Physical spaces where kids live, play and learn have big impact on obesity, eating behaviors

Neighborhood design, walkability and access to healthy food outlets, parks and green spaces are the strongest environmental predictors of obesity and eating behaviors in children and adolescents, according to a USC study published Tuesday in the journal Obesity.

“Past studies have focused on the built, social and economic environments simultaneously, but have not assessed the independent roles that each plays in influencing health,” said study author Maria Prados, an economist at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Center for Economic and Social Research.

“The findings add a new dimension to the growing evidence that place matters by applying a more comprehensive approach to characterizing environment.”

The quality of a neighborhood’s built environment often goes hand in hand with its social (e.g., crime, population characteristics, norms) and economic (e.g., unemployment rates, household income) environments. Researchers wanted to isolate those qualities in hopes of identifying more precise interventions for childhood and adolescent obesity.

Overweight teens: Healthy environments make for healthier kids

To assess the effects of the built environment on obesity and eating behaviors, Prados and her team analyzed data from the Military Teenagers’ Environments, Exercise and Nutrition Study, a cohort study of adolescents in military families in different geographic locations, both on military bases and in surrounding communities. Because military families are routinely assigned to specific installations for reasons beyond their control, the variation in environments across families provided researchers with a way to quantify the impacts of place on childhood and adolescent obesity.

The military teen study collected data on BMI, overweight and obesity status, and self-reported diet and exercise from a sample of 1,111 adolescents ages 12-14.

The researchers created index scores to grade the healthfulness of county-level built, economic and social environments, a metric based on the opportunities available for individuals to engage in healthy behaviors. Higher values imply more advantageous environments.

Results showed that living in counties with higher built environment scores for more than two years was associated with lower likelihood of obesity. These “healthier” environments were also associated with lower consumption of unhealthy foods.

In counties with a built environment score at the 25th percentile — compared to a county at the 75th percentile — the risk of adolescent obesity was 3.6 percentage points higher after more than two years of exposure. The results were similar for adolescents in military families not living on military bases, thus more exposed to the surrounding communities.

Findings from the study can be used to inform targeted public health interventions to reduce obesity and promote healthy eating behaviors in children and adolescents.

“Adolescents represent an important target for potential health policy interventions because they are at an age when their health behaviors, preferences and interactions with the environments are evolving,” the authors said. “Improving built environments may provide the most promising opportunities to address overweight and obesity among adolescents.”

About the study: Co-authors of the study include Ashlesha Datar, senior economist and director of the Program on Children and Families at USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research, and Nancy Nicosia of the Rand Corp. The research was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number R01DK111169.

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For clues to healthy brain aging, look to the Bolivian Amazon

Some of the lowest rates of heart and brain disease ever reported by science are found among Indigenous communities inhabiting the tropical forests of lowland Bolivia. New USC research on two of these societies, the Tsimane and Moseten, suggests that there are optimal levels of food consumption and exercise that maximize healthy brain aging and reduce the risk of disease.

The study appears Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thanks to industrialization, humans now enjoy greater access to food, less physical toil and better access to health care than ever before. However, we’ve grown accustomed to eating more and exercising less. Obesity and sedentary lifestyles are associated with smaller brain volumes and faster cognitive decline.

To better understand the tipping point where abundance and ease begin to undermine health, the researchers enrolled 1,165 Tsimane and Moseten adults, aged 40-94 years, and provided transportation for participants from their remote villages to the closest hospital with CT scanning equipment.

The team used CT scans to measure brain volume by age. They also measured participants’ body mass index, blood pressure, total cholesterol and other markers of energy and overall health.

The lives of our pre-industrial ancestors were punctured by limited food availability.

Andrei Irimia, USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology

Researchers found that the Tsimane and Moseten experience less brain atrophy and improved cardiovascular health compared to industrialized populations in the U.S. and Europe. Rates of age-related brain atrophy, or brain shrinking, are correlated with risks of degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“The lives of our pre-industrial ancestors were punctured by limited food availability,” said Andrei Irimia, an assistant professor of gerontology, biomedical engineering, quantitative/computational biology and neuroscience at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and co-corresponding author of the study.

“Humans historically spent a lot of time exercising out of necessity to find food, and their brain aging profiles reflected this lifestyle.”

The Moseten: A bridge between pre- and post-industrialized societies

The findings also illustrated key differences between the two Indigenous societies. The Moseten are a “sister” population to the Tsimane in that they share similar languages, ancestral history and a subsistence lifestyle. However, the Moseten have more exposure to modern technology, medicine, infrastructure and education.

“The Moseten serve as an important intermediary population that allows us to compare a wide spectrum of lifestyle and health care factors. This is more advantageous than a straight comparison between the Tsimane and the industrialized world,” Irimia said.

Irimia said that, along this continuum, the Moseten showed better health than modern populations in Europe and North America — but not as good as that of the Tsimane.

Among the Tsimane, surprisingly, BMI and somewhat higher levels of “bad cholesterol” were associated with bigger brain volumes for age. This, however, may be due to individuals being more muscular, on average, than individuals in industrialized countries who have comparable BMIs.

Still, both the Tsimane and Moseten come closer to the “sweet spot,” or balance between daily exertion and food abundance, that the authors think may be key to healthy brain aging.

Tsimane, Moseten study: Future of preventative medicine relies on understanding of humans’ evolutionary past

The study’s authors explained that people living in societies with abundant food and little requirement for physical activity face a conflict between what they consciously know is best for their health and the cravings, or drives, that come from our evolutionary past.

