions.
“This is why I’m so excited about what we’re doing at USC, working with colleagues from so many different departments to reduce the gap between experimental and clinical findings. That process has already started.”
Photonics Pioneer Alan Willner, an Orthodox Jew, runs a lab made up of students from countries that aren’t always the best of friends.
Professor Alan Willner is very accomplished.
He has been recognized by the US National Academy of Engineering, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, the White House, the Guggenheim Foundation, the IEEE, and so on and so on.
He’s served as President of the Optical Society and President of the IEEE Photonics Society. He’s been the chair of several professional committees with long and important sounding acronyms. He’s served as editor-in-chief of no less than three scientific journals. He has produced over 350 refereed journal papers, 30 patents, and one book.
Now let’s talk about his real accomplishments.
There is a word in Hebrew, kehillah, which defined loosely, means a community. More than that however, a kehillah is a group of people with a shared purpose or mission. It is a word that Alan Willner, an Orthodox Jew and leading engineer in the field of photonics, takes extremely seriously.
When I first knocked on his door at the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering to speak to him about the work he is doing, it quickly became clear that Dr. Willner only wanted to talk about the community he is a part of at USC. It turns out that all the background reading I had done into twisted data-carrying electromagnetic beams had been for nothing.
In 1990, when Alan first walked in the door for an interview with then-chair Jerry Mendel, he was, as always, wearing a yarmulke (i.e., Jewish skullcap). Mendel immediately noticed and rushed to change the post-interview dinner reservation to a Kosher restaurant, which also happened to be owned by Steven Spielberg’s mother. “Of all the places I interviewed with, USC was the only place that accommodated my religious observance so sensitively and proactively,” Willner said.
A few months later, while walking along Venice beach on a beautiful January day with his fiancé, Alan decided to join USC Viterbi.
“From day minus one, I felt I was joining a real community, not just a workplace,” Alan said, referring to the day he was hired as an assistant professor.
But a most telling example of community Alan experienced in his early years had to do with an engineering department’s most valuable resource – lab space.
“After 6 months, I outgrew the space I started out in,” Alan said. “One day Lloyd Welch – a much more senior and well-known professor – came up to me and said ‘why not take my lab, you seem to need it more than me.’ This is simply something that doesn’t happen at universities!” Alan says, still surprised to this day.
That space soon filled up as well and another giant of the department, Irving Reed, offered him some room next door. “I was like the creeping goo,” Alan says proudly, “eventually I took over the whole wing and I never had to ask for any of it.”
Today, Alan is the Steve and Kathryn Sample Chair holder, honoring the late great USC President. His lab, the Optical Communications Laboratory, features 2,500 square feet of space. Here, he and his 14 PhD students use state of the art technology to conduct high-speed experiments on optical systems and devices.
His current students hail from six countries: China, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Throw in former students from Germany, India, Israel, Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey and suddenly that 2500 square foot lab doesn’t seem quite large enough to contain the grievances their nations could claim against each other.
“From day minus one, I felt I was joining a real community, not just a workplace,” Alan said, referring to the day he was hired as an assistant professor.
“One important lesson I learned over the past 25 years is that USC does not just tolerate diversity, we celebrate it.” Alan says. “Just as my differences were embraced by the larger USC community when I first began here, I try to live by that standard with my students today.”
Twenty years ago, University of Minnesota Professor Imran Hayee was a PhD student in Alan’s lab. “Being a Muslim, I used to go to Friday prayers every week. He always respected that and made sure to arrange group meetings around my schedule,” Hayee said. “First, I was the only Muslim in the group, but since then several other Muslim students have joined.”
To this day, the group never holds research meetings on Fridays between 1 and 2pm in case any of the students want to go to Mosque. And Alan’s whole group has attended each of his four sons’ Bar Mitzvah ceremonies, even dancing together at the last one.
Alan and his students rarely talk politics, but they do discuss religion and culture — a lot. As the first identifiable Jew many of them have ever met, Alan encourages his students to ask him anything about his religion.
“My Chinese students tend to ask about kosher food – what it is and what it means.” Willner explains, as a large unopened jar of gefilte fish sits casually on his desk. “I once had a Muslim student ask me if Jews believe in the Devil. We don’t, and as it happens neither do Muslims. We ended up having a wonderful hour-long discussion about it in my office.”
“Before I joined the group I knew almost nothing about Islam or Judaism”, says 5th year PhD student Yongxiong Ren. “But I soon learned that they each follow lunar calendars, just like we Chinese do, with similarly deep meanings. This really strengthened the idea in my mind about respecting people with different backgrounds.”
Nisar Ahmed, one of Dr. Willner’s recent graduates from Pakistan, recounts what it was like to be in the lab. “Professor Willner’s lab had students from all over the world, including one student from Israel, which was particularly interesting to me because I had never met anyone from that country,” he said. “The two of us became close and while working together I was able to correlate many common beliefs between our faiths. He even invited my family to his home for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner, an experience I may otherwise never have had.”
“I soon realized we all share the universal language of science, which unites people no matter where they’re from.” – Ahmad Fallahpour, Ph.D. Student
Dr. Willner’s new students are exposed to this environment the moment they first step into his lab. “When I joined, I was extremely nervous because I’d never had experience working with international students,” said Ahmad Fallahpour, a first year PhD student from Iran. “When I arrived, I found people from different nationalities, cultures, religions and educational backgrounds working together. Now I have mentors from China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. I enjoy working with them because I get to learn about their cultures.”
Everyone in the group is acutely aware of their differences, but it is always approached in good humor. Willner recounts an episode when two students, a religious Muslim and a religious Jew (two good friends, both with long beards), were sitting next to each other in a research meeting.
The Muslim student reported that his experiment was working and the Jewish student reported that his was not. Willner turned to the Jewish student and said, “Look, he prays five times a day and you only pray three times a day. Of course his experiment is going to work before yours.” The entire group broke out in laughter.
