Doris Sung shares how she designs energy-saving windows
In the United States, buildings account for about 40 percent of all energy use, and heating and air conditioning makes up a 12 percent slice of that. If we could minimize how much sunlight heats up buildings through windows—and therefore lower air conditioning usage—it would be better for the planet. Unfortunately, current solutions, like Low-E glass, act like giant sunglasses and can disrupt sleep cycles and productivity, Doris Sung, an architect at the University of Southern California and co-founder of TBM Designs, says. In response to this problem, Sung, a Cooper Hewitt 2021 National Design Award winner, designed the InVert™ Self-Shading Window, which is composed of strands of fluttery pieces of a bendable metal.
“When the sun is directly hitting the pieces inside the window, they flip to block the sun from heating the interior. This effect shades the building from the sun, prevents solar heat gain and reduces the need for air conditioning,” she says.
The windows reduce air-conditioning usage by 25 percent and don’t require any energy or any controls to operate—just the sun’s rays. “For every 12-story building that uses InVert™, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by approximately 360 metric tons of CO2,” Sung says.
In February, an exhibit featuring InVert™ technology—called sm[ART]box—will open on California State University, Long Beach’s campus; and another installation for a housing project in southern Los Angeles will open later in the year, too. Over the next couple of years, InVert™ technology will make its way across the nation—to a skylight for the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport and a luxury store.
The University of Southern California (USC) has named leading racial equity expert Dr. Shaun Harper university professor. Since 2017, Harper has been the provost professor in the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC Rossier School of Education.
“I am genuinely grateful that our president and provost chose to honor me in such an extraordinary way,” said Harper. “I am honestly amazed by the numerous ways that USC leaders and other members of the Trojan Family have appreciated my work and me over these past five years. I love this University, and am genuinely grateful for all the ways it loves me back.”
Harper, who teaches in the management and organization department at USC Marshall, is one of only three USC faculty members to be both a university professor and provost professor. He is also the Clifford and Betty Allen Chair in Urban Leadership and founder as well as executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.
His research focuses on race, gender, and other dimensions of equity in organizational settings, including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and corporations. In 2021, Harper was inducted into the National Academy of Education. He is also the immediate past president of the American Educational Research Association.
Karpman also became the first American woman composer inducted by the music branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.
Composer Laura Karpman is on board to compose the music for Marvel Studios’ “The Marvels,” the sequel to 2019’s “Captain Marvel.”
Due to be released on Feb. 18, 2023, Karpman will work alongside director Nia DaCosta. Brie Larson returns as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, while Teyonah Parris stars as Monica Rambeau, reprising the role she originated in “WandaVision.”
“I am thrilled to be going on this wild adventure with Nia DaCosta and Carol Danvers and am really looking forward to the collaboration,” Karpman said in a statement.
Karpman will be the second female composer ever to score a Marvel movie. Pinar Toprak, who scored “Captain Marvel,” was the first.
“WandaVision” writer Megan McDonnell has penned the screenplay. Details about the plot are being kept under lock and key, but “Ms. Marvel” star Iman Vellani will co-headline the project as Kamala Kahn, who idolizes Captain Marvel.
Speaking on Variety’sAwards Circuit Podcast last year, Parris kept details about the film to a minimum. But she did talk about working with DaCosta. She said, “I’m just such a fan of her as a human. Then you have her visual, very artistic eye on how a film feels with her. With Monica, we have an opportunity to further understand who this woman is. Having a woman of color at the helm of furthering this story of one of the few super-powered females, African American beings, I think it’s really special.”
Karpman is a five-time Emmy winner who has scored the music for HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” She is no stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having scored the music to the Disney Plus series, “What If…?”
Aside from running an all-female studio, Karpman is a passionate voice for inclusion in Hollywood and founded the Alliance of Women Film Composers.
Karpman became the first American woman composer inducted by the music branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. She was subsequently elected to be the first female governor of the music branch. During her short time as governor, Karpman made indelible strides towards diversity, advocating for Academy membership for dozens of underrepresented composers and songwriters, as well as spearheading the Academy Women’s Initiative.
She is also an advisor for the Sundance Film Institute and on the faculty of the USC Film Scoring Program and the San Francisco Conservatory.
Growing up the daughter of Haitian immigrants in Miami, Jessica Moulite gained an early respect for journalism — and one journalist in particular.
“My grandma came to America in 1976 and she learned how to speak English by watching the evening news,” she recalled. “I’m one of four girls, and my parents didn’t let us watch TV during the weekdays, except for watching the news with our grandmother: the local news and ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.”
Moulite remembers seeing history unfold through these channels: September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. As she witnessed the power of the news to both move and inform the public, she also noticed that the stories of people from communities like hers were often told badly, or not told at all. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s not that people aren’t able to tell these stories themselves. It’s that a lot of these groups — women, Black people and other people of color, the LGBTQ community —have been systematically silenced.”
Determined to break that silence, Moulite attended Hamilton College in upstate New York, where she majored in communication and women’s studies — with the help of a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit that helps universities recruit potential leaders from diverse backgrounds. But it was after she enrolled in the master of science in journalism program at USC Annenberg that her career goals really came into focus.
“I had a class with Laura Castañeda [professor of professional practice], and she told me there is absolutely nothing wrong if I wanted to make my storytelling focus on communities of color,” Moulite recalled. “She gave me the language to express what I wanted to do and emboldened me to go in the direction of my dreams.”
After earning her master’s in 2015, Moulite went on to work at the Latino-driven English-language channel Fusion before joining the Root, where she flourished telling multimedia stories about the diverse Black experience. Now, as she returns to academia to begin her doctoral studies at Howard University, Moulite has been honored with the Ainslie Award, the Posse Foundation’s annual alumni achievement recognition, which comes with a $10,000 no-strings-attached grant.
Moulite spoke with USC Annenberg about her experience as a Black storyteller, and how she hopes to combine her academic work with her journalism background to effect positive change.
After growing up watching Peter Jennings, you worked with another TV legend, Jorge Ramos. What did you take away with your time working with him at Fusion?
I started out as a production associate for America with Jorge Ramos, and just kept going up the chain until I was working with him directly. With everything that was happening with Ramos during that time — the contention between him and the Trump administration, the way he approached his coverage of everything that was happening at the border — I was really able to take a page out of his book. Seeing how he told stories that very much matter to him and his Latino demographic helped me realize how that ethos can be replicated. He taught me to never forget to use my voice and ask powerful questions.
Why did you make the move to the Root as a video producer?
While still at Univision, I had the opportunity to work with the Root on a multi-part series about climate gentrification in predominantly Black communities in Miami. So, once I got this opportunity to join them full-time, I was there. And it was incredible to work for the premier Black publication for voices and stories all across the Black diaspora.
How did you approach your storytelling there?
Oftentimes the conversation surrounding Blackness is either, you know, “This Black child has gotten into all of the Ivy League institutions, how wonderful,” or we’re talking about how someone was brutally killed. It doesn’t need to only be these two types of stories: Black death and Black exceptionalism. There are so many shades in between, and those stories need to be reflected too. And the Root really champions those stories. One video I’m particularly proud of was a profile of Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, where she talked about her new normal of living with alopecia. I’m very impassioned about telling stories that matter to communities that look like mine — that in the past were often painted with a very flat, monolithic lens.
You worked at The Root until late August, when you started as a doctoral student at Howard University. What’s driving your transition back to academia?
Over the last year, I was so disenchanted as I watched the media industry and how things like the pandemic and the movement for racial justice were reported on. In attempting to be impartial and non-biased, media and journalists do a real disservice to the audiences that they’re meant to be serving. If journalism is supposed to be for the public good, then it is ultimately up to journalists to decide what that is, and to make an informed decision. What does that look like? What is the common good? So, I decided that I want to take a step back to get my doctorate in sociology to create knowledge that addresses these kinds of questions. With an emphasis in social inequality, my goal is the idea that if we can start changing these systems, we can change the world little by little, then — hopefully — the media will be able to get there as well.
How can academics and researchers create that kind of change?
I believe that the world can be better than this — and that there are enough people actively working to make it more just and equitable for everyone. It doesn’t have to be this zero-sum game of who has power and who doesn’t; we don’t have to live in this sort of society. I really do think that in the classrooms, in the streets, and in the boardrooms, there are so many avenues where we need to not just reckon with the disparities that exist, but ultimately subvert them and change them for the better.
And that’s what this Posse Foundation award I received represents. They’re committed to creating the new face of leadership in the future. And that’s going to mean some tricky, uncomfortable conversations — but you know, I think more uncomfortable conversations will do this world and this nation some good.
USC Thornton Popular Music Program Chair Patrice Rushen is a model for what’s possible in a music career.
Patrice Rushen was definitely not the first to know when her 1982 hit song “Forget Me Nots” launched a dance challenge on TikTok.
“My cell phone started blowing up with messages from my students: ‘You’re trending on TikTok! You’re trending on TikTok!’” said the chair of the USC Thornton Popular Music program.