“During our evolutionary past, more food and less calories spent in getting it resulted in improved health, well-being and ultimately higher reproductive success or Darwinian fitness,” notes Hillard Kaplan, a professor of health economics and anthropology at Chapman University who has studied the Tsimane for nearly two decades. “This evolutionary history selected for psychological and physiological traits that made us desirous of extra food and less physical work, and with industrialization, those traits lead us to overshoot the mark.”

This ideal set of conditions for disease prevention prompts us to consider whether our industrialized lifestyles increase our risk of disease.

Andrei Irimia, USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology

According to Irimia, the best place to be in terms of brain health and risk for disease is the “sweet spot” where the brain is being provided with neither too little nor too much food and nutrients, and where you have a vigorous amount of exercise.

“This ideal set of conditions for disease prevention prompts us to consider whether our industrialized lifestyles increase our risk of disease,” he said.

Funding was provided by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Aging (R01AG024119) and the National Science Foundation (1748282), along with IAST funding from the French National Research Agency (ANR) under the Investments for the Future (Investissements d’Avenir).

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What we can learn about animal behavior by studying zebrafish


Fish Don’t Dither: A New Study Investigates Danger-Evasion Tactics

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Fish Don’t Dither: A New Study Investigates Danger-Evasion Tactics

New USC research on zebrafish has implications for understanding animal behavior
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Decisions are difficult. Humans often find themselves deliberating between multiple conflicting alternatives, or frustratingly fixated upon a single option. When faced with a threat, zebrafish larvae don’t have that luxury. The direction they take to escape from a predator is a matter of life and death.

A groundbreaking study led by Kanso Bioinspired Motion Lab at USC Viterbi School of Engineering has opened new pathways to investigate the grey space between sensory input and behavioral response in zebrafish. The paper, “Evaluating Evasion Strategies in Zebrafish Larvae,” was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A powerful new method for evaluating data and theories
When it comes to analyzing predator-prey interactions, there are two traditional schools of thought. One claims that the optimal survival response is to confuse the predator through random movement; the other favors a strategy of maximizing distance from the predator.

Neither of these theories were sufficient for Eva Kanso, the Z.H. Kaprielian Fellow in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and the founder of Kanso Lab at USC.

Kanso, together with PhD students Yusheng Jiao and Brendan Colvert and post-doctoral scholar Yi Man, teamed up with Matt McHenry, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine, to put these theories to test.

“Instead of approaching the study with preconceived notions of what we think the animal is doing, we established a mathematical framework that would allow us to compare multiple theories in relation to data from experiments,” said Kanso. “This methodology evaluates the best predictions of prey behavior among all alternatives.”

In short: the study indicates that a fish increases its chances of escape by moving at an angle perpendicular to the predator’s direction of travel. However, the consistency of that response is dependent on the amount of neuronal processing required to sense the predator and respond accordingly. It’s a strategy that applies the age-old wisdom of survival: “don’t overthink it.”

Kanso’s work focuses on the physics of animal behavior; a central theme of her research is the role of the mechanical environment, specifically the fluid medium and fluid-structure interactions, have in shaping and driving biological functions.

To this end, the study also examined the mechanics of the of “C-start” shape which initiates the fish’s movement away from the predator. “When the larvae curls its body into the shape of a “C,” there are biomechanical constraints in relation to the environment that limit the angle of movement,” said Kanso.

The process of sensory perception and motor response are subject to the presence or absence of environmental noise, and the group’s evaluation framework is specifically designed to incorporate this factor into the data analysis.

Ultimately, the point of the study is not to close the conversation with a definitive theory, but to provide a new and effective methodology for ongoing investigation. “It was an incredibly enjoyable experience working with the team, combining our different expertise in engineering, physics, and biology,” said Kanso. “It was like putting together the pieces of a puzzle.”

“By developing an innovative framework for the evaluation of different hypotheses, our lab proposes a research methodology that could be applied to a broad range of animal behavior,” said Kanso. “The study could also inform bioinspired robots, and the design of underwater vessels such as submarines. It’s fascinating to explore what behavioral observation can teach us about the processing of sensory stimuli in living organisms. That’s still an open question in science.”

ou can read the paper in full here.

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Using taste as a passport to explore diverse cultures, histories and identities

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A Question of Taste

From sauteed grasshoppers to fusion food, USC Dornsife scholars use taste as a passport to explore diverse cultures, histories and identities.
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Sporting miniature chef’s hats and blindfolds, my 4-year-old son and a dozen other under-fives at his Paris public preschool gathered excitedly around a long table covered with a cheerful red-and-white checked tablecloth. They were observing “La Semaine du Gout,” an annual week-long celebration of that most French of senses: taste. Set before them were different foods representing the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory. The game was to sample each — without peeking — and correctly identify its taste.

This national awakening of the senses through the education of the palette is a perfect example of the importance French culture places on taste. Nor is it a one-off exercise. This emphasis on the cultivation of taste continues throughout a French child’s education. Each weekday, 7 million public school children receive a four-course, subsidized lunch that would be the envy of most adults worldwide.

Each meal features a different cheese course with a typical starter of artichoke hearts, lentil or beet salad. Main courses might include roast chicken with green beans or salmon lasagna with organic spinach while dessert is typically a healthy serving of fresh fruit. The foods many Americans associate with classic kids’ fare — pizza, hamburgers and fish sticks — are served in French schools once a month at most. Thus, an entire nation grows up with an appreciation for healthy food and a palette trained to enjoy a wide variety of sophisticated flavors.