So, to summarize: Alan Willner runs a lab full of students thrown together from a list of countries that collectively mistrust each other at best, and downright hate each other at worst. It’s like some sort of nerdy, engineering version of The Breakfast Club…with lasers.
The reality is that Alan’s lab actually thrives on this diversity. “Students aren’t homogeneous,” Alan says, “There may be rich differences in the way they approach work that stem from their background.”
Some countries might tend to emphasize a broader approach to engineering, while others may educate students in more focused areas. One cultural institution might be more hierarchical, encouraging students to defer to older peers. Another might emphasize a more individualistic perspective. None of these facts define an entire culture or person, and neither are any of them more right or wrong.
“I try to take all the cultural aspects from my group and see how we can make them work together. What we end up with is a collection of best practices from all over the world that allows us to work really smartly and efficiently,” says Willner.
Yongxiong Ren has taken this idea to heart. “Among all the lessons I learned in our lab, the most important one is that diverse teams are smarter and more creative. Some exciting ideas and solutions to technical challenges come from our discussions and debates. This is thanks to our different backgrounds and philosophies.”
This is an approach to people and life in general that has implications outside of a basement laboratory. A few years ago, when Alan hosted a brainstorming session with U.S. Military DARPA Fellows, his students from the Chinese and Muslim world were able to interact face-to-face with uniformed military personnel.
“When the event was over, the military folks came up to me and told me how much it opened their eyes to be able to interact with people they don’t normally cross paths with,” Alan says proudly.
That’s not to say that just putting U.S. military officials and Iranian PhD students in a room together is going to solve any major geopolitical problems – but it couldn’t hurt.
“One of the greatest lessons I learned in Dr. Willner’s lab was about the cooperation between people from diverse backgrounds working together for a common goal with mutual respect for each other.” Nisar says. “Imagine how this mindset can change our world.”
This was quickly learned by Ahmad as well. “At first I was astonished that the group worked together so well. I soon realized that we all share the universal language of science, which unites people no matter where they’re from.”
Alan understands that these experiences not only make for better engineers, but for better people as well. And at the end of the day, that is what he’s really after. “Do my students come out as better researchers than when they started? I believe so. But are they also changed for the better? Are they happier? I certainly hope so.” He says as our interview concludes.
Somehow, an underground photonics lab in the electrical engineering department seems to be the perfect place for people and ideas to come together. These students are here because of their shared passion for engineering. They have a shared mission; they are a kehillah. Sure, they have political positions, and religious affiliations, and long memories, just like everyone else. But sometimes the best way to get people to understand each other is to put them in a lab and force them to solve the problem of optical-fiber-induced data signal impairments, together.
By Ben Paul, originally written September 26, 2016.
USC Gould School of Law alumnus, E. Randol Schoenberg ’91 shares his experience representing, Maria Altmann in the quest to retrieve Gustav Klimt paintings owned by her family which was looted by Nazis during World War II.
Transcript is from a 2016 interview with USC alumnus and faculty member, E. Randol Schoenberg. Watch the full interview on YouTube.
I went to law school right out of college, mainly as a default. I couldn’t really do anything else. I had majored in math, but I really wasn’t good enough to go on to graduate school, and my father was a judge, and I thought okay, law, might be a good good thing to try out, so that’s why I came to USC.
It was fun for me also because at that time my grandfather’s archives were here at USC, the Arnold Schoenberg Institute was here. My grandfather Arnold Schoenberg fled the Nazis in 1933, and he spent one winter in Boston and froze to death and decided to come out to California. So in 1934, he came out here, and his first job was teaching at USC.
I was working in a firm downtown doing securities litigation, and I got a call from my grandmother’s closest friend, Maria Altmann. And I knew Maria she had been a very good family friend you know she knew my mom since my mom was born, and she was always around, and so she called me up and said, “Could you help me? I got a call from Austria, and there’s some new law and my family had these paintings, and I think there’s something going on.”
And she told me this story about how the Nazis had taken these paintings from her uncle, and that the family had never recovered them. So immediately I was hooked, and we went together on a long 8-year journey.
When I was in the Supreme Court with Maria actually in 2004, that that day she was on the cover of the USA Today, and I said to Maria I said, “You know win or lose (everybody thought we were going to lose), but I said win or lose no matter what your story is being told. Right? It’s on the cover of the newspaper. There’s going to be a Supreme Court decision that lasts forever. Everybody’s going to know what happened to you.” And for me and for Maria, that was our motivation – telling the story.
And so now to have it as a major motion picture with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds and Katie Holmes and have millions of people hear her story it really is it’s the icing on the cake. It’s a great fulfillment of a dream that Maria had which was to let people know about what happened to her family; what happened to families like mine also victims of the Nazis and these amazing paintings.
Everything worked out, miraculously. But I all I can say is you have to follow your own instincts. You have to do what you think is right, and you have to be prepared to be able to do that. So I was very fortunate to have a great background that I got at USC Law School and also as an associate of the firms I had worked at so that when Maria Altmann came to me, and I had this great opportunity, I was ready to take it and I took it.
After the case ended, there were actually a group of students here at USC Law School who went to the deans and said, “Why don’t you ask Randy Schoenberg to come and teach an art law course?” So I was asked to come back to my alma mater and teach and you know there’s no greater honor than that. It’s been a lot of work, for me, to come back and teach but it’s been very rewarding.
One day, his mother, Rosi, found a lump in her breast. Cancer. It was foreign to her body and her temperament. She was barely 50, jovial and hardworking in the orchard.
“But the fear in her face for her future when she found out. I remember that. I grew up with that in my life. You never forget that,” Kuhn said.
His mother underwent an experimental treatment to control the tumor. She survived. But the fear persisted. Thereafter, any ache or pain triggered dread.
