Trojans share their commitment to being ‘All Out With Pride’

Mason Morris, a member of the Trojan men’s swimming and diving team, helped kick off USC’s Pride Month activities on Thursday by sharing why he is proud to belong to the LGBTQ+ community and is determined to stand up against the current wave of legislative attacks against it.

Pride logo“This community’s bravery, courage and ability to champion everyone’s differences give me beautiful optimism about our human potential,” he said. “And it fuels the burning rage I have against anyone who threatens it.”

Morris joined USC President Carol L. Folt, fellow students, staff and alumni on Monday for a virtual event that explored the theme “All Out With Pride.” Nearly all of the speakers mentioned that LGBTQ+ Pride Month is taking place this year at a time when an unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is being considered or passed in various states.

Folt lamented the “terrible record number” of these bills and pointed out that “even drag queens are under attack for reading storybooks to schoolchildren.”

She affirmed USC’s continued commitment to the LGBTQ+ community and to basic human rights for all.

“It’s a part of our special mission, and it is unwavering,” Folt said. “While we celebrate our march forward — and we should celebrate that — we also must continue to remain vigilant and keep up the fight.”

Pride Month at USC: A call to action

Morris, an international relations major in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, issued a call to action to all LGBTQ+ people and their allies to educate themselves on and fight against the more than 400 bills proposed this year aimed at limiting LGBTQ+ rights. Largely raised by Republican lawmakers, nearly half of them target transgender and nonbinary people, with some including efforts to outlaw gender-affirming care for minors.

“Everyone with a bone of humanity in their body needs to be all out with pride, not just queer people,” Morris said. “The fight for the LGBTQ+ community is long from over.”

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Megan van der Toorn, student equity and inclusion programs manager for USC’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Plus Student Center, also spoke out against legislation such as anti-trans bathroom bills, anti-drag laws and, in Florida, the prohibition of discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity throughout primary and secondary grade levels.

“We are here to boldly say that we will not be erased,” she said. “We will continue to live authentically with pride.”

Steps forward and backward

USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association President Erika Hartman pointed out that the community’s rights have been moving forward “incrementally” since the alumni group was founded in 1992. Hartman said the current legislative attacks “made for a very painful time in our history.”

Rather than be daunted, Hartman told her fellow Trojans that this is a time for building community and increased visibility.

“We are not going to let anyone steal our joy — not now and not ever,” she said. “We are here letting our community know you are seen, you are valued, you are celebrated, and there will always be a place of safety and belonging for you in the Trojan Family.”

Hartman, who earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the USC Rossier School of Education in 2009, said she felt encouraged when she saw rainbow pride flags along Trousdale Parkway while on the University Park Campus.

“USC had let us know that our identity was affirmed and that we belonged,” she said. “The more we have amplified our visibility and the more we have created a safe space, the more our students and alums have courageously identified themselves and our community has grown.”

Pride Month at USC: LGBTQ+ visibility grows at the university

In her remarks, Folt paid tribute to the USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year at a gala at the Grammy Museum.

“LGBTQ+ visibility continues to be important to us and to grow across our campuses,” she said. “This was not always the way. We had to rely on trailblazers to bring us to where we are now.”

Folt also put a spotlight on Alexandra Billings, who this year became the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ first transgender professor to achieve tenure; openly gay USC alum Robert Garcia, who was sworn in this year as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives; USC alum Michael Ausiello, whose memoir Spoiler Alert was made into a major motion picture released in theaters last December; and Keck Medicine of USC’s innovative Gender-Affirming Care Program.

Journey to the authentic self

Morris shared that the quality he loves most about so many LGBTQ+ people is that they often achieve a higher level of “consciousness” and “enlightenment” as they seek to live an authentic life.

“Each individual embraces the world and exposes it to the rawness of their true character, regardless of the resistance that it may face,” he said.

Another speaker, Sarah Hong, agreed.

“Queerness is about being authentic and embracing yourself,” said Hong, assistant director of data and metrics in the Health Promotion Strategy office at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “This Pride Month — and every month — I hope you are able to surround yourself with friends and community members who support you and help you become your authentic self.”

A full list of USC Pride Month events can be found on the university’s event calendar.

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USC Viterbi assistant professor gets research award from National Institutes of Health


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Unfolding the Mystery of Proteins

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Unfolding the Mystery of Proteins

Assistant professor Wade Zeno, an expert in proteins, wins the prestigious ESI MIRA award from the NIH

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Wade Zeno, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has received the Early-Stage Investigator’s Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (ESI MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health.

The MIRA is a prestigious grant that supports an investigator’s lab to promote important scientific breakthroughs. The grant will fund Zeno’s lab for a total of $2 million throughout five years, as his team explores dynamic interactions between intrinsically disordered proteins and curved cellular membrane surfaces.

