How L.A.’s culinary roots lie in its Mexican tradition

Sarah Portnoy’s labs are scattered all over the city of Los Angeles and beyond. You can also find her at loncheras (food trucks) and in the back of the house at any number of Mexican restaurants.

Portnoy, a teaching professor of Spanish at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has traveled to Cuba, Spain and Mexico over the past quarter century, expanding her worldview of Latino culture and migration through a culinary lens.

As USC celebrates Latinx Heritage Month, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles is featuring Portnoy’s curated exhibit, Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories, which explores traditional recipes, kitchen artifacts and oral histories. Her documentary of the same name was screened Thursday at the USC Fisher Museum of Art. We talked with her about her work.

What’s the relationship between food and migration?

People have always migrated and crossed national borders. As they migrate, they take their traditional cuisine with them. Those dishes, like the culture itself, adapt and change in a new environment — in this case, the Mexican and Mexican American communities of Southern California.

Chefs and home cooks adapted their dishes to the ingredients available in the United States and to the American appetite for large plates of food with the creation of the “combo plate.” This evolution is part of the invention of a mass-produced version of Mexican food for the U.S. market, one that succeeded in establishing “Mexican” restaurants across the country.

Mexican cuisine is hardly the only one to have been transformed by other cultures. Transculturation — Fernando Ortiz’s term for the merging and converging of cultures — has historically taken place between colonizer and colonized. It is present in many cuisines. Italian dishes such as pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce are inextricably linked to the tomato, yet tomatoes did not make their way from Mesoamerica to Europe until the 16th century.

How is the Latino population of Los Angeles different compared with populations elsewhere?

Unlike older, more established East Coast cities, L.A. was once part of Spain and later Mexico — it is a very Mexican city and increasingly a very Central American one, too. It is a city that the border crossed after Mexico lost the Mexican American War in the mid 19th century [and Mexico’s northern border moved south of L.A.], but it kept that Mexican feel — the streets in downtown once had names in Spanish. Not only is it a city defined by its Mexican and Latino history, but more recently its Korean, Japanese, Jewish and Chinese [cultures], and much more.

How does Los Angeles culture influence L.A. cuisine?

Well, first of all, its sheer proximity to Mexico and history of Mexican immigration — on a good day you can be in Tijuana in a few hours.

Trends can come from the bottom up. How often have you seen street tacos on the menu at a high-end restaurant for $25?.

Sarah Portnoy, Abuelita’s Kitchen

Secondly, it’s a young city — after the Transcontinental Railroad (1876-1900), it had only 100,000 residents. The city only exploded in population in the first few decades of the 20th century. So, unlike people in more established cities such as New York, Paris and London, among Angelenos there is a lack of culinary hierarchy. Angelenos are more open to new trends — and trends can come from the bottom up. How often have you seen street tacos on the menu at a high-end restaurant for $25? There are about 12,000 sidewalk vendors in L.A., and food trucks are part of the culture.

Diabetes is prevalent in the Latino community. How do you square that with a celebration of foods that are not always healthful? Can that be part of the conversation?

While Mexican American cuisine such as Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex can be considered unhealthful — often loaded with sour cream and cheddar cheese — Indigenous Mexican cuisine is based on ingredients grown together in the milpa farming system: beans, squash and corn. Corn is the main ingredient in all Mexican cuisine.

It is only with the Spanish conquest and the imposition of European culture that Mesoamerican cuisine adopted the use of animal products such as pork and beef and dairy. Traditional Mexican cuisine is incredibly healthful. Little dairy is used in most dishes, a vegetable soup is usually served at the beginning of every meal, and comida (lunch) is the main meal and includes soup, a main dish that almost always has vegetables, and tortillas.

In fact, diabetes and obesity only became an epidemic in Mexico in the past 25 years, largely as a result of globalization, as fast food and sodas became widely accessible and soda became cheaper to drink than water.

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Dad brain is real: Study reveals men’s brains change after baby arrives

Psychologist Darby Saxbe leads the Center for the Changing Family and a research effort to explore how parents change biologicially and neurobiologically in response to their babies — all at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Saxbe, an associate professor, recently had a study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex and found evidence that men develop a sort of “dad brain” after their baby is born, somewhat like how mothers’ brains change in response to their newborns. She discussed why studying these changes in parents is important and what she hopes to tackle next.

Why are you studying these changes in the parents’ brains? What do you hope to understand?

Parenting is incredibly important for society and public health, but also understudied from a neurobiological perspective. We’re hoping our research can inform public policies like paid family leave and other initiatives that support new parents.

What is neuroplasticity and what does it usually signify? Why would it change when one becomes a parent?

We’re still learning about neuroplasticity, but there is evidence that the brain changes and grows when we develop a new skill, like learning a musical instrument, or during developmental windows like early childhood and adolescence. Becoming a parent entails changes to your lifestyle and your biology and requires new skills like being able to empathize with a nonverbal infant, so it makes sense — but has not been proven — that the brain would be particularly plastic during the transition to parenthood as well.

What is the “parental caregiving brain network”? Does this exist for mothers, too?

Yes — it does exist for mothers — this refers to areas of the brain that have been shown to be involved in parenting or caregiving (and pregnancy and lactation) in both human and animal studies.

The study shows that you found changes in the default mode network. What is this network and what do these changes mean for men who are new fathers? What does it mean for their partners?