More than 5,000 miles away in Los Angeles, USC Dornsifeis taking the concept of taste as a teaching tool considerably further. Michael Petitti, associate professor (teaching) of writing in the Thematic Optionprogram, is one of several USC Dornsife scholars who use taste as a passport to explore multiple cultures — all without leaving L.A.

His Maymester course “From Pueblo to Postmates” is inspired by the work of the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer renowned for his culinary explorations of the L.A. area and the historical unpacking through food of its past and the myriad diasporas that call it home.

The course provides insights into L.A.’s ethnic and cultural diversity, how that’s expressed through taste, and how the city intersects and comes together through its culinary creativity.


“You can map the history of L.A. through food,” says Petitti. “We spend a lot of time in Boyle Heights, now a predominantly Latino area but which, like much of East L.A. during the early to mid-20th century, used to be a Jewish neighborhood with numerous Kosher restaurants and food stores.”

Petitti broadens his students’ palettes by taking them to “El Mercadito de Los Angeles,” a Latino market where they taste “nopales” salsa with cactus and “chicharron” burrito — crispy, crunchy pork rinds cooked in a fiery chili sauce made with cactus and wrapped in a tortilla. They also try dried salsa garnished with pumpkin seeds and chili flakes and sample a new fusion of Lebanese and Mexican cuisine that serves up falafel made with chorizo.

In the San Gabriel Valley — a Japanese and Mexican enclave for much of the early to mid-20th century and now inhabited by a Chinese immigrant diaspora — Petitti takes his students to eat authentic dim sum.

In South L.A., students explore the prolific Mexican American and Latino food scene, eating fresh tamales and visiting a working farm in Compton — a city that was once L.A.’s agrarian heart.

Guest speakers, such as Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, also provide expert insider views on the evolution of different areas of L.A.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of this class is that many native Angelenos have taken it and say it opened their eyes to the city, its history, neighborhoods, cuisine, and how others live and experience it. Students discover new insights into the complexity and richness of L.A. through our readings, visits, and guest speakers, as well as their ethnographic interviews and final research projects. That nuanced, epiphanic experience of L.A. is the goal of the course,” Petitti says.


Another USC Dornsife scholar using taste as a lens to understand the city’s complexities is Sarah Portnoy, professor (teaching) of Spanish, who has been teaching Latino food culture for 12 years. Her courses put students in touch with their senses while increasing their Spanish vocabulary and widening their knowledge and experience of Latino culture.

Portnoy agrees with Gold’s description of L.A. as “a rich mosaic.”

“The wealth of Mexican cuisine here is unparalleled in the United States,” she says. “We have the largest population of Koreans anywhere outside of Seoul. We have Salvadorean, Guatemalan, Pakistani, Filipino and Japanese communities — among many others.”

This rich stew of overlapping cultures has provided the perfect springboard for the creation of fusion food, led by pioneers like Roy Choi, founder of the legendary Kogi food trucks, renowned for their Korean Mexican combos.

To sample the vast array of flavors found in the city’s Latino communities, Portnoy takes her students to visit restaurants and to meet chefs and street vendors.

She encourages students to establish a sense of place and history as she prompts them to describe the tastes they encounter.

“I ask them to find out the story behind the restaurant and then to describe the neighborhood, what the place looks like and the diners, before talking about the dish, the colors, the key ingredients, the aromas and what they evoke. Then I ask them to find a metaphor for their experience,” she says.

Portnoy extends this learning experience to her three-week Maymester course in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, she invites students to taste and describe such unfamiliar items as crunchy “chicatanas” (ants), smoky mezcal and spicy salsas made from a variety of local chilies.


Portnoy’s scholarship focuses on food-centered life histories. Her work was rewarded this year with a more than half million-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, shared with her teaching partner, to make a documentary series that explores culture and cuisine on both sides of the Mexico border. Abuelitas (Grandmothers) on the Borderland will be filmed in L.A. and three other U.S. cities, as well as the grandmothers’ Mexican towns of origin. Her partner in the project is Amara Aguilar, professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

“I asked each of the abuelitas ‘What does this dish represent to you?’ They all responded, ‘Amor’ (love).”
Earlier in 2022, Portnoy curated the museum exhibition “Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories,” which showcased the role traditional dishes played in the lives of 10 Mexican and Mexican American grandmothers living in L.A. and how they passed their culinary knowledge on to their children and grandchildren.

Comprising oral histories, kitchen artifacts and recipes, the exhibition also featured a documentary produced by Portnoy and filmed by USC Dornsife alumni about the grandmothers’ relationships with food, identity and place.

“Food-centered life histories have the capacity to portray the voices and perspectives of women who have traditionally been ignored or marginalized,” says Portnoy. “This project aims to amplify the voices of a group of indigenous “mestiza” (of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent), Mexican American and Afro Mexican grandmothers who have cooked, preserved, and passed on Mexican food culture, while creating communities and cultures that are unique to Southern California.”


Portnoy says the project aims to capture not only traditional recipes, but how food is woven through the fabric of the women’s lives. Many of their stories are deeply moving, such as that of Maria Elena who recounts spending long hours selling tamales from a cart in Watts in South L.A. so she could feed her five young children.