“I was really fortunate to get this award because I’m still pretty new to being a professor,” said Zeno, an expert in proteins who joined USC Viterbi in summer 2020. “This research is essential to understanding the mechanisms by which intrinsically disordered proteins function in cellular processes.”

Proteins are a key molecule that carry out all different kinds of functions in living systems. Historically, the field of protein biology believed that the function of proteins arose from their ability to fold into specific structures. However, it was recently discovered that many proteins don’t fold at all. These types of proteins, known as intrinsically disordered proteins, have good and bad implications. Many are innocuous and even essential, while others are heavily implicated in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimers, as well as certain types of cancer.

Zeno studies how these proteins interact specifically with curved surfaces. For example, a protein may disrupt neurotransmission and become a key sign of Parkinson’s disease. Understanding the fundamental mechanisms of these protein interactions could help one day find a cure.

“The mechanism of sensing curvature is important for many cellular processes because that’s how cells shuttle things across the plasma membrane and throughout the cytoplasm,” said Zeno. “If the proteins can’t do that, the cells can’t function and that underlies various diseases.”

One of Zeno’s first projects at USC was a collaboration with a local biotech company to understand how a potential therapeutic for Parkinson’s disease functions in cells.


Zeno didn’t always like the idea of working in biological research.

“In undergrad, I actually really hated biology,” Zeno said. “The memorization was really boring, and I wanted to solve actual problems.”

It wasn’t until his senior year as a chemical engineering major at the University of Nevada, Reno, that he fell in love with the intersection of physics, chemistry, math, and biology in his bioengineering class. For his senior design project, Zeno designed and modeled a brewery–integrating many aspects of his studies, such as modeling the kinetics of yeast fermentation.

“Once I saw [this intersection] it opened up a world of possibilities for me,” he said.


After working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin for four years, Zeno joined USC Viterbi in August 2020 as an assistant professor.

At USC, he was awarded the 2020 USC Provost’s Assistant Professor Fellowship, which gave him teaching relief for his first year.

“It allowed me to focus on my research. I was able to train my lab and collect preliminary data. I think this gave me an edge over other applicants and develop a strong research proposal that ultimately ended up getting funded,” Zeno said.

With the ESI MIRA grant, Zeno hopes to continue building a solid understanding of the function of intrinsically disordered proteins and how to engineer or control them.

“I want to help develop new biotechnologies that change the way we understand, diagnose, and treat disease,” he said.

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AI sheds new light on the ‘code of life’


AI Sheds New Light on the ‘Code of Life’

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AI Sheds New Light on the ‘Code of Life’

USC Dornsife researchers employ artificial intelligence to unveil the intricate world of DNA structure and chemistry, enabling unprecedented insights into gene regulation and disease.
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While ChatGPT, Bard and other artificial intelligence tools keep writers, teachers and fans of the Terminatormovie franchise up at night worrying about various apocalyptic scenarios, another use of AI offers more hopeful outcomes.

Researchers at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences are using AI and other computational methods to redefine how scientists view DNA and give a clearer, more all-encompassing perspective on the “code of life.”

The knowledge revealed promises to transform scientific fields ranging from cancer research to drug design to sustainability.

Revealing a deeper complexity
In simplest terms, the genetic code is composed of four letters — A, C, G and T. The letters represent the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, which are part of the DNA double helix. These four nucleotide letters spell out the genetic code for all living things.

While this simple version of the code has done a serviceable job for decades, it doesn’t begin to fully reveal the complexity of DNA.

“We wanted to find a new way of encoding DNA that goes beyond the linear letter code,” said Remo Rohs, chair of the Department of Quantitative and Computational Biology at USC Dornsife. He and his colleagues published significant research, which used large-scale experimental data, earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also published similar experimental data for a family of cancer-related proteins called forkhead box transcription factors in Nucleic Acids Research last week.

These and other research advances place the department among those at the forefront of the new USC Frontiers of Computing initiative, which aims to spur research and innovation in advanced computing technologies such as AI and machine learning, data science, blockchain and quantum information.

Researchers see DNA as more than a simple code
Rohs, professor of quantitative and computational biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy and computer science, and his team are looking to develop a more realistic and wholistic definition of the genetic code that includes “all structural variations and chemical modifications that we know of now or that could be discovered in the future,” he said.

These chemical modifications and structural variations that Rohs mentions range from small changes to the four nucleotides all the way up to major alterations that affect how DNA coils around itself and other molecules such as proteins.

These changes can affect which genes are active and which are dormant by allowing or blocking proteins from interacting with the DNA or reading the code.

Rohs’ approach replaces the simple four-letter sequence with one that includes physicochemical groups in the major and minor grooves in the DNA double-helix.

So, what does that mean?

The DNA double-helix forms a twisted ladder shape. By virtue of the ladder’s twist, it has a wider, major groove and a narrower, minor groove. Depending on their size and shape, cellular molecules may have an easier time interacting with the DNA through one groove versus the other.