The default mode network refers to the regions of the brain that “light up” when the brain is at rest (not doing a particularly cognitive task). These regions are thought to be involved in mentalizing about other people’s thoughts and feelings. The fact that we found changes in that part of the brain both for fathers and mothers suggests that there is some remodeling of the social brain taking place.

You note that these changes are occurring in the cortex. What is the cortex responsible for, particularly as it relates to parenting?

The cortex is the latest-evolving part of the brain that is involved in attention, planning, and executive functioning and is more unique to humans. The subcortical regions (below the cortex) are the more basic brain structures that you see in animals, involved in reward, threat, and salience detection. In moms we see both subcortical and cortical changes … in dads we just saw cortical changes. It’s too soon to speculate with such a small sample but it might suggest more higher-order processing involved in fatherhood specifically.

Noted in here, too, is that volumes in the men’s visual network decreased. Do you have any hypotheses on the reasons that would drive changes in the visual system?

We’re not sure, although it may be that visual cues are particularly important for orienting to offspring and understanding their needs, given that infants are non-verbal.

Based on your results, what do you want to explore next?

We plan to study individual differences in fathers’ brain changes that are associated with hormones and parenting.

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Next-generation liquid biopsy detects nano-sized signs of breast cancer in early-stage patients

A USC-led team of scientists has found indications that a special blood test called a liquid biopsy could determine whether a patient has breast cancer at its early stage and if that cancer is unlikely to return.

The high-definition comprehensive liquid biopsies are conducted using a standard blood draw from the arm of a patient in a doctor’s office. Once in the laboratory, the sample is examined for signs of cancer.

The study demonstrating the liquid biopsy results for early breast cancer detection was published on Sept. 27 in Nature’s npj Breast Cancer journal. The work was a collaboration between USC, Billings Clinic, Duke University, Epic Sciences and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. The results raise hopes that one day doctors could detect breast cancer in patients with a simple blood draw.

The researchers at the USC Michelson Convergent Science Institute in Cancer (CSI-Cancer) are cautiously optimistic about their findings. They are eager to test and see whether the results will be proven in larger clinical trials to demonstrate the benefit of the method for patients everywhere.

It’s an amazing opportunity to change how early breast cancer detection is being done with a simple blood draw.

Peter Kuhn, USC’s CSI-Cancer

“It’s an amazing opportunity to change how early breast cancer detection is being done with a simple blood draw, but it’s only a research outcome at this point and we still need to demonstrate clinical benefit,” said Peter Kuhn, a USC cancer physicist who directs CSI-Cancer.

Breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the world, affecting 1 in 8 women over their lifetime.

Since 1976 when the American Cancer Society endorsed mammography X-rays, the technique — along with a tissue biopsy — has become the standard way for doctors to check patients for breast cancer.

Breast cancer detection: Mammography isn’t 100% accurate

But mammography is not 100% accurate and its detection can be impeded by healthy dense tissue. Mammography’s sensitivity to breast cancer is about 87%, according to the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium. And for some women, mammograms are not accessible, especially those living in poor isolated communities that have no clinics or hospitals. Other women simply do not get a regular mammogram.

But a tissue biopsy also is not a foolproof method. Although it can reveal information about the tumor, it has limitations. Doctors can sample only a small area and may fail to capture the full extent of the tumor. A tissue biopsy is also invasive and painful.

Combined, the drawbacks for diagnosis with mammograms and tissue biopsies mean some patients are not diagnosed until the cancer has grown and spread. New methodologies such as CSI-Cancer’s liquid biopsy can bring a complementary toolset into clinical practice.

For the study, Kuhn and his team worked with 100 breast cancer patients — some early and some late stage — and 40 patients without breast cancer from April 2013 through January 2017. The work was conducted at clinical sites including at the USC Norris cancer center at the Keck School of Medicine of USC; the Billings Clinic in Montana; the Duke University Cancer Institute in Durham, N.C.; and the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte.

The team tested a theory that the high-definition liquid biopsy could detect multiple cancer biomarkers, including the so-called “oncosomes” — nano-sized, membraned cargo carriers that enrich the body’s environment for cancer growth. These oncosomes are secreted by cancer cells as the group has shown previously.

“The news here is that we found the vast majority of early-stage breast cancer patients have these oncosomes at very robust levels,” said Kuhn, a Dean’s Professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and cancer physicist. “They’re about 5-10 microns in diameter, about the size of a cell. We first identified these large vesicles in prostate cancer about a year-and-a-half ago and showed that they are related to the cancer. They are hiding in plain sight.”

A future diagnostic tool for breast cancer detection?

If further studies produce similar results, it could mean that the next generation high-definition liquid biopsy may become a diagnostic tool for early breast cancer detection and other cancers, he said. The test also could inform patients who have been treated for cancer that they will most likely remain cancer-free.

“Typically, I’m the bearer of bad news. I say, ‘You have cancer in your blood,'” Kuhn said. “But a test like this could give hope that if there is a sign of cancer, we can find it very early and improve treatment and survival.”

Kuhn’s co-authors included from USC: Sonia Maryam Setayesh, Olivia Hart, Amin Naghdloo and Nikki Higa, Anand Kolatkar, as well as Nicholas Matsumoto, Rafael Nevarez, James B. Hicks, Jeremy Mason, Stephanie N. Shishido at USC Michelson. Other researchers were Jorge Nieva and Janice Lu of the USC Norris Center at Keck Medicine of USC, Shelley Hwang of Duke University School of Medicine, Kathy Wilkinson and Michael Kidd of Billings Clinic, as well as Amanda Anderson of Epic Sciences in San Diego.