Another abuelita, Merced, is filmed preparing “mole poblano” from her Mexican home state of Pueblo. Merced has not been able to return to Mexico to see her children and parents for more than 20 years, but she says the taste of this thick, savory chocolate and chili sauce connects her to them — and particularly to her mother.

“Merced can no longer touch her mother,” Portnoy says, “but still feels viscerally connected to her by this dish she taught her to make as a child.”

The documentary delivers an emotional punch: Food connects generations through tastes, recipes and traditions, but most importantly it is an act of love. “I asked each of the abuelitas ‘What does this dish represent to you?'” Portnoy says. “They all responded, ‘Amor’ (love).”


So, taste can connect us to our family, our history and our homeland. But it can also serve as a passport that enables us to travel through time.

A prime example is Petitti’s favorite L.A. restaurant, The Musso and Frank Grill. Dripping in history, the legendary dining room was the storied haunt of literary heavyweights William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hollywood greats Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe.

But what Petitti loves most about the place is that it still serves throwbacks to high-end cuisine of the past such as liver and onions, avocado cocktail and jellied consomme.

“You can go there and eat the kind of meal that Fitzgerald might have eaten. You can actually taste the past, which I think is absolutely fascinating,” Petitti says.

A trip to Tito’s Tacos for what is now — especially in L.A. — an outmoded version of a taco with its hard shell, ground beef, sliced or shredded cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce, offers another path to explore the past.

“We tend to look down our noses at this classic American taco because now we want a homemade tortilla with what we now consider ‘authentic’ ingredients, probably served from a food truck,” Petitti says. But, he argues, it’s important to understand that this taco was created in the early-to-mid 20th century because Mexican immigrants to Southern California didn’t have easy access to the ingredients they would have had in their homeland.

“Again, it’s a passport to understanding a time and history and the ways that tastes adapt to circumstances,” Petitti says.


If taste can transport us into the past, it can also project us into the future. Petitti thinks our culinary future will be based around alternative proteins, such as the “chapulines” — grasshoppers fried with chili and garlic and garnished with lime — that he takes his students to sample at “La Princesita” market in East L.A.

“They seem like a novelty item to many people, but they also could represent the future of food,” he says.

“They (insects) seem like a novelty item to many people, but they also could represent the future of food.”
Another way L.A. is exhibiting cutting edge practices around food, he says, is its leading role in popularizing sustainability and plant-based foods.

“I think what L.A. does in terms of food is so innovative,” Petitti says. “Look at Choi — born in South Korea but raised in L.A., he’s ostensibly a native son who takes Korean food and infuses it into L.A.’s most iconic and celebrated food item, the taco. That kind of innovation, and the fact that it’s affordable, represent L.A.’s approach to taste. It’s truly outstanding.”


Speaking on Zoom from his home office, Grayson Jaggers, associate professor (teaching) of biological sciences, points out the four large, black ceramic crocks proudly displayed on his bedroom mantelpiece. They contain the fermenting miso his students made last semester during his course “The Biology of Food.”

In addition to exploring microbiology through the process of fermentation, his students learn about different concepts of genetics, the nature of mutation, evolution and how that relates to the production of genetically modified organisms.

One of Jaggers’ goals is to give his students — the majority of whom are not science majors — a broader appreciation for biology.

“The main thing I want students to get out of laboratory exercises like these is to try out new things and not be afraid of them,” he says.


Jaggers points out that two elements are key to our perception of food: taste, of course, but also aroma. They are, he stresses, two very different things.

Taste is detected by receptors on our tongue that can detect certain chemicals, such as sugar and salt, which we perceive as sweet and salty tastes. Sour tastes originate in acids within the food. Umami (savory) taste, comes from glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein. Bitter tastes, engendered by a wider range of molecules, signal to us that something is potentially toxic. This is why we inherently don’t like bitter foods, although bitterness can be an acquired taste.

“But if you say that something tastes sweet, that doesn’t tell you about the flavor, which might be chocolate or vanilla,” Jaggers says. “Flavor comes from aroma, while the sweet taste comes from sugar.”

Aroma in flavor is highly complex. Chocolate, for example, contains around 600 different molecules that work together to provide its flavor.

Volatile flavor molecules within food can also be released into the air, enabling us to smell dill or mint, for instance, without tasting it. Once we chew these herbs, what we taste is a more intense version of what we were smelling.

“Those same molecules that we were smelling are now being released into an area about the size of a postage stamp located in our nasal cavity,” Jaggers says. “Some 10 million different receptors in this area bind to those molecules, sending signals to the brain about flavor characteristics of that particular food.”

So, how do we learn to recognize and identify flavors? Conveniently, that area connects to a region called the limbic system near the forefront of our brain associated with olfaction and long-term memory.

Not surprising then that the taste of madeleines –small French sponge cakes — unleashed such a torrent of childhood reminiscences for Marcel Proust in his seminal novel, In Search of Lost Time.

Karen Tongson’s first question to students in her “Gender, Sexuality and Food Cultures” Maymester class is to identify and discuss their “Proustian moment” — that one taste that stands out in their life story.

Her own Proustian moment, she says, is the Kentucky Fried Chicken she tried for the first time in Honolulu after moving there from the Philippines with her family at age 4.

“I remember being blown away by how delicious it was, but I also remember the melancholy I felt because it made me realize I was very far from home.”


Tongson, chair and professor of gender and sexuality studies and professor of English, and American studies and ethnicity, also uses L.A. as a laboratory to teach about subjects that we can look at through the lens of food and taste — including gender and identity.