“Physicochemical” refers to both physical and chemical properties. Rohs’ method takes into account the various bumps and protrusions of the nucleotides and other DNA components and their physical accessibility within the two grooves. It also incorporates how the DNA components might react chemically with proteins. Taken together, this gives a clearer picture of how the cell’s machinery interacts with and interprets the genetic code.

For instance, a protein might normally bind to a section of DNA coded as AGTCATGGA, but if that section is tucked away in the minor groove, the protein might not be able to get close enough to bind. Or, if the protein and coded section have a strong chemical attraction, even if the coded section is tucked in tight, the protein might still be able to interact, but to a lesser degree.

Greater insights on DNA using AI
This is where Rohs’ team introduces AI, which learns a DNA-binding protein’s preference for certain chemical groups at specific physical locations in each groove of the DNA.

By accounting for these nuances, Rohs and his team reveal a more complete picture of what happens with DNA in living cells, one that extends far beyond the simple, linear, four-letter code. This, says Soheil Shams, chief information officer emeritus of biotechnology company Bionano Genomics Inc., is key to advancing computational research on the genome.

“One of the most important, yet challenging, steps in many computational biology applications, like machine learning, is how to represent biochemical information so it can be computationally processed,” said Shams, who graduated from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering with a master’s degree in 1986 and a PhD in 1992. “The proposed approach by Dr. Rohs and colleagues is offering a much more complete representation of the DNA sequence that should enable similarly more complete discoveries in interpretation of genetic variants as well as cancer research.”

Rohs’ method would help scientists understand why some genes are only partially active under certain conditions, or why the activity of some genes increases or decreases with age.

And this, Rohs says, opens doors for a range of beneficial research avenues.

“Using AI methods on a genome with chemical modifications and structural modifications will allow its applications in cancer and aging research, agricultural research, synthetic biology, chemical engineering, and drug design,” he said. “For example, certain types of cancers involve chemical modifications of DNA, aging correlates with the level of DNA methylation, and plant genomes undergo extensive chemical modifications compared to the genomes of other organisms.”

For their next steps, Rohs says, the researchers want to apply their work to DNA-binding proteins that control gene activity and predict how altering nucleotides — or substituting new, synthetic nucleotides — affects those proteins’ function.

“We want to predict binding preferences of gene regulatory proteins, called transcription factors, to DNA with chemically modified nucleotides and synthetic base pairs to improve binding characteristics and develop drugs that improve human health and disease,” he said.

Rohs’ work on the cutting edge of computational biology using AI could hold benefits for humanity that bots like ChatGPT could only dream of.

About the studies
The paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was led by Postdoctoral Associate Tsu-Pei Chiu and co-authored by former graduate student Satyanarayan Rao.

The paper published in Nucleic Acids Research was led by postdoctoral associate Brendon Cooper and co-authored by former postdoctoral associate Ana Carolina Dantas Machado, lab technician Yan Gan, and professor of biological sciences Oscar Aparicio.

The experimental project was part of the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience. Both studies were supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Human Frontier Science Program.

More about research undertaken in Rohs’ lab is available at

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Trojan trailblazer works to make women, LGBTQ+ students feel ‘safe and comfortable’ at veterans center

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the year.

As the USC Veterans Resource Center‘s first full-time supervisor, Janine Williams is very intentional about creating programming and community for a variety of individuals in the service, particularly women and gender-expansive students.

“I want a space where women vets can meet others in our community and be involved on campus in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable,” Williams said.

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Williams joined the U.S. Army at 17 and was deployed to Iraq at 18 years old. As a queer woman serving in the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, it was difficult for Williams to make friends and trust others.

When she arrived at her first duty station out of basic training, she was in transitional housing with a woman who was being dishonorably discharged for marrying another woman while on leave. This was her first interaction with another soldier, and it solidified for Williams that she could not share her own identity with others.

“Serving overseas, you’re in this bubble where everyone knows everything about each other,” she said, which made it very challenging to keep her personal life a secret and had a negative impact on her mental health.

Because of this, Williams has become a major advocate for mental health and well-being among the students she works with, particularly LGBTQ+ folks. Despite the armed forces being the biggest employer of transgender folks in the United States, there is still a stigma against being transgender or nonbinary in the military.

“I know so many people have had harmful experiences like mine,” Williams said. “I hope by talking openly about my experience, how it changed who I was and how I hold myself in certain spaces, will encourage others to get connected to counseling and mental health services.”

Working at the USC Veterans Resource Center — her first job in higher education — Williams said she has noticed the effect of policies like Title IX on her work. “It creates a support system for students, but it also provides protections for me too. Being able to explore my gender identity without fear of being othered or fear for my job allows me to focus on the work I’m doing for our student populations,” Williams said. She recognizes that Title IX has created the foundation for people to grow and be protected within the university. It has allowed her to share her experiences with students and be someone to whom they can relate.