“I would see it in her eyes, her very first thought was, ‘It’s back, isn’t it? Cancer is back!’ So you ask yourself as a young man, ‘Why is that? Why does that happen? What can be done about it?’”
Another woman in town was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was treated at the same time using the same approach at the same clinic. The two women became friends, bound by circumstance and disease. The other woman died. Before she passed, she told Rosi, “Tell Peter to keep doing what he’s doing, to keep studying science, because someday it will lead to something good that can help women like us.”
Heather Needham will work at USC Student Health and teach at the Keck School of Medicine of USC
Heather Needham, USC Student Health’s newest primary care physician, has begun practicing on the University Park Campus. The Keck School of Medicine of USC alumna returns to Los Angeles after practicing adolescent and young adult medicine at Texas Children’s Hospital and serving as assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.
“I definitely enjoyed my clinical experience at USC,” Needham said. “I thought I’d go into OB, but I really loved my pediatric rotation.”
Needham, who is board certified in both pediatrics and adolescent medicine, has a faculty appointment as clinical assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine in addition to her duties at USC Student Health.
She is one of two primary care doctors to join USC this month; the other is Vladimir Ayvazyan. Their arrival boosts the number of primary care staff physicians to 20 and comes on the heels of two new OB-GYN doctors and 10 additional mental health counselors to start at USC Student Health this semester.
Heather Needham always saw her path in medicine
Raised in Oakland, Needham said she wanted to be a doctor since age 9, when her grandfather suffered from a serious fall. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology at UCLA before coming to USC for her medical degree.
Adolescent medicine has allowed her to do a lot of what she loved about medical gynecology — from contraceptive management to treating menstrual disorders, she said. But it also gave her an opportunity to help young people manage health and life issues as they transition into adulthood.
“Part of adolescent health care is letting the patient know they can speak to you confidentially,” she said. “I have a really great rapport with my patients, and it helps them to have a safe space to say what’s on their minds and not be judged.”
Needham, who earned her Master of Public Health with a focus on health education and health promotion, sees patients dealing with a variety issues. They could be grappling with eating disorders, anxiety and depression or feeling under stress from relationships and being away from home.
A holistic approach to student health
“One piece of advice I give is to remember to take time to do things you enjoy, rather than focusing entirely on schoolwork,” said Needham, who snowboards, runs and spins to manage her own stress. “Having an activity or hobby helps to reduce your stress, which is important for your overall health.”
With her entire family residing in California and her fiancé living in Los Angeles, Needham said she’s happy about her return to the West Coast and eager to begin a new adventure caring for USC students.
“I love working with a young population,” she said. “Every day when I leave work, I know I did something good for somebody — whether it’s mediating with a patient’s parents or addressing an eating disorder — it makes me happy to know I can help.”
A Trojan inspires his patients with stroke and brain injuries through occupational therapy.
John Lien Margetis ’11, MA ’12, OTD ’13 was born without hands and only partial feet, but sometimes having “limb differences” is an asset. As a Los Angeles occupational therapist who helps people hospitalized after stroke and other serious brain and spinal cord injuries, Margetis embodies resilience for his patients.
Margetis doesn’t need arm prostheses to move around the intensive care unit—or anywhere else. He enjoys skydiving, snowboarding and road biking. He touch-types on his keyboard and dabbles in art photography.
Yet his life could have turned out much differently.
Margetis’ story begins in an orphanage in Taiwan, where his birth parents reluctantly placed him because they couldn’t give him the tools he’d need to lead a full life. Enter Monique Margetis of Pasadena, California, who saw his baby photo in an adoption newsletter and fell in love.
“He was sitting in an infant seat with a huge smile on his face and his hair standing up about 6 inches on his head,” she remembers. An assistant professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), Monique Margetis already had an 11-year-old biological son and a 4-year-old adopted daughter from Brazil. But the single mom comes from a large family and already knew a lot about prostheses from her father, who developed artificial limbs for combat veterans.
In her mind, there was nothing her son couldn’t accomplish with the help of artificial limbs. She was half right.
In what he laughingly describes as “a burst of preadolescent rebellion,” John Margetis rejected his prostheses in 8th grade. As a teen he was mostly interested in using computers, skateboarding and biking, and over the years, occupational therapists had taught him to do these and hundreds of other tasks with and without artificial limbs. He realized he could manage just as well without prostheses.
He competed in soccer and track in high school and at USC earned two bachelor’s degrees before going on to complete master’s and doctoral programs in occupational therapy—all without special accommodations. As a master’s student, he did an elective rotation at CHLA’s hand clinic. The surgeons were so impressed they tapped him to be the speaker at their annual family day for children with hand deficiencies.
Today, he works as a rehab specialist in the neuroscience ICU at Keck Medical Center of USC and clinical assistant professor in the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Patients recovering from stroke who are learning to regain the use of their paralyzed limbs often stare when they first meet Margetis, dumbfounded by his obvious physical differences.
“There will be times when you feel confused,” he tells patients, “but your OT is going to be that lighthouse cutting through the fog.”
Many patients later confide that hearing that message from a therapist with no hands feels “incredibly motivating.” It turns out that heart, not hands, makes all the difference.
Kenji Inaba found time in his busy schedule as a USC doctor to become a highly trained reserve officer with the Los Angeles Police Department
When Kenji Inaba isn’t wearing standard-issue hospital scrubs as a trauma surgeon, you might find him sporting a different look — the dark-blue uniform of a Los Angeles police officer.
The Keck Medicine of USC doctor performs complex emergency surgeries and checks on patients for up to 80 hours a week at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, one of the nation’s busiest hospitals. But once a week, Inaba trades in his scalpel for a badge and gun as a sworn reserve officer with the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Like any other uniformed officer, he trained at the police academy and patrols the city’s streets. But Inaba also serves as the LAPD’s first and only chief surgeon and provides advice to the department on medical training, health policies and treatment of injured officers.