She argues that taste is how we formulate our sense of self. “Taste extends across every realm of aesthetic experience,” she says. “So much of who we are and how we define ourselves is routed through our experience of taste, whether it’s food or how food aligns with our relationship to other aspects of our culture.”

Tongson notes that the first way we’re often introduced to each other — even before we may understand each other’s language or culture — is through each other’s food.

Through food, she says, we also discover similarities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Angelenos, for example, share an affinity for food on skewers. “If you work your way through Historic Filipino Town and down Temple towards Alvarado and into MacArthur Park, you’ll find all sorts of foods being grilled on open fires and on skewers,” she says. “So, even if food is at first an encounter with the other, it eventually becomes an encounter with ourselves, as we come to find these shared and intersecting ways that we experience and taste life.”

Tongson says this is why taste is so important and so pleasurable to us — because it’s a gateway to our identity, a way of understanding ourselves in relation to the world.

“To taste is to have this profound and deeply tactile multisensory encounter,” she says. “The concept of taste also affirms who we are and how we’re perceived. It can be the gateway to a rich exploration of not only our personal histories, but of the places we live and the people who surround us.”

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Students find mental health support from embedded counselors

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Students can access tailored support from dedicated mental health professionals

Embedded counselors provide greater mental health assistance for USC Dornsife’s diverse community of young scholars.
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Balancing tough academic courses with the increased responsibilities that come with independence – all while maintaining a social life – can be a challenging struggle that impacts a student’s mental health.

Amid a growing culture of mental health assistance in the nation, many colleges and universities have implemented measures for students’ mental well-being, such as bringing in more psychologists and therapists to assist students. At the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, students seeking these treatments need look no further than their own academic departments, where counselors have been embedded to provide greater access to mental health care.

According to Emily Anderson, college dean of undergraduate education, the pandemic signaled a greater need for mental health assistance, which led to increased accessibility for therapy services.

“I stepped into my position right in the middle of the pandemic, and clearly a major need for students at that time was mental health wellness support, and the university in general was increasing those resources substantially,” she said.

Embedded mental health professionals focus on particular needs

Embedded counselors are therapists that remain specifically within a cultural community or program to better understand the population and their specific needs. Rather than attempting to understand the struggles of the entire student body, these counselors tailor solutions for the unique challenges that face certain populations. For instance, cultural programs such as Asian Pacific American Student Services, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs and the LGBTQ+ Center have implemented this embedded model to meet the needs of students belonging to marginalized communities.

“[The embedded counselors] give us the chance to tailor the kind of emotional and mental support we provide to students, both in terms of individual interactions and often in terms of workshops, programming, you name it,” Anderson said.

Guru Shabd Khalsa, a clinical instructor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, serves as an embedded clinician for USC Dornsife. She appreciates the students’ varied passions.

“We love the variety of students and experience within Dornsife,” she said. “All the language and cultural studies mean to me that our students are interested in the people and world around them, and that connection and curiosity make for great interactions.”

Khalsa shared that USC Dornsife’s diverse population came with varied concerns, and encouraged students to reach out when they needed help.

“That being said, we’ve encountered some common concerns like anxiety, depression, struggling to adjust to life on campus and managing perfectionism and procrastination,” Khalsa said. “It’s important to remember that transitions are hard and can take time, we all deserve compassion no matter what situation we have found ourselves in, and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”

Students gain better access to mental health services

Summer Zapata, assistant director for academic embedded services and graduate student counseling, says the embedded model has been beneficial for counselors as well, allowing for more genuine relationships between the students and clinicians.

“I think the counselors have a lot of passion for working with these particular students and programs, and it allows them to get more personally connected with the faculty and staff and with the students in particular,” Zapata said.

Zapata also believes that the embedded counselors program has raised the visibility of mental health treatment at USC and allowed students to access services more easily and with less stigma.

“As clinicians, we work hard to fight against the stigma of therapy and mental health struggles,” Khalsa said. “Needing help or support does not mean there’s something wrong with you, and if you speak up and ask for help sooner, before things become a full-blown crisis, the process is so much better and effective.”

USC Dornsife currently has five embedded counselors that serve the diverse student population. Students can book an appointment with a therapist through USC’s mySHR portal.

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USC establishes new campus in the heart of Washington, D.C.

USC announced on Wednesday the opening of its new Capital Campus in Washington, D.C., which will significantly increase the university’s reach by expanding its deep academic and research expertise, innovation and talent on the East Coast. As a leading research university, USC will convene high-level conversations with national and global opinion leaders on the most pressing issues of the day.

“Today, USC has a new home in Washington, D.C. We are significantly expanding our academic excellence and innovative research on the East Coast,” USC President Carol Folt said.

“Washington, D.C., is the natural place for us to establish a thriving hub. It is a nexus for the arts, public policy organizations, research agencies and foundations. Washington, D.C., offers unparalleled opportunities for our experts, researchers and students to learn and listen, connect, and share views on the national stage. USC is known for its service to the Los Angeles community, and we look forward to being an active participant in the civic life of Washington, D.C.”

Washington, D.C., is the natural place for us to establish a thriving hub.

Carol Folt, USC president

Located in the heart of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, the USC Capital Campus places the university at the center of political and academic policy discussions and creates a bridge to embassies and diplomatic outposts. The prime location strengthens the opportunity for interdisciplinary researchers, policy experts, faculty and students to work in even closer collaboration with leading government and research institutions. The campus will bring USC’s academic offerings coast to coast and give students a space to pursue new undergraduate and graduate programs in the sciences, arts, education, political science, communication and journalism, among other disciplines.