These experiences also help Williams in developing programming for women veterans and cadets. Williams has noticed that most female-identified veterans and cadets come to the USC Veterans Resource Center not realizing there are other female-identified veterans on campus. Williams helps build those bridges with them at whatever stage they’re at. She continues to create more women veteran initiatives, particularly with online programming, because many of USC’s women veterans take courses in online programs.

Title IX trailblazer: Passion for students and her community

Williams’ passion for her community and the students she serves shows through in her work. She is proud to be the connection for students to other campus resources, whether that be the USC Veterans Certification Office, the Career Center, the Office of Student Accessibility Services or other individuals across the university. She fosters partnerships with all these offices so that when a student comes into the Veterans Resource Center asking for help, even if they don’t know quite what they need, she can connect them with the right people. She trains her student staff to do the same and to create a welcoming community where veteran and military students can come hang out, get schoolwork done and find support among their peers.

Williams has been at USC just under a year and a half, and in that time she has seen the impact that a supportive and equity-focused university can have on students, in particular student veterans.

She completed her undergraduate degree in Texas, where she said she encountered a conservative culture that “was not very welcoming for me as a woman or an LGBTQ+ person.” Working at USC, she has felt accepted and valued as a whole person, and she has seen a lot of support for student veterans and cadets in all their intersecting identities.

“Having the Veterans Resource Center housed under Student Equity and Inclusion Programs and having [USC President Carol L. Folt and Monique S. Allard, the university’s vice president for student life] attend military-affiliated events and speak to students shows our community that from top to bottom, the university supports this community and all its members,” she said. “Our students feel like they are a part of this campus, and they belong here.”

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Information Sciences Institute leads initiative to increase bandwidth availability around the nation

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ISI leads an initiative in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF), Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the University of Utah (UoU) to expand spectrum access across the nation
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As the world experiences unprecedented waves of technological innovation, communication needs are multiplying. Between our smartphones, tablets, computers, and even smartwatches, it’s becoming harder for wireless communication services to meet the ever-increasing demand.

Each new development requires more of a limited resource that makes communicating over airways possible, known as the electromagnetic spectrum. The more we innovate, the more spectrum access, or bandwidth, we need.

Scientists envision a future where we communicate through virtual reality or avatars, which would-you guessed it-require even more bandwidth to function.

Here’s the kicker-these wireless communication services are also competing with scientific activities, such as radio astronomy and climate research, for spectrum access. Right now, there’s simply not enough to go around.

Limited spectrum availability is quite literally preventing advancements in science and the development of faster communications for society as a whole.

We need a solution, and we need it fast.

USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute (ISI)’s Alefiya Hussain, Idaho National Laboratory (INL)’s Arupjyoti Bhuyan, and Robert Ricci of The University of Utah (UoU), are collaborating on a proposal known as Advanced Spectrum Initiative for Research and Experimentation (ASPIRE).

ASPIRE seeks to create this bandwidth availability through a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) known as Spectrum Innovation Initiative: National Radio Dynamic Zones (SII-NRDZ). The goal of SII-NRDZ is to address these issues through dynamic spectrum sharing.

The Project
The SII-NRDZ program supports promising project proposals from spectrum sharing researchers with funding. ASPIRE received an Engineering and Execution Lead award from NSF and subsequently launched just a few months ago in January.

The project is centered around radio dynamic zones: geographically bounded areas that are able to autonomously regulate and control electromagnetic energy entering or leaving the parameters.

Alefiya Hussain, lead researcher at ISI, said the plan is to use designated radio dynamic zones as testing sites to experiment with dynamic spectrum sharing through field trials, and look for ways that “multiple entities can harmoniously coexist.” In other words the team is finding new ways where the needs of commercial and scientific groups can be met at the same time.

“The radio dynamic zone is creating essentially these experimentation spaces for testbeds that allows us to investigate what is a good combination of frequency multiplexing or time-based multiplexing within the spectrum space to be able to effectively use it,” she said.

The Current Method
The United States has tackled the management of spectrum access through the creation of an allocation chart that segments off, in color codes, which frequencies belong to each service. It worked for decades, but now that we’re using up all of the spectrum, smoothing out inefficiencies in the chart is critical to opening up more access.

For example, with the chart an individual service can only operate in its denoted spot, which Hussain said can be wasteful because spectrum access that is available is often left unused.

“Traditionally, one entity was given that spectrum, and only they used it. There were many times when they didn’t use it, but since nobody else was allowed to use it, it goes wasted with this sort of fixed allocation mechanism,” she explained.

The goal, she said, is to have a more “dynamic, flexible allocation” so that one day, the chart can be replaced by a self-regulating radio dynamic zone that both allocates spectrum access more efficiently and redistributes it to meet immediate needs.

The United States currently has a National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) in Virginia where radio astronomy takes place.This protects experimental activities that need to pick up tiny astronomy signals from interference. Hussain said the NRQZ is basically a “radio vacuum” where the use of any sort of wireless device-through phones, bluetooth, WiFi, and other means-is banned.