Rushen earned her first GRAMMY Award nomination for that dance-funk single and has seen it remain a part of popular culture over the past four decades. It was featured in the 1988 Tom Hanks movie Big and sampled by Will Smith for the 1997 Men in Black movie theme song. In 2000, it was ranked 34 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Dance Songs, and Rushen still gets a regular stream of requests from artists who want to sample it in their work. It was a phenomenon before it ever hit TikTok. So, when Rushen heard it was trending on the video sharing app, she probably shrugged as she said, “OK, that’s nice.”
Then, her daughter said, “Mom, are you watching TikTok?” Her website developer in the Netherlands asked, “Are you seeing what’s going on worldwide?” And Rushen learned the dance challenge had gone viral — with tens of millions of views.
“It’s crazy when I think back to what we had to do to just give the song a chance to get out there,” said Rushen, who co-wrote the song with bassist Freddie Washington and songwriter Terri McFaddin. “The record company, those many years ago, didn’t hear it. They didn’t like it. We put our pennies together and paid for three weeks of independent promotion just to get it to the radio stations. And it took off.”
“Forget Me Nots” peaked on the Billboard Top 40 pop chart at No. 23, the R&B chart at No. 4 and the dance chart at No. 2.
“It just kept going, going, going, worldwide,” Rushen said. “And it just keeps going on. So here we come back around, and it’s on TikTok. But this time, what’s so cool about it for me is that I’m the one being the hashtag now. I’m getting the credit, whereas before people used to associate it with something else.”
Rushen can’t help but be amazed.
“This has been really cool to see the dances worldwide,” she said. “I’m saying, wow, this is like I’m living the dream, because the kind of musician that I always wanted to be was one able to share in these various worlds and dialects of music, to participate in the classical stage, jazz, dance music, R&B and pop — to just go across genres — because of the joy that all of those musics bring me. And now, that’s what I’m seeing.”
Trending in Classical and Jazz
Rushen is referring to the fact that she’s “trending” in the classical and jazz worlds right now, too. One of her symphonic pieces, “Sinfonia,” was part of Symphony Tacoma’s Oct. 23 season-opening program (and first post-pandemic concert), along with Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. She is also working on three commissions: a piece for jazz nonet for the Detroit Chamber Wind and Strings as part of the Resonate project with the Carr Center in which seven American composers explore the African diaspora, scheduled to premiere next May; and two pieces for Key to Change’s young persons’ violin ensemble, set to debut in January 2022.
“From one side of the musical spectrum to the other,” Rushen said, “I’m enjoying the beautiful feeling of having my music in so many places, for so many people, all discovering what fun I’m having and defining some joy for themselves in it, too.”
Quinton Morris started the Key to Change studio to provide music instruction to underserved youth in Washington. Outreach has always been a priority for Rushen, who shares her time and talents with the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ GRAMMY in the Schools program and other organizations dedicated to music education and mentorship for inner-city youth.
A classically trained pianist who earned her degree at USC and later studied orchestration and conducting, Rushen wrote her first symphony, “Sinfonia,” in 1999 after decades of working with smaller ensembles.
“The piece was really a reaction to not having the full palette of orchestral instruments,” Rushen said. “I wanted to use every color.”
After she wrote the first movement to “Sinfonia,” she was literally boxing it up — “I had my cathartic moment and said, ‘OK, cool. It’s out of my system now.’” — when composer William Banfield called to chat and discovered what she’d written. He encouraged her to enter a reading competition with an orchestra, hosted by the American Composer’s Forum with members of St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. St. Paul and the Detroit Symphony chose her work to perform.
A Model for What’s Possible
Patrice Rushen has seemingly done it all. She signed with the Prestige record label at 17, Elektra at 23 and has recorded 13 solo albums. A three-time GRAMMY Award nominee in R&B and jazz, she has also enjoyed a long career as a film and television composer and as a record producer for the likes of Sheena Easton. She became the first woman to serve as head composer and musical director for the Emmy Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, the People’s Choice Awards and Comic Relief V. She later added the GRAMMYs to her musical direction resume. Indeed, there are far too many career accomplishments to list.
Given the depth and breadth of her work across genres and generations, Rushen is a model for the kind of multifaceted career USC Thornton students are encouraged to build.
“If I’m a model,” she said, “it’s a model for what’s possible.”
As a professor and mentor, Rushen educates and inspires her students to find their passion and purpose, to understand the “sometimes painfully slow and gradual” process (even for GRAMMY nominees) of building a career step by step and to embrace Thornton’s spirit of community.
“In the popular music program, we need to take care of each other, lift each other up and inspire one another,” Rushen said.
She believes Thornton and the popular music program have been able to encourage all of those things, while giving students opportunities and exposure to different techniques, ideas and musical styles. The school is unique in that every genre is represented and students can collaborate and build diverse networks.
“Having the kind of diverse interests and expertise within the faculty ranks at Thornton has allowed for a rare kind of communication,” said Rushen who, for example, has brought her symphonic work into composition classes for professors and students to analyze the orchestration techniques.
“That communication has brought a modern awareness to the table to enhance the music education of the 21st century,” Rushen said. “Music education requires a certain interdisciplinary consciousness and awareness of the intersection of all of the different kinds of music. And we’re doing it.”
Shortly after visionary founder Glorya Kaufman made her gift to establish the University of Southern California’s School of Dance in 2012, Dean Robert Cutietta, Founding Director Jodie Gates and Glorya Kaufman herself flew to Frankfurt, Germany to meet with William Forsythe, one of the dance world’s foremost choreographers. According to Cutietta, their purpose was to seek his advice on starting a new dance school.
From their ensuing conversations, it was clear that Forsythe’s enthusiasm and vision for the future of dance would help create the foundation of a unique and influential school. A year after that visit, Forsythe officially joined USC Kaufman as the recipient of the inaugural Claude and Alfred Mann Endowed Professorship in Dance and became a major force in laying the groundwork for the School of Dance.
An influential partnership begins
Forsythe and Kaufman have enjoyed a collaboration of the heart since that first encounter. She recalls having dinner with Gates and Forsythe at her favorite restaurant, Il Piccolino, when Forsythe signed his contract with USC. “I screamed with joy,” she said. “Bill knew how much his involvement meant to me from a deeply personal perspective, as well as the stature we both knew he would bring the project. He wanted me to be there for that moment.”
In addition to “sharing wonderful conversations over dinner,” one of Kaufman’s favorite memories during Forsythe’s time at the School of Dance included an “unforgettable Cinderella moment,” in which the two danced together at USC Kaufman’s opening on October 5, 2016. According to Kaufman, “few people at his level are as thoughtful and generous as Bill. I treasure him and all that he has brought to our new school, to our students and to the future of dance.”
Cutietta also spoke to Forsythe’s generosity of spirit. “He cared so deeply about the school and the students that he was in the classroom with them on the very first class of the very first day that the school opened in fall 2015,” he said.
The School of Dance opens its doors
Gates, who has known Forsythe since she was 18 years old, recalls standing with him that first day in the USC Physical Education Building, where dance majors took classes until the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center opened in fall 2016. In the empty studio, they were preparing to co-teach ballet for the first time. Gates remembers holding her breath, waiting for the inaugural Class of 2019 to show up ready to dance.
“We were just hoping that the vision was going to work,” she said. “I have taught ballet classes my whole career, but both of us were nervous. I remember how beautiful it was as we were circling the room. He was on one side and I was on the other. I’d give the combinations, and he’d be coaching. I realized this is such a beautiful space to be in with this very reciprocal respect for one another.”
When the School of Dance officially opened its doors in 2015, Glorya Kaufman’s generosity ensured that future students would experience the joy and intellect of dance through its BFA program. She applauded Forsythe’s early contributions to USC Kaufman as an internationally acclaimed artist.
“Bill Forsythe made a name for himself on a global scale, yet returned to the United States to teach a new generation of artists and thought leaders,” Kaufman said. “He promotes reinvention through his groundbreaking work in ballet. This empowers students in the classroom and beyond. His time at USC produced a refreshed approach to collegiate dance that cannot be found anywhere else.”
Providing foundational knowledge
Forsythe played an integral role in providing foundational knowledge for USC Kaufman in its infancy. From the beginning, Forsythe has imparted his modern wisdom on the School of Dance in his approaches to ballet, improv, composition and more. Now, as he prepares to move on from USC Kaufman after this semester, his colleagues celebrate his lasting impact.
Saleemah E. Knight, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Dance, joined USC Kaufman as a Founding Faculty Member in its early days. She remembers regular conversations with Forsythe in her office centered on the trajectory between contemporary ballet and jazz, her specialty, at the School of Dance. Through their collaboration, Knight understood Forsythe’s intent to provide young dancers with more agency in the studio by deconstructing the traditional, strict standards of ballet.
“He made dance accessible to all bodies. He saw all the students in the room as their own unique, valuable individual,” Knight said. “Everyone in the professional world knows him as William Forsythe, but at USC Kaufman he’s Grandpa Bill. He didn’t have an air of superiority with the students. He kept a sense of professionalism, and also made the students feel very comfortable talking to him.”