USC Capital Campus: anchor on the East Coast

The campus, at 1771 N St. NW, will be the university’s anchor on the East Coast, providing state-of-the-art office space, multiple event venues and an outdoor terrace offering panoramic views of the city skyline. Students and scholars will be able to enjoy multiple classrooms and study areas, with plans for a theater and USC bookstore, among other enhancements. The 60,000-square-foot building will be a vibrant center for the many active Trojan alumni who live and work in the region, offering them a tangible connection with their alma mater on the other side of the continent.

The Capital Campus will also become the new home for the Washington, D.C.-based USC Office of Research Advancement, which has helped faculty researchers secure federal funding for multidisciplinary research projects since 2006.

“This presence in our nation’s capital will significantly increase opportunities for our researchers to influence the many important national conversations on urgent topics that require immediate attention,” said Ishwar K. Puri, USC’s senior vice president for research and innovation. “In such fields as sustainability, media, culture, AI and health care, our scholars can bring to bear the full strength our diverse disciplines to Washington, D.C.”

The opportunity for public policy research and collaboration is a natural fit for USC faculty and students to work on the most pressing challenges facing the nation and world, said Dean Dana Goldman of the USC Price School of Public Policy.

“The pandemic palpably demonstrated the vital role government plays in ensuring our welfare,” Goldman said. “USC’s Capital Campus builds on these lessons, offering a laboratory from which students can learn from policymakers, study how our government works (or doesn’t in some cases) and research ways to strengthen our democracy.”

Washington, D.C., mayor welcomes USC Capital Campus

USC plays a vital role in the city and county of Los Angeles in myriad ways, including health care, policy, education, research and the arts, and the university fully expects to participate in community engagement in the nation’s capital as well. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser welcomed the university’s move into the area.

“The USC Capital Campus will be catalytic for the northern end of D.C.’s Central Business District,” Bowser said. “The new campus fits into D.C.’s Comeback Plan as we emphasize the strong presence of ‘Feds, Eds and Meds’ in the district. We cannot wait to welcome Trojans to the nation’s capital as together we ‘fight on’ for D.C.’s comeback.”

The new campus fits into D.C.’s Comeback Plan as we emphasize the strong presence of ‘Feds, Eds and Meds’ in the district.

Muriel Bowser, Washington, D.C., mayor

USC has maintained a thriving presence in Washington, D.C., for decades — and not just through the countless Trojan alumni who work at all levels of government, science, the military and the media in the capital.

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences offers a unique, semester-long program that sends students to study and work in the nation’s capital. As part of that program, students complete internships with government agencies, NGOs, advocacy groups, think tanks, consulting firms and congressional offices. Many students from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism spend two-week Maymester sessions getting an insider’s view of the workings the country’s corridors of power.

The university will build upon the strong foundation created by these and many other Washington, D.C., programs with new expanded programming and collaborative learning opportunities.

The new campus also will enable USC to increase outreach to local high school and community college students and create a gathering place for prospective students and its 6,000 local-area alumni.

Folt will host a grand opening ceremony next month at the building featuring remarks from Bowser, Goldman, USC Board of Trustees Chair Suzanne Nora Johnson and USC Trustee Fred Ryan, publisher of The Washington Post.

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USC Rossier’s Mary Helen Immordino-Yang elected to National Academy of Education

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[HED] Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education, elected to the National Academy of Education

[DEK] Expert in developmental psychology and neuroscience, she joins the foremost organization in education policy and practice
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Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, director of the the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education (CANDLE) and Fahmy and Donna Attallah Chair in Humanistic Psychology, has been elected to the National Academy of Education, the organization announced on Friday, March 10.

The mission of the National Academy is to advance high-quality research that improves education policy and practice. Consisting of U.S. members and international associates, members of the academy are selected based on their portfolio of education-related research; Immordino-Yang joins 18 new members in this year’s class.

“This is among the most prestigious honors for an education researcher,” said USC Rossier Dean Pedro A. Noguera. “Mary Helen’s remarkable academic career focuses on the psychology of education and development of learning. This recognition is a well-deserved honor.”

A professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education, Immordino-Yang studies the psychological and neurobiological bases of social emotion, self-awareness and culture and their implications for learning, development and schools. In addition, she is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the Brain and Creativity Institute and faculty member at the Neuroscience Graduate Program at USC.

“I am grateful to the National Academy members and my colleagues,” said Immordino-Yang. “This represents a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with some of the most respected thinkers in the field, and to contribute to much-needed innovations in what we value and how we understand and support schools and schooling in the modern era.”

Immordino-Yang joins Noguera among current USC Rossier faculty in the National Academy. Previous faculty named to the academy include Ron Avi Astor, Estela Mara Bensimon, Shaun R. Harper, Robert Rueda, Gale Sinatra and William G. Tierney.

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USC research identifies existential threats to the iconic Nile River Delta 

Large-scale heavy metal pollution, coastal erosion and seawater intrusion pose an existential threat to the Nile River Delta and endanger 60 million people — about twice the population of Texas — in Egypt who depend on its resources for every facet of life, according to new research from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Furthermore, the Nile River Delta is a critical stopover for migrating birds across their journey along the East African flyway.

The study, led by Essam Heggy from the USC Viterbi Innovation Fund Arid Climates and Water Research Center, published Tuesday in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future.