The NRQZ creates space for passive experimentation, whereas the NRDZ would allow for active experimentation.

Think about it this way: you’re in a room with a large group of people talking loudly among themselves. The NRQZ scenario involves silencing everybody nearby so you are able to hear conversations far away. Alternatively, the second scenario (NRDZ) is if you were able to listen to every conversation that is occurring by sharing space effectively-so that everyone can talk at the right time.

The Vision: A National Radio Dynamic Zone
After experimenting with regional field trials and finding out what works and what doesn’t, the big picture objective is to take the information gathered from rigorous testing to create a permanent, national experimentation facility, somewhere in the United States.

The NRDZ would tackle coexistence and maximize utility through dynamic spectrum sharing, while also opening up a new avenue to support the next generation of spectrum science through active experimentation.

The average person would see an improvement in the speed and communication abilities of their devices while the scientific community would gain bandwidth for their cutting edge projects. It’s a win-win.

The new science made possible with the spectrum includes radio astronomy and remote sensing, which Hussain said will involve advancements in environmental sciences, such as climate monitoring in urban areas that could help scientists “observe phenomena they had not observed before.”

Hussain noted that the NRDZ aims to provide “larger protections for next generation telescopes” that are being built currently and going to be deployed in the future. These telescopes are highly sensitive and necessitate this spectrum innovation.

Green Lights Ahead
The project is still in its early stages. In fact, the team is currently in Phase I-designing field trials. Phase II involves actually conducting the trials in regional radio dynamic zones.

The spectrum allocation chart, although it worked great for the last 20 years, is no longer able to meet society’s wireless communication demands. We are in urgent need of a new, more effective method of spectrum management, and the national radio dynamic zone could be just what the doctor ordered.

The task ahead is not an easy feat, but the implications have the potential to transform spectrum solutions for the better. Hussain said the project will “require not only technological support but also legislative support to include breakthroughs in economic, social, and behavioral sciences as well.”

It looks like in this case Plato might have been right-necessity is in fact the mother of invention. Society needs better spectrum sharing ability-ASPIRE is setting out to create it.

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Researcher uses mammal DNA to zoom into human genome with unprecedented resolution

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USC researcher uses mammal DNA to zoom into the human genome with unprecedented resolution

Steven Gazal has identified base pairs of DNA that play a crucial role in human disease.
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“Why do humans have disease if they went through millions of years of evolution?” It’s a question Steven Gazal, PhD, assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, hopes to answer.

Gazal is part of an international team of researchers who have become the first to precisely identify base pairs of the human genome that remained consistent over millions of years of mammalian evolution, and which play a crucial role in human disease. The findings were published in a special Zoonomia edition of Science.

Gazal and his team analyzed the genomes of 240 mammals, including humans, zooming in with unprecedented resolution to compare DNA. They were able to identify base pairs that were “constrained” – meaning they remained generally consistent – across mammal species over the course of evolution. Individuals born with mutations on these genes may not have been as successful within their species or were otherwise not likely to pass down the genetic variation. “We were able to identify where gene mutations are not tolerated in evolution, and we demonstrated that these mutations are significant when it comes to disease,” explains Gazal.

The team found that 3.3% of bases in the human genome are “significantly constrained,” including 57.6% of the coding bases that determine amino acid position, meaning these bases had unusually few variants across species in the dataset. The most constrained base pairs in mammals were over seven times more likely to be causal for human disease and complex trait, and over 11 times more likely when researchers looked at the most constrained base pairs in primates alone.

The dataset was provided by the Zoonomia consortium, which according to the project website, “is applying advances in DNA sequencing technologies to understand how genomes generate the tremendous wealth of animal diversity.” Gazal gives credit to Zoonomia for making this type of data available to researchers and anticipates it will be widely used by human geneticists. “It’s a cheap resource to generate, as opposed to datasets generated in human genetic studies,” says Gazal.

His team’s findings are a significant step forward, as Gazal notes, “we do not understand 99% of the human genome, so it is fundamental to understand which part has been constrained by evolution and is likely to have an impact on human phenotypes.” Their discoveries and methods could become crucial tools for further research.

The next step for Gazal and his team is to repeat the process with a primate-only dataset. By restricting the subjects, they hope to focus on functions of DNA that appeared more recently in human evolution. “We expect this to be even more useful in determining information on human disease,” says Gazal.


For more information and a complete list of authors, access the paper here.

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USC Pride Month celebrations come as LGTBQ+ community is targeted across the country

USC is stepping up to show much-needed support for this year’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month. The annual June event takes place as more than 400 anti-LGBTQ+ bills are being introduced or passed in state legislatures across the country.

Pride logo

The monthlong celebration kicks off Thursday with an “All Out With Pride” virtual event that will include remarks from USC President Carol L. Folt, students, faculty, staff and alumni. On the same day, the progress pride flag will be raised in front of Keck Hospital of USC in a special morning ceremony. (The progress pride flag adds a five-colored chevron to the classic rainbow flag, representing marginalized LGBTQ+ communities of color along with the colors of the transgender pride flag.)