Broadening “The New Movement”
Like Knight, Jackie Kopcsak, Assistant Dean of Faculty, acknowledged that Forsythe championed greater autonomy for students in the classroom. Kopcsak also noted that this practice can be rare in the ballet world, but it smoothly aligned with “The New Movement,” USC Kaufman’s model for dance education. She also explained that during his time at the School of Dance, Forsythe envisioned the interplay of distinct disciplines. Even as a ballet maker, he was a strong advocate for the addition of hip-hop to USC Kaufman’s curriculum, Kopcsak said.
“Bill appreciated the musicality and improvisational elements of the hip-hop cypher,” she said. “Those things coupled with his philosophy about improvisation, composition and music fit perfectly with our hip-hop curriculum. It made this interesting synergy with the best of both worlds. His legacy is for us to continue to bring what can feel like the binary, these extreme opposites of ballet and hip-hop, together to meet.”
Shaping artist scholars
At USC Kaufman, the faculty aims to build their students into artist scholars. These are intellectual dancers thinking in real time about their work and offering input to professors as they learn. Margo Apostolos, a Professor of Dance, saw this goal in Forsythe’s approach with students.
“Working with Bill Forsythe has been a true privilege and honor,” she said. “I have enjoyed watching him work with our dancers as he broadened their creativity and inspired their work. As a colleague, I most enjoyed my conversations with Bill and exchanging ideas and laughter.”
Forsythe’s legacy at USC Kaufman
Cutietta recognizes the enduring influence Forsythe leaves on the school and its curriculum. His insight has cultivated modern techniques that revolve around student curiosity and growth that shapes USC Kaufman’s path forward.
“Bill Forsythe is skilled not only at articulating his vision, but also in helping students understand their true potential. His presence has contributed to new discoveries in the studio and widened the scope of ‘The New Movement.’ He has been fully engaged in their learning and we are forever grateful for his contributions to USC Kaufman.”
Forsythe’s latest project with CLI Studios, “The Barre Project (Blake Works II),” premieres March 25 and March 27, 2021. Watch the trailer below and RSVP for live streaming here.
Associate Professor of Theatre Practice John DeMita loops students and alumni in with his Netflix directorial projects.
Step into the booth of a recording studio with Associate Professor of Theatre Practice John DeMita and you’ll soon realize that well-dubbed voice work is an artform that takes a tremendous amount of skill.
“The dubber must not only honor the choices of the actor on screen, but also create a completely natural and personal performance of their own. It is very much the balance of intuition and technique, just like any form of acting on stage or screen,” he explains.
A seasoned voice actor, as well as a screen and stage actor and director, DeMita has lent his voice to hundreds of television series, films and video games, while teaching and directing at USC. His most recent role, however, is serving as a voice director for Netflix International Originals.
For Netflix, DeMita works with original talent and local voice actors to create English language dubs for films and television shows worldwide. Projects include films My Happy Family (Georgia), The Resistance Banker (Netherlands); and television shows Bordertown (Finland) and My Holo Love (Korea); among others.
During a typical recording session, DeMita shows the voice actor the scene in the original language while their lines scroll at the bottom in English. He then discusses major events of the scene, with a particular attention to transitions and beat changes, and other details like the distance between actors and background noises.
“Successful voice acting involves breath and articulation control, textual and rhetorical analysis, rigorous focus, and fearless improvisation,” says DeMita, citing that all of these as invaluable skills students learn at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. That’s why the professor looks to alumni and students when he is casting for voice work.
“While the job is matching someone else’s voice, there’s so much more than just the voice that goes into creating any performance. So being able to feel out another actor’s physical experience while voicing the English words is helpful,” Connor Kelly-Eiding BFA ’11 says.
The alumna — who auditioned and landed the English dub role for lead character Lea on Netflix’s We Are the Wave — has found her theatre training helpful in this line of work. At USC, she not only refined her ability to cold read, and maintain focus and presence, but also found that “there is a bodily awareness instilled by theatrical training that definitely comes in handy [with dubbing].”
While a student at SDA, Evan Macedo BA ’20 was cast in the Spanish melodrama Elite as the English dub for principal character Ander, as well as voice work for We Are the Wave.
“John’s voice class taught me all the skills, vocabulary and mindset to be able to confidently walk into any booth and understand what is expected of me,” he says.
For Angie Sarkisyan BA ’19, working with the familiar presence in a professional setting allowed her to excel.
“Going in, I knew I was in good hands even though I was really nervous. It was John’s talent as a director and the love he has for the art that really helped me to get out of my head and do my best,” says Sarkisyan about her voice work as Zazie on We Are the Wave. She also worked with DeMita on a second Netflix project, the recently premiered Brazilian drama Good Morning, Verônica.
With COVID-19 altering the process, DeMita now works from home to limit the number of people in studio. His office looks a lot like NASA mission control, he says, with numerous mics and monitors. In one of the bedrooms, he even has a recording booth set up.
For the German series Dark, all of the actors recorded from home — including Associate Professor of Theatre Practice Laura Flanagan, who was cast as a new character in the series. Some were equipped with professional booths, while others recorded from their bedroom closets.
“It was a constant challenge, negotiating internet speeds and ambient noises, but with the help of an excellent mixer, the show sounds great,” DeMita says.
While directing the show, DeMita spent his evenings directing an Asian American voice cast in the dub of the Korean film Time to Hunt. “It was an intense period, working 10-hour days, trying to make up for the lost time due to the first weeks of COVID,” he says.
Being a professor and a practitioner of the craft, DeMita has kept a busy schedule, to say the least, but both have kept his career fulfilling.
“In [their] senior year, my students focus on developing a deep understanding of why they have chosen to be artists. That answer for me has always been a need to help others tell their stories. Teaching has allowed me to do that for my entire career and I am very grateful.”
USC Dornsife’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies has a new director, and he aims to enlist the full spectrum of natural, social and behavioral sciences as well as the humanities to help ensure a more sustainable future.
Joe Árvai was a newly minted marine scientist in the late ’90s when he stood before a small crowd to tell them about the danger of excessive underwater nutrients. The phenomenon, known as eutrophication, breeds bacteria that monopolize oxygen, suffocating aquatic animals.
Gathered as they were near an estuary on the Frasier River in British Columbia, Árvai assumed the people who had come to hear his presentation would be interested in what he had to say.
“It struck me that peoples’ minds were already made up whether the problem was serious or even existed,” Árvai said. “People knew where they stood on the issue regardless of what I said.”
It was at that moment that Árvai realized that facts weren’t enough to advance good science or effective policy.
He had to find a way to break through people’s preconceived notions, prejudices, political biases and other cognitive barriers to help them understand environmental science, which was already flashing a bright red warning light.
So he enrolled in the University of British Columbia, not to study more marine science, but to earn his Ph.D. in a branch of psychology that looks at how people assess risk and make decisions.
Move quickly to ensure a livable future
Amber Miller, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, saw incredible potential for the College to carve out a new space in environmental research.
Other research universities were building initiatives focused on science and engineering to improve things like solar and battery technologies. Indeed, USC Dornsife was conducting its own promising research in these areas. And Dornsife social science researchers were advancing economic theories to create a more sustainable environment and exploring issues of politics, policy, and environmental justice. Its humanists were putting environmentalism into context.
Miller’s vision was to leverage all of the College’s unique strengths to create something entirely new.
Over the past four years, she and her team have been erecting the building blocks for her vision: hiring and retaining the best faculty; building the Academy in the Public Square initiative that encourages faculty to share their expertise with the public; launching Public Exchange, which matches scholars with the private and public sectors to solve societal challenges; initiating the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future; and forming collaborations with USC’s professional schools.
Properly combined, these assets will enable the college to tackle one of the great unanswered questions of our time: How can we move faster, on an individual and societal level, to avoid global environmental catastrophe?
“Preserving our natural environment is not just a question of science. It is a question of politics, of policy, and of our societal capacity to respond before it is too late,” said Miller. “We need to find ways to break through the roadblocks that prevent more meaningful action.”
Miller realized that USC Dornsife’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies could lead this multidisciplinary initiative to look at the entire spectrum of environmental research with a special emphasis on understanding how to more quickly establish policies and practices aimed at ensuring a livable future. The institute was already conducting environmental research, and its mission included connecting science with environmental policy.
But it needed a leader who was versed in both environmental science and human behavior.
West to greener pastures
It’s Oct. 27, 2020 and Árvai has been driving alone for several days. He started out in Detroit, and he’s not far from Laramie, Wyoming. It’s Big Sky Country, but today’s sky is obscured by light snow and some hail. He’d prefer to be riding his BMW R1200 if it weren’t so cold, and if it could carry all the belongs that are piled into his car.
He’s heading west and expects to arrive in Los Angeles in a few days to take up the position as Dana and David Dornsife Chair and professor of psychology, and director of the Wrigley Institute.