The impact of the pollution is especially pronounced in Egypt, the most populous and arid nation downstream of the Nile: The nation depends entirely on the river as its lone source of water for drinking and crop irrigation.

The country currently faces one of the highest water budget deficits in Africa after decades of compensating for dwindling water supplies with intensive, large-scale wastewater reuse, the consequences of which have been understudied until now.

Nile pollution affects millions of people

“You have roughly the combined populations of California and Florida living in a space the size of the state of New Jersey that is increasingly polluted by toxic heavy metals,” said Heggy. “Today, the civilization that thrived in a scenic waterscape for over 7,000 years must face the reality of this irreversible large-scale environmental degradation.”

For the study, researchers from the U.S. and Egypt analyzed grain size and pollution levels of eight heavy metals in samples of bottom sediment collected from two branches of the Nile River Delta. Key findings included:

  • Sediment at the bottom of the Nile River is highly polluted by heavy metals like cadmium, nickel, chromium, copper, lead and zinc.
  • Contaminants primarily come from untreated agricultural drainage and municipal and industrial wastewater. Without proper treatment of recycled water, concentrations of heavy metals increase and are permanently embedded in the riverbed, unlike organic pollutants which naturally degrade over time.
  • Heavy metal concentrations could be exacerbated by increased damming of the Nile. Mega-dams built upstream disrupt the river’s natural flow and sediment flux and thus adversely affect its ability to flush contaminants out into the Mediterranean Sea, leaving toxins to build up in bottom sediment over time.

Much of the heavy metal contamination is irreversible, the researchers said, but science-based conservation measures suggested by the study can slow environmental degradation and hopefully recover the Nile River Delta ecosystem.

Nile pollution creates dilemma: How best to use the water

“The aggravating water stress and the rapid population growth in Egypt, reaching above 100 million, have put local authorities in a dilemma whether to provide sufficient fresh water for the thirsty agricultural sector to secure the food supply through reusing untreated agricultural drainage water or to preserve the health of the Nile River,” said Abotalib Z. Abotalib, a postdoctoral researcher at USC Viterbi and co-author of the study. “The balance is challenging, and the consequences of both choices are measurable.”

“Our study underscores the need for more research on the environmental impacts of untreated water recycling and the change in river turbidity under increased upstream damming of the Nile,” Heggy said.

“Continued research with more sampling campaigns in this area could inform future conversations and collaborations among nations of the Nile River Basin, who have a shared interest toward maintaining a healthy Nile River system.”

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Hear, hear! The power of sound

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Hear, Hear!

Whether it takes the form of a rousing rock concert, a friendly greeting or the lulling buzz of cicadas on a summer evening, sound holds the power to energize us, to cheer us, to soothe us and — above all — to connect us.
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When Ludwig van Beethoven began losing his hearing as a young man in 1798, he blamed it on a fall, though modern researchers believe illness, lead poisoning or a middle ear deformity could have been factors. Whatever the cause, the hearing impairment did nothing to sweeten the acclaimed composer’s notoriously sour disposition, understandably contributing to his melancholy and ill temper.

Today, more than 200 years after the onset of Beethoven’s hearing problems, we know far more about the nature of sound and the causes of hearing loss. We also better understand how the brain comprehends language, and the power of music to affect brain activity.

But if we now have the means to protect against certain diseases that affect hearing, solutions to address the most common cause of hearing loss, aging, have been more challenging. The effects of aging on hearing can be slowed or partially ameliorated without biomedical devices, but they cannot be reversed — yet.

New hope for the deaf

USC Dornsife’s Charles McKenna, professor of chemistry, believes he, along with scientists at Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Institute, may have discovered a drug to repair inner ear cells that are damaged not only from aging, but from prolonged exposure to noise. This drug has the potential to treat damaged areas without being washed away by the ear’s natural fluid — a crucial breakthrough.

McKenna explains that neural sensors turn the vibrations we perceive as sounds into electrical impulses that the brain can register and decipher. When these sensors are damaged, hearing loss and other issues occur.

“A nerve can send a signal to the brain that lets the brain say, ‘This is a Mozart composition’ or ‘This is someone speaking,'” McKenna says. “The theory is that if you could regenerate the neural sensors, you would restore hearing to those who have lost it. Though there are drugs that appear to have the ability to induce regeneration of these neural sensors, successfully deploying those drugs has been a tremendous challenge.”

First, the cochlea, the part of the inner ear where damaged cells are located, is bony, making it difficult for drugs to adhere to it. Second, even if a compound is shown to attach to the structure, the inner ear’s naturally occurring fluid tends to wash it away before it can work.

Based on encouraging findings from their latest study, McKenna says he and his colleagues are optimistic their compound will adhere to the cochlea long enough to be effective. With more research, they hope to prove its efficacy.

The Power of Music

While Beethoven struggled with hearing problems, his music, perhaps paradoxically, may help improve the brain functions of others.

Assal Habibi, head of the Brain & Music Lab at USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute and associate professor (research) of psychology, explores how music and song affect brain activity using data collected through electroencephalography and neuroimaging. She and her colleagues have found that music can have several quantifiable benefits for the human brain, particularly in children. For example, playing music can help children hone their concentration skills.

“Music training helps with what is known as speech-in-noise perception — for example, when you’re in a noisy environment and someone is calling your name or saying something you need to hear,” Habibi says. “This is a crucial ability for children in a noisy classroom who need to be able to hear the teacher and tune out background noise.”