Later that day, the USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association will hold an evening reception on the University Park Campus.

USC Pride Month celebration: Honoring the struggle

Pride Month is celebrated each June in honor of the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising in New York City, which was sparked by police harassment and persecution. Stonewall is considered by many to be the tipping point for the modern LGBTQ+ liberation movement against discriminatory laws and practices in the United States. A year after Stonewall, the first Pride parade — held in Manhattan — was organized by the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee. The tradition has since spread to parades, parties, picnics, concerts and other gatherings throughout the country and around the world.

“Pride has been, for many years, an important ritual,” said Karen Tongson, a professor of gender and sexuality, English, and American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “For the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sense that Pride had lost its political urgency. Unfortunately, in light of the intensifying scapegoating of the LGBTQ community, it’s become even more important to show solidarity.”

Nearly half of the bills — largely raised by Republican lawmakers — target transgender and nonbinary people, according to figures compiled by the Human Rights Campaign. The swath of legislation includes efforts to outlaw gender-affirming care for minors, anti-trans bathroom bills, anti-drag laws and, in Florida, the prohibition of discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity throughout all grade levels.

Pride has been, for many years, an important ritual.

Karen Tongson, USC Dornsife

“Pride Month can be used as an opportunity to really connect with each other and to think about what it is that our [LGBTQ+] community needs,” Tongson said. “How can we support the most vulnerable among us and stand alongside each other as protectors?”

Tongson laments what she describes as “internecine struggles” that are taking place within the LGBTQ+ community. She said “a small minority” are essentially trying to “exile our trans kin” when they need solidarity the most.

“That’s become alarming,” she said. “How can one turn away from others who need care when we’ve suffered those very same indignities?”

Tongson pointed out that gays, lesbians and bisexuals “have also been scapegoated, demonized and turned into the rationale for the policing of bodies.”

Gender identity supported at Keck Medicine of USC

When Keck Pride — the LGBTQ+ employee resource group that spans Keck Medicine of USC and the Keck School of Medicine of USC — marched in last year’s Los Angeles Pride Parade in Hollywood, they were seen as heroic by some in the crowd.

Keck Pride co-chair Lindsey Morrison shared a parade highlight: When a parade watcher saw Keck Medicine employees marching on Hollywood Boulevard, they yelled, “I’m getting my top surgery there!” to much applause.

We want everybody to feel seen and understood and cared for.

Lindsey Morrison, Keck Pride co-chair

The group will be marching again this year when the parade takes place on June 11. Morrison said the group is determined to show that Keck Medicine is a safe place to receive care, including at Keck Medicine’s innovative Gender-Affirming Care Program, which provides comprehensive health care to transgender and nonbinary people while affirming their gender identity.

“We want everybody to feel seen and understood and cared for,” said Morrison, who works as a process architect at Keck Hospital of USC. “Affirming care for LGBTQ+ people in general is so essential, and there are terrifying actions that are happening in this country.”

USC support for AIDS/LifeCycle

The day before participating in the L.A. Pride Parade, members of Keck Pride will be among those volunteering at the finish line of Santa Monica’s AIDS/LifeCycle, a seven-day, 545-mile ride from San Francisco to L.A. benefiting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Keck Medicine of USC is the medical sponsor of this year’s ride.

“We want to welcome the riders — including our own Keck Stands team — as they come back and help with the grunt work of parking the bikes and whatever else they need,” Morrison said.

The health care system is also welcoming its newest hospital to the Pride Month festivities. This year is the first time USC Arcadia Hospital will mark Pride: The progress pride flag will be raised in front of the building during a ceremony on Monday, with a Pride celebration following three days later, on June 8.

A full list of USC Pride Month events can be found on the university’s event calendar.

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USC Schaeffer Center research director testifies at congressional hearing


Schaeffer Research Director Testifies at Congressional Hearing on Biomedical Innovation and Patient Access

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USC Schaeffer Center research director testifies at Congressional hearing


Darius Lakdawalla testifies before the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, discussing biomedical innovation and patient access.

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In a hearing on how to balance incentives for medical innovation with patient access, USC Schaeffer Center Director of Research Darius Lakdawalla shared findings demonstrating that “expanding prescription drug coverage is worth the cost because it simultaneously rewards innovators and makes innovation more accessible.”

In testimony before the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health on May 10, Lakdawalla suggested targeted reforms to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 as well as Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) programs that would improve the system for patients and innovators. Lakdawalla is noted for his studies on how to cost-effectively stimulate biomedical innovation so that as many patients as possible can benefit from its breakthroughs.

He was part of a panel of experts called upon by the subcommittee for a hearing on “Examining Policies that Inhibit Innovation and Patient Access.” The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), addresses matters related to payment programs for healthcare, medical delivery systems and related research.