The study was funded by grants from Breast Cancer Research Foundation; USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center; the National Cancer Institute; National Institutes of Health; Kalayil and Leela Chacko, Fellowship; Winnie and James Hart Endowed Fellowship; USC Dornsife Student Opportunities for Academic Research Fellowship; Vassiliadis Research Fund; Vicky Joseph Research Fund; Hart Family Research Fund; The Hsieh Family Foundation; Sandy Borden Thielicke; Jennifer B. and Gregory A. Ezring; Rochika and Kenny Dewan; Andy Perlman; Neil and Anjini Desai; Mamak and Mahmood Razavi Research Fund; Susan Pekarovics; Anila P. Bhagavatula; Giorgio De Santis; Thuy Thanh Truong; Cheryl Faillace; Wayne R. Green Fund; Armstrong McDonald Foundation; Ms. Margaret Turney Hulter Funds; Suzanne B. Borden Fund; and Mr. and Mrs. Stanley A. Mayer Fund.

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Fasting-mimicking diet reduces signs of dementia in mice


Fasting-Mimicking Diet Reduces Signs of Dementia in Mice

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Fasting-Mimicking Diet Reduces Signs of Dementia in Mice

Short cycles of a low-calorie diet that replicates fasting appeared to reduce inflammation and delay cognitive decline in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease; initial data indicates diet’s safety in Alzheimer’s patients.
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Cycles of a diet that mimics fasting appear to reduce signs of Alzheimer’s in mice genetically engineered to develop the illness, according to a new USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology-led study.

The study appeared in Cell Reports on Sept. 27.

The researchers, led by Professor Valter Longo in collaboration with Professors Christian Pike and Pinchas Cohen, found that mice that had undergone several cycles of the fasting-mimicking diet showed less Alzheimer’s pathology. The researchers found lower levels of two major hallmarks of the disease: amyloid beta – the primary driver of plaque buildup in the brain – and hyperphosphorylated tau protein, which forms tangles in the brain. They also found that brain inflammation lessened and better performance on cognitive tests compared to the mice that were fed a standard diet.

The fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) is high in unsaturated fats and low in overall calories, protein, and carbohydrates and is designed to mimic the effects of a water-only fast while still providing necessary nutrients. Previous research led by Longo has indicated that brief, periodic FMD cycles are associated with a range of beneficial effects, including the promotion of stem cell regeneration, lessening of chemotherapy side effects, and lowering risk factors for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other age-related diseases in mice and humans.

Promising results in mouse models of Alzheimer’s
Alongside healthy mice, the team investigated two mouse models of Alzheimer’s, E4FAD and 3xTg. During the study, mice were fed the fasting-mimicking diet for 4 or 5 days twice per month and were allowed to eat normally between FMD cycles. In a long-term experiment to see the effects in aged mice, 3xTg mice were placed on the diet for 30 cycles in 15 months. Shorter-term experiments in both 3xTg and E4FAD mice ranged from a single FMD cycle to 12 cycles in 6 months.

In both models, mice who underwent FMD cycles showed promising reductions in amyloid beta – which form the sticky, disruptive plaques in the brain – and tau pathology compared to mice eating a standard diet. The FMD mice also showed lower levels of brain inflammation, including a reduction in the number of active microglia, the immune cells that seek and destroy pathogens and damaged cells in the brain. In addition, mice on the diet demonstrated a lower level of oxidative stress, which plays a role in Alzheimer’s pathology by damaging neurons and contributing to the accumulation of amyloid in the brain. The study specifically pointed to the free radical “superoxide” as a central culprit in the damage occurring in these Alzheimer’s mouse models, Longo explained.

Outwardly, mice of both Alzheimer’s models who underwent the FMD showed less cognitive decline than their standard diet counterparts. Cognitive behavior, including exploration and performance within mazes, was tested in young mice before the dietary regimen began and again after several months of either a standard diet or twice-monthly FMD cycles. The Alzheimer’s mice given the FMD significantly outperformed the Alzheimer’s mice given standard diets and in some instances performed similarly to the non-Alzheimer’s-prone control mice, indicating that cognitive decline had been significantly slowed.

The FMD cycles appeared effective in reversing a range of pathology markers but also cognitive defects in two of the major mouse models for Alzheimer’s disease. Longo said that the results are promising.

Small clinical study explores feasibility for humans
In addition to the study in mice, Longo and colleagues also included data from a small Phase 1 clinical trial of the fasting-mimicking diet in human patients diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or mild Alzheimer’s disease. Forty such patients who were otherwise healthy and had family support were randomized to either a once-monthly, 5-day fasting-mimicking diet or a 5-day period in which lunch or dinner was replaced with a meal based on pasta or rice.

Initial data indicates that the FMD is safe and feasible for patients with mild impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease. Further tests in the ongoing clinical trial will measure cognitive performance, inflammation and more, Longo said.

Other early trials of the diet published by Longo and colleagues have indicated other benefits of a monthly cycle, such as a loss of fat mass without loss of muscle mass and improved cardiometabolic risk factors, especially in overweight or obese people.

Notably, in a recently published clinical trial in which Longo was a co-author, FMD cycles were associated with disease regression in diabetes patients. Diabetes nearly doubles the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, per the Alzheimer’s Association.