Music training has also been shown to help some children reach developmental milestones faster. If ongoing research can establish the connection, music training might be able to prevent the onset of certain behavioral and learning issues and lead to new therapies for children who struggle with them.

“One hypothesis is that if music can assist children in reaching developmental milestones faster, for example if they develop language skills earlier, they will be able to better express their feelings and communicate more
effectively,” Habibi says.

The Science of Language

While music therapy can help individuals sharpen their ability to discern the signal from the noise, linguistics is the discipline that deals with how we create and process the signal — speech itself.

Linguists specialize in the building blocks of language, or how sounds combine to create a word that is understood by different people, despite the fact that no two people will speak a word completely identically. Dani Byrd, professor of linguistics at USC Dornsife, examines how the vocal tract creates and combines these sounds in everyday speech, and how languages evolve to structure these sounds for encoding information.

“As a linguist I ask, ‘What are the rules that languages use to build their structures, to build their words and phrases? How do they differ from language to language?’ And I look at how and why we can understand these sounds as we do.”

Byrd says our complicated and incredibly nuanced sense of hearing mirrors a corresponding complexity in how we shape our words and sounds to convey meaning.

“The sensory cells of the inner ear are the most sensitive mechanoreceptor of the body. They have movements on a nanometer scale,” she says. “When air pressure fluctuations move your eardrum, that creates movement and an electrochemical cascade inside the inner ear.”

Our sense of hearing has the power to move us in a myriad ways. It also has the power to inspire wonder at its many — as yet — still unsolved mysteries: Why is it that we understand a gasp as a signal of surprise, or possibly fear? Why does the key of D minor often provoke feelings of sadness in one listener but not another? And how is it that our brain can take these vibrations of air and transform them into words, emotions
or messages?

“Isn’t it amazing,” says Byrd, “that these tiny fluctuations in air pressure can make you laugh or cry, can convey urgency, can make you fall in love?”

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Can hormone replacement therapy protect the heart and brain after menopause?

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Can hormone replacement therapy protect the heart and brain after menopause?A unique therapy may prevent postmenopausal cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline when taken within six years of menopause
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LOS ANGELES — Many are aware of the short-term symptoms often associated with menopause, such as hot flashes, which are attributed to changes in reproductive hormones. However, they may not know that menopause can put heart and brain health at long-term risk.
Atherosclerosis, the accumulation of plaque in arteries, is a leading cause of death in the U.S., and almost always occurs in women after menopause. Cognitive concerns such as memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are dramatically more common in postmenopausal than premenopausal women.
Now, Keck Medicine of USC has launched a clinical trial to study the effect of a novel hormone replacement therapy on postmenopausal cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline.

“Data supports the concept that estrogen, a hormone that the ovaries stop producing after menopause, protects both the heart and brain from damage,” said Howard N. Hodis, MD, director of the USC Atherosclerosis Research Unit, internal medicine specialist with Keck Medicine and lead researcher of the study. “Our study seeks to determine whether estrogen-containing hormone therapy can prevent or slow atherosclerosis progression and cognitive impairment in women after menopause.”

A key aspect of the study is that it is designed for women who are postmenopausal for six years or less.

“We have studied previous data and conducted clinical trials showing that the timing of when a woman starts hormone therapy is crucial,” said Hodis, who is also a professor of medicine and population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “There appears to be a limited window of time wherein women benefit from hormone replacement therapy. Beyond six years of menopause, prevention appears to be too late.”

Improving standard hormone replacement therapies

The hormone therapy being studied has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration since 2013 and consists of estrogen paired with a non-hormone drug known as bazedoxifene.
Traditional hormone replacement therapy combines estrogen with progesterone, or more commonly with progestin, a synthetic progesterone. Estrogen alone can cause the lining of the uterus to thicken, causing bleeding and other health issues, which the progesterone or progestin prevents.

However, progestin/progesterone combined with estrogen has been associated with cancer risks. Bazedoxifene prevents the uterine lining from thickening while appearing not to present the same risks, said Hodis.

Trial eligibility and protocols

The clinical trial, titled Advancing Postmenopausal Preventive Therapy, is open to healthy women six years or less post-menopause, who have a uterus, are 45-59 years of age and do not have cardiovascular disease. Upon enrollment, trial participants:

o Receive an ultrasound of their neck artery that is used as a non-invasive baseline measure of atherosclerosis.
o Undergo several tests to gauge their baseline cognitive function and memory.

Every six months, participants have an ultrasound of the neck artery to monitor any progression of atherosclerosis. They also have electrocardiograms to check for different heart conditions, which are done yearly.

At the end of the study, which lasts approximately three years, women retake the cognitive and memory tests so researchers can determine whether there has been any change since enrollment.

The clinical trial is a double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, meaning neither participants nor the researchers know who is receiving hormone replacement or a placebo. When the clinical trial is completed, researchers will compare results between the therapy and placebo recipients, and participants will be informed which option they received.

So far, some 260 women are participating in the trial; researchers are looking for 100 more women to enroll. Those interested in participating should contact the USC Atherosclerosis Research Unit at (323) 442-2257 or visit

“Our ultimate goal is to help women and their physicians make informed decisions to promote good health post-menopause,” said Hodis.

The trial is funded by the National Institute on Aging (grant R01-AG058691), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Donna Shoupe, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist specialist with Keck Medicine and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Keck School of Medicine and Wendy J. Mack, PhD, a professor of population and public health sciences with the Keck School of Medicine, are co-investigators of the clinical trial.

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