Why would someone with an intense and demanding job as a trauma surgeon spend his valuable free time in a squad car? In a word: service.
“It’s very important for every person to volunteer. My parents instilled that in me from when I was a little kid,” Inaba said. “Becoming a reserve officer seemed like a great way to give what knowledge and skills I have as a surgeon back to the community.”
After intensive training, trauma doctor earns a police badge
Most major police departments have a staff physician who provides guidance on medical issues. When the LAPD pitched the idea to Inaba, he was intrigued and eventually found a way to work the grueling training into his schedule.
First, he had to pass psychological and physical tests and an intensive background screening. Investigators contacted his family members, interviewed his neighbors and called references. Then he completed more than 700 hours of training in wide-ranging skills, including how to make an arrest, shoot and clean a gun, handle an unruly crowd and protect himself with basic self-defense moves.
“They were extremely thorough in the way they educated me,” Inaba said. Even though he is a highly skilled surgeon, he couldn’t skip the emergency medicine course. “I sat through every hour of that first-aid training. It goes to show you how seriously they take the process.”
Inaba still juggles many responsibilities at USC, where he is a professor of surgery, director of the general surgery program and vice chair of the Department of Surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
He trains medical students, residents and fellows in trauma surgery and critical care. He also conducts research on topics like hemorrhage control and diagnostic imaging, contributing to more than 450 scholarly articles since 2003. And he regularly steps into the operating room to patch up injured patients and deal with other surgical emergencies.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good time manager,” Inaba said. “You kind of have to be to fit all of these things in.”
USC surgeon finds fulfillment as reserve police officer
Inaba became a sworn peace officer in 2016 and completed his 400-hour probationary period. Now he rolls out with his regular partner, Ryan Nguyen, at least a few times every month. He patrols the streets of areas like Silver Lake and Echo Park in uniform, beginning a 12-hour shift at 6:30 a.m.
“You really can’t distinguish me from any other LAPD officer working that day,” he said. “We handle calls just like any other car.”
He struggles to pick a single experience or arrest that stands out from his time in the squad car. “Every call is unique,” he said. “And you take every call dead serious, even if you are just giving out a traffic ticket. Every move you make is with the safety of your partner and those around you in mind.”
The responsibility of being in law enforcement has changed his mind set in many ways. Inaba is always aware of his surroundings, on and off duty. He can picture what likely happened in the frantic minutes before a stabbing or gunshot victim rolls through the doors of the LAC+USC emergency room.
He also has a greater appreciation for anyone who completes the rigorous academy training and works a full schedule as a uniformed officer.
“It is an extremely dangerous job, and they are some of the most down-to-earth, good people that you will ever meet,” he said. “You realize these are people who are committed to making the world and our city a better place. Every day, when they put on that uniform, they acknowledge and accept the fact that they may need to lay their life on the line to help someone they have never met before.”
Asked whether others should look into becoming a reserve officer, Inaba returned to the lesson his parents taught him as a child: Everyone should volunteer in their community.
For some, being a reserve officer might be a good fit, he added, although he cautioned that it takes a specific mentality to work in law enforcement. Officers must be able to work well with others, function in a high-stress environment and make decisions quickly.
“It’s not for everybody, and there’s no getting around the fact that there is risk,” Inaba said. “But for the right person, it’s so satisfying.”
“One of the things I’m the most proud of is being the first skateboarding envoy for the U.S. government. We worked with the embassy in the Netherlands to engage the Syrian refugees who’d been granted asylum in the Netherlands. It was an amazing project. And, not only was it engaging the Syrian refugees, but it was also engaging the youth of the Netherlands. Both of those groups are going to be the future of the Netherlands populace.
Neftalie Williams says skateboarding is his passion.
“When I’m skateboarding, I feel free. It gives me the space to do what I want to do and sort of tune out the rest of the world. All I do is what feels good to me, what feels great under my feet and it lets me belong to a larger community. So I feel it all, all at the same time.”
As a young adult, Williams gained a larger view on skateboarding.
“Right when I got to be about 20 years old, that’s when I decided that not only was skateboarding important, but it’s something that I should really, really be involved in — not just working on being an amateur sponsor skater, but that skateboarding meant more to more people and it was a way to sort of connect communities everywhere.
“So, for me, I started thinking about skating in a broader context. I ended up putting together my own skateboarding camp for kids in New England, because that was me wanting to give back to the sport that gave me so much life. And a lot of my good friends have now become pro skaters and they were counselors at my camp at that time. So, that was my first foray into making things bigger for skateboarding as a whole.”
Neftalie Williams is a researcher and lecturer with the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). He teaches a course called “Skateboarding and Action Sports in Business Media and Culture.”
Williams studied skateboarding in college and received a master’s degree in Public Diplomacy from USC. He is the first professor in the United States to teach the sport.
“I am the first professor of skateboarding and action sports here in the U.S.,especially at a major university, USC. I’ve been looking at how skateboarding can be used as a tool for cultural diplomacy. So, when it came time to bring the class together, they knew that I’d been working out in the field in Cuba and Brazil and South Africa and that we were trying to find new ways to engage youth all over the world.
Examining skating as a tool for cultural diplomacy worldwide, Williams joined forces with the U.S. State Department, becoming the first skateboarding and academic sports envoy in U.S. history.
“One of the things I’m the most proud of is being the first skateboarding envoy for the U.S. government. We worked with the embassy in the Netherlands to engage the Syrian refugees who’d been granted asylum in the Netherlands. It was an amazing project. And, not only was it engaging the Syrian refugees, but it was also engaging the youth of the Netherlands. Both of those groups are going to be the future of the Netherlands populace.
Excerpted from Neftalie Williams: Skateboarding Is a ‘Tool for Cultural Diplomacy’ by Marsha James
“We have to get back to the basics. If we don’t pay attention to the basics, we are going to be built on a shaky foundation.” – Dr. Laura Mosqueda
Laura Mosqueda wants the Keck School of Medicine of USC to get back to basics.