Other authors included co-first authors Priya Rangan, Fleur Lobo and Edoardo Parrella of USC; Terri-Leigh Stephen, Christian J. Pike, Pinchas Cohen, Kyle Xia, Katelynn Tran, Brandon Ann, and Dolly Chowdhury of USC; Anna Laura Cremonini, Luca Tagliafico, Angelica Persia, Irene Caffa, Fiammetta Monacelli, Patrizio Odetti, Tommaso Bonfiglio, and Alessio Nencioni of the University of Genoa, Italy; Nicolas Rochette, Marco Morselli, and Matteo Pellegrini of UCLA; Mary Jo LaDu of the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Martina Pigliautile, Virginia Boccardi, and Patrizia Mecocci of the University of Perugia, Italy.

The study was funded in part by National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Aging grants AG20642, AG025135, and P01 AG034906 to Longo; AG058068 to Pike; the NIA T32 training grant AG052374 to Rangan; and the PE-2016-02362694 and PE-2016-02363073 grants by the Italian Ministry of Health to Odetti, Mecocci, Monacelli, and Longo. The LaDu lab is funded by NIH (NIA) R01 AG056472, R01 AG057008, UH2/3 NS10012, R56 AG058655, 1R44 AG060826, institutional funds from the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and generous philanthropic contributions.

Longo is the founder of and has an ownership interest in L-Nutra; the company’s food products are used in studies of the fasting-mimicking diet. Longo’s interest in L-Nutra was disclosed and managed per USC’s conflict-of-interest policies. USC has an ownership interest in L-Nutra and the potential to receive royalty payments from L-Nutra. USC’s financial interest in the company has been disclosed and managed under USC’s institutional conflict-of-interest policies.

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Disadvantaged workers face more challenges in retirement, too

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Study: Disadvantaged workers face more challenges come retirement
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As Healthy Aging Month comes to a close, research from Price School associate professor Emma Aguila documents the varied work pathways of America’s increasingly diverse older workforce.


? Workers with limited job opportunities face more obstacles in retirement – perpetuating inequities among demographic groups
? Various disparities, along with other inequities such as health and education, perpetuate income inequality come retirement
? Employer-sponsored pension plans cover about two-thirds of white workers, but just over one-third of Latino workers

American workers with limited job opportunities during their working years face obstacles in retirement too, perpetuating inequities among demographic groups. That’s according to research conducted by Emma Aguila, a USC Price School associate professor and expert on the economics of aging.

Aguila’s research, which was reported in a recent study for the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, sheds light on some of the challenges many older Americans face in planning for retirement or seeking to work longer into their lives.

As Healthy Aging Month comes to a close, the study documents the varied work pathways of America’s increasingly diverse older workforce. Disadvantaged older workers are more likely to be forced into involuntary retirement due to job loss or disability, for example. They may take on informal gigs that don’t contribute to the Social Security system, such as nannying. Hispanic and Black Americans in mid-skilled jobs have been particularly affected by automation, as well.

Additionally, historically disadvantaged groups are less likely to have control over where, when and how much they work at older ages.

Despite the growing diversity of the aging workforce, much of the existing research on older workers has focused on the experiences of economically and socially advantaged groups, the study concluded.

“I think we’ve been analyzing the population as if they all behave the same, like they all have full-time jobs and they follow this career path and then they retire,” Aguila said. “But I think what we really need to consider is the heterogeneity across the population.”

Take pensions, for example. Employer-sponsored plans covered about two-thirds (64.6%) of non-Hispanic white workers, 55.7% of Black workers, and just over one-third (38.4%) of Hispanic workers, Aguila reported.

Occupational segregation

Those differences can be explained in large part by occupational segregation. Whites are more likely to work at larger firms that provide pensions, while Blacks are more likely employed in the public sector, which often offers pensions, too. Hispanics, by contrast, are more likely to work at smaller firms or part time – jobs that are less likely to include employer-sponsored retirement plans.

Disparities like this, along with other inequities such as health and education, further perpetuate income inequality come retirement. “The more advantaged workers, they not only have Social Security, but they will have other sources of income” like savings or pensions, Aguila noted. “So the inequality continues.”

The National Academy tapped Aguila to analyze existing data and research on vulnerable older workers, as part of a broader report published in May examining the aging American workforce. She reported that there is not enough literature on the experience of these populations, limiting insight into how inequality in retirement and work opportunities affects older adults.

Aguila recommended that future research take a “life course perspective” on inequity in work and retirement. Gathering such data would require following people over time to better understand inequalities in later adulthood. Doing so is necessary because the causes of unequal work and retirement pathways begin long before age 50, she explained.

Pandemic effect
Aguila conducted her research just as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, putting older adults at heightened risk of serious illness or death, while prompting employers to lay off workers or send them home to work remotely. In many ways, the pandemic and the ensuing turmoil in the job market underscore the issues Aguila studied.

Still, she said it’s too early to know whether the pandemic exacerbated the problems she highlighted in her study.

“More research will come out,” Aguila said of the pandemic’s impact on older workers. “We will be able to understand better whether these issues were exacerbated.”

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Women still less likely to be hired, promoted, mentored or even have their research cited


Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Science by Looking at Citations
Julia Cohen | September 26, 2022
USC’s Information Sciences Institute researchers used artificial intelligence to study gender disparities in science.



It’s 2022 and women in science are still less likely than their male peers to be hired and promoted. Women are less likely to be mentored by eminent faculty, they publish in less prestigious journals, have fewer collaborators, are underrepresented among journal reviewers and editors, and their papers receive fewer citations.