“I was drawn to the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, not only because of the work it had done in the past around marine and environmental science, but because of the potential there to be so much more when it comes to lighting the way on broad sustainability,” he said during a break from driving.
Árvai said the Wrigley Institute has an exciting opportunity to “fill a gap between really interesting high-quality work on the natural science side … [and] a real opportunity to inject a needed, heavy dose of social and behavioral science as well, to really truly do interdisciplinary work at the interface of environment and people.”
Árvai, who left his position as director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, is also excited by the willingness of California, especially L.A., to invent a more sustainable way of living. He can try things, and get things done, here that he can’t elsewhere.
But more than anything, it was USC’s growing ambition to become a powerhouse for innovative environmental research that caused him to pack his bags.
“Amber [Miller’s] vision and leadership really sold it for me,” he said. “Couple that with President [Carol L.] Folt’s commitment to sustainability, and it seemed like kind of the perfect storm of opportunity that a scientist like me dreams of.”
“The planet is talking to us”
Árvai divides sciences into two broad categories. The first encompasses the fundamental research to understand a given phenomenon. The second is use-inspired science, whereby researchers test solutions to a particular challenge. He wants the Wrigley Institute to combine the two.
That will take some doing. The Wrigley Institute and its antecedents have been home to marine scientists since the turn of the 20th century. And while it has undertaken a growing amount of terrestrial research, it has engaged less with the social sciences and humanities.
“We need to turn the Wrigley Institute into a hub that attracts researchers from across the natural, social, and behavioral sciences,” Árvai said. “But we can’t stop there; we need to give them a platform whereby their work can inspire and accelerate social and environmental change.”
Stemming from his own research, Árvai says there is an urgent need for scientists to bridge the gap between identifying problems and offering solutions. “To get from the diagnosis of a problem to the implementation of any potential solution, people inevitably need to make some tough decisions,” Árvai said. “Figuring out how to best support those decisions, and the tradeoffs that are central to them, is what we’re setting the Wrigley Institute up to do.”
Considering the severity of the sustainability challenges facing California, the United States, and rest of the world, Árvai and his team at the Wrigley Institute have their work cut out for them. Not only is the work vital, many see it as long overdue.
“The planet is talking to us, and more and more scientists, policy-makers and people are listening,” he said.
But, before hanging up the phone and continuing his drive to L.A., he added: “The problem is, listening isn’t enough anymore. We need to get to work.”
Emily Cooperdock, assistant professor of Earth sciences, has hiked the Appalachian trail, studied rocks in the Swiss Alps and Oman, and is building a lab at USC Dornsife aimed at revealing new information about Earth’s history
Hundreds of millions of years ago, beneath the ocean’s crust, a beautiful green stone forms. Rocks rich in iron and magnesium, altered by heat, water and pressure, turn the color of jade. Time passes, the planet’s plates shift, and ridges of the material push up along fault lines, making it accessible to humans — and their ingenuity.
Ancient Artic indigenous tribes carved bowls out of it, into which they poured seal fat to create oil lamps. It earned the name “serpentinite” for its slippery similarity to snakeskin. Modern architects, admiring its color and resemblance to marble, cut columns of the stone and installed them on the USC campus, at the USC Admission Center, where visitors can still view them today.
The columns help USC feel just a bit more like home for new faculty member Emily Cooperdock, assistant professor of Earth sciences at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Serpentinite happens to be at the center of her research. “I’ve kind of made my name on studying serpentinites,” she says.
As a Ph.D. student, she studied the metamorphic rock around the world, from ancient ocean basins high up in the Swiss Alps to the Arabian Peninsula. “Oman is really famous for having the largest slice of what was once oceanic crust that was thrust up onto the continent and is now just totally exposed,” she explains. “You can walk through miles of these mantle rocks.”
At the USC Dornsife Colleges of Letters, Arts and Sciences, her new USC Helium Lab focuses on innovative ways to date minerals, using the decay of uranium and thorium to measure the age of rocks, which produce helium during that decay (hence the lab’s name).
“In my Ph.D., I worked on figuring out new methods for dating minerals and rocks to ask questions that weren’t accessible before because we didn’t have a method to figure it out. Now, I’m setting up my lab to use these techniques to date rocks and measure chemistry, to ask big picture questions about plate tectonics: how things have moved in the past and how they change over time,” says Cooperdock.
Her work could help us better understand our planet’s geological history, unlock information about earthquakes and volcanoes and, in the future, enable us to understand the plate tectonics of planets across the solar system.
A family affair
Cooperdock spent her childhood split between an army base in Germany, where her mother worked, and New York, where her father is a professor of Earth sciences at Columbia University.
She enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia with the intention of focusing on environmental advocacy. “I thought I wanted to be an environmental scientist and work on conservation issues.”
As she moved towards graduation, her interest in minerals grew. This burgeoning passion was first sparked by an earlier experience with AmeriCorps. She took a gap year between high school and college, clearing trails and restoring natural habitat with the Nevada Conservation Corps.
“What I found was that I was really, really enthralled by geology and being able to read the rocks. We’d go out to national parks a lot, we’d see these arches and all these really cool features, and they were super mysterious and beautiful. Now I go and I see geological processes. I can decode it all.”
In 2017, she received her Ph.D. in geological sciences from The University of Texas at Austin, then headed to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for postdoctoral work. Shortly after, she accepted her current position at USC Dornsife, moving once again. As an Army brat, she wasn’t particularly phased by this. “I’ve moved maybe every five years of my life,” she says, laughing.
By her side for this entire journey has been her husband. They met at age 17, on a summer job building hiking trails in Virginia. The two convinced their parents to allow them to take that gap year with AmeriCorps together, and they maintained a relationship while undergraduates at different universities (he at the University of Maine).
Their love of trails has remained consistent over the years. “We finally got to be in the same place after graduating from college and we hiked the Appalachian Trail together,” recounts Cooperdock. “We had to wait out flooding in Pennsylvania because of tropical storm Lee, and we got trapped in New York City because there was a tropical storm. We got ambushed by ice and snow unexpectedly and had a night where we woke up to everything being frozen.” Despite the tumultuous weather, the 2,200-mile journey was the adventure of a life time for the two.
As her career grew, so did the Cooperdock family. “I defended my Ph.D. while pregnant, moved, started a postdoc and then had my daughter a month and a half into postdoctoral research.”
The trail blazer
Cooperdock says her rock and mineral research, while fascinating, can seem disconnected from real-world problems. “If I’m being completely honest, my work is not directly relevant to everyday life. That’s always bothered me. I happen to be very passionate about this science, but I don’t want to spend my life decoupled from making the world a better place. That tripped me up for a long time and then, finally, I realized I can just do it anyway.”
She’s determined to promote equity, inclusion and diversity in the Earth sciences. She helped friend and fellow Earth scientist Rachel Bernard, whom she met while a Ph.D. student, write a paper published in Nature Geosciences in 2018. It highlights the persistent lack of diversity in earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences.
“Only in the past decade have we started to approach some sort of gender parity in the fields of Earth and oceanic science, where about the same number of women as men are earning Ph.D.s. But if we look at racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, we’ve seen effectively no change in the past forty years,” Cooperdock says.
Their paper has kicked up conversation across the field. “Since writing this, I now have these discussions with a lot of people as I travel around, from graduate students, to department chairs at different universities to deans.”
As she builds her lab at USC, she’s working on ways to create a space that embraces those values. “When I send out my ads for students, I list that we’re looking for someone who’s interested in these topics scientifically. Also, that we support working on issues surrounding diversity, inclusion and equity. What I’ve found is that almost all the postdocs and Ph.D. students who contact me reference that part of the ad.
“My level of power, influence and responsibility has changed dramatically in the past two and a half years,” she said. “I’m figuring out how I can use my position to affect the most positive change.”
Her time on the Appalachian Trail taught her important lessons about perseverance, no matter what project she tackled. She encourages her students with this philosophy as they work towards their own academic goals.
“Sometimes you’re wet, you’re cold, you’re tired, you’re bored, you have that feeling of ‘I just want to sit here and I don’t want to do it anymore.’ Well, if you just sit there, then you’re going to be in the same situation in an hour and two hours and 12 hours,” she says.
“The only thing that’s worth doing when you’re feeling like that is to put one foot in front of the other and keep on going. Even if it doesn’t look great in this short view that you have, you’re moving toward this larger goal. Once you hit a hard spot, you’ve just got to keep on walking forward at whatever pace you can manage and you will get to a better place.”
The rise and rise of CAIS++, the student branch of USC’s Center for AI in Society, where undergraduate students are using artificial intelligence to tackle projects with environmental and social impact.
From preserving and protecting endangered languages to helping doctors detect signs of lung cancer, USC students involved in CAIS++, the student branch of USC’s Center for AI in Society, are finding new ways to approach problems and improve people’s lives through artificial intelligence.
“Our belief is that AI can and should be used to solve society’s grand challenges, especially where traditional technology has fallen short,” said Head of Projects Leena Mathur, a computer science and cognitive science major in her junior year.