“We all want America to lead the world in medical innovation, and we want Americans to have access to the newest, best groundbreaking treatments as soon as possible,” Rep. Buchanan said. “I hope we can leave this hearing today with a renewed sense of bipartisanship and willingness to work together on policies that protect and enhance innovation.”

Balancing innovation costs with meeting patient needs
“The tradeoff between incentives for innovation and healthcare access for patients is typically framed as an either/or proposition,” Lakdawalla explained. “Either we reward innovators with high prices and deny many patients access to therapies they desperately need, or we make new therapies broadly accessible by limiting their prices, starving innovators of rewards for developing new drugs.”

He then noted how Schaeffer Center research presents potential solutions to this dilemma. “Generous prescription drug coverage can serve as the knife that cuts through this knotty tradeoff,” he said.

“Better lives for patients and their families is the goal,” Lakdawalla emphasized. So instead of paying for all innovations, he said the focus should be on rewarding those companies that “seek out and develop new medicines that help us achieve healthier outcomes.”

Aligning price with value
Such an approach requires measuring the value of new medicines, but Lakdawalla observed that traditional economic analyses, such as quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs), are inaccurate. Instead, he said that Schaeffer Center research has revealed the advantages of value assessment models adhering to the “principle that goods are more valuable to people who have less of them. Analogously, health improvements are more valuable for people with disabilities, terminal illness or other severe disease.”

Such a strategy, he added, “also comports with federal law by avoiding value assessments that discriminate against vulnerable patients with disabilities or terminal illness.”

Yet while the IRA “provides an opportunity to better align price and value for individual drugs,” Lakdawalla said the law needs revision to incorporate “credible, evidence-based and scientifically validated methods for measuring value to patients.”

In response to concerns raised by Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) about the IRA’s policy changes related to rare-disease therapies, Lakdawalla noted that the likely result will be reduced innovation in this category. Therefore, he said, reforms should address the unmet needs of people with rare diseases because, in such cases, “even a relatively modest improvement in health can be quite valuable. And that needs to be accounted for in the way CMS sets maximum fair prices to at least mitigate some of these issues for rare disease where value is at a premium.”

Three-part pricing

To better align a drug’s cost with its value, Schaeffer Center investigators suggest a three-part-pricing model that starts with an evaluation phase. During this initial period, Lakdawalla explained, the drug would be introduced at “a lower price in exchange for early access to Medicare coverage and the possibility of exemption from IRA inflation rebates if the drug meets prespecified effectiveness benchmarks.”

This would be followed by a reward phase. “If the drug achieves its targets, innovators would be rewarded with a high price,” he said. Otherwise, they would not.

In the final phase, robust generic or biosimilar competition would drive down prices upon the drug’s loss of exclusivity, improving patient access in the long term.

“While there is value in reducing healthcare costs and improving patients’ access to existing drugs in the short term, there is also value in ensuring a continuing stream of innovative therapies for future generations,” Lakdawalla noted. Achieving both aims, however, requires a balanced–and bipartisan approach. The results, however, will be worth the effort, he said.

“By ensuring generous prescription drug insurance, drug prices that reflect the value they deliver and effective competition throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain, we can achieve improved health for Americans today and tomorrow,” Lakdawalla said. “Getting prices right would go a long way toward addressing the different symptoms of our various economic diseases in this market.”

The hearing was webcast live and may be viewed on YouTube. Other panelists were Ted Okon, executive director of the Community Oncology Alliance; Joshua Makower, director of the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign at Stanford University; Aaron S. Kesselheim, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School; and Tony Gonzales, national early-stage advisor for the Alzheimer’s Association–who spoke about his battles accessing care after his own Alzheimer’s diagnosis before age 50.

Read Lakdawalla’s testimony in full.

Lakdawalla also serves as Quintiles Chair in Pharmaceutical Development and Regulatory Innovation at the USC Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and is a professor at the Price School of Public Policy. The Schaeffer Center is a partnership of the Mann School and Price School.

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How vaccine hesitant are you? A third of Americans aren’t fully protected against COVID

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Are You More Vaccine Hesitant Than A 57-Year-Old?
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In May 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his goal as getting at least 70% of Americans partially vaccinated against COVID-19 by July of that year. However, government records indicate that as late as September 2022, more than 31% of Americans were still not fully vaccinated. It has been shown this was not due to supply constraints, but rather, due to vaccine hesitancy among certain segments of the population.

Why were so many Americans hesitant about the COVID vaccine?

This is what researchers at USC Viterbi School of Engineering set out to answer. Mayank Kejriwal, Research Lead at the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and a Research Assistant Professor in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, along with PhD student Ke Shen analyzed socio-demographic variables in their paper, Using Conditional Inference To Quantify Interaction Effects of Socio-Demographic Covariates of Us COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy, which was recently published in PLOS Global Public Health.