How. Is this. Happening?!

USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) Principal Scientist Kristina Lerman and her team used AI to look for answers to this question. The resulting paper has been published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed, multi-disciplinary science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on September 26, 2022.

As a woman in science herself, Lerman knows the world she works in, but even she was shocked by statistics she recently learned: only two percent of Nobel Prize winners in physics have been women (until a few years ago that was one percent) and those numbers are similar across many scientific fields. Lerman said, “only seven percent of Nobel Prize winners in chemistry have been women! Women have been working in chemistry for such a long time, so how is that? We were curious about this discrepancy.”

Right Data, Right Time

Lerman had the right dataset for the problem. Since 2019, she and her team had been working on a large project that used AI to predict the reproducibility of research papers. Funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the ISI team used AI to analyze many aspects of scientific papers, including the citations, to predict reproducibility. They published the paper “Assessing Scientific Research Papers with Knowledge Graphs” at ACM SIGIR 22 (the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval) in July 2022, describing their novel method and promising findings.

To do this reproducibility research, Lerman’s team gathered a huge amount of data on academic papers. Her co-author Jay Pujara, director of the Center on Knowledge Graphs at ISI said, “We collected this very large citation graph – the network of papers, authors, citations, references, collaborations, author institutions, where they publish, etc.” They turned this data into a vast knowledge graph (a “knowledge graph” is a representation of a network of real-world entities that illustrates the relationships between them).

The team looked at the shapes or “structures” that arose in the knowledge graph. They wondered if there was some kind of natural phenomenon causing the different structures in the citation networks. Additionally, they wanted to make sure that the data used in their reproducibility predictions was not being impacted by biases in the data. Pujara said, “Kristina [Lerman] had the idea to look at covariates like gender or prestige.” And with that idea, the team of researchers set out to see if there was a difference in a network based on whether the author was a man or a woman, as well as if they were at a top ranked university or a lower ranked university.

The Who, What and Why of Citations

Before we go any further, a little info on how citation in scientific research works. There are typically three reasons an author might cite another author’s paper. First, as background – in order to understand their paper, an author will cite other papers that give the background information needed. Second, to explain a method – if an author used a method that’s similar, a version of, or comparable to a method from another paper they will cite the paper that explains that method. And third, results – an author will explain their results, but might cite other papers that studied that same thing but got different results.

Gleaning Information from Citations

“Trying to study the citation network for every researcher out there is really hard, so why don’t we pick the cream of the crop?” said Pujara. The team looked at scientists elected to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), one of the oldest and most prominent professional science organizations. New members of NAS are elected by current members based on a distinguished record of scientific achievement meaning, in theory, they’ve all reached the same echelon of recognition. The ISI team looked at 766 NAS researchers, 120 of whom were women, hypothesizing that complex gender differences would be visible within this group of elite scientists.

Their hypothesis proved correct.

They constructed citation networks that captured the structure of peer recognition for each NAS member. These structures differed significantly between male and female NAS members. Women’s networks were much more tightly clustered, indicating that a female scientist must be more socially embedded and have a stronger support network than her male counterparts. The differences were systemic enough to allow the gender of the member to be accurately classified based on their citation network alone.

Lerman said, “We could write an AI algorithm that would just look at the citation networks and predict whether this was the citation network of a woman or a man. This was pretty shocking and disappointing to us.”

As a control study, the team also looked at the covariate of prestige. NAS members affiliated with less prestigious institutions are a minority in NAS, similar to women. Lerman said, “we would have imagined that maybe women’s citation networks would look like those of members from non-prestigious universities.” But that was not the case. They did not observe any disparities due to the prestige of a member’s institutional affiliation.

Conclusion: based on a scientist’s citation network alone, gender can accurately be determined, but the prestige of the university that scientist is affiliated with cannot. This suggests that gender continues to influence career success in science, according to the ISI team.

How to Stop Being So Short-Cited

Why is this happening? Pujara said, “We don’t know. It could be because there’s some aspect of gender that changes collaborative behavior. Or it might be something about society that shapes researchers and their paths based on social biases. So we don’t actually know the answer to that. What we know is that there’s a difference.”

The real question is: how can we change it? How can we make science a less hostile climate for women, remove the barriers to opportunities for women, and create an environment that allows women to rise to the top of their fields?

The ISI team hopes that, moving forward, their methods and results can help. To start, this study could be used to help researchers understand what their networks look like. Additionally, it could be used as a way for policymakers to understand if programs aiming to improve gender equity in science are working.

Finally, and importantly, we can learn from those differences in the citation structures between men and women. “For a woman to be recognized, she has to be well-embedded and have a strong support network,” Lerman said. “Mentoring young women and telling them they really have to build those networks of social support, and be very intentional about them” seems to be one way to change the shape of these structures… and the shape of science.

This work was supported, in part, by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (contract W911NF192027) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (contract FA9550-17-1-0327).

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50 years ago, USC’s Information Sciences Institute was tapped to design and run the internet

Fifty years ago, USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) was created to solve the world’s most difficult technical problems. At the time of its founding, the networking of computers – what would eventually result in the internet – would be the thrust of their work. ISI played a pivotal role in conceiving, designing and implementing the internet and its predecessor, ARPAnet.

In the five decades since its establishment, ISI has continued to be a pioneer in computing technology. In fact, many of today’s most ubiquitous and useful technologies can be traced back to work done at ISI – everything from Siri to cell phones. Today, ISI leads the way in research and development of advanced information processing, computer and communications technologies.