As the medical school’s new dean, she is emphatically calling on physicians, researchers, staff members and students to re-embrace the values and purpose in research, education and delivery of health and health care.
“The bottom line that I tell everyone is we’re all here to make the world a better place,” said Mosqueda, an authority on geriatrics and family medicine. “That’s what we need to focus on.”
She assumed the school’s top position earlier this year, after serving as interim dean since late 2017. That means overseeing more than 4,150 full-time and voluntary faculty members, nearly 2,000 staff members and 1,200 students.
In addition to training more than 900 medical residents in an array of specialties, the school also boasts a major basic and clinical research enterprise. It ranks among the top 30 medical schools in the U.S. in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, garnering more than $150 million in 2017. Its faculty physicians see more than 1.5 million patients a year across Keck Medicine of USC facilities.
And as the nation increasingly emphasizes integrated and coordinated medical care and the importance of primary care and prevention, Mosqueda’s background and holistic focus come at the right time for the Keck School of Medicine.
When it comes to educating future doctors, “we have to get back to the basics,” Mosqueda said. “If we don’t pay attention to the basics, we are going to be built on a shaky foundation.”
For Mosqueda, that in part means promoting what she calls “social justice” throughout the school’s education, research and clinical care programs. It’s a broader idea than simply helping vulnerable populations, such as older adults (her own specialty) or people experiencing homelessness. It’s about ensuring equity and equality across the profession of medicine.
That message resonates with many of the school’s faculty members, students and staff members, she said, because they served as its inspiration.
“The idea of social justice is something I’ve put into words, but it didn’t really come from me,” Mosqueda said. “It came from listening to everybody here. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to become dean because I kept hearing that message.”
In practice, a social justice approach might involve combating the damaging effects of unequal access to health care, improving societal attitudes toward aging or embracing a culturally competent approach when working with diverse members of the community.
It feels like a natural fit with Mosqueda’s personal values, which stress the inherent worth of all people, regardless of their circumstances. It’s a lesson she draws from her past, growing up in a USC family with strong roots in compassionate care.
Early experiences instill value of service to others
As a child raised in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles, Mosqueda gained insight into the medical profession thanks to her parents. Both earned undergraduate degrees at USC and completed their training in medicine at the university’s medical school.
Her mother, Gloria Frankl, specialized in radiology and became a pioneer in the field of mammography. Her father, Harold “Hal” Frankl, focused on gastroenterology and was the chief of his division. Although both worked for Kaiser Permanente throughout their careers, the Frankls regularly volunteered at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center.
“When people find out my maiden name, they’ll say, ‘Oh, your father is the best teacher I’ve ever had,’ or tell me about some way that my mother influenced their lives,” Mosqueda said.
They didn’t push their children to pursue a similar career. But Mosqueda and her brother, now a pulmonary and critical care specialist in Alaska, embraced medicine anyway. Mosqueda’s early interest in marine biology gave way to veterinary medicine. By college, she had moved to human medicine. She earned her undergrad degree in biology at Occidental College, then her medical degree with a specialization in family practice from USC in 1987.
She liked the philosophy behind family medicine, including its acknowledgement of the psychosocial and spiritual aspects of care. In her first week of medical school, Mosqueda connected with Ken Brummel-Smith, a family physician and geriatrician who became a lifelong friend and mentor. He encouraged her to take fellowship in geriatrics, and she was hooked.
“I’ve always had a real affinity for older adults, even as a little kid,” Mosqueda said. “Part of it, I’m sure, is because I had wonderful grandparents.”
New dean brings attention and resources to hidden populations
Although she was inspired by her relationship with her grandparents, Mosqueda has built her career around a darker side of aging: elder abuse. Older adults often develop chronic conditions, dementia and related illnesses that place them at high risk of mistreatment.
About half of seniors with dementia experience some form of abuse, she said. Sometimes a caretaker yells at them. Others are physically assaulted or become victims of theft or financial mismanagement. Mosqueda has led landmark studies on markers of abuse and neglect and established the first forensics center on elder abuse, a model since replicated across the country.
She is continuing her research with a major new grant from the National Institute on Aging to explore factors that lead to elder abuse, in part by understanding the relationship dynamics between caregivers and people with dementia. She is hopeful the collaborative effort with colleagues in gerontology and social work will yield valuable information to inform prevention and early intervention efforts.
Mosqueda also directs the National Center on Elder Abuse, a federally funded initiative that provides information to guide policy, research, training and resources. Her expertise has earned invitations to testify before Congress and visit the White House to discuss elder justice issues.
Bringing USC’s resources to bear on wicked problems
In addition to promoting well-being among older adults, Mosqueda is focused on another underserved population with serious health challenges: homeless people. In her previous role as associate dean of primary care and chair of family medicine, she helped launch a street medicine program with colleagues like Kevin Lohenry, director of USC’s physician assistant program.
The initiative brings multidisciplinary teams of health providers to the streets to provide direct patient care and social services to unsheltered and hard-to-reach homeless populations. As critical as those efforts are, Mosqueda sees opportunities to extend the program beyond offering medical services and referrals.
She envisions medical students specializing in care for homeless people. Researchers might use neuroimaging to study whether differences in brain structure might influence risk of homelessness. Scholars could compile nationwide data to reveal socioeconomic and community factors that might guide prevention and mitigation strategies.
“We are an academic medical center, so we want to go beyond starting a street medicine program,” she said. “How do we layer research and education onto that?”
Med school dean leads drive for equality, community service
Mosqueda also wants to turn this focus on social justice inward, continuing to push the Keck School of Medicine to diversify its ranks. Although the school is close to achieving gender parity among its students, she sees a need to advance that goal among residents and faculty physicians, to ensure USC’s medical enterprise reflects the diverse communities it serves.