Mathur joined the club in her first semester and recently wrapped up a summer research internship in machine learning at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. She says she probably wouldn’t have landed her dream internship without her experience in CAIS++.
“What really spoke to me was the sense of community we have as a club,” said Mathur.
“Everyone is so passionate about sharing their love for AI, and it makes us all more knowledgeable – it’s important to be surrounded by a community of people who support you.”
If you build it, they will come
Computer science senior Lucas Hu established CAIS++, the first student club of its kind in the country, during his freshman year in 2016, when he noticed many undergraduate students were interested in AI for social good. What started as a small group of eight freshmen from Hu’s dorm is now a thriving club, with 50 active members.
“People are so excited about their projects, they take the idea and run with it,” said Hu, who plans to join a “moonshot startup” after graduation, potentially focusing on using drones to deliver medical aid in Africa.
“It’s hugely rewarding to be part of a community that cares about lasting impact of technology and seeing people grow during their time with the club.”
The team meets once a week for student-led mini-tutorials based on the curriculum developed by the students in collaboration with faculty advisors. Each semester, a new cohort walks through an introductory AI curriculum, complete with online lessons and in-person coding workshops.
Preserving endangered languages
Members are able to choose projects that interest them. As a member, Hu’s team developed AI algorithms to detect signs of lung cancer in 3D scans, while Mathur is part of a team working with USC Dornsife linguistics Professor Khalil Iskarous to speed up the process of transcribing endangered languages. Experts say a fifth of humanity’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, with one language going extinct about every two weeks.
The team, which has been working on the project since January 2019, is using partially labelled audio data in an endangered language called Ladin, mainly spoken in the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy, as training and test data. The ultimate goal is to develop a model that could be applied to any human language with limited changes.
“The CAIS++ students are some of the brightest student I have met,” said professor Iskarous, who meets with the team on a weekly basis.
“They’re brilliant and they bring very different skillsets to the table, from math to neuroscience to computer science and machine learning to linguistics and philosophy. I think working for the public good really motivates and inspires people and I’ve seen real evidence of that working with this team.”
Bistra Dilkina, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor in computer science and CAIS associate director, developed her new undergraduate course, “Artificial Intelligence for Social Good,” this semester after speaking with members of CAIS++ leadership and realizing how much interest there was among USC undergraduates to learn about AI for social good.
“I have been impressed at the initiative, self-drive and passion for AI and social impact shown by the CAIS++ leadership and members,” said Dilkina.
“CAIS++ is an important student club because it raises awareness about the ability of AI to benefit some of the most pressing societal challenges among our undergraduate populations, hopefully inspiring them to learn AI and be good global citizens at the same time.”
Diversity is a big focus for CAIS++. Currently, around half the club’s members are computer science majors, with other members focusing on electrical engineering, astronautical engineering, neuroscience and linguistics.
“My favorite thing about CAIS++ is the drive towards an interdisciplinary engineering effort,” said Lauren Potterat, a senior in astronautical engineering with a specialization in computer science who worked on a project to identify wildlife poachers using artificial intelligence.
“The organization caters to, and was founded with the intent to unite a vast array of majors under a similar technical toolkit: artificial intelligence. In this way, business, finance, computer science, astronautics, social work and humanities bring a diverse mind and skillset in the pursuit of solutions to societal problems.”
This year, the club is partnering with the USC Sydney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study to run talks on the intersection between technology and humanity, especially with regards to the future of AI. Open workshops will also be on offer for those interested in learning some of the basics of machine learning.
“I am keen to reaffirm the positive potential of AI to students and the community,” said the club’s incoming president Benjamin Brooks.
“CAIS++ is about providing access to machine learning for those who might not have the opportunity to otherwise learn and apply their skills. We are working to build a more welcoming community for students who would otherwise be under-represented in the industry.”
“Lawyers were literally on the front lines,” she said. Researching the plight of refugees — many of them victims of human rights abuses — she realized the pivotal role attorneys can play in seeking justice for some of the most brutal abuse.
“My research showed that lawyers could not only significantly help protect refugees from human rights abuses, but empower them to claim their rights.”
“It was a life-changing experience,” she said. “My research showed that lawyers could not only significantly help protect refugees from human rights abuses, but empower them to claim their rights. After my time there, I knew I wanted to be an international human rights attorney.”
Now a clinical professor at the USC Gould School of Law, Garry helped establish the first legal aid clinic for refugees in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Twenty years in, the clinic continues to change lives — assisting refugees fleeing neighboring countries and representing them before the United Nations and the Ugandan government.
International human rights lawyers at work
These days, Garry spends her time training fledgling attorneys through USC Gould’s International Human Rights Clinic. Since founding the clinic in 2011, Garry has supervised more than 60 students working with international criminal tribunals and prosecuting mass atrocities. Domestically, they have represented survivors of human rights abuses, including human trafficking victims and human rights defenders.
“We are dedicated to using the law to fight for ideals of truth, justice and reconciliation,” she said. “Human rights must be upheld and fought for with fierce determination.”
Garry grew up in a farming town of 5,000 people in rural Illinois, the oldest of six children. It wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she first ventured beyond the Midwest. International law was initially not on her radar.
But from an early age she dreamed of being a lawyer.
“I grew up in low-income circumstances,” she said. “I thought that if I became an attorney, I would always have financial security, and I knew that I wanted to help people.
“Although my parents had limited means, they were really good at teaching us about the importance of volunteering and taking care of others,” Garry said. “I knew that I also wanted to serve others with my law degree.”
Intrigued by international human rights
Garry was the first in her family to attend college, graduating summa cum laude from Wheaton College with majors in history and political science.
Intrigued by international human rights after interning with a human rights advocacy group in Washington D.C., she went on to earn master’s degrees in forced migration studies from Oxford and in international affairs from Columbia University, before completing her JD at the University of California, Berkeley. At Boalt Hall, she was managing editor of the Berkeley Journal of International Law and was active in the International Human Rights Law Clinic.
But in the middle of her graduate studies, Garry took a detour to Uganda.
Crimes against humanity were in the headlines, both in Africa and Europe.
“I wanted to get some life experience,” she said.
“It was the Rwandan genocide, and it was the conflict in the Balkans. At the time, it was the worse refugee crisis since World War II,” she recalled.
Over the next 18 months, Garry implemented sociolegal field research into the protection of refugees under international law in Uganda and Kenya, where she was a field researcher with Oxford and Makerere University in Kampala.
International human rights lawyers: The next generation
Garry is focused on training the next generation of international human rights lawyers.
After completing her JD in 2002, she went to work for the international courts, also known as tribunals. Garry was first a legal officer with the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and deputy chief of staff for the presidency of the ICTY. After entering academia, she has provided legal advice to international judges as a visiting professor at the International Criminal Court and a senior legal adviser to the Cambodia Tribunal.
“Working in international criminal courts gives you a unique global perspective,” Garry said. “Justice can, at times, move slowly in these complex cases, but the hope is that through the process, truth and reconciliation are achieved for victims and affected societies.”
She also has experience in U.S. courts, having clerked for the Hon. Rosemary Barkett on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, who is now an international judge on the Iran U.S. Claims Tribunal. Her private-sector experience includes work as an associate at Freshfields, Bruckhaus, Deringer LLP, where she practiced in international arbitration, dispute resolution and public international law groups.
Since 2010, Garry has focused on training the next generation of international human rights lawyers. In 2015, she was the recipient of the USC Mellon Award for Faculty Mentoring Graduate Students, a top recognition for USC faculty members. To date, she has helped nearly 40 USC Gould students to obtain competitive human rights fellowships and internships abroad.
Her next goal is to take USC Gould students to the clinic she helped establish in Uganda more than 20 years ago, building on experience gained this year in Beirut, Lebanon, where students represented four Syrian and Iranian refugee families in need of resettlement due to serious security threats and medical needs.
“It would be a dream come true,” she said, “to take my students to the Kampala clinic and have them also assist refugees in East Africa.”
And a chance to show them firsthand how lawyering can be life-saving work.
Anne DeSalvo had never been to the Middle Eastern country before; her experience there was not what she expected — in a good way.
When Anne DeSalvo, an instructor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, got the call to go to Saudi Arabia to teach acting, she was a bit surprised. DeSalvo, who has performed in TV and film, knew about the country’s history of media censorship.
It recently lifted its ban on movie theaters, which had been outlawed since the early ’80s. Much of film and TV there is consumed through DVDs or streaming.
DeSalvo was invited by the Saudi government to host a four-day workshop, which would go over everything from improvisation to acting out scenes and included a screening of The King’s Speech. It was part of an arts and cultural festival called Colors of Saudi, hosted by its tourism bureau.
It was her first trip to the country and felt like an opportunity to learn more about a nation sometimes closed off from the west and for her to share her experience as a performer. DeSalvo has performed on Broadway and starred in TV shows and films, such as Entourage, Monk and the 1980 Woody Allen picture Stardust Memories.