“ISI has been an outstanding and creative force in all aspects of information and computer sciences and technologies throughout the five decades of its existence, starting with its role in the foundation of the internet and continuing through its current work in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, health and much more” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. “We, at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering are proud to be the home of such an extraordinary institution.”

An Outpost by the Ocean

Located in Marina del Rey, California (with satellite offices in Boston and Arlington), ISI is an off-site facility that offers a unique blend of academic and commercial research. As part of USC, ISI researchers have the ability to work with graduate students, teach classes and collaborate with people in other departments across various disciplines. This arrangement allows for a staff of dedicated researchers, but also fresh new ideas from incoming students.

Big Changes Over Five Decades

ISI began as a single grant for work related to ARPAnet. Its three founders were the first occupants of a newly completed building in Marina del Rey. In the 50 years that have passed, the breadth of research, funding and size have grown. In 2021 alone, ISI had 56 research grants, research expenditures of $71.43 million, and was home to over 400 staff, faculty and students. Over the years, ISI researchers have worked to mitigate the effects of climate change and natural disasters; they’ve used computer science in the medical field to jump-start life-saving treatments and streamline medical research; and they continue to work across disciplines, researching everything from quantifying artistic style to translating the Bible.

Commemorated With a Documentary

To celebrate 50 years, a feature-length documentary, Cloudwalkers: ISI and the Inventors of the Future, was written and directed by Emmy award winning filmmaker Daniel Druhora and premiered at ISI’s anniversary celebration on September 11, 2022. The documentary covers the breadth of ISI’s storied history – from its founding following the release of the Pentagon Papers, which prompted increased government attention on computer networking; to its role designing, developing and running the Internet, which led to one of the greatest explosions of information in human history; to the astonishing and varied work being done by ISI researchers in recent years.

Looking forward, Craig Knoblock, the Keston Executive Director of ISI said, “We are ready to shape the future of computing research and envision making the world a better place for the next 50 years.”

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The Rev. Cecil ‘Chip’ Murray retires from USC


The Rev. Dr. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray announced his retirement from his second career–as Tansey Professor of Christian Ethics and chair of the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement–at the University of Southern California. Since his arrival at USC in 2004, Murray trained about 1,000 faith leaders in the “Murray Method,” equipping them to transform their communities, as he had helped to transform South Los Angeles in his first career as a pastor.

“To culminate my years of work as a USC Trojan is the exclamation point of my life!” Murray wrote in his resignation letter, expressing his gratitude to his friends and colleagues.

The Center for Religion and Civic Culture, which houses the Murray Center at USC, celebrated his retirement days ahead of his 93rd birthday.

“When we think of Reverend Murray’s time at USC, what might stand out most is the spirit in which he worked. He has always been a bridge to our neighboring communities. And his work is always guided by kindness and inclusion,” USC President Carol Folt said at his retirement party, thanking him for a long career spent lifting up those around him.

Before he arrived at USC, Murray served as pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), the oldest Black church in Los Angeles, and helped lead the city through the 1992 civil unrest. The acquittal of police officers charged in the Rodney King brutality trial had sparked one of the most destructive episodes of urban violence in U.S. history. In the weeks leading up to the verdict, Murray used his connections with the office of Mayor Tom Bradley as well as with faith and private-sector leaders to lay the groundwork for strategies to quell the rage he knew an acquittal might unleash. When his worst fears were realized, he stepped into the fray to conciliate between rioters and police.


Mayor Tom Bradley with the Rev. Dr. Cecil Murray at First AME Church, Los Angeles.

“While many famous preachers have roots in Southern California, Chip Murray is unparalleled in his ability to mobilize the city of Los Angeles to heal the inequities related to race and income inequality,” said Donald E. Miller, the Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion at USC and co-founder of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Murray was the first person Miller interviewed in the aftermath of the unrest, seeking to understand the role of faith communities in rebuilding the city following the unrest. That research led to the founding of CRCC.

“First AME Church had already established a reputation, and corporations were seeking a way to invest in low-income neighborhoods, one that had integrity and a track record,” Miller explained. “Chip Murray’s prophetic preaching, combined with a choir and organ that could rock the rafters of the church, were the foundation for the establishment of FAME Renaissance, the non-profit investment arm of the church, which took a leading role in rebuilding South LA.”

FAME Renaissance brought $400 million in investments to L.A.’s minority and low-income neighborhoods, and Murray used his influence with City Hall and beyond to advocate for solutions to the social and economic ills that had spawned the unrest.

In 2004, when Rev. Murray reached the retirement age of 75 within the AME Church, he joined USC’s faculty at the invitation of the president and provost.


The Rev. Dr. Cecil Murray teaches faith leaders through the Passing the Mantle program at University of Southern California in 2008.

At USC, Murray started the Passing the Mantle program, which would become the Murray Center at CRCC. Through the Murray Center, Murray led initiatives that engaged lay and pastoral faith leaders in developing projects to serve their communities.

“Dr. Murray’s impact is seen through the myriad of faith leaders, activists and local politicians who are doing the work of community development and public policy today,” said the Rev. Dr. Najuma Smith-Pollard, who now leads the Murray Center’s programming, pictured with the microphone alongside LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and other leaders in 2022. “He helped make Los Angeles a model of effective and pluralistic faith-based civic engagement.”