Although it’s not something she dwells on, Mosqueda broke a major barrier when she became the first female dean in the medical school’s 133-year history. She had many strong female role models growing up, including her mother, so it didn’t feel unusual for her to assume a top leadership position.
“I think I’m just starting to realize that now I am one of those role models,” she said.
As part of her push for social justice, Mosqueda wants to promote community projects and volunteer opportunities for the school’s students, staff members and physicians. She encourages collaborations across the medical campus and university as a whole, inspired by the interdisciplinary efforts at a student-run clinic that she helps oversee at a local homeless shelter.
She also continues to make house calls, providing care for patients with degenerative illnesses. A 20-minute house call can eliminate the lengthy ordeal of visiting a medical facility for someone in their 90s with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Having an MD after your name — you’ve worked hard for it, but it’s also a privilege that opens doors in your community,” Mosqueda said. “We all carry a responsibility to do something good with that.”
The Cross-Generational Friendship That Inspired a Life’s Work
A decades-long friendship taught a gerontologist that independence and dignity are worth fighting for.
It began in 1966 with a tap on Jon Pynoos’ door.
Dorothy Benton, a spry 73-year-old neighbor dressed in silk brocade, asked Pynoos, then a Harvard grad student studying urban planning, to join her for tea. Pretty soon, they were close friends.
Connecting with “Mrs. B.”—as Pynoos fondly calls her—created an unlikely intergenerational bond. It also diverted Pynoos’ career path.
Today, he is the UPS Foundation Professor in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. He has written six books and hundreds of articles on housing and the elderly, and advocates for “aging in place,” or seniors living independently as long as possible.
“Were it not for Mrs. B., I probably wouldn’t have been in the field of aging,” says Pynoos, who joined USC’s faculty in 1979. “I wouldn’t have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have ended up at USC.”
It was Mrs. B. who encouraged Pynoos to apply for a job running a Boston-area home-care agency tasked with keeping seniors out of institutions. That led to his meeting fellow gerontologist Elyse Salend. Mrs. B. attended their wedding. The couple’s daughters Jessica Pynoos MSW ’09, MSG ’09 and Rebecca Pynoos MSW ’10 also work in the field of aging; son Josh Pynoos MPP ’14 focuses on criminal justice.
The stately brick apartment building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had been home to Mrs. B. for more than 30 years when Pynoos moved in. She was unlike anyone he’d ever met: a refined, articulate, intensely independent woman; a divorcée who’d raised a daughter alone; a retired teacher who checked in on elderly shut-ins for the Red Cross. Above all, she was a social butterfly. Her afternoon teas brought together an eclectic cross-section of Boston society, young and old.
As their friendship deepened, Pynoos saw their apartment building through her eyes: how three flights of stairs took their toll; how removal of the dumbwaiter made grocery shopping harder. At age 94, Mrs. B. fell in her apartment. She waited 14 hours for help to arrive, her telephone inches out of reach. Deemed too frail to return there, she was consigned to a nursing home.
“Hard as it is to believe, I am no longer mistress of all that I survey,” she wrote Pynoos from the facility.
When Pynoos visited, he didn’t like what he saw. He intensified his advocacy for “universal design,” a movement to create environments accessible to everyone, including the elderly and people with disabilities.
Today, he directs the USC Davis-based National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, and he co-directs the USC-affiliated Fall Prevention Center of Excellence. An online executive certificate program he co-founded in 2004 has trained more than 1,000 building contractors, social workers, occupational therapists and other professionals to create safe living environments for seniors.
Jon Pynoos is now the same age Mrs. B. was when they first met. Over their decades-long friendship, he recorded 40 hours of interviews with her, planning to publish them as an oral history. That project is finally coming into focus.
USC Student Health will add 10 more mental health providers, boosting its capacity to provide counseling directly to students in need
Since joining USC Student Health as executive director and division chief for counseling and mental health last fall, Robert Mendola has worked to expand students’ access to mental health services on the University Park and Health Sciences campuses.
Mendola, a board certified adult psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, brings more than two decades of experience directing psychiatric services at Cornell University’s student counseling center.
Under Mendola’s leadership, USC Student Health will have added 10 more mental health providers to its staff by December, substantially increasing its capacity to provide counseling directly to the students who seek it. The additional staff will allow Counseling and Mental Health to provide longer care to more students, Mendola said.
“Previously, with one counselor to every 1,800 students, we used our resources to provide an initial brief assessment to any student who contacted us in order to respond quickly, assess crisis and risk, and then triage that to either get in quickly or wait,” Mendola said. “We were referring 70 percent because we didn’t have the resources to treat the routine cases.”
While that approach made the best use of available resources at the time, Mendola said, “We also knew it was unrealistic to ask a freshman to take a bus to Santa Monica for counseling.”
His goal is to provide short-term care for nearly every student seeking mental health services on campus. He also hopes to develop long-term outpatient treatment through the psychiatry department at Keck Medicine of USC, he said.
Mendola aims to continue the trajectory and eventually refer only 20 to 30 percent of students to off-campus care.
Mental health care: It’s a job he loves
Raised in upstate New York just a block from a state psychiatric center, Mendola and his family regularly interacted with mentally ill patients with compassion and without fear. He was studying religion as an undergraduate when a professor suggested he consider pursuing psychiatry.
“I couldn’t believe that I could sit with someone for an hour, try to understand them, connect with them and make them feel understood, and they would pay me for that,” he said. “This is not a job; it’s what I loved doing.”
Mendola went on to receive his MD from State University of New York at Buffalo and complete his residency at the University of Massachusetts. His interest in student mental health developed in 1994 when he was recruited as a staff psychiatrist for Cornell.
“In contrast to my previous work with patients with chronic mental illness, I was struck by the motivation, insight and diversity of the student population,” he said. “And their capacity for making rapid improvements was refreshing.”