Enthusiastic students in acting class in Saudi Arabia
The country’s entertainment industry is still heavily censored and small, and most of DeSalvo’s students there — professionals in their 20s and 30s — weren’t planning to be professional actors or producers. Still, she said the students were some of the most enthusiastic she’s ever taught.
“No one ever missed a class. Everybody was so into it and laughing and enjoying themselves.”
“No one ever missed a class,” she said. “Everybody was so into it and laughing and enjoying themselves.”
The December workshop had 19 men and a few women, a less diverse group than she had hoped for but still a sign of progress for a country that’s slowly increasing the rights of its women. Last year, the nation lifted its ban on women driving and in recent years has seen women take on roles in law.
But progress is slow-moving. While the majority of its university students are women, they only make up about 17 percent of the country’s workforce, according to 2016 statistics from the International Labour Organization. For the most part, women can only work among other women and must have a guardian’s consent. Until last year, women weren’t allowed to attend sporting events at stadiums; now they can, but with segregated seating.
DeSalvo had to work around the strict traditions of the Islamic country, such as women not touching men outside their family. At first, she thought this would make scenes — such as between lovers or partners — difficult. But she found scenes where emotion was more nuanced.
Two days of acting classes were followed by two days of filming, where students got the feeling of being part of a production.
“They said to me, ‘You know, you’ve taken us so far in such a small time,’” she said.
Although she was only there for eight days, she said it gave her a small glimpse into a country that’s generally in the headlines due to conflict or controversy. She went shortly after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Saudi government allegedly orchestrated.
“I had never been around people who were so generous charming and educated,” she said. “[I told someone] my experience of the Saudi people was so different than what I perceived coming here. He said, ‘We hear this a lot.’”
Acting class in Saudi Arabia: “Arts diplomacy”
Jay Wang, director of the Center of Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, said trips like this are dubbed “arts diplomacy” in his world — an opportunity for a nation-to-nation exchange at a micro level.
“The arts as a form of communication is more capable of revealing emotional truths about us as human beings.”
“The arts as a form of communication is more capable of revealing emotional truths about us as human beings,” he said of opportunities like the acting workshop. “It doesn’t matter what culture you live in.”
It also allows us to connect in a way that’s tangential to larger conversations happening perhaps at the state department level. There are other examples of this, like when famous musicians visit countries, called music diplomacy, prompting international conversations.
“This type of narrative medium allows us to develop empathy,” he said.
When it comes to do’s and don’ts of the cultural exchange, he says that both go in with a set of preconceived notions. The important thing is awareness.
“We always bring our own cultural biases. The beautiful thing with art is it probably makes them more aware of that,” he said. “We can see other cultures and other places both in our own light but also through their lenses.”
In fact, research shows that getting to know someone unlike you — dubbed “contact theory” — increases your awareness and understanding of another culture or background, he said.
That can be through high school or university exchanges, job placements or contact with the arts, he said.
USC-trained medical clowns believe laughter can bring foster families together
It is Saturday morning and a little boy in an orange shirt and blue shorts squeals with laughter. He has just spotted a group of familiar friends headed his way.
The 3-year-old drops the plastic toy he is playing with and sprints toward a group of people wearing colorful clothes, oversized shoes and big red noses.
“We’re three clowns running into the room, singing and dancing,” said recent USC graduate Casey Dunn. He is part of a group of theatrical performers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ medical clowning program that uses drama therapy to help bring healing and well-being to patients. “All of a sudden, that’s their world for as long as we’re in the room.”
That room is usually inside a hospital for seriously ill children, but today the clowning program is somewhere it has never been before: the Children’s Bureau. The children’s advocacy group is the largest investor in child abuse prevention in the country, contracted with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to provide adoption promotion and support services for adoptive families and children in foster care.
“This collaboration with USC is incredible,” said Sean Sparks, program coordinator at the bureau. “It’s something I would have never thought of, but it makes perfect sense. It’s like this blessing from the universe.”
With a grant from USC Arts in Action, an initiative created by the Office of the Provost that supports positive social change through the arts, the clowning program has partnered with the Children’s Bureau to bring medical clowning into their mental health programming and provide a space for affected children to receive emotional and transitional support.
Together, USC and the Children’s Bureau have launched a pilot program that will combine medical clowning and foster care with the goal of increasing the bond between the foster parent and child. The program will begin by introducing the medical clowns to a group of foster parents and a group of foster children. Eventually, the clowns will interact with both the parents and children in the same room to help the two groups bond.
“They don’t have the benefits of a parent-child biological relationship. They kind of need to get comfortable with the idea of bonding,” said Zachary Steel, assistant professor of theater practice at the School of Dramatic Arts and director of the clowning program. “The objective is to use medical clowning as a conduit to get the parents and the youth to embrace play as a bonding tool.”
That doesn’t always come naturally to foster children.
“Anytime there is a disruption in a relationship with a primary caregiver such as an early breach in attachment, research shows there’s a change in the brain. Neuropathways in the brain shift, which creates a world that is unsafe. Not only is the world unsafe, but relationships are unsafe,” Sparks said. “The thinking for a foster child is: If my birth family didn’t keep me, then why would anyone else stick around?”
Building relationships among foster families
With roughly 30,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County and 1,400 awaiting adoptive homes in L.A., parent-child bonding is essential to increasing permanency and stabilization for children within the foster care system.
In addition, many of the children in care of the L.A. County Children and Family Services who frequent the Children’s Bureau are Latino. According to the bureau, understanding cultural heritage is vital to addressing specific foster care needs.
“My focus is on helping people in the American Latino community to find and connect with their inner clown,” said medical clown Raquel Gendry, the Spanish-speaking ambassador of the troupe. “The Latino community prides itself on hard work, and sometimes the foster parents think of play as frivolous or a waste of time. I am here to remind the foster parents that it’s okay to play — not only okay but essential to bonding with their foster children.”
In addition, drama therapy promotes mental wellness.
“Play is this really safe, fun way to build relationship and connection,” Sparks said. “We believe connection leads to healing.”
Indeed, there has been a reported reduction in fear and anxiety for foster parents and children during the counseling sessions, a positive psychological phenomenon that continues long after the clowns have left the building.
“The clowns can change the energy of the room from one that is clinical and stiff to one that is more open and vulnerable,” Steel said. “The hope is that when the clown session is over, the adults and children will continue to be more open and willing to share with the counselors.”
How medical clowning can make a real impact
Katie Snyder, who graduated from the School of Dramatic Arts in 2018, said that she was thrilled when she discovered the medical clowning class because she grew up loving the arts and community service.
“It puts all my passions together,” she said. “I’m very grateful that I found this particular art form.”
Snyder said she is proud to have been a part of the first medical clowning class and encourages other students to take the course, which can lead to fulfillment inside and outside of the classroom.
“If our playful and joyful presence brightens their day even for a couple of minutes, that brings me such fulfillment,” she said. “I think the clowns send a message: No matter what, you can find time to smile.”
And according to the bureau’s program coordinator, that smile could mean the beginning of a truly transformative connection that could change the foster care system as we know it.
“This is so innovative,” Sparks said. “I feel like it’s already had a really significant impact. Medical clowning crosses language, culture, color and socio-economic status. It’s just a really exciting thing going on here.”
It will take a year before the pilot program data is collected and the research is complete, but for the medical clowns, each smile and laugh is proof positive the drama therapy is working. Medical clown Dunn recalled a specific little boy who greeted them earlier in the day.
“The first time we were here at the Children’s Bureau, he was really scared. He was very hesitant and would stand far away from us,” he said. “Versus today, he was sprinting in the room to greet us. There’s such a massive big difference in his openness to the clowns, which will translate into the rest of his life. He will have an openness to new experiences, conquering fears and realizing something really magical: a connection with other people.”
Part artist and part inventor, Phillip Sliwoski makes handcrafted pieces that keep critical USC labs running.
Phillip Sliwoski is surrounded by glass — on his desk, in cabinets, in big bins at his feet.
He’s a scientific glassblower, which means he designs the glass instruments that chemistry professors and students need for experiments. He’s been at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry for nearly 10 years and is a symbol of a fading art form.
Scientific glassblowers used to populate research universities and corporate labs across the U.S., but due to everything from budget cuts to automation, they’re increasingly scarce. The American Scientific Glassblowers Society has seen its membership drop by 50 percent since the 1970s.
But scientific glassblowers are imperative for chemists who design glassware for their unique chemical reactions. This isn’t stuff you can order in a catalog.
“I make one-of-a-kind items here,” Sliwoski said.
Sliwoski is one of only a few glassblowers left in Los Angeles — Caltech is getting a new one and California State University, Los Angeles has one part-time.
“It’s an art that’s been around for 1,000 years,” Sliwoski said. “You don’t want it to disappear … No matter what, with automation and everything, there’s stuff we still need that’s made out of glass.”
Chemistry Professor G. K. Surya Prakash said his work would literally grind to a halt if it weren’t for Sliwoski.