Moreover, he leaves a lasting legacy at USC. “Rev. Murray’s efforts to improve communities and individual lives in Los Angeles is a core reason for the existence of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture,” said Richard Flory, CRCC’s executive director. “His presence and activities in the city inspired the initial research project that set the agenda for CRCC, and his approach continues to inspire both our research and work in the community. The Murray Center remains a core part of how CRCC conceives of its task of helping faith and community leaders become full partners in the work of positive social change.”

Learn more about the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.

CRCC also hosts the Murray Archive, a collection of sermons given by Rev. Murray during his 27 years at FAME.

Support Rev. Murray’s legacy at USC.

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Newly discovered protein connected to Alzheimer’s Disease risk

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A mutation in the small protein SHMOOSE is associated with Alzheimer’s risk and highlights a possible target for treatment.
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A mutation in a newly discovered small protein is connected to a significant increase in the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, expanding the known gene targets for the disease and presenting a new potential avenue for treatment, according to a new USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology study.

The protein, called SHMOOSE, is a tiny “microprotein” encoded by a newly discovered gene within the cell’s energy-producing mitochondria. A mutation within this gene partially inactivates the SHMOOSE microprotein and is associated with a 20-50 % higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease across four different cohorts. Nearly a quarter of people of European ancestry have the mutated version of the protein, according to the researchers.

The research appears Wednesday, September 21 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

The researchers say that both the substantial risk and high prevalence of this previously unidentified mutation differentiate it from other proteins involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Apart from APOE4 — the most potent known genetic risk factor for the disease — only a limited number of other gene mutations have been identified and these only mildly increased risk by less than 10%. Also, because the microprotein is approximately the size of the insulin peptide, it can be easily administered, which increases its therapeutic potential.

“This discovery opens exciting new directions for developing precision medicine-based therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, focusing on SHMOOSE as a target area,” said Pinchas Cohen, professor of gerontology, medicine and biological sciences and senior author of the study. “Administration of SHMOOSE analogs in individuals who carry the mutation and produce the mutant protein may prove to have benefit in neurodegenerative and other diseases of aging.”

Brendan Miller, ’22 PhD in neuroscience graduate and first author of the study, used big data techniques to identify genetic variations in mitochondrial DNA associated with disease risk. After analyses revealed a gene mutation increased Alzheimer’s disease risk, brain atrophy, and energy metabolism, Miller and his colleagues discovered that the mutated gene coded for the SHMOOSE microprotein and began studying its mutated and default forms. The researchers stated SHMOOSE is the first mitochondrial-DNA-encoded microprotein to have been detected using both antibodies and mass spectrometry.

The microprotein appears to modify energy signaling and metabolism in the central nervous system. It was found in mitochondria of neurons and its levels in cerebrospinal fluid correlated with biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease. A variety of cell culture and animal experiments showed that SHMOOSE alters energy metabolism in the brain in part by inhabiting a crucial part of the mitochondria, the inner mitochondrial membrane.

An emerging field of study

Miller said the findings highlights the importance of the relatively new field of microproteins. For decades, scientists have studied biology mostly by considering a set of 20,000 large protein-coding genes. However, new technology has highlighted hundreds of thousands of potential genes that encode smaller microproteins.

“The field of microproteins is still so new,” Miller said. “We don’t yet know how many microprotein genes are even functional, and the cost to study a potential microprotein one-by-one from a list of thousands is just too expensive and inefficient. The approach my colleagues and I used to detect SHMOOSE shows the power of integrating big genetics data with molecular and biochemical techniques to discover functional microproteins.”

USC Leonard Davis researchers are leaders in the study of microproteins, especially those coded within the mitochondrial genome. In 2003, Cohen and his colleagues were one of the three research teams to independently discover the protein humanin, which appears to have protective health effects in Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis and diabetes. In the past few years, the Cohen Laboratory discovered several other mitochondrial microproteins, including, small humanin-like peptides, or SHLPs, and a microprotein called MOTS-c, an exercise-mimetic peptide that has entered clinical trials for obesity and fatty liver.

Additional coauthors include Su-Jeong Kim, Hemal H. Mehta, Kevin Cao, Hiroshi Kumagai, Neehar Thumaty, Naphada Leelaprachakul, Henry Jiao, Thalida E. Arpawong, Eileen Crimmins, Meral A. Tubi, Evan T. Hare, Meredith N. Braskie, Lea Decarie-Spain, Scott E. Kanoski, Lu Zhao, Arthur W. Toga, Junxiang Wan, and Kelvin Yen of USC; as well as Joan Vaughan, Jolene Diedrich, and Alan Saghatelian of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; Nilufer Ertekin-Taner of the Mayo Clinic; and Francine Grodstein and David A. Bennett of the Rush University Medical Center.

The study was supported by NIH grants P30AG10161, P30AG072975, R01AG15819, R01AG17917, U01AG61356, R01AG069698, RF1AG061834, R01AG068405, P30AG068345, P01AG055369, DK118402, F31 AG059356, and T32 AG00037; as well as The Quebec Research Funds Postdoctoral Fellowship. Intellectual property related to SHMOOSE has been filed by the University of Southern California.

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Book bans reflect outdated beliefs about how children read

Banned Books Week, an annual event that teachers and librarians across the U.S. mark with a combination of distress and defiance, is here again. The theme of this year’s event, which takes place Sept. 18-24, is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”

It comes amid regular high-profile efforts to remove allegedly controversial or inappropriate reading material from libraries and schools. Nowadays, the small groups of parents who traditionally spearhead such efforts are joined by politicians authoring legislation that would outlaw or criminalize making controversial books available to children.