A bridge between outreach and prevention
Mendola was approaching retirement at Cornell when he discovered he could provide real value to Counseling and Mental Health at USC Student Health, from applying his experience with service models to acting as a bridge between outreach and prevention and clinical staff and services.
The most inspiring aspect of his job, he said, continues to be the students. They come with a wide range of perspectives and are at a critical age in developing their identities, while managing their relationships and academic work.
“This is a time of instability, and because the identity is so fragile at this age, it is commonly reflected in anxiety, panic, worry – ‘am I good enough?’ And in depression – ‘I am not good enough,’” Mendola said.
According to the American College Health Association’s 2017 National College Health Assessment, nearly one in five U.S. college students is affected with anxiety or depression.
Mendola’s message to students: “This is part of development, and if you feel these things, you are not alone.”
He added, “If you rely on social media, you’ll have the impression that everyone is OK except for you. I encourage you to have actual relationships and in-person communication.”
The community as client
While at Cornell, Mendola and his team used the JED Campus Program, a public health model for campus mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention, to guide their efforts in these areas. Now he is part of the team implementing the nationally recognized model at USC.
“JED involves looking at the whole campus community as the client,” Mendola said. “For example, we can provide pockets of treatment with an open-door approach in nontraditional settings for students who would not usually reach out to us.”
USC is launching an evidence-based program called “Let’s Talk” on both campuses this fall. The program places counselors all across campus for students to drop in informally between classes.
USC Student Health plans to embed a therapist/behavioral health consultant with a primary care doctor to give immediate consultation to students who are less likely to seek out mental health care. Studies have shown that many students, including international students, students of color and male students are more likely to access mental health services when provided in a medical clinic.
Expanded access to mental health services is just one tenet in the multi-pronged JED Campus strategy. Two other principles include identifying students who are at risk and developing students’ life skills, and programs addressing these are already taking root this fall.
Resident assistants are taking intensive bystander training to identify and intervene when a resident is struggling. And a pilot seminar for 500 first-year students will focus on building the coping strategies and resilience skills students will need as they embark on their college careers.
The newly named Office for Health Promotion Strategy in USC Student Health will provide the infrastructure or “backbone” for the JED model at UPC and HSC. Mendola said Trojans can expect new initiatives and ongoing improvements around mental health as JED is implemented in the coming months and years.
Arthur Toga saw Alzheimer’s ravage his family, so he’s worked to transform what scientists know and think about the illness that affects 1 in 3 seniors
Alzheimer’s robbed Arthur Toga of his grandmother. Then his aunt. By the time it struck his mother, Toga knew the horrors that the memory-erasing disease would bring. He described what obstacles lay ahead to his two younger brothers.
“My family and I needed to prepare ourselves. The degree of loss that you feel when you see somebody’s personality and their whole being erased …” said Toga, his words trailing off.
“I knew what stages were coming, but you’re never prepared for what this disease not only does to the person, but also what it does to you,” he said. “They go inside themselves. They stop communicating. They stop interacting with the outside world whether it’s to eat food or anything.
“They often, like in my mother’s case, literally stop living. And you don’t get to say goodbye because their mind is no longer present.”
Seeing Alzheimer’s disease kill the women in his life pushed Toga to look for ways to prevent others from going through what he and his family suffered. When his mother passed away, Toga was a Provost Professor of Ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and one of the world’s leading researchers working to solve the Alzheimer’s problem, which affects 1 in 3 seniors and is among the most intractable problems in human health.
Toga is director of the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute and leads 35 faculty and postdoctoral scholars — researchers in neuroscience, physics, engineering and math — who have contributed to neuroscience in significant ways. In all, USC has more than 70 researchers across multiple disciples devoted to neurodegenerative research: medicine, gerontology, pharmacy, humanities, engineering, social work and public policy.
The team digitizes and maps mice and human brains to help locate ways to fix or preempt neurodegeneration. The institute hosts the largest collection of brain data in the world, housing more than 4,800 terabytes of information — the equivalent of over 50 million movies in 4K — from every continent except Antarctica. It receives images taken from National Institutes of Health-funded stroke clinical trials, the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative and dozens of other multi-site projects. Patterns in this collection of brain scans could lead to ways to better diagnose and treat neurodegenerative conditions.
“I don’t think there are any other examples of data collections of this magnitude with this level of success,” Toga said. “Our techniques are revolutionary because they allow us to, in a matter of minutes, do something that, even if you could conceive it before, would have taken years! Now we can do it in minutes. This is going to accelerate the pace of discovery beyond our wildest imaginations.”
Brain science transformed
Toga, 64, was once a pre-med student but switched gears and graduated with a degree in psychology.
“I became fascinated with how the brain might be organized and where its weaknesses may be,” he said. “I like the notion of putting these different puzzle pieces together, thinking about how we can understand the human condition. Let’s face it, your brain is the human condition because all of your experiences and emotions live there.”
Early in his career, Toga realized that simply understanding the brain would not be enough to solve a wicked problem. So, he went back to school to learn how to manipulate and interpret large amounts of brain images and data. Though he didn’t finish his master’s in computer science, this time would prove invaluable as computers became capable of storing and crunching prodigious amounts of image data.
Toga is one of the founders of a big-data approach to understanding the brain and its diseases. Using high-powered computers and secure servers, Toga’s group analyzes vast amounts of data to find trends peculiar to specific populations and produces brain images with all the colors of the rainbow. Ironically, he can see only some of them because he is colorblind.
“When I first started, Alzheimer’s was a disease where people knew about tissue lost,” Toga said. “We knew that misfolded proteins accumulated. Most of the time, it was considered to be diagnosable only after death.
“My research and that of many others revealed that your brain’s circuitry begins to jam decades prior to the cognitive issues that the patient experiences. The brain’s cognitive reserve is able to compensate until a breaking point.”
A colossal problem
Sitting at his giant, frosted-glass desk, Toga looked small as he pondered the colossal problem that is Alzheimer’s disease. He looked at a wall clock with its internal workings in full display, indicative of how he examines tens of thousands of brain scans to figure out how brain size and circuits change over time.