“All special experiments would stop if we don’t have a guy like Phil in-house,” he said. “Phil is indispensible. I can say that.”
Outsourcing would likely cost more, take longer and leave the department without someone who can make sure an object works — and repair it if needed, faculty said.
Prakash pointed out that glassblowing has always been integral to science. It used to be the norm to take graduate school courses in it. He learned his trade while attending graduate school in both India and Ohio.
“Glassblowing is an art. It takes years and years to become proficient at it,” Prakash said.
Sitting at his bench burner — a flame of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit burning in front of him — Sliwoski informs you he’s not an artist “like what you see in Venice.”
Scientific glassblowing is more exact, he said, because he’s taking parts and melting them together. But he’s also creating things never made before.
“In some ways, he’s an artist and in some ways, he’s a very sophisticated engineer,” said Chemistry Professor Mark Thompson.
Students will walk in with a complex plan or design and walk out with something much simpler, thanks to Sliwoski, he said.
“My colleagues at other schools don’t have this ability. It enables us to do things that other people just can’t do,” Thompson said. “With Phil, the sky is the limit.”
Attorney, Veteran and Trojan, Hiram W. Kwan looks back
Hiram W. Kwan (B.S. ’50, JD ’53) is an American success story.
The 96-year-old Trojan was honored recently when he received his Juris Doctorate from the USC Gould School of Law. When he originally earned his law degree in 1953, it was then known as a “Bachelor of Laws” degree. Officials at Gould wanted to make sure he had his official Juris Doctorate degree for his records.
A Full Life
Kwan was born in Cuba in 1924, when his father, Andrew Kwan, a bilingual banker from San Francisco, was tasked with opening up a bank branch there. The family returned to the states not long afterwards, and relocated to Los Angeles in 1928.
Los Angeles at that time was segregated, both by law and practice. Chinese had to live in Chinatown, and attended schools, churches and social groups made up of their own.
“I am extremely proud to be part of the Trojan family. USC has a long history and has done a lot of good for the community and leadership, to which I have dedicated my life.”
The family didn’t have a lot of money, but they worked hard and made due. The five sons and two daughters did whatever jobs they could find. Kwan worked on an asparagus farm one summer. He and his brothers would clean the local Chinese Congregational church located on 9th Street in Los Angeles without compensation.
Kwan recalled that he and his friends planned to become engineers and return to China so they could have successful careers, such was the prejudice against them in the United States. But when World II broke out, they pledged their allegiance to the U.S., and enlisted. All five brothers served in the U.S. Army during the World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars for a period up until 1973.
Kwan served in the U.S. Army as a member of a B-24 Liberator combat crew in the pacific in 1942. During his time in the Air Corps, he rose through the ranks, attaining the rank of 1st Lt. He remained in active service until 1946, and maintained a reserve status for 25 years thereafter.
After the war, like so many returning soldiers, he utilized the GI bill to further his education. He chose to study at USC, first earning a degree in business in 1950, followed by a law degree in 1953.
Kwan is the second son of four other brothers. His eldest brother Wellington, is 97, a retired immigration attorney. His younger brother, David Kwan, was a criminal attorney, and passed away a few years ago. James Kwan is a retired entrepreneur, and Leo Kwan, the youngest, has a law degree from UCLA and practiced as an anesthesiologist until he recently retired
Mr. Kwan would go on to become a distinguished immigration attorney. His long career was marked by many achievements for the public good. As a young civil servant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office—the first Chinese American to do so—Kwan brought a case against Bank of America, accusing it of making false FHA loans through its subsidiaries. He was only two years out of law school, and went against the bank’s attorneys from powerhouse firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher. In 1957 he sued the bank for punitive damages and helped the government get a $50 million settlement under the False Claim Act. He was appointed special assistant to complete this case.
He would go on to start his own office in Chinatown, eventually forming what was then the largest Chinese American law firm in Los Angeles: Kwan, Quan, Cohen and Lum. His associates and he helped innumerable immigrants, and cornered the market with their fair practices and ability to speak to Chinese immigrants in their own languages.
Eventually, he hung out his own shingle: Hiram W. Kwan: A Professional Law Corporation, which still exists today.
Apart from his legal work, Kwan taught extensively, lecturing at the USC business school and the school of law, and serving as an adjunct professor at the schools of law of Pepperdine and Southwestern universities. He is a lifetime member of the USC Legion Lex, USC General Alumni Association, and the American Legion Post 628 of Los Angeles.
The advancement of Chinese American rights, he has said, is among his top priorities. For his efforts, he has been widely recognized by such groups as the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, which awarded him the 2014 Golden Spike Award.
In December, 2018, President Trump signed into law a bill for the Chinese-American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act, recognizing the hardships and heroism of Chinese American troops during World War II. Hiram Kwan was a recipient of this Congressional Award for his service to the country during World War II as a Chinese-American serviceman.
“I am extremely proud to be part of the Trojan family,” Kwan said. “USC has a long history and has done a lot of good for the community and leadership, for which I have dedicated my life to.”
Adolescent Anglophilia, fueled by a love for “Doctor Who” and The Kinks, led Jay Rubenstein to discover a passion for the Middle Ages. Now the MacArthur Fellow and distinguished medievalist recently joined the USC Dornsife to create a new Center for the Study of the Pre-Modern World.
Nothing predisposed Jay Rubenstein to become a medieval scholar.
The small Midwestern town of Cushing, Oklahoma, where he was born and raised, is a refining center, best known as a trading hub for crude oil. There, his parents ran a scrap metal and recycling company.
“In the summer, I would be in charge of the aluminum can machine,” Rubenstein recalls.
But when he wasn’t recycling cans, the American teen was nurturing an admiration for all things British, fueled by a deep love of the BBC television series Doctor Who and the music of British rock band The Kinks. By the time he had joined Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, as an undergraduate, Rubenstein was determined to spend a semester in England.
He focused his attention on getting accepted into one of the only U.K. study-abroad programs available to him at Carleton — which happened to be at the University of Oxford’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Realizing the program would be his golden ticket to England, Rubenstein took a medieval history class in preparation.
“For the first three quarters of the class I just hated it,” he recalls. “But then we read The Art of Courtly Love, a guide book from the period on how to be a good lover in the Middle Ages.” As the class debated whether the art of courtly love had actually existed or was just an intellectual construct, Rubenstein was captivated.
Then he got to Oxford.
Discovering a new world
The oldest buildings in Cushing date from the 1920s, so the medieval city and its university were a revelation.
Oxford, he says “just struck me as dumbfoundingly beautiful. All of these gorgeous sandstone, medieval, Renaissance- and Enlightenment-era buildings, all crammed together in such a small city square. It was a stunning place to be.”
But Rubenstein says the moment he really became hooked was when he took a paleography class to learn how to read medieval handwriting. The final exam was held in an Oxford college library built in the early 17th century. The assignment was to translate a medieval manuscript.
“That was the first time I’d worked with an actual medieval book,” Rubenstein said. “Here I am with a pencil in hand, copying a book that somebody had copied out about 700 years ago with a quill pen. That gave me an electrifying sense of connection to the past.
“I still get a contact high every time I get to handle an old manuscript.”
His connection with Oxford flourished. A grant enabled him to return in the summer to research miracle cults. He wrote his senior thesis on the city’s patron saint.
A Rhodes Scholarship awarded during his senior year allowed him to return to Oxford as a postgraduate. His hometown was so excited by the news, they named a street — Jay Rubenstein Avenue — in his honor. The son of scrap metal merchants was on his way to a glittering academic career.
Centered on the pre-modern world
Rubenstein, who was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2007, joined the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, following teaching posts at the University of New Mexico, Syracuse University and Dickinson College.
As a visiting professor of history, the distinguished medieval scholar established and directs the USC Dornsife’s Center for the Study of the Pre-Modern World.
“It’s an exciting opportunity, because I get to build a center from the ground up and put my own stamp on it,” says Rubenstein, whose research focuses on the Crusades, apocalyptic thought, and religious and intellectual life in the Middle Ages.
He’s particularly excited by the fact the new center won’t be confined to Medieval Europe but will also embrace antiquity and pre-history.
Through the center, he works with USC Dornsife faculty in classics, art history, history, religion and East Asian studies.
“I think job one of a center like this is to get as many people from different departments talking to one another as possible, exchanging ideas and sharing some of their mutual interests,” Rubenstein said.
His plans for the center include establishing a summer program for scholars of the pre-modern world, major outreach to the public and the wider academic community via campus-wide events, and the creation of research symposia in conjunction with The Getty.
Rigor and accessibility
In his own writing, Rubenstein strives to present academic research in a way that remains accessible to a wider audience.
“I want to use the center as a forum for figuring out ways to write well and with intellectual rigor but also in a way that will enable what we’re doing to be of interest to the wider world,” he says. “And, of course, there’s no better place to do that than Los Angeles, the media capital of the world.”
He is clearly meeting that goal with his own writing. Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and himself an author of a tome on medieval history, described Rubenstein’s 2011 book Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (Basic Books)as “a page-turner” and “the most fascinating and readable book about the Crusades I have read.”