I teach a class on banned books at the University of Southern California, so I’m prone to notice headlines on the topic, but this isn’t just perception bias. The American Library Association reports that in 2021, it tracked 729 challenges to library, school and university materials, targeting a total of 1,597 books. That’s the highest number of attempted book bans since tracking began more than 20 years ago. This year is on course to surpass 2021’s record with 681 challenges as of Aug. 31, 2022.

Increasingly, bans have targeted books written by or featuring LGBTQ people and people of color. But perennial classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “Grapes of Wrath” also have been challenged by parents concerned about their racist language and marginalization of Black characters.

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“Book banning doesn’t fit neatly into the rubrics of left and right politics,” reminds Pulitzer prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

What unites these challenges is a professed desire to protect young readers from dangerous content. But attempts to ban books are frequently motivated by misapprehensions about how children consume and process literature.

How children read

Many adults presume that exposure to particular literary content will invariably produce particular effects.

Christian author and editor David Kopp acknowledged as much when he addressed the controversy around the 1989 children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies.”

“[T]he deeper dilemma for many Christians who oppose this book is often not a theological one, but an emotional one. It has to do with what we fear,” he wrote on the faith-focused website BeliefNet in 2001. “We fear our kids will be indoctrinated somehow. We fear they’ll come to consider homosexuality as normal and then … the part we don’t say … become one.”

Kopp found this fear “absurd.” He insisted that a “book, well intentioned or otherwise, isn’t likely to change our child’s sexual orientation.”

Many scholars would agree. Research shows that children’s reading experiences are complex and unpredictable. As scholar Christine Jenkins explains in an article about censorship and young readers, “Readers respond to and are affected by texts in ways specific to each reader in the context of a specific time and place.”

Put simply, children co-create their own reading experiences. Their interpretation of books is informed by their personal and cultural histories, and those interpretations may change over time or when readers encounter the same stories in different contexts.

Neither the supposedly healthy nor the supposedly dangerous effects of childhood reading, then, can be taken for granted. Children are not merely empty vessels waiting to be filled by a text’s messages and images, despite how adults tend to portray young readers as helplessly in thrall to the stories they consume.

Wall Street Journal contributor Meghan Cox Gurdon has argued that parents must be ever-vigilant against books that would “bulldoze coarseness [and] misery into their children’s lives.” Earlier this year, an Ohio school board vice president accused Jason Tharp, author of “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn,” of “pushing LGBTQ ideas on our most vulnerable students.”

Stack of six books, including The Nowhere Girls and None of the Above, on a dresser.
These are among the books under attack in Texas as of April 2022. Montinique Monroe for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Who children are

Such perceptions reflect pervasive stories American society tells about children and the nature of childhood. These stories are the focus of an undergraduate class I teach called “Boys and Girls Gone Wild,” in which we explore themes of childhood innocence and deviance through texts such as “Lord of the Flies,” “When They See Us” and “The Virgin Suicides.”

On the first day, I ask students to brainstorm on common traits of children. They frequently choose words like “innocent,” “pure” and “naive” – although babysitters and students with younger siblings are more likely to acknowledge that children can also be “mischievous” and “strange.”

My students are usually surprised to learn that the Western notion of children as innocents in need of protection is a relatively recent idea, stemming from economic and social changes in the 17th century.

English philosopher John Locke’s late-17th-century idea that humans were born as “tabulae rasae,” or blank slates, had incalculable influence. The child with no innate traits must be carefully molded. Thus “childhood became a period of intense governance and control,” according to scholar Alyson Miller.

Some groups held divergent views, such as 18th- and 19th-century evangelical Christians, who believed children were born imbued with original sin. But the narrative of the inherently pure, helpless child came to shape fields as diverse as biology and political theory.

Perhaps no disciplines were influenced as powerfully as the intertwined fields of literature and education.

The value of ‘unsafe’ books

Book bans gain traction in cultures that imagine themselves as upholding a barrier between the purity of children and the corruption of the world.

A person reads in a library
The library at the University of Texas, a battleground state for books. Brandon Bell/Getty Images
But this effort can have unintended consequences, argue scholars like Kerry H. Robinson. In her 2013 book on sexuality and censorship, she writes that “the regulation of children’s access to important knowledge … has undermined their development as competent, well-informed, critical-thinking and ethical young citizens.”

Debates about challenging books would go differently if participants understood young child readers as active participants in the discovery and creation of knowledge.

Jason Reynolds, the Library of Congress’ national ambassador for young people’s literature and author of the oft-targeted “All American Boys,” which depicts a racially charged police beating, offers a different – and, I’d argue, healthier – way to conceive of children’s relationship to reading.

“There’s no better place for a young person to engage and wrestle with ideas that may or may not be their own than a book,” he told CNN for an in-depth June 2022 feature on book banning in America. “These stories are meant to be playgrounds for ideas, playgrounds for debate and discourse. Books don’t brainwash. They represent ideas.”

For Reynolds and the other authors, librarians, readers, parents and educators commemorating Banned Books Week 2022, adults have a right to disagree with those ideas. But rather than fear the uncomfortable “conversations young people bring home,” adults can actively encourage them.

“If the adults are doing their jobs,” Reynolds says, the discomfort that often accompanies growth “doesn’t have to feel like danger.”

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