The Global Alzheimer’s Association Interactive Network, one of several large projects that Toga leads, enable scientists to toggle through data on more than 366,000 patients to locate subgroups of people for further study, such as women or people with early onset Alzheimer’s.
Toga is also the director of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, a leader in the development of algorithms and approaches for the mapping of brain structure and function. LONI hosts more than 60 national and international brain imaging collaborations.
The tools and maps Toga and his researchers create are changing how people understand healthy and diseased brains. Scientists and doctors cannot fix a problem they can’t locate. Telling a plumber to fix a leaky faucet by coming to California is not as effective as giving the technician a home address. Toga and his collaborators are drawing a road map to the problem areas of diseased brains.
One of the trends researchers at the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute discovered is that the hippocampus — the brain’s memory center — is smaller than average in depressed people. The longer people suffer from the illness, the more their brain will differ from a typical brain, meaning the ability to treat depression early could slow the progression of brain tissue deterioration.
Toga is working with Berislav Zlokovic, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute at the Keck School of Medicine, to investigate how blood flow and blood vessel integrity in the brain affect the mind’s wiring in people at-risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Zlokovic is internationally recognized as a leader in how lesions in the brain’s vascular system could fast-track dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Art Toga’s studies of connections between different brain regions associated with memory and brain structure will provide new and important biomarkers for early changes in cognition,” Zlokovic said. “This work could identify potential therapeutic targets that precede the buildup of amyloid-beta and tau proteins — the standard markers of Alzheimer’s disease progression.”
Neurodegenerative diseases cannot be treated as a monolith, said Rohit Varma, dean of the Keck School of Medicine. Some people are more at risk because of their genetic makeup. Others are more receptive to certain treatments or interventions.
“Our team of physicians and scientists are facilitating a deeper understanding of neurodegenerative diseases,” Varma said. “With Alzheimer’s disease, for example, we have more than a dozen clinical trials and many basic researchers examining the illness from diverse angles such as the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier and how prolonged exposure to tiny air pollution particles can speed up dementia.
“Over the course of his career, Dr. Art Toga has made incredible strides toward understanding the causes behind Alzheimer’s disease. Toga’s body of research has been transformational and has guided the way other physician-scientists around the world study the disease. We are truly privileged to have Dr. Toga and his team leading the charge in this disease area — which is so timely given our aging boomer population and the enormous cost, both economic and personal, of this devastating disease.”
Dr. Humayun’s approach was in essence from the bedside of his grandmother to the bench and back, devoting his life to finding solutions for devastating conditions that cause blindness.
As a medical student, Dr. Mark Humayun knew his grandmother was slowly losing her vision due to complications from diabetes. Dr. Humayun’s approach was in essence from the bedside of his grandmother to the bench and back, devoting his life to finding solutions for devastating conditions that cause blindness. Dr. Humayun, both an ophthalmologist and bioengineer, along with his colleague Dr. James Weiland, assembled a team of world experts to create a revolutionary device known as Argus II. As co-inventors, they converged the concepts of both bioengineering and medicine to develop the Argus II retinal prosthesis system, which is a medical breakthrough for those suffering from an inherited form of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). There are more than 1.5 million people who have been diagnosed with different forms of RP worldwide. RP is a group of inherited retinal degenerative diseases that can lead to blindness, characterized by loss of the light sensing cells known as photoreceptors (rods and cones) and progressive scarring of the retina (back of the eye responsible for capturing images). Argus II is the world’s first FDA-approved artificial retina system that offers an unprecedented degree of sight to those with complete retinal blindness.
Anne Michels, who has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 18 years, holds a faculty appointment in the OB-GYN department at Keck Medicine of USC in addition to her full-time position providing care for USC students on both the University Park and Health Sciences campuses.
Michels graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2000 and completed her residency training at New York Presbyterian Hospital in 2004. She earned her BA in psychology from Colby College in Maine and completed her premedical program at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Michels, who was raised in upstate New York and had spent her whole life to that point on the East Coast, decided to make a change as soon as she completed her residency and obtained her California state license in 2004.
“Looking for a change, we moved our family from New York City out to Los Angeles,” said Michels, who lives with her husband and three children in the Pasadena area. “I fell in love with the sunny weather and have made Southern California my home since.”
OB-GYN Anne Michels strives for quality of care
Shortly after arriving in California, Michels started as an associate physician in the OB-GYN department at Kaiser Permanente in Baldwin Park. Three years later, she became a partner physician, a position she held from 2007 to last week.
At Kaiser, Michels held several quality management roles. She was in charge of quality and the peer-review process for the OB-GYN department, and she served as lead for the perinatal quality group and perinatal safety project, which involved ensuring that quality of care in the delivery room was of the highest caliber possible.
She also provided care to women of widely diverse ages — from teenagers to postmenopausal women and everything in between. Michels said she looks forward to focusing on the health care of college-aged women at USC.
“I clearly remember my own experience going to student health at Colby College, and it was the first time at the doctor’s without my parents,” Michels said. “It’s an important educational opportunity for young women to understand how their bodies work, how to protect themselves from STDs or pregnancy, and how to take care of themselves.
“I want to empower and educate the young women in my care,” she said.
Michels said her father, a urologist who worked long hours and was committed to his patients, influenced her decision to pursue medicine.
“That left a positive impression on me,” she recalled. “But it was my third year in medical school when I saw my first delivery of a baby that I knew that obstetrics and gynecology was the field I was going to go into.”
She said the troubling allegations around the past actions of a former physician only solidified her commitment to her future patients at USC.
“I realized this is an opportunity to make a real positive difference for the young women at USC, and I felt there was no better time to do so than now,” Michels said. “I want my patients to know they will receive the highest quality in care and that they can trust their providers at USC.”