Rubenstein’s latest book, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy and the End of History (Oxford University Press, 2019), explores how people in the Middle Ages thought about the first crusade in connection with the apocalypse. He’s now planning a third volume on the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.
“The question that will drive the narrative is, okay, you fulfilled the apocalypse, you’ve captured Jerusalem, now what do you do with it?” Rubenstein says.
Teaching the Apocalypse
This semester Rubenstein is teaching a freshman seminar “Apocalypse Medieval,” featuring what Rubenstein describes as “apocalyptically-infused sources from the Middle Ages.”
“It’s been nice for me to teach it,” Rubenstein says, “because, as I told my class on the first day, we all have something in common. I’m new here, too.”
Rubenstein spent four years in Oxford, one in Rome and four in Paris where he lived at “possibly the best address in the whole world — 13 Rue Edgard Poe.”
Now he’s traded life in some of the world’s most historic cities for a new post in arguably its most relentlessly modern metropolis: L.A. As a medievalist, how will he adapt to living in the archetypal 20th century city?
Rubenstein also claims a personal affinity with the City of Angels. Citing Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye as his favorite book, he reveals that while in Paris he developed a passion for old American cinema, particularly Noir films of the 1930s and ’40s.
“So now coming to L.A. makes perfect sense. This is exactly where I want to be living right now. I love all the Googie architecture; I love all the neon.”
One thing is certain: Rubenstein will be easy to spot around campus. He has a predilection for wide-brimmed hats that he says would make him look right at home in a Humphrey Bogart movie.
To help people in this time of need, Ruth White of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is offering up stress management tips on Bay Area television.
USC faculty are pitching in to help in a variety of ways during the COVID-19 crisis. While some are making masks with 3D printers or sewing them, others are providing valuable advice over the airwaves.
Ruth White, a clinical associate professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is among the latter. She found her own way to help people feeling overwhelmed by the stress, sadness and fear brought on by the outbreak.
“I was up late one night — I’m very nocturnal — and around 3 a.m. I was searching for contact information to submit an article on stress and COVID-19 I’d written for Fast Company,” she recalled. “I suddenly thought, this information needs to be on television where more people can see it.”
She sent a quick email pitch to a TV station in her hometown of Oakland and got a response just hours later, offering her a Skype interview spot on the news program that morning.
White’s initial appearance on the program was a hit with viewers, so the producers invited her back for the rest of that week to continue sharing tips for stress management.
USC professor offers advice on stress management, wellness
Fast-forward two weeks and White has become a regular contributor on Bay Area Morning Buzz on the San Francisco station KRON-TV. Several times a week, she appears via Skype to talk about stress management and emotional and physical wellness.
Consistent with the unpredictable nature of television news, the producers often throw her a curveball. She was surprised when she was asked to comment on a controversial series of interviews with college students who ignored public health warnings and traveled to Florida for spring break vacation. White responded without judgment but with compassion: “Young adults are used to taking risks. They are also being defiant: ‘You can’t control me; you can’t tell me what to do.’”
She explained that young people may be more likely to listen to health professionals about slowing or stopping the spread of this virus.
“Because of the nature of the illness and the fact that the majority of younger people have mild or moderate symptoms — or no symptoms at all — they feel they’re not at risk. They need clear, accurate information about the risks to their families and communities,” she said.
On another day, she expressed empathy for the complex feelings people are experiencing at this moment, including anticipatory grief about what is still to come.
“Most of us have never experienced anything like this. I think the hard part is the fear.”
“Most of us have never experienced anything like this,” she said. “I think the hard part is the fear. All of us are hearing about people we know now who have COVID-19. Members of my own family have it. It’s getting personal. It’s now real … Everyone is feeling, what will happen to my loved one? Because of course, the unique situation is that you can’t go to the hospital and hold someone’s hand. And if they do die, you can’t hold a funeral or a memorial. Mourning alone is going to make people more at risk for depression.”
Students, parents and the elderly all need assistance with stress management
White draws on her own experiences to offer advice that people are desperate to hear. She thinks often about the unique pressures on her students. Many have emailed her asking for extensions on their assignments, and “some of them are freaking out.”“ She considers the challenges facing people who are suddenly working at home, while caring for young children or for elderly parents.
“I understand the unique pressures of sheltering in place and the stress it’s creating for people of all ages and situations,” she said.
She plans to share more tips on dealing with stress via short videos posted online — something she’s used in her work for creating healthier and happier workplaces, workforces, classrooms and communities.
“I’ve been online for several years now with USC and it’s second nature for me to communicate using these different tools, including videos,” she said. “I’m thinking of doing more content for my students, and then offering it up more widely.”
A former child actor who played the role of Julius Rottwinkle in the movie Matilda, Leor Hackel joins USC Dornsife as an assistant professor of psychology.
As a child, Leor Hackel starred in the successful film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book Matilda, about a gifted little girl who is neglected and bullied by her parents but develops powers of telekinesis to defeat her enemies. Hackel played Julius Rottwinkle, a fellow student at Matilda’s school, Crunchem Hall Elementary, who is thrown out of the window by the evil principle, Miss Trunchbull, for the terrible sin of eating two M&Ms in class.
Now, more than 20 years later, Hackel has returned to the classroom in a rather different role: as an assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
How did the child actor metamorphose into a professor?
All the world’s a stage
Born in Honolulu, to a broadcast journalist and a sociology professor, Hackel moved to Los Angeles with his parents when he was 18 months old. Once here, he lost no time becoming what he describes with a laugh as “that L.A. stereotype — a child actor.”
He got his start in the acting world after successfully auditioning for a commercial for the National Education Association. “From there they sent me to an agent, and I spent the next 10 years or so going on auditions periodically.” When Matilda came up, the 7-year-old Hackel auditioned and won the role of Julius.
He still has fond memories of making the movie, directed by and starring Danny DeVito.
“It was a ton of fun,” Hackel says. “There were lots of kids on the set and Danny DeVito was incredibly nice and fun to work with. Pam Ferris, the actress who played Miss Trunchbull, as scary as she is on screen, was also delightful and sweet.”
After his success in Matilda, Hackel was keen to make acting his career. In high school, he concentrated on theatre. He continued acting in college and began directing plays.
“I really loved that and thought I would be an actor until midway through college,” Hackel says. However, something else was vying for his attention: the classes he was taking in neuroscience and psychology.
“That had always been something that I was very interested in,” he recalls. “Somewhere along the way, I began to get more excited about it and more and more invested in it, until it just seemed like the natural next step.”
Indeed, as his fascination with neuroscience and psychology took over from his love of acting, Hackel realized that not only did it feel like a natural progression but that there was a big overlap in his interest in theatre and in his interest in psychology.
“Part of it was trying to understand the human condition and ask what it means to be human,” he says. “As an actor you’re constantly thinking about how people think, and what’s motivating my character right now. To me, moving from acting to psychology gave me a sense of moving from this subjective artistic exploration of that question to a more objective and scientific exploration.”
Merging two traditions
Hackel’s research focuses on how we learn about other people and make decisions about social interaction — whom we should partner with, whom we should become closer to and whether we should cooperate with, reciprocate or help others. To do that, his work tries to merge two traditions in cognitive science.
Social psychologists have been traditionally concerned with how we form impressions of other people, think about their mental states and empathize with them, or categorize ourselves into social groups — in short, how we think about the social world and how we think about ourselves.
Cognitive neuroscience research has looked at how we learn about the world by making choices and experiencing rewards, and then making new decisions based on the value that we expect to gain. Asking “How do rewarding experiences reinforce our actions?” often involves computational models of cognition that can then be linked to brain activity.
“My work aims to merge those approaches,” Hackel says, “asking how we learn about the social world by making choices and experiencing feedback and using computational models to link this social learning to the brain.”
Hackel is currently working on understanding how people learn from instances of positive and negative social feedback from other people. He is particularly interested in applying this research to better understand mental health, examining how learning might track with symptoms in some psychological disorders like borderline personality disorder.
His research also explores how people’s identification with a group or the social norms around them lead them to value and decide how to contribute to a wider public good — for example, a coordinated response to climate change, which would require the participation of many people to be effective.
Hackel has been bouncing back and forth between coasts for the last decade. After a childhood spent in L.A., he went to New York for college, earning his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and his graduate degree from New York University. He returned to California for his postdoctoral work at Stanford University, then briefly moved back east for a position at Rutgers University before joining USC Dornsife this fall.
Hackel has no regrets about abandoning the world of acting for the world of academia, but he admits he does sometimes miss his former career. With two young children, he says he no longer has time to act, even as a hobby.
In the meantime, he acknowledges that he can apply skills he learned as an actor to his current job as a professor, particularly in the classroom.
“Speaking in front of a crowd and getting used to that as an actor has been helpful for teaching,” Hackel says. “I’ve seen improv classes offered to faculty at several different institutions, and I can see why.”
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.”