With this research, they hope to lay the groundwork for future pandemic preparedness with regard to vaccine hesitancy.

Survey Says…
Kejriwal conducted a retrospective analysis on data from a COVID-19 cross-sectional Gallup survey that was administered to a representative sample of U.S.-based respondents. It was an online survey that began in March 2020, and included daily random samples of U.S. adults.

“We wanted to see whether we could predict, based on socio-demographic variables, what specific groups might be more vaccine hesitant than others,” said Kejriwal. He explained, “If we can predict that, then you could target the communication. You might know that these are the communities where we need more vaccine awareness, for example.

Using the responses of 16,322 respondents, he analyzed the relative effects of different categories of demographic variables on vaccine hesitancy. These variables were: annual household income, race/ethnicity, political party, employment status, gender, education, and “trust in the Trump administration.”

For this final variable, the 2020 Gallup question asked: ‘Please think about the recent impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on your life when responding to the following and indicate your level of agreement or disagreement: I have confidence in the leadership of President Donald Trump to successfully manage emerging health challenges.’ Responses to this question were recorded on a five-point scale, from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Those who responded greater than 3 were identified as individuals who had trust in the Trump administration

How (and By How Much) Do These Variables Affect Vaccine Acceptance?
Kejriwal had two goals in mind for the survey data: 1) find the associations between the variables and vaccine acceptance; and 2) quantify and visualize the interactions between those variables and vaccine acceptance.

Using univariate regression – a model that looks to find the relationship between one variable and a target variable (vaccine acceptance in this case) – Kejriwal analyzed the Gallup data to find and measure the associations

Additionally, Kejriwal used machine learning and deep statistical analysis to take the variables and the associations between them and vaccine hesitancy and organize them into a conditional inference tree. This tree is a way to quantify and visualize the relative importance of the variables, and also show the effects between the variables

The tree shows, for example, a male non-Black Democrat who did not trust the Trump administration had high vaccine acceptance. Whereas a female under age 57 who trusted the Trump administration had very low vaccine acceptance. Both of these might seem intuitive, but with the conditional inference tree, the degree of vaccine acceptance and the relationship between the variables is quantified and visualized.

And the thought is that, with this level of precision, communications strategies could be more targeted and effective. Kejriwal found clear patterns between vaccine acceptance among different socio-demographic groups in the U.S. and hopes that his methods can be used to predict vaccine hesitancy if we ever face another pandemic.

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USC student films win at Cannes

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USC Student Films Win at Cannes

Trojan productions were once again recognized as standouts among the 38 official selections in The American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes.
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The American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes has become an important event for budding creators, particularly student filmmakers beginning their careers in the film industry. This year, films from the United States, Australia, Canada, Nigeria and Sweden competed in six categories: Student Short Films, Student Documentaries, Emerging Filmmaker Short Films, Emerging Filmmaker Documentaries, Emerging Filmmaker LGBTQ Showcase Films and an Alumni Showcase. The films must all be 25 minutes or shorter, with a jury of industry professionals choosing winners. USC student films were once again recognized as standouts among the 38 official selections in this “festival within a festival.”

Fathead, an experimental film created under the auspices of the School’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) was recognized as the Best Student Short Film. A dystopian story about children living in a place called Junkyard Paradise, the heroine, called Fathead, takes on a children’s army known as the ragamuffins, after they kidnap her beloved brother. More than 90% of the film’s locations were created virtually, and it was commissioned as a workshop for creating best practices in virtual production. Fathead, directed by c. Craig Patterson ’20 and produced by Mitchell Graham Colley, Anthony Gaitros, Letia Solomon, Alexa Villarreal, and Brandyn Johnson, staffed a talented team of 122 USC alumni.

The documentary, Waves Apart, took Best Student Documentary honors. It was directed by Josh Greene ’22, and produced by Aslan Dalgic and Ela Passarelli. Greene grew up as a passionate surfer in Orange County, California. His Bar Mitzvah was held at the San Clemente Surfing Heritage and Culture Center. Years later, his parents would tell him they had to rearrange the venue’s decor to move surfboards engraved with swastikas out of sight of partygoers. The boards, made in California, were among the first mass-produced surfboards ever made. Waves Apart, which was also nominated for a Student Academy Award, explores the sport’s antisemitic roots.

The following USC films were also in this year’s showcase:

Backlog is a drama based on the true story of a college student who tries for three years to get authorities to investigate her shelved rape kit, and becomes a key witness at a Senate hearing about rape kit backlog. It was written and directed by Jacqueline Elyse Rosenthal ’23 and produced by Robin Wang, Marian Cook and Josh Powell.

De Closin Night is a drama that follows a Chinese theater student in America who loses her first role due to her accent, causing her to become determined to lose it by any means necessary. It was directed by Shicong Zhu ’20, written by Ella Rouwen Chen and produced by Ella Rouwen Chen and Brielle Yuke Li.

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